Many professional racers have supporters or sponsors who help them throughout their careers.
A neighbor often volunteers to work in the pit area. Local merchants donate money to help cover traveling costs. Family friends usually are a young competitor’s only boosters.
Billy Hamill, an 18-year-old from Monrovia, had a very special sponsor to guide him through the last six years in the world of speedway motorcycle racing.
Butch Fish, a family friend and owner of a diesel fuel firm in Monrovia, taught Hamill how to ride the tricky, lightweight, 500cc motorcycles that have no brakes and are capable of reaching 60 m.p.h. in less than five seconds.
It was Fish who convinced Hamill’s mother that her 13-year-old son could safely compete with other teen-agers on the junior speedway circuit. He bought Hamill his first set of leathers and often drove him to the race tracks.
“He was my first sponsor, and you never forget the folks who helped you out in the beginning,” Hamill said. “He was a special guy.”
Fish, 48, died in a plane crash last weekend in Hesperia. Hamill attended the funeral Wednesday, and Thursday he was preparing his equipment for the season opener. He has dedicated the 1989 season to Butch Fish.
Racing begins for the 21st consecutive year at 8 tonight at the Orange County Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa.
“Butch taught me how to ride, and then kept telling me that someday I could win the national championship,” Hamill said. “My goal this year is to win the national title for him.”
Hamill served notice in the recently completed Spring Classic series that he will be a strong challenger for the U.S. championship, scheduled for Oct. 7 at Costa Mesa. He tied defending national champion Steve Lucero for fourth in the series, trailing only world-class riders Bobby Schwartz and Sam Ermolenko and local Gary Hicks.
The series was on the sprawling quarter-mile track at Long Beach and the 190-yard oval at Costa Mesa. Hamill excelled at Costa Mesa, qualifying for the main event and finishing third behind Schwartz and Shawn McConnell.
Hamill was impressive with his smooth style and ability to move ahead in traffic on the tight turns at Costa Mesa. It appears that after only two years of Division I racing, Hamill is ready to blossom as one of the sport’s stars along with Greg Hancock, Trinon Cirello and Bobby Cody.
“The past two years has been a learning experience,” Hamill said. “I’ve dumped my bike over the back wall a few times, and you wise up quickly after a couple of crashes. I’ve always had a problem being too aggressive, but I’m mellowing as I get older.”
Hamill was slowed considerably last June when his foot got tangled in the sprocket of another rider’s rear wheel while racing at San Bernardino, tearing two tendons in his right foot.
“He crashed, but I kept on riding and didn’t know anything was wrong until I got back to the pits,” Hamill said. “My foot was tingling, and when I took my boot off, there was blood all over my foot.”
Surgery sidelined Hamill for five weeks and also forced him to miss his graduation at Monrovia High School the day after his accident. But the accident made him more determined to qualify for the national championship when he returned to racing.
“When I came back, I rode harder than before,” he said. “I thought I might be complacent sitting out five weeks, but I was hungry. I was the youngest rider (17) in the nationals in 1987, and I was determined to make the championship again.”
Hamill finished 13th among 16 riders in the 1987 U.S. Championship and finished fifth in the 1988 championship last October, narrowly missing his goal of finishing among the top three riders.
“I thought I was capable of finishing among the top three, but I crashed with Phil Collins in one heat and didn’t score a point,” Hamill said. “This year, I’m taking a real business approach to racing, and I think I can win the title.”
Hamill bought his own bikes and equipment after his major sponsor, promoter Jay Wright of Victorville, declined to renew their agreement for 1989. Hamill had been saving 50% of his purse earnings under a court agreement he entered that allowed him to begin professional racing as a 17-year-old.
“It was a legal document that my mother set up with the help of (Ascot Park attorney) Cary Agajanian,” Hamill said. “I waived my legal rights as a minor in case of an accident and had to save 50% of my purse earnings until I was 18.
“I made about $8,000 that year and saved half of it. Buying my own bikes and motors was a setback, but it’s also given me more responsibility to maintain the equipment.”
Hamill also learned a valuable lesson of budgeting his time doubling as a racer and student at Monrovia. He raced four nights a week and usually did his homework while someone drove to the track.
“I’d get home at night and tear down the bikes,” Hamill said. “I’d go to school in the morning, race home to wash the bikes at lunch, go back to school and then load up everything to go racing when I got home.”
Unlike most speedway riders, Hamill never competed in any other type of motorcycle racing. He was introduced to the sport as a 5-year-old by a neighbor, Carlos Cardona, and regularly attended races at old Irwindale Raceway.
“I used to hang around Carlos’ garage and watch him work on the bikes,” Hamill said. He was about 11 when her first started badgering his mother about riding. “It took me two years to talk my mom into letting me ride,” he said.
“She thought the sport was dangerous, and I must admit, I was a dangerous rider in the juniors because I tried so hard.”
Hamill’s rise in speedway has not gone unnoticed in the international racing circles. Last November, Hamill and Greg Hancock were invited to compete in some exhibition races at Cradley Heath in England, former home track of two-time world champion Bruce Penhall.
Both were impressive and Hancock signed with the British Speedway League team, but the contract was voided when the league lost two teams.
“Riding in Europe is something I eventually want to do, but the financial situation over there is shaky,” Hamill said. “Right now, my goal is to win the national championship.”