Sam Ermolenko of Cypress earned the nickname "Sudden Sam" on the speedway motorcycle racing circuit for his lightning starts and ability to pass opponents on the outside of a track with a quick burst of speed.
Ermolenko's nickname has taken on a new meaning. From television in England, he learned last Wednesday that Shawn Moran had injured his ankle and would be unable to ride for the U.S. team in the World Best Pairs event in Pocking, West Germany, which was to be run on the weekend.
Before he knew it, Ermolenko was on his way to West Germany, arrived a day before the race, and, on borrowed equipment, nearly piloted the United States to the championship.
Ermolenko and Kelly Moran tied Denmark for the title, but Denmark won the championship when Hans Nielsen beat Moran in a four-lap runoff.
"I was watching the news in England on Wednesday night and heard that Shawn might have a broken ankle," Ermolenko said. "I started wondering who was going to replace him in the race. I went over to Bobby Schwartz's home early Thursday morning and tried to sort things out."
Schwartz, the U.S. team captain who had paired with Bruce Penhall and Dennis Sigalos to win two best pairs titles, told Ermolenko that all his equipment was packed and ready to be shipped for the American Final this Saturday night at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Long Beach.
Ermolenko already had shipped his bikes. They decided that Ermolenko, who is the top-scoring American rider in the British Speedway League, should replace Moran and use Moran's bikes.
Ermolenko arrived just in time for a practice session in Germany on a track that he had never ridden.
But there were other problems.
"Shawn is about 25 pounds lighter than I am, so I had to make a lot of changes on his bikes because of the weight difference," Ermolenko said. "I stayed up most of the night before the race working on the bikes."
Moran and Ermolenko each scored 23 points in the meeting that featured the top two riders from six nations. Some wondered why Ermolenko didn't ride the runoff.
"Kelly and I talked it over and decided he was the best man for the runoff since he was riding his own equipment in a one-on-one race," Ermolenko said. "Kelly missed the start and lost. But considering the circumstances, I thought we did a great job."
Ermolenko and the Moran brothers have returned home for Saturday night's race. Shawn will ride with a protective fiberglass brace on his right foot in the first qualifying round for American riders that ultimately leads to the World Final on Aug. 30 in Chorzow, Poland.
Last year, Ermolenko was not considered a favorite in the race, but he surprised virtually everyone by finishing second behind winner John Cook. He ultimately qualified for the World Final in Bradford, England, where he shocked the speedway world by finishing third.
Ermolenko became the first American to remain home for a season of riding in Southern California and finish among the top three in a World Final. It was generally thought that a rider could not compete locally on the smaller Southland tracks and be successful in the world championship rounds.
Ermolenko managed to dispel that theory, but he decided to move to England. He had ridden one season in the British Speedway League with Poole, but the team declared bankruptcy and he returned home.
This year, he's riding for Wolverhampton. Ermolenko, his wife and two children live with the team's promoter, Pete Adams. He's averaging 10.20 points (out of a possible 12) in league matches and has become one of the most consistent riders in the world.
"My goal this year was to become a world-class rider who consistently raced well in every meeting," he said. "I always admired (former two-time world champion) Bruce Penhall because he showed up for every meeting ready to race with top equipment.
"I think I've finally become organized in terms of equipment. The first three weeks I was in England, I had to borrow bikes from my teammates. It took time to build my own bikes, but now I think I've got as good of equipment as anyone."
Ermolenko was the fastest rider on the track in Thursday's practice session on Long Beach's 440-yard track. His Italian-built GM engines drove off the narrow turns for a burst of speed down the straightaways.
Ermolenko said he learned the proper technique for racing at Long Beach from the Danish riders who won the World Team Cup here last August. Ermolenko was a reserve rider for the American team.
"The Danes set the pace on this track and rode it like no one else has," he said. "I watched the lines they were running and studied everything they did while they were here.
"But still, the start is the most important part of the race. There is such a long straightaway to the first turn, that you have to get on it and go."
Ermolenko has learned his lessons well. So well that he finds himself in a new role for the American Final. Suddenly, Sam is the favorite for the big race.