An Unwilling Worker : Cycle Crash Puts Speedway Star Sigalos Out of Fast Lane and Into Labor Force

Times Staff Writer

The racing leathers have been replaced by a shop uniform. Dennis Sigalos of Balboa makes his living now repairing vending machines, instead of riding 80-m.p.h, brakeless speedway motorcycles.

It's life in the slow lane for Sigalos, 25, who has worked as a mechanic at his father's food service company in Anaheim for the last five months.

Sigalos' riding career ended abruptly last June 9 when he broke his right ankle in a crash at the Nissan American Final at Veterans Stadium in Long Beach. Sigalos, who had never so much as lost a heat in three previous meetings at Long Beach, lost control of his 185-pound bike attempting to pass Sam Ermolenko in the first turn on the 440-yard track.

X-rays showed that Sigalos had broken his ankle in three places. He spent the next six months in a cast, a surgically placed pin holding the ankle together while the breaks healed. He had a second operation during which a wedge of bone was removed from his ankle to allow lateral movement.

Now, after consulting five doctors, Sigalos has concluded that his racing days are over.

"I could race, but I want to live a long life and think it's more important to have a healthy ankle," he said. "I don't want to spend the rest of my life on crutches."

So, Sigalos has joined the working world, rising at 6:30 every morning and fighting freeway traffic to get to his 8-to-5 job.

"It's the first steady job I've ever had," he said. "I'm learning the business. I've done everything here from building sandwich boxes to fixing coffee machines. It's kind of funny to think that I'm a mechanic now."

The accident happened when Sigalos' bike locked up and spun around at 60 m.p.h. He was thrown much the way a rodeo rider is bucked off a wild horse.

"I was going too fast into the turn and didn't want to hit Sam, so I turned the back of my bike as hard as I could and it locked up," Sigalos said. "I landed hard on my ankle, and when I couldn't move it or even feel it, I knew right away something was wrong. I told myself, 'There goes the season,' and now it looks as if the crash cost me my career."

Doctors have told Sigalos that racing again would be risky because crashes are so common in the sport.

"I tried to play tennis about a month, ago and my ankle swelled up so bad that I could hardly walk," Sigalos said. "I went to see a doctor the other day, and he told me the most I'll ever have is about quarter lateral movement."

Sigalos spent seven years as a professional racer. He blossomed into one of the world's best riders in the British Speedway League. He had an excellent season in 1982, teaming with Bobby Schwartz to win the World Best Pairs championship in Australia, and was a member of the American team that won the World Team Cup. He ended the year by finishing third in the world championship at the Coliseum.

He was the team captain at Ipswich in the British Speedway League and spent most weekends traveling around Europe for open races. He was also successful on rare appearances in Southern California, winning the American Final twice.

But when the American Final is run Saturday night, Sigalos will not be among the expected 11,000 fans.

"One thing I've learned since I got hurt is that I'm not a very good spectator," he said. "I don't want to watch somebody else win."

Instead, Sigalos plans to be in the pit crew for off-road racers Jerry Penhall and Ron Gardner in the Baja 500 this weekend. He's interested in a possible off-road racing career.

"I miss the competition," he said. "I know I could do it. I've had some offers to drive a mini-pickup truck and to race Formula Fords in England. Speedway is still in the back of my mind."

Sigalos would like to ride in the World Team Cup Aug. 10 at Long Beach. He would like one final ride before retiring.

"But I don't want to ride if it means bumping another rider off the team who has worked hard all year," Sigalos said. "I wouldn't feel right riding at someone else's expense. If I did it, it would be my last race.

"I would like to ride the track again just to show that I'm not afraid of it."

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