A Little Luck Brings Big Title

Sudden Sam Ermolenko at last has the world speedway motorcycle championship he sought for eight years. Now the rider from Cypress has his sights set on the national championship.

“I’d love to come back and ride in the nationals (Oct. 2) at Costa Mesa in front of all my friends and family,” Ermolenko said by phone from his home in Hatton, England. “I’ve been gone so long I’m afraid some of them might have forgotten me, but I’ll bring the (world championship) trophy home for them to see.”

Ermolenko, 32, won the World Speedway Final last Sunday at Pocking, Germany, in one of the most controversial meetings ever held. In winning over Hans Nielsen, his longtime rival from Denmark, the Los Alamitos High graduate became only the third American to win in the last 60 years. Jack Milne of Pasadena won in 1937 and Bruce Penhall of Balboa in 1981 and 1982.

“I was lucky, in more ways than one,” Ermolenko said. “I’ve had some luck go against me in the past, but it was all good Sunday.”


Ermolenko’s first break came in his third heat when he faced the strong Polish rider, Tomas Gollob. In tight quarters heading into the first turn, Gollob was sandwiched between Ermolenko and Italy’s Armando Castagna and went down. No foul was called and the entire field restarted. Ermolenko won.

The next heat, matching Ermolenko and three-time champion Nielsen, took more than half an hour to complete the four laps. Nielsen had dropped one point earlier; the American had a perfect record.

“Hans knew he had to beat me to possibly force a runoff,” Ermolenko said. “I started from the outside and I was holding my line when he shot up on the inside and we met at the apex and bumped slightly. Both of us kept going, but the back part of his bike took my front wheel out and we both went down.”

Referee Frank Ebdon of England called a foul and ejected Nielsen.


“I damaged my bike when I went down, but the referee was so busy trying to calm Nielsen down that I couldn’t get his attention. I knew my chain was loose, but when it was time to restart, I had to line up with bike that wasn’t right.

“When I went in the first corner, the chain came off. At almost the same instant, Billy Hamill (another American finalist) slid out and went down right next to me. The referee ruled it was first-corner contact and ordered a restart.

“The fans, especially ones from Denmark, really got upset because they thought I should have been excluded, the way Nielsen had been in the other heat. It was a lucky break for me, because I was able to get another bike for the second restart.”

The second restart was a long time coming, because a group of Danes jumped the fence and staged a sitdown strike in the middle of the track. They didn’t leave until police were called to get them back in the stands.


Once the heat finally ran, Ermolenko won and his 12 points were enough to clinch the title. Nielsen and Chris Louis, a young English rider, tied for second with 11 and Nielsen won the runoff.

Eight years ago, Ermolenko was an unknown American who stunned the Europeans when he got in a runoff for the championship. He finished third behind Erik Gunderson of Denmark and Nielsen. Two years later, he finished third again behind Nielsen and Gunderson.

In 1989, during the world long track championships in West Germany, Ermolenko went down in front of the pack and was run over by trailing riders. His thigh was broken in three places and it took surgeons seven hours to repair it. He also had a broken wrist, nose and facial injuries. He didn’t race for nearly a year.

“A lot of people didn’t expect me back, but they didn’t the first time I got hurt bad, either,” Ermolenko said.


In 1977, when he was a high school junior and a budding motocross rider, Ermolenko was hit by a car that turned left in front of him, and he spent two months in a hospital recuperating from a broken shoulder, elbow and crushed thighbone.

“I didn’t ride for two years and when I started back, I switched to speedway because I couldn’t bend my right knee enough to ride motocross. I’d never seen a speedway race until I went to Costa Mesa with a friend one night in 1980, but I got the feel of it pretty quick.”

When the new world champion returned home from Germany this week, he found his schedule jammed. He raced Wednesday in England and was scheduled today in Sweden, Friday in Denmark and Saturday and Sunday in Poland.

“I’m a hot commodity after winning last week,” he said. “The phones and the fax have been ringing off the hook with offers, but the one I appreciated most was the one from Harry Oxley (promoter at the Orange County Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa), inviting me to the nationals. I hope to be there. It’s one I haven’t won yet.”


Motor Racing Notes

MIDGETS--United States Auto Club three-quarter midgets return to Ventura Raceway on Saturday night along with mini sprints and dwarf cars. J.J. Ercse of Bellflower leads the TQ standings with 423 points to 414 for Kenny White of Ventura. The USAC full midgets will be back Sept. 11.

STOCK CARS--Saugus Speedway will present a NASCAR Winston Racing Series of sportsman, Grand American modifieds and street stocks Saturday night. . . . Orange Show Speedway will feature Twin 25s for sportsman cars, plus street stocks and modified ponys Saturday night. . . . Cajon Speedway will have a destruction derby Saturday night following sportsman and Grand American modified races. . . . Santa Maria Speedway will depart from its Saturday night schedule and race Sunday night with a hobby stock Grand Prix. . . . The fourth round of the California late model series will be at Bakersfield Speedway on Saturday night. . . . Racing will return to Blythe Speedway on Saturday night after a three-week layoff.

The NASCAR Featherlite Southwest Tour drivers will be in Las Vegas on Saturday night for the Las Vegas Speedway Park 100. Defending champion Ron Hornaday Jr. of Palmdale continues to lead the series with five races remaining, 2,123 to 1,931 for 1990 champion Doug George of Atwater.


SPORTS CARS--The California Sports Car Club will hold a series of seven national and regional championship races Sunday and Monday at Willow Springs Raceway, starting at 8 a.m. each day. Practice and qualifying is Saturday for more than 250 formula and production cars in 33 Sports Car Club of America classes.

MISCELLANY--The Nostalgia Drag Racing Assn. will hold an Irwindale Reunion as part of the fourth Goldminers Classic on Saturday and Sunday at the Los Angeles County Raceway in Palmdale. . . . Lake Elsinore-based Team Suzuki Endurance clinched its fifth straight WERA national endurance championship by winning a six-hour race last Saturday at Memphis. Kurt Hall and Michael Martin took turns on the winning bike.