When Sam Ermolenko was 16 and a junior at Los Alamitos High School, he dreamed of becoming a world motocross champion.
The dream ended when Sam was riding his street bike along California 91 and a car turned left in front of him.
The accident sent Ermolenko to the hospital for two months with a broken left shoulder, a broken left elbow and a crushed right thighbone. He was off his cycle for more than two years.
When he thought he was ready, he tried motocross again in the Golden State Series of 1978 but he fell at Indian Dunes and ruptured his spleen.
"That whole deal pulled me down every which way," Ermolenko said as he worked on his speedway bike for Saturday night's national championship races at the Orange County Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa. "It screwed me up in school and it meant I'd never ride motocross, serious motocross at least, again."
Ermolenko, now 24 and the fastest rising star in speedway racing, got into speedway because he couldn't stay off motorcycles. In speedway championship races, four riders go four laps around a tiny oval on specialized high-speed bikes without brakes, sliding through the corners by using their left feet as stabilizers.
"I'd never seen a speedway race until I went to Costa Mesa one night in 1980," he said. "I noticed you didn't have to bend your right knee so much and that's what I couldn't do after my accident. I got so curious about it that I bought a bike from Bill Cody and took it out to Indian Dunes to get the feel of it.
"One day a guy I knew came in, practiced a couple of hours, and said he was taking off to Taft to race. I went up with him and ended up riding there five straight weeks. Toward the end of '81, I rode at Ventura to get my license to become a pro."
During that period, Ermolenko attended Barry Briggs' speedway training camp in San Bernardino and his determination and natural talent impressed Briggs, a former world champion.
Said Harry Oxley, the father of modern American speedway racing and promoter of Saturday night's 18th annual national championships: "When he was racing in the second and third division, Sam looked out of control most of the time but Barry kept saying all he needed was some fine tuning, that he had all the moves of a winner.
"Sam has the attitude that even if he is in fourth place, dead last, he still has a chance to win. He never gives up."
After only one season as a first-division rider, Ermolenko went to England to ride for Poole in the British League and did better than any American had ever done in his first European season.
Pleased with his success, Ermolenko planned to buy a house there for his wife and two children. But the Poole team went bankrupt and the Ermolenkos returned home, where Sam rode this season on the Southern California circuit.
"I was disappointed at not getting another year in England because I felt I needed more experience, but I really wanted to stay in the States for my family's sake," he said. "I'm pleased with the way things worked out this year, especially in the World Finals."
At Bradford, England, in the finals, Ermolenko came within a wheelie--not his own--of becoming the longest shot in history to win.
It was only his first attempt and no rider had ever won in his first try, but he ended up in a three-way runoff with defending world champion Erik Gundersen and Hans Nielsen of Denmark for the championship. Each had 13 points, from a potential of 15, in the round-robin competition in which every rider races five times, meeting every other rider once.
"In my fourth heat, I drew Gate 2 with the Finnish rider, Kai Niemi, on my right and the Russian (Viktor Kuznetsov) on the inside. I thought I could get the jump on Niemi from the second spot, but the Russian wheelied off the starting line and when I looked up all I could see was a wheel in my face.
"Niemi had made a great start and was leaning on me and by the time I got myself sorted out, I couldn't catch him."
If Ermolenko had won that heat, he would have won the title with 14 points.
Ermolenko finished third in the runoff. Gundersen successfully retained his title, and Nielsen finished second. Curiously, all three had ridden in the same heat earlier in the competition with Nielsen winning, followed by the little-known American.
"I don't think they knew I was there," Ermolenko recalled. "I was on the outside, in the fourth box, and they were so busy watching each other they started bumping elbows. When Nielsen broke away from Gundersen, I came down from the outside and split them and got second."
In the runoff, Ermolenko drew the inside, but got a poor start and never challenged the two Danes, who had also finished 1-2 the previous year.