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GOING NOWHERE, ON WHEELS
Sandy Treadwell
May 18, 1970
Speed roller skating, according to a director of the Roller Skating Foundation of America, begins and ends in oblivion, so what's in it for wealthy young Mike LayPort?
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May 18, 1970

Going Nowhere, On Wheels

Speed roller skating, according to a director of the Roller Skating Foundation of America, begins and ends in oblivion, so what's in it for wealthy young Mike LayPort?

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The practice is over, and LayPort takes off his skates and walks over to Mike West. "Still like your beer, Mike?" he asks, patting West's stomach. West grins. "Looks like the guy they call Ironman has turned into a marshmallow," he says. (LayPort has been known as Ironman since he won 10 of the 11 events he entered in the 1967 Southwest Pacific Coast Regionals.)

LayPort admits that "right now I can hang a stomach with the best beer drinker around." But beer isn't the reason for his excessive weight. Ever since a certain night 15 years ago he hasn't had a beer or smoked a cigarette. That night his father gathered 9-year-old Mike and his younger brothers, Patrick and Lee III, around him and said, "Boys, we're going to try something. Going to see if you like it." The LayPort children spent the evening drinking beer and whiskey and smoking cigarettes and cigars. "My large stomach comes from eating, not drinking," Mike says. "I drown my dreams in ice cream and soda pop. When I get ticked off at something I go to a soda machine that sells Bubble Up." Once he drank six quarts in 10 minutes. LayPort has an equally unquenchable passion for ice cream, and it is not unusual for him to consume two gallons at a sitting.

He fondly remembers a dinner hour in April 1964 when he was in Mount Sinai Hospital in Santa Monica, recuperating from an operation that removed protective tissue from his legs; they had become so musclebound he had been confined to a wheelchair. He discovered a cartload of supper trays outside his room. When his nurse noticed that the trays had disappeared she summoned the hospital dietitian, who asked LayPort how many meals he had eaten.

"Seven, I think," he said.

When asked to describe the world speed skating championships, held last December in Mar del Plata, Argentina, LayPort begins by telling of the 75¢ steaks at the Light and Power Hotel, where teams representing the 12 participating countries stayed. "If you pushed down too hard on your knife you'd break the plate," he adds.

LayPort begins his heavy eating as soon as the nationals end. Last August, after seven days of skating the floor of Little Rock's T. H. Barton Coliseum in successful defense of his five-mile title and winning the senior men's championship as well, he went to a Big Boy, where he had two triple-decker cheeseburgers, a double order of French fries and onion rings, two large Cokes and a banana split.

LayPort pays for his appetite in April. When not going to lectures at Los Angeles Valley College or reading business and finance textbooks, he runs on the college track and skates at the Ranch. He works out on the track every morning, doing a 440, an 880 and a two-mile in half an hour, and three days a week concludes the practice session with a three-mile run. July, the month of the Southwest Pacific Coast Regionals, finds him in top condition, able to run two miles in 12 minutes. "When I think of what I have to do to get in shape...." LayPort lets his voice trail off before adding. "Unless you really enjoy speed skating you want to hang it up."

The man who first glided across a floor on wheels didn't remain upright long enough to enjoy it. During the course of a visit to England in 1760, Joseph Merlin, a French inventor, demonstrated a pair of skates he had put together in his musical-instrument shop. Merlin strapped the contraptions onto his feet and took off down the length of a ballroom. Unfortunately, the skates could only go straight ahead, and he crashed into a huge mirror at the far end of the room. Roller skating languished until 1819, when another Frenchman, a M. Pettibled, patented a skate with three copper wheels. But it wasn't until 1863, the year James Plympton of Massachusetts developed a skate permitting sideway rotation, thus allowing the skater to turn, that the sport became popular.

In 1880 roller skating was a favorite pastime of New York society. Skating was ideally suited to the poor, however, and it took the Depression years to transform it from a fad, an oddity, into a slice of Americana. The man most responsible was Victor J. Brown, who managed a Newark, N.J. dance arena. In 1934 Brown dreamed up a stunt to boost business—a nonstop, 21-day roller-skating race. After all, he reasoned, hadn't dance marathons proved immensely popular? Brown built a banked wooden track over the dance floor of his arena in Dreamland Park. Fifteen three-man teams entered the race, which started at 9 p.m. on Feb. 7. Spectators wandered in and out for a 50¢ admission price, or $1 in the reserved section, and when they weren't at Dreamland they could follow the progress of the race in the Newark Star-Eagle. The paper carried daily box scores listing the leaders, dropouts and injuries. Personality sketches of the racers were also included. "Edward Mount decided to turn pro for the current grind in hopes of earning enough money to make a trip to Miami," one read. "Young Mount has been on the verge of quitting several times, but dreams of how nice and warm it will be in Miami drive the thought from his head. How nice the heat from the sun will feel on those tired feet."

Similar marathons were held throughout the country, and speed skating became a popular spectator sport. After the Depression these cruel spectacles were shortened and modified, the races lasting no longer than a ball game and featuring battles between villains and heroes. The result was the Roller Derby. The marathons, at the same time, promoted the purer, more legitimate—though far less entertaining—sport of speed skating. Amateurs raced one another before a handful of friends at local rinks in near obscurity.

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