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MOTORCYCLE RACING : Ermolenko Wins National Title


COSTA MESA — A year ago, when Sam Ermolenko held the national championship trophy over his head in the infield of the dirt track at the Orange County Fairgrounds, it was the crowning achievement of the triple-crown of speedway racing. He had returned from Europe to capture the title after winning the World Final and competing on the victorious U.S. team in the World Team Cup.

Saturday night, he defended his U.S. speedway motorcycle title in front of 8,723 at the Fairgrounds track and, while the victory served only to salvage a disappointing season, he was beaming.

Ermolenko, a 33-year-old native of Cypress, seriously injured his leg in a crash at a track in the British League two weeks after winning here.

"My season has been below average," said Ermolenko, who finished 13th in the World Final in August, "but I worked my butt off to rehab to the point where I could sort of fake my way through this season. You can't just take a No. 1 ranking lightly, so I did my best and I just have to realize that I won't be able to dominate again like last year until they take the metal out of my leg."

That surgery is scheduled soon, but Ermolenko managed to return to top form Saturday night. He finished second in his first heat--16 of the top riders in the country each compete in five four-man races--and then won his next four races.

Still, it came down to the final heats of the night as the top competitors for the title saw their chances slip away one by one.

After the first three rounds, crowd-favorite Mike Faria was the only rider with a perfect score of nine points. Faria, competing in his 17th national championship and a regular at the Fairgrounds' Friday night program, won the state title last month at Glen Helen Park in San Bernardino and appeared to be in the groove.

But he let Ermolenko, Josh Larsen and Greg Hancock--all of whom had eight points--back in the running when Larsen got the jump on him in the 13th heat of the night. Faria made a costly mistake on the second lap while battling handlebar-to-handlebar with Larsen. He got bumped to the outside and ended up finishing third.

In the next race, Hancock's engine blew on the second lap and he dropped out of contention for the title.

Larsen, who grew up in Costa Mesa and was riding for the first time since breaking his arm last month in the World Final in Vojens, Denmark, needed a victory in the the third-to-last race to put the pressure on Faria and Ermolenko, but he finished second to Gary Hicks.

Then Faria folded in a fierce battle with Brad Oxley and Hancock and ended up third in the heat and Ermolenko won the last race of the night going away.

"Coming back here from the bigger tracks in Europe is always a test," said Ermolenko, who will race in England on Wednesday, "but I was really pumped up tonight. This is really a great feeling. It's a reward for working so hard."

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