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

August 30, 1985|MIKE DiGIOVANNA | 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.

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