Michael Lee – still a man with a mission
IF ever a man’s life has come full circle, then that man is Michael Lee.
IF ever a man’s life has come full circle, then that man is Michael Lee.
Now 52 years old, the 1980 world speedway champion is back in the sport in a big way, helping to manage Mildenhall Fen Tigers to success last season – and hoping to assist them to further glory in the future.
But Lee’s life has been nothing, if not one almighty rollercoaster.
On top of the speedway world at 21, when he was crowned world champion in Gothenburg in 1980, just six years later he quit the sport, fed up, hacked off and demoralised.
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If the Cambridge-born racer thought turning his back on a sport he had become so disillusioned with, would improve his life away from it, he was wrong – very wrong.
Involvement in drugs, saw him in trouble with the police on more than one occasion until, in 1997, his world fell apart.
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Arrested, not for the first time, for drug offences, Lee was given a three-year sentence, the worst part of it being the month he was forced to spend at Brixton Prison, in south London, one of the most notorious jails in Britain and home to murderers, psychopaths, rapists, paedophiles, armed robbers, junkies and all the other dregs of society.
“Being in Brixton woke me up – big time,” Lee admits.
“You didn’t want to be there, simple as that. There were gangs, lots of gangs and I was out of my depth. Lock-outs (lack of space), at other jails is why I ended up at Brixton.
“It was all very frightening.”
GETTING HIS MOJO BACK . . .
FAST forward 14 years.
It’s Sunday, September 23, 2011, and the sun is shining. The only thing ‘frightening’ Michael Lee right now is how good the speedway meeting he is watching has become.
Now one of a business consortium of three (along with Chris Louis and Kevin Jolly), Lee is helping the Fen Tigers’ young chargers try to overhaul a massive first-leg deficit against Scunthorpe in the National League play-off final, second leg, at West Row.
It’s miles away from that heady night in Sweden when Lee was crowned champion of the world.
But he’s not bothered.
You see Michael Lee has got his mojo back and Brixton Prison seems miles away.
Although watching Mildenhall versus Scunthorpe is hardly the same as racing for England in World Team Cup finals, winning two British finals, or becoming world champion (speedway and long track), he cares not.
Mildenhall lost in a last-heat showdown at West Row that day, but had the satisfaction of already having the KO Cup in their trophy cabinet, after victory over Stoke, 24 hours earlier.
The Fen Tigers have become Lee’s new baby . . . he’s back in love with the sport again.
WHERE IT ALL STARTED . . .
MICHAEL Lee first fell in love with speedway at the age of 10.
That was when his dad Andy took him to Long Eaton, near Nottingham, to watch a speedway meeting.
“I loved it,” he said.
“I was climbing up the side of the main stand hanging on to this bit of metal pipe.
“The place was packed, the noise, it was such an atmosphere.
“My dad was a motocross man and he had already got me a motocross bike. But when I got home from Long Eaton, I tried to customise my bike to speedway, even taking the brakes off. He wasn’t happy.”
Lee’s ability to ‘skid’ round the corners meant it was always likely to be speedway for him. But he had to wait until his 16th birthday to debut for Boston, where he was loaned out to from King’s Lynn – the club who got his signature – having practised religiously at Hackney, Mildenhall and of course Lynn in the preceding years.
For the next five seasons, Michael Lee and King’s Lynn were inseparable.
Two British titles followed for Lee – as well as the World title – he was a classy, fast rider the British public were proud of.
“I was dedicated, totally dedicated,” Lee said.
“It’s how I am.
“Once I focus on something, I have to do it well, have to give it my very best shot. I just ate, drank and slept speedway.”
KICKING IN THE GUTTER
WHILE at the top of his game the lucrative contracts piled up for Lee.
Sponsors, newspaper columns – everyone wanted a bit of him. And never a man afraid to speak his mind, he used his weekly column in the Daily Mirror to speak out on speedway issues.
It didn’t always go down well with the speedway authorities.
“The Mirror weren’t going to pay me to tell them all about King’s Lynn’s 41-37 win at Poole the week before, they wanted something more juicy,” he adds.
“I could see darts and snooker was taking off but speedway was still years behind. So I used to give my honest opinions on things, tried to spice things up, and I fell out with people at the top of the sport.”
In the 1984 season, Lee rode for Poole and was involved in an incident that would result in him being banned from speedway for a year.
In a cup match against former club Lynn, Lee was excluded for a starting offence and returned to the pits (according to the authorities), in the wrong direction, allegedly causing the other riders to take evasive action.
Despite the three other riders and the home promoter giving evidence that he had posed no danger, the Speedway Control Board fined him and banned him for five years, although this was later reduced to one year on appeal.
“I was either guilty or I wasn’t,” Lee said.
“The other riders in the race said I hadn’t been anywhere near them. It was found I had no case to answer, so I was innocent. How then did I still get a one-year ban? People just wanted me out.
“I’d had enough to be honest.”
THANKS TO STONEY . . .
DESPITE making various comebacks after his ban, it never worked out, and Lee as good as quit just six years after becoming world No.1. What a waste to the sport.
He drifted into drugs, his incessant craving for doing everything as well as possible, coming back to haunt him.
“If I get involved in something, sadly I have to do it properly,” he admits.
After jail he had nothing.
The authorities had cleaned him out and a once-star of the cinder circuit was left broke, down and out.
“Barry Klatt gave me a job, he had a groundwork company. I worked as hard as I could and Barry looked after me.
“When I had saved up enough money, I started tuning speedway engines. I had always known about how bikes work.”
The new speedway GP series had taken off, replacing the old one-off world finals. It was proving a success and it was a British rider who was set to give Lee a massive lift. The year was 2000 and the rider in question was Carl Stonehewer.
“Carl was a Premier League rider, riding for Workington, but did really well in the GP series,” Lee adds.
“He asked me to help him with his equipment and even accompany him to GP meetings. I was being seen again, I was back and I have a lot to thank Carl for.”
IN FOR A PENNY . . .
TSR Tuning Limited, Lee’s engine-tuning company, he set up after working for Klatt, was doing nicely.
Then, last year, came a bolt out of the blue.
Mildenhall Fen Tigers had endured turbulent times in recent years and former Ipswich Witches star Kevin Jolly had hoped to resurrect them, taking them back into the National League, the third tier of British Speedway.
Sadly for Jolly, his bid was rejected.
But Jolly then turned to current Witches director, Chris Louis, to ask for assistance, the deal looked like it may be back on.
However, Louis wanted Lee on board.
“I’ve known Chris a long time and he called to tell me what was happening,” Lee said.
“He told me I had two hours to decide if I wanted in.
“I thought, do I really want this? I always felt Mildenhall could be a great prospect in the right hands. But my tuning business was doing well. Did I need all this?”
In the end Lee decided to go for it – the rest, as they say, is history.
Huge crowds flocked to West Row in the summer to see Cameron Heeps, Lewis Blackbird, Joe Jacobs et al, put the smile back on west Suffolk speedway fans’ faces.
Lee sums it up: “If you had told me before the start of the season what we would achieve, I would have laughed at you.”
“We’ve produced a good team, a slick, professional show and the boys who have ridden for Mildenhall this season have been quite superb.
“Oh, yes, I’m loving speedway again.”