Rumors would arise of an empty private swimming pool somewhere, and the skaters would show up with brooms and plastic bags to make the place ridable.
They say it was the first swimming pool in the world that was not built for swimmers. In fact, there was never any intention of filling it with water. So it is maybe ironic that it is now filled with a slime-green muck in which restless catfish swim back and forth, disturbed by the peculiar teenage energy that will forever haunt this place. Their poor dumb fish brains flash with the images of screaming kids on wheels terrorizing the poofs walls with rock-and-roll fakies, lip grinds, and backside ollies.
Larry Balma: "The trouble with the clay wheel was that you could only ride on concrete, and if you hit the tiniest rock or stick you were on your butt.”
“Yes, the whole place has kind of gone to hell now,“ the caretaker says, crawling out from under his truck and wiping his greasy hands on his pants. His trailer is parked in front of the dead skateboard park — now a fish-for-fee pool—next to the Carlsbad Raceway. “It was famous once. In Reader's Digest. The first one like it in the world. I built it myself. . . . You could skate in there for a month and never do the same thing twice.” What happened? He shrugs and shakes his head. “Insurance problems, is what they say. I don’t understand it. The place was owned by a group of doctors from Santa Monica. They could’ve started their own insurance company if they’d wanted to.’’
Curbside vert - the equivalent of dropping into a ten-foot wave every five seconds for as long as you could stand it.
The slalom run portion of the park was converted into a BMX (bicycle motocross) track, which was the next surge in adolescent thrills, and the skateboarders deeply resented the invasion of their terrain. For a while, before the pool was filled with water, BMXers rode in it, and to the skateboarders that was like losing the war and then watching the enemy dance on your grave.
Garry Scott Davis is known as the ultimate street skater, not so much for his technique as for his desperate, self-abusive style.
Another pool, above the first, was never filled with water. Its erratic shape and curious anthill humps have no other possible use than the pursuit of fun on wheels, so it has been left to decay. Ragged tumbleweeds grow from cracks in the cement. The drains have been clogged by the heavy winter rains, and the pool is slowly filling with mud. But the fence around it has been trampled down, and the skaters still sneak in on a full moon to worship at the oracle and perform the secret rites of their ill-fated devotion. They have spray painted on the concrete banks: “Temple Of Psychic Youth.“ “I just ran some off last night,” the caretaker says, but you can see he doesn’t have his heart in it. “I bought a shotgun, but I couldn’t ever shoot one of the kids. I just fire over their heads to scare them away. Sometimes they run off and leave their skateboards there.” The smile fades from his face. He built this place with his own hands, and he saw with his own eyes what the kids could do with it. He was a believer. And now the place rots.
Billy Ruff: "It isn’t really the sound of the music that makes it skate rock, it’s the energy level."
Larry Balma puts on his aviator sunglasses, dons his safari hat, nods to his secretary, and steps outside for a brief trek into the history of skateboarding. At thirty-nine, Balma has seen all of the sport’s changes, and his company. Tracker Trucks, has been a major factor in those changes.
The factory is in a neighborhood, two blocks from the beach in Oceanside, that is a peculiar blend of warehouses and older homes. Trains rattle by from time to time. Marines in uniform pass hurriedly on the sidewalk. Retirees chat over backyard fences.
Owen Nieder was ejected from the Del Mar skate park once for climbing up on the roof.
Outside the Tracker Trucks factory there’s a black ’48 Chrysler with sagging tires and a shredded interior. It sulks there in the sunshine, a sad/happy monument to the business, its grill almost seeming to smile, like Balma himself, with an amused detachment that comes from having seen enough ups and downs to know that it’s only a matter of time before the cycle comes around again.
Hitting a vert with rad air. “It’s hard to get enough air to really kill!”
“It started in 1962 with clay roller skate wheels,” Balma says. This was the era of sidewalk surfing. Some anonymous inventor had taken the old newsboy scooter — the prototype skateboard — and knocked the upright handle off. Following in the wake of surfing's popularity, a skateboarding fad spread across the country. Kids in places like Utah and Kansas were out in their driveways practicing their surfing kickouts and 360s. The commercial possibilities were obvious, and several manufacturers cashed in on the boom. “Hobie Alter put out the Super Surfer model, and there were others,” Balma continues. “Skate teams sponsored by the manufacturers were competing. The whole thing really took off. But the trouble with the clay wheel was that you could only ride on concrete, and if you hit the tiniest rock or stick you were immediately on your butt.” The fad lasted into 1969.
Tony Hawk. Brittain's photos have helped to make skate stars out of many San Diego locals, among them Billy Ruff, Ken Park, Tony Hawk.
It looked for a time as though the skateboard had gone the way of the yo-yo and Hula Hoop. Then in 1973 Frank Nasworthy, in Encinitas, invented the Cadillac wheel. It was made of polyurethane, was flexible, and could be ridden on asphalt. “I was a commercial fisherman at the time,” Balma says. “I had followed the first skateboard fad through, surfing the whole time, even after the fad faded. Then one day a friend of mine came over and said, ‘Let’s go skateboarding.’ I said, ‘Skateboarding?’ I didn’t think he was serious. We went out to La Costa, where they had all these streets where they hadn’t built any homes yet. We did these long downhill runs, then we’d hop into a pickup and ride back to the top. God, we had no idea. The [Cadillac] wheels really worked!”
Grant Brittain: “A couple of years ago we had days when nobody at all came to skate.”
Skateboards were rapidly improved by two more inventions. One was the sealed bearing, which made the wheels dirtproof. The other was a truck, or axle, designed just for skateboards, not roller skates. ‘‘We started experimenting with different shaped boards and trucks to find the best design. We decided that a skateboard designed just the way we wanted it would have to cost thirty dollars. We figured that nobody would ever pay thirty dollars for a skateboard. Well, in 1974 Bahne Skateboards sold 100,000 skateboards at thirty dollars apiece.”
Tony Magnusson. There is something powerful about a photograph of a skater who is captured in that instant of impossible air.
In 1975, Tracker came out with a truck that dominated the market. ‘‘It was real wide, and everybody said it wouldn’t work, that you couldn’t turn it,” Balma says. ‘‘But experience proved that it would work, and before long everybody knew it. We were selling 40,000 trucks a month at twelve dollars apiece.”
The smell of money attracted all kinds of predators, and they began circling the industry, hungry for some of the spoils. Balma remembers that “all of a sudden there were a hundred manufacturers in the world making skateboard products. They were copying our trucks everywhere. They would grind off our name, then recast them. You could tell they were a copy because every time you recast the truck it gets a little smaller, and a little weaker. Sometimes they wouldn’t even bother to grind the name off, and these kids would come in with a broken truck with our name on it, and we’d have to tell them it wasn’t ours. We were patented, but that doesn’t do any good. I spent a half million dollars on attorney fees, but that didn’t do any good either. The companies would already be out of business by the time the lawyers got there.”
The more you try to concentrate on what a freestyle skater is doing with his skateboard the more you understand just how good he is.
Tracker wasn’t the only company getting ripped off. Fly-by-nighters were buying second-quality wheels from reputable manufacturers and selling them for more than top-quality wheels were worth. In 1979 the skateboard industry started on a downward slide, gutted by its own greed.
“Some people said it was the price of skateboards,” Balma says. (A good skateboard now costs about one hundred dollars, and a set of protective pads another one hundred dollars.) ‘ ‘But that theory doesn’t hold up if you look at it. Parents were laying out $600 to buy their kids a new BMX bike. The recession may have had something to do with it, but I think the real reason is the ten-year cycle. All of a sudden skateboards weren’t on TV anymore. BMX [bicycle motocross] was the big thing. It’s just something that happens to skateboarding every ten years.” Skateboading hit rock bottom in 1980. The companies who weren’t committed to the sport got out. Skateboarder Magazine quit publishing. Skate parks closed. Out of the nine parks in San Diego County, only one stayed in business. In the Midwest, where skateboarding had been very big, only one park out of thirty survived. “Most skate parks weren’t really in the business of skateboarding,” Balma says. “This was the same time as the real estate boom, and they used the parks as a way to pay for a piece of property. As soon as it had paid for itself, they leveled them.”
"The handplant became the eggplant, then eggs over easy. Now guys talk about doing something called poached eggs."
There's a nasty bitterness smoldering in the skating world over what happened to the skate parks, and to organized skating in general, difring the late Seventies. The anger is directed toward the quick-buck companies that took and took from the sport but never put anything back. Since most of those companies got out when things turned bad, there wasn’t anyone around to blame, and the anger festered as the skaters gradually realized they had been wooed, used, and dumped. For a lot of them, the disillusionment and anger ended their skating years. The youngest kids — too young to understand the commercial realities — simply rolled with the punch and went into other action sports such as BMX and motorcycling. But the older ones carried their anger with them as they grew into their rock-and-roll years, and it found expression in the already cynical attitude of that age.
To nonskaters it is difficult to understand the fanatical devotion of the young hard-core skaters who refused to give up. The word “sport” doesn’t encompass their enthusiasm, which was more like a secret underground movement fueled by frustration and aggression. Skateboarders began showing up at punk rock shows with their boards under their arms, and they found a curious acceptance there.
Slam dancing was the craze, and the skaters found that they could understand this kind of mock ritual violence. Self-abuse was the skater’s way of knowledge, and they flashed their scabby elbows and lacerated shins like credentials. You started to see skateboarders with mohawk haircuts or black pompadours, ragged jeans, chain wristlets, and high-topped basketball shoes. They talked about ‘‘shredding’’ and “ripping” and “thrashing” and “grinding” as though their sport was mass murder instead of riding a wooden board with plastic wheels.
Without skate parks, the skaters took to the streets. Many cities, including San Diego, had banned skateboarding on streets and sidewalks, so street skating became outlaw skating, which only increased the possibility for thrills to the rebellious few. They skated in back alleys, parking lots, and drainage ditches. They started skating on the sly, late at night when people with normal cravings were already asleep. They skated the spiral ramps of downtown parking lots, lighted only by the moon or flickering neon. When the weather turned bad, they skated school corridors, empty warehouses, and beachfront sewer pipes. They defied the law by using skateboards for transportation on city streets and sidewalks, and found that it was perhaps the most efficient way to move the human body in urban traffic — faster than going afoot, more versatile than a bike (you could carry it under your arm), and more maneuverable than a car.
Street skating had its own way of exploiting architecture. It hated ninety-degree angles and favored smooth, skatable transitions. It suddenly mattered whether the wall of a building met the sidewalk abruptly, or if it flowed into it gracefully; whether stairs had rounded lips; if a gutter had curbs; if a storm drain dipped with a smooth wire mesh, or dropped into a yawning steel grate. Nobody paid as much attention to these things as the street skaters, and they were constantly searching for interesting, if unintentional, concrete challenges.
Urban malls became renegade skate parks because of their abundance of smooth transitions. Rowdy skate rats would hit them in packs for a quick twenty-minute aggression session. They would terrorize the befuddled shoppers with their backside grinds off the tiled walls, no-hand pogos up the escalator, lip slides off the tapered plant pots, and 50-50s down the wheelchair ramps. Then when they could see that the security guards were getting organized, they’d flee past the bus stop doing nose-wheelie space-walks while the little old ladies clutched their shopping bags and clucked like flustered hens. Skateboarding was getting a bad reputation.
There were almost no pools to skate. When the parks were open, pool riding had provided the ultimate in thrills — the equivalent of dropping into a ten-foot wave every five seconds for as long as you could stand it. It was called “riding vertical,” and the skaters missed it badly. Rumors would arise now and then of an empty private swimming pool somewhere, and the skaters would show up with brooms and plastic bags to make the place ridable. But it was only a matter of time before the neighbors complained about the noise, or the cops showed up, or somebody broke his arm or had his teeth knocked out and the pool was declared off limits.
After the skate parks in El Cajon and La Mesa closed down in the late Seventies, skaters began sneaking into the empty wading pool at the city park at Lake Murray. It was only three feet deep, but that was better than nothing. The park rangers would boot them out, but they kept returning. Then the rangers would fill the pool with water, and the skaters would have to sneak in and drain it. Finally the water was left on all the time, and the pool became un-skatable. There was just no replacing the skate park pools. Some of the more zealous skaters wrote off the loss of all pool riding as a casualty of politics and vowed they would never ride vertical again. Others still craved the thrills.
Backyard ramps started with somebody laying a sheet of plywood up against a picnic table. The idea was expanded to include curving walls. From the side, they look like a huge culvert pipe cut in half, then squashed just a bit. A large ramp might have sides ten feet high, with a bottom about twenty feet across — like a cross-section of a swimming pool. The skaters found that they could do almost everything on them that they had done in the pools. They began begging, scrounging, and stealing the two-by-four framing and plywood decks, and the ramps began popping up in backyards and vacant lots. They cost anywhere from zero to several thousand dollars, depending on the skaters’ resourcefulness. In some ways they were superior to skate parks because the skaters had control of the ramps. The skaters could set their own rules and keep their own hours, and they didn’t have to worry about going out of business.
The skaters also began exploring the irrigation canals and drainage ditches for unique skating qualities. They found the Imperial Avenue ditch just off I-5 in South San Diego; “Sano-land” in Cardiff, named for the nearby sanitation district’s sewer plant on Manchester Avenue near San Elijo Lagoon; and the “Shell Bowl’’onPacific Street in Oceanside. Word of them passed from skater to skater, and the spots became plastered with graffiti and decals in an attempt to claim the terrain. All across the country a kind of spray-paint dialogue began that tried to define where the sport had gone wrong, and to plan strategies for its survival. It began with a well-known manufacturer’s logo: “Live to Skate — Skate or Die.’’ This was shortened into: “Skate, Then Die.” Rhymed: “ShredTill You’re Dead.’’ Encitedaction with: “Skate and Destroy!” Then the graffiti evolved into various forms of advice, style, and viewpoints. There was the territorial “Skate Tough Or Go Home.” An idealistic “Skate to Create.” A pessimistic “Skate Or Live.” An indifferent “Skate Or Don’t.” And perhaps the ultimate statement, which is said to have come from Texas: “Shut Up And Skate.”
Some good things came out of the downfall of organized skating and the emergence of street skating. One of them was neighborhood skate magazines, written by skaters. Garry Scott Davis, age twenty-one, probably knows more than anyone about these backyard magazines. He started his own rag. Skate Fate, back home in Cincinnati, then took it with him when he migrated to Oceanside by way of San Jose, publishing everywhere along the way. In skate circles, Davis is known as the ultimate street skater, not so much for his technique as for his desperate, self-abusive style. The talented and eccentric writer dresses in clothes tattered from many asphalt encounters. His skating inventiveness contributed to the skate world the “front-footed, front-sided, foot plant,” a maneuver later perfected by other skaters and nicknamed “the boneless one.”
Davis has been in Oceanside for about nine months now. He makes his home on the floor of the loft at Tracker Trucks, where he works for $3.80 per hour, spending most of his time in the shop and the remainder helping to put out the company’s new magazine, Trans-World Skateboarding. He keeps a collection of neighborhood skate rags from all over the country in a battered flight bag, and as he pulls them out and spreads them around on a table in front of him, it is easy to see they are his most prized possessions. “This one’s called Squid Meat, out of Ohio. This is Oh!, put out by a fourteen-year-old kid. There’s Speed-zine, from San Jose, Skate Aggression, Local Chaos, and Skate Craze. Here’s a generic one called Skateboarding — Net. Wt. 2.2 Oz. He keeps pulling them out of the flight bag until the table is covered with dozens of them. There is Lump, put out by Lance Mountain, a top pro skater from Alhambra ,R/P, put out by Marty Jimenez, another employee at Tracker; Skate Scars; Loop; Skate Attack; and Altered Skates.
“There weren’t any skate magazines,” Davis says,“and rather than wait for somebody to put one out, everybody started putting out their own. It was mostly just a bunch of kids saving up enough change for the Xerox machine.” The spontaneous outpouring of creativity was often kept secret from adults, who only saw out-of-control skate rats roaming their neighborhoods. Some of the rags collected and published the graffiti which appeared anonymously at the local skate spots. “We sweat and laugh and scream here,” one of them said. “If it doesn’t hurt, it isn’t real,” another advised. “Stop Skate Harassment,” one demanded.
One of the first things Davis did after arriving in Oceanside was learn how to surf. (“I could stand up after two months.”) The next thing he did was put out a North County edition of Skate Fate. It was the thirtieth edition of his free rag, which he mailed to skaters all over the country:
For your information, the North County area just happens to be one of the major suppliers of prime skateboarding spots in the known world. Quite an abundance of skaters, surf-skaters, and pseudo-surf skaters populate the area. There is Del Mar skateboard park, one of the last five such parks open in the U.S. About three miles north of Del Mar is the famous “Sanoland” trench, situated far down in a very deep gorge-like canyon behind the small ville of Cardiff. The trench is a concrete drainage canal which offers a greater variety of angular banked terrain than most any ditch you’ll likely ever see. . . . The old skate park mogul field still stands inland from Carlsbad, but beware of the irate inhabitants. Be prepared to bail at speed. . . . These locations, and virgin spots like them, exist almost everywhere in the country. So turn off the TV and start moving, because if you don’t search for them soon they simply are never going to be ridden.
Following his own advice, Davis and the other employees at Tracker grab their skateboards at noon, cross the street, slip through the backyard fences, hop over the railroad tracks, and run past the vacant lot to the Shell Bowl, a city-built asphalt drainage area, where they skate away their lunch time in front of the beach while distant ships move along the horizon.
It didn’t take long for the skateboard manufacturers to realize that the backyard rags were filling a void in the skating world. In 1981 two manufacturers from the San Francisco Bay area began putting out a skate magazine called Thrasher. The magazine recognized that skating had taken a radical and permanent departure from surfing, and it tried to appeal to the dedicated punk street skater. “The thing with surfing is that they can’t get rid of all these terminal hippie casualties who don’t want to admit it's not the Sixties anymore,” one leading skateboard maker said in an interview. An article titled “Radical Manifesto” gave the skater’s pledge: “Hold your skate high above your head with your right hand and repeat the following oath: i, being a severe thrasher of sound mind and body, do hereby promise to destroy all skating situations each day that I am physically and mentally able. I will live to skate, will wreak havoc and terror upon the paved surfaces of this planet until I die.’ ” Following the mood of the times, the magazine’s philosophy was “skate and destroy.” This was sometimes only a comical pose — a tongue-in-cheek photo essay demonstrated how to knock the crutches out from under little old ladies — but at other times the pose became an angry and rebellious outpouring. An article titled “Don't Tell Us How to Live and We Won’t Tell You How to Die” asked, “Can’t some people accept the fact that the activity of riding a skate is as valid a reason for existence on this planet as any other? Are the corporate controllers afraid of the fact that the modem techno-societal environment is in reality just a large ferro cement playground?”
The young skaters who read Thrasher found this angry stance appealing. One reader wrote in to say, “I got into boarding about three months ago. I rode like a pussy for the First month, then I got a copy of your mag. The more I read, the more demented I got. We thrash the streets about every night, and rip down the local hills. You gave us the idea to ride through malls, so we did, and got kicked out. Who cares!”
But some of the other manufacturers began to feel that Thrasher's image would not be good for skating. Larry Balma: “They took the roughest, hardest image they could imagine, and a lot of the parents didn't like it — after all, they were the ones laying out a hundred dollars for a board.”
When Thrasher published an article inciting skaters to follow the “skate and destroy” philosophy, a mother with a son who skates objected. She told Thrasher's publishers she wanted to write an article in favor of the “skate to create” philosophy. ‘‘They [Thrasher] encouraged her to write it,” Balma says, “but she had never written an article before, and they knew that. They were baiting her. They were laying bets that she couldn’t do it. The next issue of Thrasher showed a picture of a naked chick with iron cross pasties over her tits. That was the last straw. We decided we were going to put out a magazine of our own.”
The first issue of Trans-World Skateboarding came out in May of 1983. It featured the mother’s article:
The people who have been in charge of covering skateboarding only like to promote the heavy-leather/skin head/punk side of skating. All skaters are not punk. . . . Why then does the image come across as mostly punk, and mostly destructive? ... I am sure there would be a lot of skaters who would be stoked if their own parents could relate and recognize the magnificent talent, creativity, guts, and expression of individuality that skateboarding represents.
The first response to TWS was that it was a manufacturer’s mag. But then, the same accusations had been made about Thrasher. Then TWS was called a parent’s mag, which was partly true. TWS tried to minimize that criticism by using only articles by skaters. They offered Garry Davis a little more money than he’d been making writing for Thrasher, and encouraged him to come to Oceanside from San Jose. It is now his writing that carries TWS. He toned down his style a bit, but insisted that anything with his name on it be published exactly as written. His sense of humor, originality, and enthusiasm for the sport come through in nearly every page.
Now, five issues later, TWS is slowly gaining acceptance. If you ask the skaters their opinion of the two skating magazines, they are very careful to say they appreciate both of them. They seem to sense that skating doesn't need another divisive issue. They really don’t want a magazine war.
Another positive thing that came out of skateboarding’s underground era in the late Seventies and early Eighties was music made by and for skaters. New bands like Faction, Jody Foster’s Army, The Drunk Injuns, and Minus One began writing music about the skating experience. The music is crude, raucous, and mostly unlistenable to anyone but young skateboarders. But they love it, and appreciate it, because it helped preserve a skating identity through the leanest years.
Billy Ruff is a nineteen-year-old San Diego skater who was all-around professional world champion in 1982. He dyes his hair black and combs it back in the rockabilly style of his band, the Outriders. There is nothing rebellious about him. He has the confident smile of a bright teenager who is just beginning to realize what all his possibilities are. “We aren’t really a skate-rock band,” he says, “but I’d like to see us get into that. Skate rock is fast, has lots of energy, and is fun to skate to. I guess you could say we play a little more civilized kind of music. But it isn’t really the sound of the music that makes it skate rock, it’s the energy level. And the lyrics don’t have to be about skating, either. Competitive skaters travel a lot and grow up early. The music comes out of that experience.”
Probably the most popular skate rock band is Faction, from San Jose. Their bass player is one of the best pool riders in the world, even if their music is among the worst in the world. Still, they have a fanatical devotion, which helps: “The cops are chasing me/their kids are BMXers/they always try to stop me/but urethane is faster than boots.”
Owen Nieder is a seventeen-year-old skate-rock musician from Del Mar who has a reputation for being the local bad boy of skating. He was ejected from the Del Mar skate park once for climbing up on the roof. Another time he was playing football on a nearby $10,000 putting green. He has been kicked out of school several times, and there are stories of him being thrown out of motels by irate, gun-wielding managers. Still, everybody seems to like him. He is the nice kid gone bad whom adults and girlfriends love to try to save.
Nieder recently gained notoriety by appearing in a Gullwing Skateboard advertisement dressed in full punk regalia, including a mohawk haircut and combat boots. His image represents the style of skate rock, but he says he isn't sure exactly what that is. “Maybe there really isn’t such a thing as skate rock,” he says softly. “Maybe you could call a band like Faction skate rock, because everybody in the band, even the roadies, skates. But to me skate rock is any music that is loud, fast, and rowdy.” His own band. Perdition, has not played much since one of its members decided to join the marines.
He has modified his image considerably in the last few months, making it more subtle. He still has one ear heavily ornamented with gold earrings, but he has shaved off his mohawk. What caused his new image? “I don't know,” he says with a shy I-didn't-do-it tone to his voice. “I guess my girlfriend didn't like it that much.”
Billy Ruff, who loves to antagonize him, says, “Maybe he’s just growing up.”
It's Saturday morning at the Del Mar Skate Ranch, between the racetrack and Interstate 5. The young skaters are dressed in full gear — knee pads, elbow pads, and helmets. Some of the kids are so small they haven’t grown into their armor yet, and they wobble around stiffly like hockey players off the ice. Under their pads the skaters are wearing shorts and jerseys of colors that have never seen each other before — chartreuse on blood red, lavender on orange — and the weird combinations look volatile and dangerous, as though they should only be attempted in a physics lab under controlled conditions.
The skaters have assembled here to attend a skateboarding clinic taught by professional skaters. The instructor of the youngest group is a top competitive pool rider. He calls the kids together and says, “Today we’re going to teach you how to pump your legs in the flats, so you can get enough speed to get off the walls and get air.”
One of the kids, maybe seven years old, says,“It’s hard to get enough air to really kill!”
“Yes, it is,” he replies.
In a perfect world, a perfect skateboarder could ride the pool from lip to lip, indefinitely, with no loss of speed, like a perpetual motion machine. That would get boring after a while. Besides, we live in an imperfect world with friction, among other defects, and the skater who wants to maintain his momentum in the pool must add power from his legs. An aggressive skater will add enough power to increase his momentum until it finally sends him higher than the lip of the pool.
The instructor demonstrates. He drops into the pool on his board, crouches on the flat, then pounces up the other side, driving off the bottom with his legs, getting enough speed to send him flying, for only a moment, above this world’s imperfections. During that moment, free from gravity, suspended several feet above the lip, there are an unlimited number of ways for a skater to celebrate his freedom. And that is why getting air is the hottest thing in skateboarding today. The teacher does an easy backside turn in midair, drops in again, then rides up the other side. Back and forth. Back and forth. Getting air every time.
“Yeah!” the kids say. “Go, man!” They are fascinated by the hypnotic rhythm and the brief second of glory. It is only a demonstration, but the kids still realize they are seeing something out of the ordinary. One of them elbows his buddy and mutters, “I'd give my right nut to be able to get air like that.”
Each skater takes his turn, one by one, while the instructor offers his advice. “Pump it hard! Throw your body! Put your weight into it!”
After a while the manager of the skate park. Grant Brittain, strolls out to see how things are going. He has to be pleased by what he sees. The skate park, which is crowded with skaters, is just one section of the Surf and Turf recreation center. There is also tennis, miniature golf, slot cars, trampolines, arcade games, and a golf driving range. It is this diversity which allowed it to survive when so many other skate parks folded. Some of the skaters have nicknamed the place “the capital of fun.”
“A couple of years ago we had days when nobody at all came to skate,” Brittain says. “Lately we’ve had some of our busiest days in two or three years.”
In his midtwenties, Brittain continues to skate himself. “You think of the sport as being mostly for kids, but we have guys coming here who are thirty and forty years old. One guy is a computer whiz, another guy is an aircraft design engineer.” Besides working at the skate park, Brittain is also the photographic editor for Trans-World Skateboarding; these two roles have placed him near the center of skateboarding, and have given him a perspective on its current direction. He says one of the important changes in recent years is in the boards themselves. He picks up one of them to demonstrate what he means. “The biggest improvements are in strength, lightness, and durability. Notice how the decks are concave, for better turning leverage. The wheels are made of a high-rebound urethane — patented blend — that has a sure grip. There is absolutely no slipping on these wheels; they are conical, to minimize friction when they turn, like radial tires. The bottoms of the trucks and the rails are protected by plastic ‘copers’ — otherwise the modern tricks would tear them up.
“Notice the safety gear,” he says. “Everybody is required to wear it here. It has cut down on injuries a lot.”
Billy Ruff, who also works at the park, adds, “Protection pads are probably the greatest invention in skateboarding. Not basketball pads — they ’re a joke — but the hard plastic pads. They’ve changed skating. Besides protecting, they help you mentally. You can do tricks you couldn’t do before because you were worried about falling.” (Out of the top ten sports injuries to kids under fifteen in 1982, skateboarding ranked tenth, far behind bicycling, football, and baseball, which were the top three.)
As for the future of skateboarding, Brittain says, “It was a fad before. Now it is here to stay. It used to be that only surfers skated. But surfing doesn’t influence skating anymore — it’s the other way around now.” He explains how surfers began borrowing the quick, aggressive moves of skateboarding, and how the surfboards became smaller to adapt to the new skating style. Now, even surfers are starting to talk about getting air.
Brittain’s photographs have done a lot to help promote skateboarding. Skateboarding magazines are really more to be looked at than read, and his photos have helped to make skate stars out of many San Diego locals, among them Billy Ruff, Ken Park, Tony Hawk, Tony Magnusson. There is something powerful about a photograph of a skater who is captured in that instant of impossible air. Somehow, moving pictures can’t do the same thing — they only reveal the moment’s agonizing brevity. But in still photos the moment hangs there forever, making this earth perfect, and making teenagers into legends.
The Swedes are necking with their Bettys at the edge of the free-style rink while a skater goes through his routine. They are watching him out of the comers of their eyes — this is world-class competition, and not to be missed — but the girls require attention, too.
A steady ocean breeze blows across the Del Mar racetrack to the skate park, bringing with it the faint odor of salt air and manure. When the wind reverses, briefly, you can smell the hamburgers cooking at McDonald’s across the freeway. The crowd is fascinated by the action on the rink, by the rock music blaring over the loudspeakers, by the competitive tension in the air. An elderly man, at least seventy, can't take it anymore. He leaps to his feet and begins dancing along the edge of the rink.
One Swede, Per Welinder, the current world free-style champion, is up now. His girlfriend kisses him one last time, for luck, and he nods for the announcer to begin the musjc for his routine. The song is called “Everything Counts,” by Depeche Mode. It’s an intriguing melody with appropriate lyrics:
Feel the handshake seal the contract From the contract there is no turning
The graph on the wall tells the story of it
The profits taken in by a suntan and a
The grabbing hands grab all they can All for themselves, after all It’s a competitive world.
Welinder, with a fuzz-top haircut and dressed in royal blue shorts, burgundy T-shirt, and checkered tennies, goes through an intricate and acrobatic performance. “A handstand kickflip,” the announcer says. “A no-hand pogo. An M-80 kickflip. I’m telling you, this guy really cracks it out! The Swedes won all the freestyle events last year, and they’re going to be tough to beat here today.” The spectators watch intently. The more you try to concentrate on what he is doing with his skateboard, on the flat surface of the freestyle rink, and then try to imagine yourself doing the same things, the more you understand just how good he is.
But the five judges aren’t giving any indication that they appreciate it, or even see it. They look like a punk rock band, dressed all in black with pointy boots and pomaded pompadours. They stare at the routine with blank expressions. Behind their dark glasses they might be asleep.
After two minutes the routine is over and Welinder skates back to his girlfriend, who gives him a hug. He takes off his sweatband and glances at the scores. They are very good. “The judging is getting better,” he says, relieved. “There didn’t used to be any standards to judge by, so nobody knew what to look for. Now the rules of free-style are starting to be defined.” By the time skateboarding had begun its decline in the U.S., it had already spread all around the world, to Australia, South America, and Europe. There were even rumors that Russia had ordered thousands of American skateboards, all painted red. There are now many foreigners, like Welinder, coming back to show us how it is done. “Almost all sports in Europe are amateur,” he says. “It is the capitalists in the U.S. that make professional skateboarding possible. That is why the big contests are always held in California.” He is personally sponsored by several manufacturers who cover his travel costs and add to his winnings. He explains that in Sweden, skateboarding is supported by the government, which sponsors summer skate camps each year with instructors imported from the U.S. (In contrast, it is against the law even to own a skateboard in Norway, and skaters there have to smuggle them in part by part.) Free-style skating is particularly popular in Sweden because it is an indoor sport which can be practiced in garages and basements, even on kitchen floors, during the long, cold winters. “Freestyle skateboarding is growing all over Europe,” Welinder says, “and all the countries have their own style. The French are very smooth and dancelike. The Germans have a robot, machinelike style — not bad, you understand, just different. And the Swedes are in the middle, like the Americans. Skateboarding has a big future in Europe, but not as big as in the U.S., where a lot of smart businessmen are promoting it.”
He goes out to do his second routine, and the music begins again. “A 180 fingerflip,” the announcer says. “An X-turnover. Not even the judges know what he’s doing! But it sure looks good. This guy’s an incredible athlete. An absolutely flawless routine.” When the judges show his scores, it is clear that Welinder has won again. He steps up to the grandstand and accepts a check for $300.
Later Grant Brittain says, “There's a big controversy right now over what free-style skateboarding is. It has become a kind of balancing act, and some people think it should be more fluid. The guys who are winning, like Per, are moving around and using the whole [free-style] area.” Some other skaters question the validity of all skateboarding competition, because the judging is so subjective. Billy Ruff, who has benefited as much as anyone from competitive skating, says, “Most of the judging in professional competition is so bad. Some of the judges don't know a handplant from an eggplant. They will give the benefit of the doubt to somebody with a name. The trouble is that the sponsors are too cheap to hire good judges.”
Also, Ruff says the money isn’t what it used to be. “They don’t really give you enough to have fun anymore,” he laments. “The contests only pay $300 to $500.” In 1979 there were sixteen-year-old pool riders who were getting $2000 for winning a contest, and they would compete in maybe four of them a month. In addition, their sponsors added fifty percent to whatever their winnings were, gave them one hundred dollars a day in traveling expenses, plus a $500-per-week salary. Ruff is too young to have cashed in on those peak years, but if skateboarding takes off again, he will be one of the winners. “That’s what I’m hoping,” he says with a grin. He has already traveled to Europe to teach at Sweden's summer camp, all expenses paid. He gets a salary from two different manufacturers — “just for being alive,” he says. And he has a signature board with G&S Skateboards; the company pays him one dollar for every one they sell. “If you’re really good you can make maybe $10,000 a year, today,” he says. “Four years ago [the best skaters] were making $40,000 a year.”
If you start counting the years — 1962 to 1974 to 1984 — and if you believe in Larry Balma’s ten-year-cycle theory, then it must be getting very close to the time when the cycle should peak again. “Our sales tripled in '83 over ’82,” Balma says. “We were backlogged through the holidays. I just got back from a trade show in Florida and it was obvious there that people are buying again.” You only have to look out the window, to the streets, to know that skateboarding is making another comeback in San Diego. So what will it look like this time around?
For one thing, it is probably overdue for wider public acceptance as a legitimate sport. “Skateboarding has advanced so much that most people don’t even know what it is,’’ Billy Ruff says. “You tell them you’re a skateboarder, and they think of a kid rolling down the sidewalk.”
Grant Brittain says, “You see these guys risking their lives in the pool events, then you turn on your TV to Wide World of Sports and you see two fat guys walking around a pool table.” There probably won’t be a lot of innovations in the skateboards themselves — they are already highly evolved, well-engineered machines. But the tricks the riders perform will continue to evolve. “We used to have names for moves that nobody could do,” Billy Ruff says. “Invert fakies. Impossible airs. Now that stuff is standard practice, and it keeps on changing. The handplant became the eggplant, then eggs over easy. Now guys talk about doing something called poached eggs. Nobody can do it yet, but maybe it will be standard practice six months from now.”
Meanwhile, the younger kids keep coming up, pushing the sport to new limits and leaving the older skaters behind. “It isn’t that you get old,” Billy Ruff says, it’s that you start getting more and more responsibilities.”
Owen Nieder says he has no trouble seeing himself growing old with the sport. “I’ll skate forever,” he says, repeating the skater’s vow of eternal faithfulness. But at age seventeen, forever looks like some time past thirty.
After enduring the lean years, the overcommericalization, and the death of skate parks, skateboarding is on the rise again. The older skaters who survived the last era have left their marks on the sport, and if they sometimes seem angry and bitter, it is really just their way of warning the younger skaters not to be fooled this time around. ‘ ‘The herds of skate parks have nearly vanished and the ramps are rotting away with age,” Garry Scott Davis writes in Thrasher. “The roads and gutters are where it’s at. Out on the highway at 2:00 a.m. there are no screaming crowds, no proud parents, no scheming Bettys. No money is involved. No egos, either. No trophies, no applause, no winners, no losers, no pats on the back, no friends, no prizes, no love, no nothing. The only goal is momentum. The only reason is rush. . . . Push off.”