NI motorsport man Mark King steers life back on track after cancer diagnosis

GRAEME COUSINS talks to a Northern Ireland man who is fighting his way back to the top in motorsport after beating cancer

Monday, 12th July 2021, 8:00 am
Updated Monday, 12th July 2021, 10:10 am
Mark King in his Nova 1400

When motorsport enthusiast Mark King found out he had cancer, not only did he think he might never compete again but he feared his days may be numbered.

Fast forward six years and Mark is in remission, at the top of his game, and has found something he didn’t have in 2015 ... love.

When I spoke to the 30-year-old from Desertmartin, he was driving home from work in the comfort of an Audi A5.

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Mark King in hospital undergoing treatment for sarcoma

He is more commonly seen in a Nova 1400 or Mazda MX5 when competing on autotest and autoslalom courses,

Mark said: “Normally what I’m driving wouldn’t be as comfortable as the A5. I drive the Nova for the championship stuff, for the likes of the slaloms I would drive the MX5.

“I keep both of them in the garage at home. I do have a collection of cars but they’re sort of spread out all over the place.

“Because I live in a cul-de-sac in the middle of Newmills it doesn’t suit keeping a lot of vehicles about the place.

Mark in competition

“I’ve collected Novas over the years because that was my very first autotest car. I’ve four of them now.

“The autotest car stays at home because it would take continuous tinkering, you have to keep at it during the season. The same as the Mazda.”

Mark explained what an autotest competition was: “The course is given to you on a piece of paper in the morning – a straight line is a forward direction, a dashed line is a backwards direction. You have to memorise that particular course going through the cones.

“They run in championship order – the guy who is leading will go first, second will go second. In autotests we use a laserbeam timing. We’ve 12 runs during a day, you add them all up and take the quickest (cumulative) time.

Mark in competition

“I’ve seen guys after 12 tests finishing the day on level time, to within 0.1 of a second. In that scenario it goes to a tie break. That would be who was quickest in the first run.”

Mark cast his mind back to his formative years in motorsport: “I started at 16. I started off in a car my uncle got me for Christmas. He got me a Nova. There was a wee, old woman beside him had it and didn’t want it any more.

“I stripped it out, that’s where it started off. A coat of paint and taking the seats out is what it was then, that would be what we would class as a clubman car nowadays.

“My championship car that I have at the minute, the original car would have been around 600 kilos, it’s now around 400.

Mark and his wife Grace on their wedding day

“The big difference now is I have carbon fibre seats, carbon fibre roof, carbon fibre front nose cone, carbon fibre doors, carbon fibre boot lid, carbon fibre floor – basically there’s not a big pile of the original vehicle still there.”

He said: “The Nova itself has probably cost me 10 or 12 grand. For a car that doesn’t have any seats apart from one bucket seat it’s a lot of money. It’s only for racing.

“The 1400 runs on motorbike carburettors. It’s 9500 RPM – it’s quite a revving machine compared to what the original would have been.”

So what are the skills required to do autoslalom?

“Car control is the main one,” said Mark, who lives in Newmills with his wife Grace, 31, who is originally from Moy.

“It tests your general reflexes. There is memory involved too because you have to memorise the test.

“You have to have quick reaction times. You could go out and do the test then all of sudden the rain could come on.

“The tests are normally only 60 to 90 seconds long, but a lot can happen within that time.

“You need to be able to adapt quite quickly. If the car is sliding out slightly more than it did before you need to correct that.

“It’s a car control game, that’s what it is.

“A lot of the guys who come up through F1 or rallying have done autotesting. Colin McCrae was an autotester.There’s a lot of big names through the years have done it as a means to learn car control.”

Mark said: “Back when I was 16 I took a couple of years to find my feet. At that stage I was a beginner, it was okay to be not up with the big boys.

“It took me four years, it happened overnight, like a switch being flicked. I went from being third or fourth to being first.

“It all clicked. Over the years from that initial click it’s taken a lot of refining. To get first in your class is one thing but to get first overall or second is a whole different ball game.”

Between 2010 and 2013, Mark and Stewartstown’s Steven Ferguson took part in three championships in a row.

He said: “We did the Northern Irish, British and Southern championships all in the same year – 57 events within the 12 month period.”

He explained how he had his Nova punching above its weight: “I’m getting my class win but I’m also getting second or third overall which is somewhere where a Nova shouldn’t be.

“This year I’m at my peak of where I should be. I’m second overall in the NI championship after five rounds gone.

“That’s an achievement on it’s own. I haven’t been able to win an event outright at the minute.

“A Nova, or a large saloon as we’re classed as, has never been able to win a NI championship round outright, that’s what I’m aiming for.”

He is also on course to represent the UK at the FIA World Motorsport Games in France later this year.

Mark went back to the time when he got his devastating cancer diagnosis, though initially he’d thought it was something more straightforward.

He said: “I was snowboarding with a group of mates in France. I had a collision with a skier. I thought I’d twisted something, or chipped a bone, or pulled a ligament.

“I took a few tablets and got on with it. By the end of the holiday I was taking packets of ibuprofen and paracetamol every day.

“I came back into the land of the living in Northern Ireland and went to A&E. They took X-rays, they thought it was pulled ligaments.”

Mark, who is an engineer, said: “With my job I’m on my feet most of the day. I ended up on crutches.

“I saw a physio who recommended an MRI scan.”

Mark went privately for the scan and was called 10 days later to the fracture clinic at Altnagelvin Hospital.

He said: “I thought at that stage I’d broke a bone.”

He was then shown the scans which revealed a large black shadow on his right leg.

Mark said: “I was told worst case you’ll lose your leg from there down. For a guy who works on his feet all day, for a guy involved in motorsport for a hobby, that’s probably the worst thing he could have said to me.

“From that point it was dire. I was thinking this is all over, this is going to either take me or take my way of living.”

“They took a biopsy, sent it away, and a week later I was in the cancer centre in City Hospital getting my PICC line in for chemotherapy.

“I had 20 weeks intense chemo, in hospital for four weeks out of five attached to an IV pump.

“I got an extended knee implant, which meant I got to keep my leg. They had to remove part of my tib and fib, there’s two pins glued in to hold the knee in place, then there’s a big long pin goes right inside my top femur. It’s screwed in as well. I’m held together by pins and glue.

“I have all my original flesh on the outside but it’s numb.”

Because Mark was 24 when he got diagnosed he was able to avail of support from Clic Sargent, an organisation which helps children and young people, aged up to 25, who have had cancer diagnoses.

He said: “I started the Move Forward programme, it was using crossfit for rehab. I was one of the first students in to do that.

“My mobility was better, my lung function was better, my strength was better, I was coming on leaps and bounds.

“I’ve better mobility in my legs now than when I was 24. I’m fitter now, I’m stronger.

“That’s through determination as well as that programme.”

Asked if his brush with cancer in 2015 has affected his driving, Mark said: “When I came back after all the chemo I had a pins and needles feeling in the bottom of my right foot.

“Because they had to open me up a lot of the nerves had to be severed. It did affect my balance at the start.

“When I started back at the autotests and autoslaloms I used the sound of the car to figure out what the car was doing. When I put my foot down I thought I was putting a little bit on it but I was revving it too much.”

Mark said that, for him, battling cancer was 80% mental and 20% physical.

He said: “A lot of people give up and I think that’s what causes the issues. You have to keep fighting.

“I had motorsport to think about. I was trying to build my engine, that’s what kept me busy. My mum and dad would have brought down my post to hospital. I was online ordering pistons, piston rings, trying to get something new and better. That was keeping me driven. Without motorsport it would have been a whole different ball game.”

He added: “We’re six years out now. I’ve had a good run from then. I hope it continues, but you have to keep it in your head it can always reoccur.

“I’ve got the support of my family, the support of my wife, my work, the motorsport family are always behind you. It makes a massive difference.

“Even when I was in the middle of chemo I did an event in Scotland and won it overall. Funny enough it was actually a charity event for leukaemia which is quite ironic for a guy who is getting chemotherapy.

“That’s probably one of my highlights in general.”

Mark met his wife-to-be Grace through motorsport as a result of his cancer treatment.

He explained: “I’d navigated in target rallying for a guy called Malcolm McQueen from Cookstown.

“When I’d been diagnosed, I said, ‘Malcolm, I’m not going to be able to navigate for you for a while’. With the nausea, I could drive but I couldn’t navigate.

“Grace, who I didn’t know at the time, was secretary for Dungannon Motor Club, which Malcolm was a part of as well. He asked if Grace fancied navigating for him. She’d done it before.

“Grace had taken my spot as such. Malcolm, over the period of months, had been filling her in about me, what I was going through. He was inadvertently being Cupid but not realising it.

“Grace then contacted me to ask me how I was. From there it blossomed into a relationship.

“Grace had an event coming up, I was just coming to the last of the chemotherapy. I said I would come along to give her a hand, but I said, ‘There’s one condition. I want you to go for dinner with me some evening’. She said, ‘Well, of course, that’s grand’.

“We went to Uluru in Armagh and had our first date, within six months we were in a proper relationship.

“We were together a year and a half and I realised this was the woman for me. I proposed in New York and we got married there in July 2019, luckily before Covid. We got a house, moved in, life couldn’t be any better.

“My life has evolved. It has completely changed for the better. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

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