by Bruce Greif
Photos courtesy James O'Mahoney
Urethane wheels came to Ventura without fanfare. There was no advertising campaign, or even word of mouth. They just showed up like a gift from heaven and changed everything.
It was after school in November of 1973. The sun was out and we were playing skateboard tag in front of the Big T supermarket on Pierpont when Ross Keck came gliding down the supermarket parking lot on his skateboard. Ross was older and had great style, but it wasn’t his smooth arcing turns that had us gaping—it was the late afternoon sunlight glowing through his wheels.
We chased after him, yelling, “Hey Ross, wait up. Wait up, man.”
Ross jumped off the board and held it over his head as the four of us surrounded him begging to see.
“Okay, back off,” he said. “Back off and I’ll let you try it.“
We each got to take a quick spin, and the wheels were fast and smooth with traction like I’d never imagined. I handed Ross the board back. “These wheels are unreal.”
“Yeah, you’ll be able to get ‘em at the shop soon enough,” he said, then dropped the skateboard to the ground, glided away, and just like that our composite wheels had become relics. Ross told us the Cadillacs cost two bucks each. That was a lot of money, but it didn’t matter; we would beg, borrow, or steal to get a set.
It was after Christmas when our local surf shop, William Dennis, finally got the Cadillac wheels in, and when they did, we were there. The wheels came in four colors: blue, red, yellow, and translucent gold. Dan, Stevie, and I got the gold, Cameron got yellow just to be different. Right there on the shop floor we took off our composite wheels, spilled out the ball bearings, and slid on our new Cadillacs. Carefully, we dropped the ball bearings back in one by one, tightened the bearing nuts just right so that each wheel spun smooth, and headed straight to the four-story Holiday Inn parking lot to try them out.
From that day forward the term “sidewalk surfing” took on a whole new meaning. New concrete and asphalt waves seemed to turn up every day.
Then, miracles started happening. The city paved the mile and a half road to the Cross on the hill. The Cross, originally erected by Padre Junípero Serra in 1782, had served as a signal to ships at sea that they had reached the San Buenaventura Mission. But now, for us, the road to the historic landmark was 20 minutes of countless silk-smooth turns on a winding slope.
A few months later, St. Bonaventure High School paved a 10-foot embankment around the northeast corner of their football field, creating an asphalt bowl. The school officials didn’t like us skateboarding on their property and called the cops, forcing us to scatter. But as soon as the cops were gone, we were back. Frustrated with us, the school installed rows of asphalt speed bumps to keep us out, but that night we came back with crowbars and shovels and removed strategic chunks of the still warm berms. Surprisingly, the school put down more speed bumps, and we came back with more crowbars and shovels, this time littering the football field with the asphalt debris. Nothing would keep us from riding that smooth, static wave.
Soon, William Dennis had a skateboard counter. Kids came in who didn’t even surf to get the Cadillac wheels. If we were hanging around, Bundy the shop manager would let us install the wheels for customers. The sport was growing and people everywhere could now get the sensation of surfing without having to get wet.
Then, in January of 1975, word was out that a skateboard contest was coming to town. Some newly formed skateboard association out of Los Angeles had arranged a contest at our Cross Road. Naturally, our first thought was to sabotage the event. The idea of a bunch of Southers coming to town and creating a circus at our sacred spot was blasphemous. Unfortunately, Bundy at the surf shop was on board, and even giving out entry forms. He encouraged us to enter. “Come on man, you guys are experts on your skateboards, why not show the world what you can do?”
No way. The idea of an organized event with rules, regulations, and time slots went against our nature. We pledged to boycott it. But when the day of the contest came we were there to take in the spectacle, though in defiance had left our skateboards at home.
Contest Day 1
Southers galore infested our cherished Cross Road. Everywhere people were practicing wacky tricks. We snickered our way through the crowd and ran into Brad Linscheid. Brad was a well-respected surfer in Ventura who’d had his picture in both Surfer and Surfing magazines, which was the ultimate. Brad flashed his ever-present smile, but he looked nervous. “Hey man, any of you guys want to take my place in the freestyle event? I can’t do the stuff these guys are doing.”
I felt a surge of opportunity, but didn’t give in. “Ha, no way man, not us. I’m sure you’ll find somebody, though.”
“I’ll do it,” Stevie said, “can I borrow your skateboard?”
Steve Monahan was two years my junior and over the past few months we’d become great friends. “What are you talking about?” I sneered.
Stevie smiled, “I want to enter.” He looked at Brad. “What do I need to do?”
I felt a shiver of envy. Stevie could skate okay, but he could barely do a 360.
Stevie and Brad hurried off to get things worked out with the officials as Dan, Cameron, and I watched in disbelief. Dan scoffed, “Man, what the hell got into him?”
“Well,” Cameron laughed, “things just got more interesting.”
Suddenly there was a commotion as a Rolls Royce came up the only road that wasn’t barricaded off for the contest. All eyes watched to see who it was. The Rolls stopped and the driver got out holding a skateboard. He opened the back door and out stepped Ty Page. We recognized him from skateboard ads in the surf magazines.
“What a jack-ass,” Dan said. “Now the circus is official.” We shook our heads and went to find Stevie.
Stevie was entered in the boys’ freestyle, and since he was a late addition he was slated to go last. This was good because he’d get to see everyone else’s routine and would have a good idea of what he needed to do. But it was also bad because he had the added pressure of having to watch all of his competitors while waiting his turn.
Then, sure enough, just before Stevie’s turn, this kid Jay Adams goes. He’s from the Zephyr teamand he quickly sets himself apart with amazing natural style and flow. He walks the nose arching back, then crouches low into a sweeping frontside turn, jumps the rope and lays into an aggressive, yet graceful, bert. The crowd hoots and hollers. I look at Stevie for a reaction. He smiles and without taking his eyes off Jay says, “He’s good.” Stevie seems to be getting a contact high.
Jay finishes to a huge applause, and now Stevie is up.
He comes out shaky and misses his first attempt at the rope, then blows a power slide. A collective sigh rises from the crowd. Stevie attempts the rope again and this time makes it. The crowd cheers, he smiles and bows. Stevie then breaks into a string of tricks: nose wheelie, coffin, spinner, his own stylish bert, and again the rope. With each success his confidence seems to grow. By the end he looks as polished as anyone there. The cheers are loud, Stevie proves to be a contender, and Jay Adams the one to beat.
Contest Day 2
The next day the contest is interrupted by a hundred or so Hells Angels roaring through on their motorcycles. Apparently they have a wedding to attend at the end of the road, at the Cross. Their rumble leaves a tangible edge in the air and anything seems possible.
Today is it, and everyone is pushing to the limit: handstands, daffneys on two skateboards, nose wheelie 360s. Stevie will have to amp up his performance from yesterday to win, and who knows what Jay Adams has up his sleeve.
“You have anything new?” I ask Stevie.
He smiles, ready to go. “I’ve got something,” he says. “You’ll see.”
His start is clean and he looks relaxed. Everything is tighter and faster, but he’s just repeating his performance from yesterday; if he’s going to win it will have to be on style points. He pulls off a nice power slide into a 180 turn, then seemingly stops his routine and rolls over to the judges table. The crowd noise goes from cheers to murmurs as Stevie asks the judges to move their paperwork. He jumps onto the table, puts his skateboard down, rides the table’s length, and goes right off the end, landing perfectly on the board. The crowd erupts. Stevie does a few more turns and just before his time is up, he jumps back onto the table and does it again, just to prove he can. Again the crowd erupts. Stevie waves and skates out of the ring to the cheering crowd.
Jay Adams follows without a flinch. He rips through his routine, nailing every maneuver. But he has to go off the table, and he knows it—not a big deal to a guy with his talent, but the pressure is on, and sure enough, he misses his first try. “Oooh,” rumbles the crowd. Jay pulls off his second attempt, but it lacks spontaneity and the contest is Stevie’s.
When it was over Ventura skaters had swept most of the events, and James O’Mahoney, the man behind the contest, would snatch up Stevie, Richard Vanderwyk, Tom Sims, and a few others to round out his newly minted Skateboard Magazine Team. The magazine’s first issue would debut a few weeks later, with Steve Monahan on the cover.
Stevie and Jay would face each other several more times over the coming year, almost always a duel between first and second place. But skateboarding was continuing to evolve, and in June of that year Ventura High School would drain its pool. That would change the landscape forever.
Bruce Greif is author of the book, Pier Rats. Read the full version of this story at www.pierrats.net