Sam Ermolenko, America's leading speedway motorcycle racer since 1985, has not ridden seriously since an accident last July 17 nearly ended his career. But he hopes experience and guile will see him through Saturday night in the American Speedway Final at Long Beach Veterans Stadium.
The race is the first qualifying round for the 1990 World Finals for riders from the United States and Canada. Ermolenko, 29, has won it three years in a row.
But Sudden Sam fell during the world long-track championships last summer at Herxheim, West Germany, and was hit by a trailing motorcycle. The impact broke his leg in three places, and surgeons worked seven hours piecing it back together. He was hospitalized for four weeks.
"I still don't have any idea how it happened," Ermolenko said this week while relaxing at his mother's home in Cypress. "I was riding up front when something happened in the third turn, and I went down and was hit by another rider. I don't know what caused the whole thing, and it's not really been my main concern to find out.
"I'm more interested in being able to ride Saturday night. I'm not 100%, but I'm feeling OK and I think I can put it all together for one night. I know what has to be done and I've been training my mind to do it."
Ermolenko tested the ailing leg last week in races at San Bernardino, where he finished second in the main event, and at Ascot, where he fell in a heat.
"I wasn't really into the races," he said. "I was more interested in finding out how I felt getting out of the gate. That's the important thing at Long Beach, the start. When I fell at Ascot, it was because I was pretty tired and my leg was sore from riding two nights in a row. It takes me a long time to warm up because of the muscle damage, and there were some long delays at Ascot. That hurt me, too.
"It will be easier on me at Long Beach because of the longer turns, where there won't be as much force on my leg."
Twenty riders will compete Saturday night, and only four will advance to the Overseas Final in Coventry, England, on June 24. From there, the path goes to the Intercontinentel Final at Fjeldsted, Denmark, on Aug. 12 and the World Final at Bradford, England, on Sept. 1.
"The American Final is the hardest single competition in the world," Ermolenko said. "There are nine guys here capable of riding in the World Finals, and only four of them will get a chance."
Six of the 20 have been riding this season in the British Speedway League, which should give them an advantage on the 380-yard Long Beach track. The six are Ronnie Correy of Fullerton, Greg Hancock of Costa Mesa, Rick Miller of Reseda, Billy Hamill of Monrovia and the Moran brothers, Shawn of Apple Valley and Kelly of Glendora.
Correy, a teammate of Ermolenko's on the Wolverhampton Wolves, has been challenging world champion Hans Nielsen of Denmark for the individual points lead in the British League this season and was the only American in the World Final last year.
"Riding in England is a big advantage coming into a race like this," Ermolenko said. "The weekly tracks in Southern California are so small that the riders don't have much opportunity to adjust to the longer international-sized ovals. They are only on the Long Beach track twice a year, and that doesn't give much time to get the right setup on their bikes."
Stateside favorites who will be contesting for the four berths include national champion Bobby Schwartz of Costa Mesa, Lance King of Fountain Valley, Mike Faria of Riverside, Brad Oxley of San Clemente, Steve Lucero of Riverside and Robert Pfetzing of Santa Ana.
Ermolenko, who lives eight months a year in Hatton, England, was released by doctors to ride only two weeks ago. Because of his condition and his record, Ermolenko appealed to the American Motorcyclist Assn. to be seeded into the Overseas Final, but the appeal was rejected.
"The AMA said it might set a precedent, which they didn't want to do, but I appealed on the grounds that I'd won three in a row and had the best record in the World Finals since Bruce Penhall."
Penhall won the world title in 1981 and '82. Ermolenko tied for first place in 1985 but lost in a three-way runoff to Danish riders Erik Gundersen and Nielsen. In 1987, he was in a runoff for second place but lost to Gundersen again, as Nielsen won. He was sixth in 1986 and fourth in '88.
Last year, Ermolenko won the American Final and the Overseas Final but never made it to the World Finals because of his crash.
Saturday's 20-race program will start at 8 p.m.
SPRINT CARS--Ron Shuman, the defending California Racing Assn. champion who did not have a victory in the first 10 races, has won two main events in a row at Ascot Park and is in contention for a third consecutive championship. John Redican still leads, but Shuman has moved into fourth place behind Redican, former champion Brad Noffsinger, who won Sunday at Tucson, and Rip Williams. All will be in Saturday night's 30-lap Ascot main event. . . . Saturday will be Antique Race Car and Old-timers' Night, featuring cars and drivers from the Western Racing Assn. era between 1930 and '50. Former Indy 500 and midget racing champion Sam Hanks is expected to attend with his No. 5 midget, along with two other 500 winners, Rodger Ward and Parnelli Jones.
SPEEDWAY BIKES--Bitter rivals Bobby Schwartz and Steve Lucero will continue their feud tonight at Costa Mesa, where sidecars will also run.
STOCK CARS--Marcus Mallett, bidding to become the first black driver to win a track championship at Ascot Park, will try for his fourth victory of the season in Sunday night's pro stock feature of the Winston Racing Series. Mallett held off John Kocsis last Monday night for his third victory and took a 32-point lead over Chris Laney, with Kocsis two points further back. . . . Sportsman, street stocks and mini stocks will compete Saturday night at both Saugus Speedway and Cajon Speedway. . . . Dirt cars will run Saturday night at Santa Maria Speedway.
DRAG RACING--Spinal surgery for paralyzed racer Darrell Gwynn has been postponed while doctors treat an infection and high fever in Miami. The six- to eight-hour operation, which had been planned for Wednesday, will not take place until next week, according to a spokesperson from the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis. Frank Hawley will drive Gwynn's top fuel car for the remainder of the season. . . . Top Gas West will hold a meet Saturday at the Los Angeles County Raceway in Palmdale.