IRL: Ace mechanic King may be the key

ACE MECHANIC KING KEEPS KEEN EYE ON CROWN HEADING INTO VEGAS LAS VEGAS, Oct. 6, 1998 - John King looks at the race car, looks at the calendar and looks at the race car again. He is tense and nervous, feeling the pressure that chasing...

ACE MECHANIC KING KEEPS KEEN EYE ON CROWN HEADING INTO VEGAS

LAS VEGAS, Oct. 6, 1998 - John King looks at the race car, looks at the calendar and looks at the race car again.

He is tense and nervous, feeling the pressure that chasing a national championship inevitably brings. He knows that all he can do is all he can do, so he sets about his task of supervising the crew on driver Kenny Brack's No. 14 Power Team Dallara/Aurora/Goodyear.

The team has been red-hot this season in Pep Boys Indy Racing League competition, winning a league-record three straight events down the stretch. Now, they take a 31-point lead into the season-ending Las Vegas 500K on Oct. 11 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The veteran King serves as chief mechanic for the team, and he knows the team must post one more strong run to clinch the title. An eighth-place showing, or better, is all they need at Las Vegas.

"Sure, you feel a lot of pressure," said King. "It seems like you would get used to it, but I never have.

"But maybe that's what keeps you from getting too laid back, too lackadaisical, whatever. So I spend a lot of time just going over things, over and over again, because of the pressure and what's at stake."

What's at stake? The Pep Boys Million bonus, for starters. Plus the prestige and satisfaction of bringing the series championship to the team owned by four-time Indianapolis 500 winner A.J. Foyt.

"Working for A.J. brings extra pressure, too," said King, 60. "He demands perfection, he expects perfection. If you're not able to perform, then you're not the right person for the job. Which is only right.

"(A.J.) knows what's happening all the time. You can't fool him, so don't even try. But he's not hard to work for, really ? he's never unfair."

King began his role as a racing mechanic more than 40 years ago, while still in high school. He and a young neighbor put together a modified racer.

"It was a Ford coupe with a big engine, basically," he said.

They later bought the aging championship roadster that Jim Rathmann had driven to a runner-up finish in the 1952 Indianapolis 500.

They cut and chopped at the old car, until it fit the guidelines for sprint cars of the day. They raced the sprinter throughout the Midwest, until King finally settled down to his fruit farm in southeastern Michigan, raising cherries, peaches and apples.

Despite his down-to-earth lifestyle, King stayed close to racing, serving as a weekend crew member for various Indy-style teams. Finally, in 1988, King made a decision that would change his life.

"My son decided that he wanted to farm, so I just stepped aside and said, 'Here you go, it's all yours,'" he said. "I was burned out, tired of farming, and I wanted to do something in my life that I really enjoyed. And that was racing."

Racing, indeed. Within two years he was the chief mechanic with the Euromotorsports team, finally landing with Foyt's team for a three-year tenure that began in the early 1990s. After a brief stint with Jim Hall's team, he was back with Foyt, where he happily remains.

Much has changed in racing over the four decades that he has toiled in the sport, especially the technology of modern race cars. Surprisingly, though, King discounts the difference from that first modified coupe.

"They aren't that trick," he says of today's cars, insisting that "they're mostly just good, common sense thinking. There is more trick stuff that you're adding as time goes on, but you learn that as you go."

He has apparently learned well, because in 1998 his team elevated its game to heights that no other team has been able to match thus far. The three-race win streak at Charlotte, Atlanta and Pikes Peak gave them a terrific boost toward the title, which is on every team member's mind each and every day.

Now, as he paces the floor and goes over every minute detail on his race car, King looks toward Las Vegas. "Last year we were in the hunt going in to Las Vegas, but we just didn't quite pull it off," he recalls of 1997, when driver Davey Hamilton finished just six points behind champion Tony Stewart. "So this year we feel good about going in there with a good point lead, but anything can happen. "We'll just focus on winning the race and let (the championship) follow." He has coached and led his team, and his driver, throughout the year. Now he hopes to lead them to their first title. He is confident ? but tense. "Like I said, anything can happen," he said. "We just don't want to let this one get away from us ? so we get real nervous, real tense."

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Series IndyCar
Drivers Tony Stewart , Davey Hamilton , Kenny Brack , A.J. Foyt , John King