The USA vs. the World
Fast Fridays is one of the best pure spectacles in the whole region
Text + Photos: Mike Blanchard
Feature | The foothill town of Auburn is the location of one of the nation’s best speedway tracks. An eighth-mile dirt speedway track to be precise. The track at the Gold Country Fairgrounds is home to Fast Fridays from May until early October with some of the very best riders in the country taking part.
Speedway is a form of motorcycle racing that uses what is probably the most specialized motorcycle in the whole of the moto racing world. Fundamentally the bikes have changed little over the last century. They have rigid frames and Earles forks with a short wheelbase, no brakes, one foot peg and only one gear. The care and adjustment of the clutch is of primary importance.
The bikes go around the corner with the back wheel spinning wildly, sliding to the outside. Backing it in while counter-steering the front end. The engine is a 500cc Jawa single-cylinder made in Czechoslovakia with the cylinder in an almost horizontal position. The engine needs to have enough power to spin the rear tire so it will slide. You don’t shut it off to go ’round the corner. Being light, the bikes are very quick.
Fast Fridays is one of the best pure spectacles in the whole region. The grandstands are right on the track. The crowd is family oriented in the way only small towns are. A high school student sings the national anthem. In these days of bitter division, folks of all walks and persuasions mix cheerfully and have a good time. The crowd is very knowledgeable about speedway racing. Some of these families have had generations of riders to their credit.
During the summer there are sidecar races, several classes of speedway riders of differing experience and skill levels, and often a wild run-what-ya-brung race that features dirt bikes mixing it up with the inevitable wild man on a twisting Harley.
The last race of the year, billed as “The USA vs. the World,” has for years been a team race featuring American riders against riders from all over the world. Speedway is very popular team sport in Europe and Australia. Many American riders go over the pond to ride for European teams, so some of these guys have history together.
For “The USA vs. the World,” the program included two classes of junior riders, 150cc and 250cc, as well as two races for the peewees. But the main event of the night was a series of 18 races featuring two international riders against two Americans. With the starting places staggered, they got three points for first, two for second, one for third and bupkis for fourth. In the case of a tie at the end of 18 heats, a single rider from each team would go head to head for the victory.
The USA team featured National Champion Billy Janniro, cousins Bart and Ryan Bast, Aaron Fox, Russell Green and Tommy Hedden. All of them are regulars at the Auburn fairgrounds.
The World team consisted of Peter Ljung (Sweden), Sam Masters (Australia), Mikkel Beck (Denmark), Mikkel Michelsen (Denmark), world long track champion Martin Smolinski (Germany) and Carlos Venegas from the U.S.
Venegas, who lives in Auburn, was on the World team due to the last-minute cancellation of world champion Jason Doyle from Australia. In a stroke of team-building genius, Venegas went out to the farm supply and bought cowboy hats for the team. These he presented during the introduction of the riders to the crowd.
During the introduction, announcer Mike Rooney jived and laughed with all the riders in turn. He asked each for comments, and two or three remarked how small the track is. Most said they wanted to have good, competitive racing. Smolinski’s comment was that he wanted to race Janniro and beat him. Not in a braggadocio way but in the spirit of good sport. The riders shook hands and got down to business.
Rooney is one of the best in the business, and he is popular with the fans. An ex racer, he knows the riders and the sport inside and out as well as, seemingly, everyone in the stands.
“It was a great show this year,” said Rooney. “I think of it as the seasoned vets against the young guns. Billy and Bart won but it wasn’t easy.”
Because it would be prohibitive for the overseas riders to bring their bikes for one race, Warnock racing supplied the bikes the world team rode as well as some local race mechanics to help out. Some of the riders also brought their personal mechanics along to look after them and set up the new machines.
As he and his wrench checked out the loaner for the first time, Smolinski joked, “This is nicer than what I usually ride.” Being a seasoned pro, he was careful to put his sponsors’ logos on the bike he rode.
The home team won the coin toss (tails, by the way) and took the post for the first half of the contest. The opening heat of the night put Janniro in the pole position and Ryan Bast in the No. 3 spot, ready for the lockout. Even so, Ljung and Masters came first and second to claim 5 points in the first heat.
The points contest swung back and forth with the world team generally having the upper hand, Smolinski and Ljung being hard to beat. The racing was pretty clean with only a couple of low-side spinouts and no wrecks. At the very last, Ljung dumped in the first turn and dislocated his right thumb, popping it back in as the race was red-flagged. Then it was over and the world team won by 10 points.
Smolinski is famous for taking his bike into the grandstand and doing a victory burnout, but this time the two Danes, Beck and Michelsen, celebrated by doing wheelies and burnouts on the back straight … oh, and having a beverage.
During the trophy ceremony the trophy girls kissed the junior winners to the great amusement of the crowd. Then the World team got on the podium and had a grand old time spraying champagne all over each other and the aforementioned trophy girls. The trophies were glass birds with spread wings on a small plinth.
As the crowd filed out, the families of the racers came down into the pits to celebrate the end of a good season and a good race. There was a birthday celebration for someone with a big cake and singing. Little kids squeezed into their dads’ pits and watched as everything got repacked. The women watched proudly as their husbands, or sons, or brothers pulled off leathers and talked about the race, happy that no one had been hurt.
The people working in the concession stands cleaned up, and someone brought out a fire pit and a cheery blaze was lit.
As is bound to happen with strong personalities involved in any type of racing, the USA team was not happy to lose. But as I said, there was a spirit of sportsmanship and the local racers were good hosts. It was a good end to a season of racing.