SPEEDWAY'S 'NATURAL' : Lance King Found Early, Successful Home on Track and Now Shoots for World Title

Times Staff Writer

Lance King wasn't cut out for baseball. He tried playing a year of Little League in Van Nuys and actually earned the starting job in right field because he could catch and throw fairly well. But even as a scrawny 9-year old, he couldn't hit his weight.

His coach used to tell him to go to the plate, pretend he was going to hit, and look for a walk. If he struck out without ever swinging, that was OK. He got one hit that season, a single in the last game. That, incidentally, was his last appearance in organized baseball.

Basketball wasn't his forte, either. King, who was living in Auburn, Calif., at the time, made the junior high school team because he was quick and could play defense. But, he couldn't shoot.

In 25 games, he made one basket, a jump shot from the right corner in the final game of the season. That was King's last appearance in organized basketball.

Put King behind the handlebars of a motorcycle, though, and he was as good as Ted Williams with a baseball bat or Jerry West with a basketball. When it came to shifting gears and maneuvering mechanical bikes, the kid was a natural.

King was riding a minibike before he learned how to ride a bicycle. He began racing on the junior speedway circuit when he was 9 and, at age 11, he was riding professionally, having negotiated his first sponsorship contract with Wild West Clothing Stores.

After an illustrious career as a junior rider, King became a top Division I rider at 16 and competed internationally in the prestigious British Speedway League for three years.

At 22, he has qualified for his third straight World Final and is considered one of the favorites, along with fellow American Shawn Moran, to win it Saturday night in Odsal Stadium at Bradford, England. He placed third in last year's final, held at Gothenberg, Sweden.

No, King was never into those mainstream sports, baseball or basketball. But then, King is not your mainstream kind of guy.

He owns a house in England and is looking to buy another in Huntington Beach. He has earned enough as a professional speedway driver to start a classic car collection, which includes a 1981 Mercedes Convertible 350 SL Zender; a 1981 Renault R5 Turbo rally car, one of only 200 made, and a Volkswagen Baja Bug with a BMW 320i engine.

While most 22-year-olds are scratching to pay rent, hoping their cars will start so they can make it to work, King is living a life of relative luxury.

But while motorcycles and speedway racing have provided King with the means for a prosperous life, the machines and the sport have also taken their toll.

There were the problems in high school, when King would skip classes to tend to his motorcycles and was in the principal's office so much, people thought he worked there.

His quest for speed away from the track got King enough speeding tickets to earn a four-year scholarship to the traffic school of his choice. Every police officer in Van Nuys knew him. He was on a first-name basis with the local judge.

There were three hard years in England, where King constantly struggled with his allergies, which were aggravated by the poor weather.

There was that treacherous plane ride from Germany to England in 1983, when a section of the wing on a 12-seat Cessna broke off, and King and several teammates thought they would crash into the North Sea. The pilot, however, was able to land the plane safely.

But most of all, there was the precarious relationship with his father, Don King, a mechanic who built all of Lance's motorcycles until he was 16 and who desperately wanted to be a part of his son's career.

The two seemed to be in constant disagreement. They argued often, usually over how Lance's bikes and engines should be prepared. One week, they'd be talking to each other. The next, it was the silent treatment.

It got so bad that Lance moved out of the house and into an apartment when he was 16 and still attending Birmingham High School in Van Nuys. He was glad to get away to England when he was 18, not just because he would be fulfilling a long-time goal of riding internationally, but because he would be living on his own.

Racing almost tore this father and son apart.

Almost.

"It has taken up until the last couple of years for us to be father and son again," King said. "Now, the relationship is a lot better."

When Don King was 2 years old, his father died in a car accident while racing. Having grown up father-less, King vowed that if he ever had a son, being a father would be the most important thing in his life.

King and his wife, Corky, eventually divorced, but Don gained custody of his only son, who was 6 at the time. He bought Lance his first minibike and was glad to see him get involved in racing.

When 9-year-old Lance was too small to ride the traditional speedway bikes, Don built the first junior speedway motorcycle for his son. He financed his entire racing career until Lance was 16.

They lived together, went to all the races together and combined to form a very successful racing team. But the relationship began to deteriorate when Lance reached his teens.

"It was a case of a typical teen-ager," Don King said. "Dad didn't know anything and he knew it all. We'd go to war and wouldn't talk to each other for weeks. We'd argue over little things.

"It was just like a marriage--we had too much of each other."

Lance King never really understood why his father made such a commitment to him during those years. He always thought his father was overbearing.

"It was a nightmare then," he said. "We were always arguing, over anything. We were talking maybe a week out of every month. That's why I had to get away."

King moved to an apartment in Canoga Park, but that was hardly a panacea.

He was still getting in trouble at school, usually earning detentions for talking in class or messing around. The pressures of racing four nights a week on the Southern California speedway circuit and trying to keep up in class were getting to him.

He became alienated from school and, by his senior year, he estimated that he attended class about 10 days a month. A year after King graduated, he left for England to compete in the British Speedway League with Bruce Penhall on the Cradley Heath Racing Team. But after two years away from home, relations with his father still hadn't improved.

During King's first year in England, his father and a friend came for a visit. When the friend expressed his desire to drink in an English pub, Lance said he'd take him out, but Don King didn't want to go.

Lance and the friend went, and Don King was so upset at being left behind that he returned to the United States the next day without informing his son.

It wasn't until this past year, after Lance had been away from his father for four years, that they had resolved some of their differences. They have found a happier medium as far as racing goes.

Don King now tunes just one engine for Lance, and he continues to do engine research and development work on his own. When he comes up with an idea for an improvement or something that might add a little extra speed, he'll run it by Lance.

But Don King realizes now that his son is independent. He has his own mechanic (Ronnie Scopeletti) and handles all of his financial affairs. Lance has been living with his mother in Fountain Valley for the past eight months.

Don King was always proud of his son, even when Lance was rampaging through the San Fernando Valley as one of the area's leading hell-raisers.

"I told him to raise hell because that's part of growing up," said Don, 47, who used to race cars down Van Nuys Blvd., during the 1950s. "So I let him get away with more stuff than you could believe. He's told me some of the outrageous things he's done, and we'd just laugh. His mother would be shocked, wondering why we were laughing, and I'd just say those were the same things I did when I was a kid."

It was something they could laugh about, like the time Lance and his friend, Johnny O'Mara, currently a top motocross rider, filled a whirlpool with two boxes of Mr. Bubble and turned the pool area at his mother's apartment complex into a giant bubble bath.

Lance didn't always escape the long arm of the law. When he was 14, Don bought him a moped and boosted its horsepower. A normal moped can go about 30 m.p.h. King was passing cars at 50, which usually caught the attention of police. Lance averaged a speeding ticket per week.

"In Auburn, they just made me write a 500-word essay saying why I wouldn't speed again," Lance said. "That was easy for me, because when I got a ticket, I just went in and wrote the same essay I had written the month before."

King should have made Xerox copies. By the time he moved back to Van Nuys at the start of his sophomore year, he had written about 30 of them. The assignments were tougher in Van Nuys.

"In Van Nuys, the tickets started costing me money because I wasn't taking care of them and I was getting warrants," King said.

It has been a rocky relationship between Lance King and his father, one filled with good times and bad. Fortunately, his racing career has been just the opposite--smooth and consistent.

If only life was as easy as handling a motorcycle.

King started in racing under the guidance of seven-time U.S. champion Mike Bast, who retired from the sport last year. Bast taught him all the right moves and King caught on quickly.

When King was finally old enough to compete in Division I (16), he qualified for the U.S. Championship twice and was the leading rider on three Southern California tracks in 1981.

He won his first three races in England in 1982 and sportswriters immediately nicknamed King, "The Whiz Kid." But he struggled the rest of the season and finished with a 6-point average out of a possible 12.

"I don't think I was ready to compete internationally at age 18," King said. "Those guys are the best in the world. And for most of them, racing is their job, so if they don't win, they don't eat. They didn't just pass you, they gave you an elbow."

King learned his lesson and returned to England for his second season a much tougher rider. He learned how to muscle against the European and Eastern-Bloc riders. He learned when to pass and when to throw an elbow. His aggressiveness paid off, as he improved to a 9-point average in 1983 and became a 10-point rider in 1984.

For financial and personal reasons, King decided to pass on the British Speedway League this year, opting instead to race in Southern California five nights a week. King thinks it was a wise decision.

He was still able to qualify for the World Final, having placed fourth in the American Final at Long Beach in June, third in the Overseas Final at Bradford, England in late June and second in the InterContinental Final at Sweden in July.

He will attempt to become the third non-British Speedway League rider to win the World Final, following the success of Sweden's Anders Michanek in 1974 and West Germany's Egon Muller in 1983.

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