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TEAM USA TAKES VICTORY AS WORLD STARS SHINE IN BAKERSFIELD

The USA World Cup team returned home to race for the first time in over 34 years and edged out a star packed World Team 44-40 at Kern County Raceway on February 4th 2023. Meanwhile, former British Champion Adam Ellis was the victor of the second half ‘Motor City Throwdown Individual World Challenge.’

The meeting was viewed by a large onsite crowd, filling the grandstands and overflow spaces, as well as a worldwide audience viewing the action via the British Speedway Network.

The USA World Cup team last raced at home in 1988 World Team Cup final at Long Beach Veterans Stadium where they finished second to the dominant Danish Team of that era. Top USA scorer at Long Beach that night was Sam Ermolenko, who scored 13 points. Ermolenko, on a visit to America, was on hand as the event Grand Marshal where he was honored for his 5 World titles for USA in Team and Pairs competition.

The American team was led by Luke Becker and looked strong through the order with Broc Nicol, Dillon Ruml, Billy Janniro, Max Ruml and Gino Manzares all with current or former league experience. The bottom end of the team was filled by National Under 21 Champion Alex Martin at #7 and Slater Lightcap as the standby reserve. Though more experienced riders were no doubt disappointed to be overlooked for the final spots, the team was selected with an eye on the future and 2024-2026 World Cup and Speedway of Nations success and development as the ethos behind final selections.

The World Team, who had an extensive practice session the day before, were led by World #6 Dan Bewley and backed up with lots of star power with the likes of Adam Ellis, Rasmus Jensen, Jacob Thorssell, Tom Brennan, and returnee Kyle Legault as the 1-6. Wilbur Hancock was given the #7 race jacket, qualifying as a dual citizen and Swedish passport holder, as well as given vital experience at this level. Louie Mersaroli, stepson of American icon Bart Bast, was handed the #8 standby reserve spot to ensure the visitors had coverage for injuries or bike issues.

The event started in true American style. Both teams being brought onto the track on the back of Harley Davidson Motorcycles, followed by a Jimi Hendrix style guitar riffed version of the Star Spangled banner from Shawn Fabian. The track announcer, ‘Crazy’ Chris Ackerman with his famous, “Let’s go racing” yell, then got the crowd ready for the upcoming action.

The event ran what can be best described as a hybrid program; a combination of classic British League race format (minus heat 15), followed by individual scratch racing (an extended old school second half) with some junior races thrown in in between.

The team event was a closely fought affair and showcased the very best of American speedway. The Kern track is around 180m in length, wide and banked on the corners. It had a bit more outside grip than normal with riders certainly having to respect the surface while simultaneously being flat out in 40 second heats.

GB star Dan Bewley opened proceedings with a fast trap from the outside with Nicol challenging on the inside. Becker had a poor start but got by Brennan and eventually his teammate for an opening 3-3. Heat 2 saw former Sheffield star Kyle Legault head off an impressive challenge from Martin with Oxford rider of the year Dillon Ruml in third, keeping the scores tied. Heat 3 was the first epic battle of the night with a very tight battle between Manzares, Thorssell and Jensen after Janniro got off line early on. Thorssell had the lead but then went wide into the grip, allowing Manzares through. Undeterred, Thorssell went back to the outer line and pipped Manzares on the line. Jensen’s third place put the World Team up 10-8.

After a supporting heat and the first track preparation break the teams can back and it was Adam Ellis who led home Max Ruml and Martin in heat 4 for another 3-3. The next two heats saw the balance of power shift to the home team with consecutive 5-1’s and the two point deficit turning into a 6 point lead for the Americans. In heat 5 Brennan got the gate but was passed by both Manzares and Janniro with Bewley unable to make up places after a slow getaway. Heat 6 saw Becker make a blistering start from gate 1 with Ellis pulling a high wheelie. Meantime, Legault got the edge over Nicol initially, but the former Glasgow rider hounded the Canadian and found a way inside as the riders entered the third lap. The positions stayed that way with the USA extending their lead with the World edging towards a possible use of tactical joker rides if they dropped further behind.

Heat 7 had Jensen flying out of gate 1 with the pack behind close as they entered the back straight. Thorssell however got too much grip and fell off the back the bike and the race was red flagged with the Swede unhurt but excluded. The rerun saw Jensen again first out the gate but Dillon Ruml was hot in pursuit. The younger Ruml initially made a brief pass while on the inside line before the current Danish National champion rode the dirt line to retake the lead. The riders then switched lines with the Dane inside and the young American riding deep and wide and keeping his rival close and on his toes. However, the was no way by and at the halfway point of the team meeting, USA had 24 to the World on 18.

After a second round of grading the riders came to the line in heat 8, World reserve Louie Mersaroli being called in to replace Hancock. Brennan, with a fast start and superb first turn led and eased away from Nicol with Mersaroli keeping Martin at the back. The positions remained the same in perhaps the most spread out race of the event. The World was back to within 4 points. If heat 8 was sedate by meeting standards, heat 9 was an instant classic. The World initially gated on a 5-1 but veteran Janniro was having none of it! He went deep into the turns to get by both World riders. Ellis settled into second while Manzares put Legault under pressure, eventually making the pass onto the run in to the line and a USA 4-2. Heat 10 saw more high line action with Becker quickly charging to the front with Jensen and Thorssell keeping Nicol behind for the 3-3.

Heat 11 had Max Ruml with the best initial start but again the outside line proved advantageous with Brennan roaring into the lead whilst Bewley settled into third place. Max Ruml fought back hard but was not able to make the pass. The World, with three heats to go, was back within 4. Jensen was victorious over Janniro in heat 12 with Legault’s 3rd place now making it a two point match. Dillon Ruml flew from the start in heat 13 but Thorssell edged ahead before Manzares blasted around them all for the lead. Ruml battled back with Thorssell but got too deep and had to shut off, allowing Wilbur Hancock to snatch third place. A mouthwatering last heat decider was set with the score 40-38 to the Yanks.

Heat 14 was strategically the typical heat 13 (top heavy) British League line up, bringing together Becker, Max Ruml, Bewley and Ellis for a blockbuster team finale. Bewley has the best start out of gate 1 but it was Max Ruml from four who got the best traction. Ruml, the top domestic rider last season, was under huge pressure to deliver on the big stage and he passed the test with an A+, taking the vital lead. Becker kept on Ellis and eventually took third place, USA celebrating its overdue homecoming with a 44-40 win to the roar of the patriotic crowd.

Incredibly, ten different riders won heats in the evenly matched contest.

The team event was just portion of the show. Junior racing featured with Great Britain’s William Cairns taking all three 250cc races. Brandon Soto won both 150cc heats but a late fall in the Main event prevented a clean sweep, with Kayd Fiore the victor.

All of the 14 team members came back for a second half challenge, joined by former British League rider Chris Kerr and Eddie Castro, who were top of the 8 man qualification heats. Kerr won heat 1 from Castro, who came around Mersaroli. Michael Wells won a bizarre heat 2 with both Slater Lightcap and then Russell Green having engine failures when in the top two transfer spots. Kerr won the run off to make the second half from Castro. Green and Mersaroli transferred from the consolation qualifier. Their finishing order was reversed with Mersaroli winning the consolation last man out challenge from Green, Wells and Moore. This was a series of 1 lap races with last place in each leg eliminated and the remain riders coming back for a short one lap dash.

The second half Motor City Throwdown World Challenge featured 16 riders using an elimination format. Four heats would see first and second go to semifinals, with the top two on each making the grand final.
Heat 1 saw American duo Nicol & Manzares with the best start but Bewley showed utter mastery with an outside line blast from third to first, taking the qualification spot from Nicol. Heat 2 saw Brennan and Max Ruml first and second and transferring to the semifinals, with Legault and Castro eliminated. The balance of power seemed the be shifting to the World riders with Jensen and Ellis coming out on top in heat 3. Both Janniro and the impressive Martin both gave chase and effort to keep the traveling duo honest. Jacob Thorssell was away and gone in the final heat race while Becker got himself into trouble going wide and to the back. However, on the third lap he split Kerr and Dillon Ruml to take himself into the semifinals.

Semi Final #1 saw Bewley with a great start on the inside with the other three too close to call on the back straight until Adam Ellis dived into second ahead of Brennan and Becker. Brennan made an attempt to pass Ellis but it was to no avail in this British 6-0 heat win! The World riders continued their dominance of second half proceedings in semi 2. Jensen was the fast starter with Thorssell in second. Nicol attempted everything on the inside line but it was the current Danish and former Swedish champion who ensured no American would be in the individual final.

The first running of the final once more saw Jensen with a flying start. Bewley went deep and wide into turn 3 but came to grief and off the bike with the race stopped while challenging for the lead. Though the exclusion call was correct the American fans were not happy that their new hero would not be allowed to return. Bewley did however remount to take a lap of honor, waving to a crowd mesmerized by the quality of racing on show. The rerun had a fantastic start from Ellis in gate three with Jensen lifting slightly. Jensen mounted a challenge for the lead at the end of lap 1, but Ellis resisted and from that point was in full control for a popular win. Jensen was second and Thorssell third.

The event was a huge lift for American speedway. With the USA as a distant outpost in world speedway, it was a win win all around. The USA team came home and won, half a dozen world class riders had a great working preseason racing holiday, with the riders taking in tourism, riding Moto cross and watching Supercross in the days leading up to the event. For American speedway fans, it was a glimpse into the pure quality of racing across the pond, while British fans tuned into BSN marveled at the short track action. The event was well promoted both within the speedway fan base and also with local TV and radio commercials, as well as newspaper articles and a feature on the Friday evening TV news.

This was the first event of this kind at Kern County Raceway but it won’t be last, with track promoters already looking to expand the event going into next year. Team USA was managed on the night by Birmingham promoter Laurence Rogers, who has been involved with Team USA since 2005 and Poole native and now American resident Peter Davenport. Team USA press office summed up by the occasion the next morning, stating, “The objective of this race was to grow as a team, put us up against world-class opposition that would push us to the limit, and to develop a squad that can truly compete at world championship level over the next five years. With a hard-fought victory, and every single point counting, it is fair to say we came through this next step of the program with flying colors.”

Results: Team USA 44 (Becker 9, Nicol 5+2, Janniro 7+1, Manzares 9, M Ruml 8+1, D Ruml 3+1, Martin 3+1, Lightcap DNR
World 40: Bewley 6, Brennan 7, Jensen 9, Thorssell 6+1, Ellis 5, Legault 5, Hancock 1+1, Mersaroli 1.

World Challenge Final
Adam Ellis
Rasmus Jensen
Jacob Thorssell
Dan Bewley fell exc

Last Man Out
188 Louie Mersaroli
321 Russell Green
214 Michael Wells
251 Greg Moore

250 Junior Main
145 William Cairns
226 Levi Leutz
23 Darren Armbruster
29 Nick Hohlbein nonstarter

150 Mini Main
169k Kay Fiore
175 Morgan Myers
5 Brandon Soto fell