GNCC Racing

Tuesday Toolbox: Mike Penland

Tuesday, February 17, 2009 | 4:15 PM

Mike Penland is the man many credit with launching GNCC Utility ATV racing into the serious business it is now. With 11 GNCC Utlity Championships, Penland packs quite a resume, and his dedication to his sport gets him a lot of respect in the pits. Penland represents the true GNCC Utlity racer, because he literally took a quad out of his garage and started racing it, whereas nowadays people buy their machines for the sole purpose of racing.

Penland has been at this for a long time and has some good stories to tell, so we rounded him up for an interview.

Hi Mike! Some of your fans have been asking what you're up to nowadays. What are your plans for 2009?
I'm doing all the GNCC's. Try to hit a 6, 10 or 12 hour race or two and The Baja 1000. The Baja is real fun because it's so long. There are several GNCC's that I like. It would be hard to pick. I used to like the Blackwater real good. Normally I like Loretta's. I like the muddy ones. Any of them that are muddy I like real good.

How have you seen the Utility ATVs evolve since you started racing in the '90s?  From the Honda 300s to today's Can-Am Outlander 800.
There is no comparison. The power, the suspension. The 800 in a drag race is faster than most of the 450 race bikes. Of course, they are heavy so that they don't handle  as well in the woods. But the suspension and the brakes and the power... It's like going from horse and buggy to a car. The only similarities are that they have handlebars and four wheels. That's it!

There was a time when four wheelers were just an afterthought for most motorcycle companies, in my opinion. And now they are a big part. In some, more than 50 percent of their sales are ATVs. They still don't get the respect that I think that they should.

How did you get into racing Utility ATVs in the first place?  
I wanted to race, and I got me an '85 XR350 Honda, but I didn't want to race motocross because of the big double jumps and stuff.  I got it in '89, maybe '88. I wanted to race and I wanted to do a long race. I had never heard of a GNCC. I was trying to find one and I looked for a couple of years. A friend of mine said he found a race on Saturday, and that was important because I wanted to go to church on Sunday. I wanted a long race and one on Saturday. I wanted to learn more, he said it's called a GNCC. I had heard of harescrambles. He said it was a 2.5 hour race in South Carolina. I said, Well that's good. He said we've got one problem. It's for ATVs. I said well I have one of those! I had a 300 Honda. I went and tried it and I liked it and I started in the '91 series. I like it because it's Saturday. I mean, I'm not saying you'll go to hell for racing on Sunday at all. I'd just rather go to church.

Why didn't you race a regular sport ATV?
When that fella' told me it was an ATV race, and I said I had one and it was a 300 Honda and I was going to race an age class. I was 37. I went to sign up and they said we have a four wheel drive class. I said Well, I'll race that. So that's what I did. I raced that one time and started the '91 season.  Then I won 9 national championships in a row.

You've won quite a few championships, so obviously the Utility ATV was a good decision. How many in all?
I've won 9 in a row and 2 more.  They're pretty good for me.

You were racing the Baja 1000 with your son Hoyt when he crashed and broke his leg. How did you get through that?
What happened is we had put Hoyt on the bike and we left to go South down the peninsula to wait for him. He was supposed to be there around 2 a.m. and he never came and he never came. Around daylight we heard on the radio that our bike number, I think it was 96A, that the rider was involved in a wreck and had life threatening injuries and was being flown to the United States. We take off and we're monitoring the radio. So we're listening to that and they said he was in the town of Bolero Negro. They had operated on him and the Doctor had stabilized his leg, so at east when he lifted his knee his foot didn't turn around backward.  It had crushed his right leg below his knee. It was going to take some work. We had such a good race going. Hoyt told me to get the bike and finish the race. When we found the bike, people had stolen the wheels and tires, the headlights and the rally tracker, and the tools. They just stole stuff like a buzzard picking on it.  They had hid the bike so they could get back and get it to ride it. So once we found the bike, we couldn't finish the race.

How's Hoyt doing today? 
Hoyt's been in bed now for 16 months and 4 days. It happened November 13, 2007.  But now things are looking really good. They were worried about him losing his leg. But everything is looking real good now, Thank the Lord. Operated on him 5 more times this past November.

I have some pictures in front of me of your last Baja 1000. Your bike looks pretty burned up.
It was running a little hot. We don't know what happened. There wasn't enough left to do an autopsy!  We were at mile 171 and it just burnt up. I wasn't on it. I had already rode the first part of the race. Scott Wheeler was riding and flames came up between his legs and he whipped over to the side of the course and threw sand on it. There was a Jeep nearby with a water hose but it didn't help. The only thing they could do was get out the weenies and the marshmallows! It was devastating what I lost, but it was better than the year before when my boy got hurt.

When did you start hosting church service at the track?
What happened there is, some things came up and we had to have a race or two on Sunday. When we had those I would stay home and go to church. It got to the point where one year we had like 5 races on Sunday, so I couldn't win the championship. I was praying about that and praying about that. I went and talked to Big Dave (Coombs) about it and I said I wanted to have a little service on Sunday morning when we have a race. We'll get in the corner of a parking lot. If someone brings a guitar and wants to sing that would be good. We aren't taking up an offering. I just feel like it would be a good thing to do. I told him to think about it and he told me to get ready. The first one we had was in Clarksburg, W.Va. We just had a few scriptures and a prayer request. We did it for a few years and then we got John Ayers to do it some of the time and we'd do the prayer before the start of the race. Then we got the fellow that became the chaplain to come to the races and he'd have a little service and then he would stay there Sunday.  The first few times I would stay over until Sunday morning and I'd do the Sunday morning service for the motorcycle race. So that's how that got started.

What is the response from the GNCC family about your church services - it's a pretty tight knit family, right?
I always thought that people like the GNCC folks are so much like a family reunion or a church homecoming. You get to see people every two weeks. You don't get a lot of new ones to the service. It doesn't matter how many we have, we just go ahead and do it. You know wherever two or three are gathered. It's fun to go to the races. There are a lot of really nice people, a lot of great families. It's all real good.