Bruce Penhall was considered by most experts to be America’s greatest Speedway rider. He led the U.S. comeback in World Championship Speedway racing during the early 1980s. Penhall won the Speedway World Championship in 1981, becoming the first American to win the title in 44 years. He went on to win the championship again in 1982, becoming the first American to win back-to-back Speedway world titles. Penhall was also a two-time American Speedway champ. In addition to his individual titles, Penhall was a member of the World Pairs (1981) and World Team Speedway Championship (1982) teams.
Penhall was born in Balboa, California, on August 17, 1960. As a kid Penhall terrorized pedestrians by broadsliding his bicycle up and down the Newport Beach boardwalk. As a teenager, Penhall got interested in Speedway racing and began learning to race on the bullring circuits around Southern California. By the time he was 16, Penhall was already one of the leading Speedway riders in the United States.
Tragedy hit Penhall in 1975 when his parents died in a plane crash. Shortly after their deaths, Penhall toured Israel, New Zealand and Australia. Back home in America, he seemed to reach a plateau in his racing career and considered leaving the sport. Then he got an invitation to join the popular British League Speedway racing circuit. In 1978, Penhall left for England. There, he began to come into his own as a racer and within a few seasons became one of the top Speedway racers in the world.
Due in large part to Penhall’s addition the team, Cradley Heath went from being a low-ranked squad to a championship-winning team in the British League. Penhall progressed to the European circuit and traveled thousands of miles per month to races across Europe.
In 1979, he won the Master of Speedway competition in Europe, as well as becoming the first American holder of the Golden Helmet match race championship. He was runner-up to John Louis in the British League Riders Final and led Cradley to Inter-League Cup success and the team's highest-ever league position. In 1980, there were more cup victories, along with SWAPA Overseas Rider of the Year, American National Champion, a first World Final appearance, where he finished fifth. He was just beginning to hit his peak.
With his California beach boy looks, Penhall quickly became the most popular rider in Speedway racing. He earned lucrative contracts endorsing products and he was featured on television commercials and in newspapers and magazines throughout Europe. It would not an overstatement to say that during the early 1980s Penhall was the most recognizable motorcycle racer in the world.
1981 was an all-conquering year for Penhall. He broke through and won the World Speedway Individual Championship in front of 90,000 fans at London’s Wembley Stadium. In doing so, he became the first American World Speedway Champion since Jack Milne in 1937. He also paired with Bobby Schwartz to win the World Pairs Championship. He also defended his U.S. Speedway title. Penhall was named co-winner of the AMA Pro Athlete of the Year Award, along with the entire USA Motocross des Nations team. He received a special citation from President Ronald Reagan for his accomplishments and the city of Costa Mesa, California, home of the track where he learned to race, honored his homecoming by declaring "Bruce Penhall Day."
Penhall was called a natural, but his talents were developed from years of dedication to a sport that he helped take from relative obscurity to its zenith of popularity. He was a master at broadsliding the flexible, 160-pound, 60-horsepower Speedway bikes. He rode Weslake machines during his world championship years and was equally at home on the short bullring tracks of America and the longer European circuits.
The victories continued to mount in 1982. That year, the Speedway World Championships came to America for the first time. In front of his home fans in the Los Angeles Coliseum, Penhall rode to his second-straight Individual World Speedway title. That year he also led an American team consisting of himself, Bobby Schwartz, Kelly Moran and Shawn Moran to the first-ever U.S. win in World Team Cup competition.
Penhall announced his retirement from Speedway racing in 1982. He turned to concentrating on his acting career. He made numerous movie and television appearances, most notably as a regular on the popular TV series CHiPs. Penhall never got racing totally out of his blood. He continued to compete in other forms of motorsports. He won championships in powerboat racing and later became a leading off-road desert car racer and drag racer.
He was inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1999.