Mike LayPort, who has the distinction of being the fastest roller skater in America, lives in a 22-room mansion off Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, with (above, in descending order) his father, Lee, a realtor who in the mid-'40s converted the old Mack Sennett studio into a roller rink known as the Palace Arena; his mother, Vivian: his brother, Patrick, a former senior men's four-mile-relay roller-skating champion who now manages the family gift shop; Patrick's wife, Carolyn, and their children, Kathleen and Pat; his wife Donna, an artistic (or figure) roller skater; and Sam, a Labrador retriever.
The mansion was built by Mary Pick-ford in 1916, four years before she moved out to marry Douglas Fairbanks and built Pickfair. Lee LayPort picked up the estate for $60,000 in 1957; developers, who are interested in its 52,000 square feet of property, have recently made LayPort offers in the neighborhood of $520,000. "Which," says Mike, "would build an awful lot of roller-skating rinks."
Obviously, Mike LayPort is in no need of money, which is a good thing; unlike ice skating, there isn't any in roller skating and, for that matter, no future and no acclaim, except from other speed roller skaters. What there is a lot of is hard work, and often when Mike LayPort is skating mile after mile at the Santa Ana (Calif.) Skate Ranch he wonders if life wouldn't make more sense if he were sitting in the LayPort solarium listening to the ornamental fountain play, drinking Bubble Up and watching the Dodgers on color TV.
Once, before the Santa Ana Freeway cut through the orange groves and cornfields and before Disneyland and subdivisions filled the road with motorists, a rooster named Big Red strutted in front of the Skate Ranch. That was in more peaceful times, when the only other building around was Blower Brothers Mortuary, when the sky was still blue and when the murmur of roller skates on the barn's white maple floor carried faintly in the unpolluted air. Big Red never adjusted to the people who came to the ranch. He would watch their ankles moving toward him then, wings flailing, race them to the barn's entrance.
Mike LayPort, who first arrived at the Skate Ranch in 1963 at the age of 17, was quick to establish himself as the fastest speed roller skater in Big Red's territory. He was to become, six years later, the No. 1 speed skater in the U.S. and the most talented member of the first U.S. team to compete at a world speed-skating championship. But Big Red wasn't impressed. Even LayPort wasn't fast enough. "Every time I walked from my car to the barn that ornery old bird would come for me," he says. "He caught me twice and, Gawd, how he pecked at my legs." It is believed that Big Red was stolen one night in 1965 but, with his competition wanting and the world closing in, he probably just wandered south.
Today the roar of trucks along the freeway drowns out the rumble of roller skates. Barker Brothers Furniture store sits across from the barn, and Big Red's descendants huddle together, the yard now an asphalt parking lot. Inside the barn, though, little has changed. The chandeliers are made from wheels of wagons that once carted five-ton loads of sugar beets; milk cans are used as trash barrels; and parents help their children into skates and onto the floor, then settle down in tractor seats to listen to recorded organ music.
It is Sunday afternoon. Church is over, and the folks have driven from Glendora and Whittier and Gardena to bring their kids to the one-hour practice session at the Skate Ranch. Don Howe, who works for a La Habra Dodge dealer, stands at the lunch counter watching his 13-year-old son, Bruce, a national boys' relay champion, drift through the turns and work the short straightaways. "Speed skating is an activity which is helping my boy become a gentleman," Howe says.
Mike West works as a cable splicer's helper and lives with his Mexican wife and two pretty daughters in Azusa. His teen-age girls, Mickey and Sandy, are working laps along with Bruce Howe and 30 other skaters. Sandy, a senior at Azusa High, runs the 440 so well that her track coach asked her to give up roller skating and concentrate on making it to the Olympic Trials. Sandy refused, and last August, at the nationals in Little Rock, she became Intermediate Ladies' Division champion. Mickey, 16, displays even greater potential. "They're good kids," says West. "They have speed skating on their minds. They don't think about staying out late at night and getting picked up by the cops and taking marijuana. My girls have been offered pills, and they say, 'No, thank you.' Then they're called chicken 'cause they won't try them. When that happens Sandy always says, 'I'm a speed skater. You get on a pair of skates and we'll see who's chicken.' "
Mike LayPort leads the pack of skaters around the four pylons, ahead of Bruce Howe, the West sisters and the rest. Unlike them, he skates with his arms behind his back. His huge legs do the work, pumping and crossing, propelling his 200 pounds. He has led the pack for 70 laps—five miles—and now skates off the floor, leaving the younger and slimmer skaters to complete the final mile. LayPort is gasping for breath, hands first propped against his hips, then on his knees. He is out of shape and 20 pounds overweight.
Soon he is back on the floor, practicing starts under the direction of Grady Merrell, coach of the Santa Ana Speed Club (known by rival California clubs as the Chicken Skaters in deference to Big Red's memory). LayPort is hunched over the starting line, a ludicrous figure next to seven 150-pound skaters. When Merrell's whistle sounds he runs 14 steps on the rubber toe stops of his $80 skates and then begins to stride on the pine-and-maple English-made wheels. Going into the first turn, he is in fourth place. Then he jumps to his left, maneuvers through openings and floats by a pylon into the lead. "Just look at that," Merrell says. "No one his size has a right to lead at the first turn, but he finds holes you wouldn't think you could squeeze him through."