INTERVIEW BY STEVE OLSON
Tell me a story, fill in the blanks. Truth of the matter, is fact. Follow your strategy, and believe in it, through thick and thin. Quality and performance… a must. Get it out to those in need, and profit… Help those that need it, and watch… In the end, you sit back, drink your coffee, and tell your stories, and laugh… NOVAK… one of a kind…
It’s pretty early for you, isn’t it? It’s like dawn.
[Laughs] Okay, Olson, let’s go.
What do you mean let’s go? Where are we going? Here’s the deal. I want to know where you came from and how you got to where you are. Where were you born?
Oakland, California. My father was working in the shipyards in Oakland. My mother’s relatives had a summer place in Capitola, California, and when I was two and a half years old, we moved to Capitola because of World War II. They were afraid that they were going to bomb San Francisco.
Oh, really? So bomb threats in war were prominent then.
Yeah, there were black outs. When I was three years old, I remember looking out over the ocean in Capitola and seeing planes dive-bombing. A few years ago, I said to my mother, “I remember these planes and I was standing on the bluff.” She goes, “No, we were standing on the bridge and there was supposedly a Japanese submarine.” That’s what it was like then.
There were bomb drills and bomb raids, and all of that.
I think this was a real Japanese submarine.
I grew up in Capitola. Capitola was where the poor people and divorced people lived, so it was very cheap to live there.
What was it like back then?
There was nothing. There was just the beach, the ocean and fishing. In Soquel Creek, you could walk across on the backs of salmon, there was so many of them. As a little kid, we lived on the river. I’d paddle a kook box down the river and drag it across the beach to the ocean and paddle around and fish. It was a really good beach life.
It wasn’t very populated?
There was nobody there. There was a summer crowd, so from Memorial Day to Labor Day, it was fairly crowded, but as soon as Labor Day was over, it was totally deserted for the rest of the year. Santa Cruz Proper was a senior citizen retirement center, so there wasn’t anything here except a lot of old cars and truck farms. The food was really good and we had the run of the town. All the way through high school, nobody knew what we were doing on the beaches. We had no coaches, no parents and no police. It was just us.
It was total freedom and total imagination. You didn’t have somebody dragging you to little league or stuff like that. It was just surfing, fishing, lying on the beach, fucking around, and working every once in a while.
When did you start surfing?
I started surfing on a kook box in 1949. I surfed my first real surfboard in 1951 at Cowell’s Beach. My uncle used to take me down there. I was nine years old and he would use me to hustle girls. He’d send me over to make noise and, as soon as he got their attention, he would shove me away. There were surfboards on the beach, and that was it. I got a real balsa board and it was game over at that point.
Explain what a kook box is.
A kook box has frames with plywood glued to the top and bottom. They had square rails and a pointed tail. The one I got had a rocker kick in the nose and weighed about 40 pounds. After every four waves, you’d have to take it to the beach and empty the water out. It went straight. Period. At the size I was, there was absolutely no way that I could turn it. There’s a picture somewhere of me paddling one down the river in 1949 with a canoe paddle. That’s how I would get around. I would stand on the board and paddle with a canoe. They were about 12-feet long. We just kept them in the river because they were too heavy for a little kid to lift.
Did they have plugs in them to release the water?
Yeah, it had a cork in the back. The exotic ones had a little screw cap in the front or back. There was a whole article in Popular Mechanics on them with a plan. I think that’s where everybody got the idea. They just pulled the plans out of Popular Mechanics and built them. We didn’t build them. They were just on the river. We just used them. There were kook boxes and canoes. I had an 8-foot boat that I used to drag over the sand to go fishing out in the canals.
What kind of fish did you catch off the kook box?
I didn’t really fish off the kook box that much. Out of the little 8-foot rowboat, I’d catch a lot of capizone, lingcod, and a lot of rockfish. Sometimes I would fish in the mouth of the rivers for salmon, but it was mostly rockfish. You could sell them for ten cents a pound at the wharf, so that was a big opening for me. Capitalism.
[Laughs] I’m not even touching that one. Ten cents a pound, huh?
[Laughs] Yeah, that’s what they would pay us as kids.
What was the price of candy and stuff back then?
A candy bar was five cents max. Movie theaters were twenty cents. Popcorn was a nickel. A whole meal like a burger, fries and a milkshake was seventy cents. In Santa Cruz, they had truck farms, which are big vegetable farms. For about $5, you could buy enough vegetables, between Santa Cruz and Capitola, to feed your family for a week. They had a hatchery where you’d pick up your eggs and chickens, and you had all the fish you wanted. There was a large Italian community, and there was food flowing all over the place. Watermelons were eleven cents each and you’d break the watermelons open and just eat the hearts. It was insane. It was a great time to grow up. You could walk right off the rocks and grab abalone. You could get buckets full of clams in thirty minutes. You could rake out Pismo clams, which are about six inches long. When we got cars, gasoline was twelve cents a gallon, so you could just live off the beaches, all the way up and down the Coast. We’d just surf, camp and eat. The Ranch was wide open, so you could drive in and surf the Ranch. Nobody would bother you, but nobody really picked up on surfing at the time. Nobody knew about it.
How many people were surfing around Santa Cruz then?
When I was a sophomore in high school, there were maybe three or four. When I was a senior, there were six or eight hardcore surfers. That was the only high school in Santa Cruz, so that was it. There were a couple of guys from San Lorenzo Valley. In the early ‘60s, the baby boomers started hitting the beaches and the Annette Funicello movies and Gidget stuff started happening down south. It got really crowded down there, but we kept it cool up here. We wouldn’t allow people to take pictures for a long time. A lot of the pictures in the magazines and movies were of surfers down south. If you were local, you’d just get out of the water, except for a couple guys that wanted their pictures in the magazine. We didn’t want to be exposed. We just wanted to surf.
You played sports when you were a kid, right?
I played all the sports. I figured out in high school that if I played football and ran track, I could get C’s without really doing anything. That meant I could graduate and get through school. I wired it so, for me to play football, they would have to give me good grades. In my senior year, I was playing both offense and defense. I played all but about 45 seconds a game. I would run track and always try to make State. That was after finals, so they would have to give me C’s to do State, except my senior year when they told me to get fucked and I had to go take all the tests. That was a close call. I almost didn’t graduate. [Laughs]
Right, but you pulled it.
I pulled it off. In college, I played football one year and didn’t like it. I wanted to go to the South Pacific and go surfing. Back when I was 15, I was making surfboards and working in surf shops and learning how to use fiberglass and shape balsa boards. I learned from some guys named Alonzo Wiemers, Mike Winterburn and George Olson. By the time I was a junior in high school, I was glassing. I knew how to shape balsa with a draw blade and there was a very small surf industry up here at the time. There were about eight of us that just plugged away at it and made surfboards.
How long did it take you to shape a balsa wood board then?
It took a good day and a half or two days. You had to go down to General Veneer in L.A. and pick your balsa wood. It was either three male and two females or three females and two male balsa pieces.
Why that configuration?
You used the harder ones on the rails. You would have to pick balsa wood that had a natural warp to it because you didn’t have enough wood to make rocker. We’d pick five pieces, put an inner tube rubber band around them, and put them in the truck. You did this all day long, picking out balsa blanks. The balsa blanks ran about $15 or $20. Some guys used the floats from World War II airplanes and life rafts and they would cut those up. You’d draw your shape on it and template your shape. You’d just use a regular handsaw and saw it out, and then you would use a draw blade. It’s like a big knife with handles on it. You just started pulling your balsa off, and cutting the blank down. It would take a raw form and then you went through a series of planers.
It was all hand planers. No power tools. You just worked your way down to sandpaper. There were some guys that did really good boards. I don’t know if mine were any good or not. Olson’s were really good. I just didn’t have the patience to walk it down to 120-grit paper sometimes, because I wanted to get the glass on it, finish it up and go surfing. It was cool. We sold quite a few of them. You could do maybe one or two a week and that was a big deal. Once Grubby Clark did the foam thing, it opened up a whole new game.
When did the foam come into it?
I met Grubby in ‘58, when he was inventing it. I met him in a garage in Laguna Canyon. I thought I was going to stay at a beach house and I ended up in this fucking garage with this crazy guy, Grubby. He had it going and he taught me a lot about foam. He taught me a lot about accounting and business and we talked for hours about all that shit. George Olson was a master craftsman. He, literally, was the father of ultra-light sailboats, and I worked with him. My first real job was with a company called Mako Surfboards. It was a guy named Mike Winterburn and that ended in 1959. My second job was with Jack O’Neil making surfboards for him. After a few years, I decided I’d rather be his friend and I quit. We started getting input from the South Bay guys up here that knew how to work on surfboards because they had been working in all the factories and shops down south. George Olson then started a business called Olson Surfboards.
That’s a good name.
It was, but there are two Olsons. There’s Ole Olsen and there’s George Olson. George Olson was up here and he wouldn’t let me be his partner, until I flunked the draft, which I did, and then I became partners with George Olson.
What did balsa boards retail for?
They were about $75. We were making around 14 boards a week, which was a lot of boards.
That’s not cheap.
No. Our foam boards were selling for $75 to $120. They were two 3/4-inch redwood stringers, two ten ounce pieces of cloth, top and bottom, with a ten-ounce deck patch and all wood fin. Then we started doing sheet fiberglass. It was a lot of money, but the material costs of the board were around $35. It was piecework after that, so there wasn’t a lot of profit in it. From manufacturing to retailing, there was less than 20% profit, so then we started making car bodies for racecars with Olson and a bunch of guys from Santa Cruz. Olson then made the first ultra-light sailboat, and I sold my interest out. Then Doug [Haut] and I went to Hawaii for the winter of ‘64. When we came back, in ‘65, Doug built his shop and I helped him do that.
How was it going to Hawaii then?
We started going to Hawaii in 1960, so the main emphasis at that time was the South Shore of Oahu and Makaha. It was probably the most fun I’ve ever had surfing in my life. I was surfing from dawn until dusk, head-high waves, and the water was warm and food was cheap and places to stay were cheap. We started going to the North Shore in ‘61. There was a contingent out there of guys that were solid, and we rented a house right off Pupukea for $35 a month. There were maybe 30 guys on the North Shore then. Everybody was struggling. We were trying to ride big waves with nose rider boards, but there were guys like Curren and Diffenderfer that were starting to shape better boards for those waves. I think the biggest obstacle was figuring out that the waves in Hawaii were different than the waves in California. The equipment that worked in Hawaii didn’t work in California and the equipment that worked in California didn’t work in Hawaii. That’s what we figured out in the early ‘60s, so we started making boards for where you were surfing. Diffenderfer was the guy that I went with, as far as his shapes. He had an 11-foot mini gun that was a really fun board.
How was it paddling out though? You had big waves in Santa Cruz.
We had really big waves in Santa Cruz. It was cold, so a lot of times we would launch off the piers rather than the beach. We had vests and wool sweaters, in the early ‘50s, and then Farmer John’s. Not much full wetsuit action came into play until the mid to late ‘60s, but we surfed as big as you can surf on the coastline from San Francisco down to La Jolla. I think I would call it survival, because you would take off and just hang on, because your equipment was so bad, just to get off the lip. One time I was surfing Waimea with Paul Gebauer, and I was having problems getting off the lip. I would get thrown over the falls. He goes “Just paddle ten strokes down the face of the wave.” Well, you’re upside down paddling ten strokes, but it takes you off the lip. He would start fading into the wave and coming back around. He was probably one of the first guys that really started turning and surfing those waves. There was another guy that I remember at Sunset Beach. His name was Jose Angel and he would take off so deep and he would be laughing and then he would just get creamed. I didn’t figure it out until just recently. I was talking to Anthony Tashnick about big waves and he was telling me that in Puerto Escondido, when he knows he’s not going to make a big wave, he runs across the water and dives in where the wave coming down breaks the water open, so he can get underneath the water and come out the back. The problem is that we would jump off the front and go over the falls. You’d get a couple trips over the falls and get beat up pretty bad. It only took 50 years to figure that out. [Laughs]
Even if you have it figured out, your timing isn’t always 100% and you’re not always going to get shot out the back of the wave.
No, you’re not. Jose Angel was really ahead of the pack on that one. He could take off deep. I’m sure he was falling into the hole because he wasn’t going over the falls like we were. If you go down far enough, the wave will go over you. He had that figured out in the late ‘50s because he was a hell of a waterman. A lot of the guys that were on the beach were World War II Veterans and they were teaching us a lifestyle. Surfing was part of it, but there was a beach lifestyle that included all facets of the beach, the ocean, fishing, surfing, boating, sailing, and all the parts of living on the ocean. That was part of the lessons. They were the first guys to surf big waves, so they would show you how to surf and get out and do something and then take you out in the kelp beds and drop you off and say, “You’re going to dive for abalone. I’ll be back in 45 minutes.” You have no wetsuit and you’re out in the middle of the kelp beds, the water is in the fifties and they come back an hour and a half later and pick you up, just to test your toughness. I don’t think that happens much now.
I don’t know. Maybe it does.
Well, they have videos now and they see all this shit. We didn’t have videos or movies. If you wanted to go to a place in Central America, it took you a week to get there. Now it takes you a day because a jet flies you in. We went to places in Central America and South America where people didn’t even know what a surfboard was. We’d go to these villages and spend a month surfing. No one knew what we were doing. It was the same with the South Pacific. You could sail to a lot of places, but there was no transportation after that. I think that was the beauty of it. You went to places to go surfing and there was no easy way to get there and get around. You had to really work to get there, so it kept a lot of the kooks out.
The lazy people didn’t get to go.
No. And if you had money, it didn’t matter because you still had to do the same thing to get there.
How was it on the North Shore being some of the only cats surfing? I mean there are 35 dudes surfing. You all didn’t surf in one spot, or did you?
No. Well, when it got big, it focused in on either Waimea or Sunset. To me, Sunset was much hairier than Waimea. I had my worst wipeouts at Sunset, but there were waves all over the place. The thing is when there are 35 people and a small surfing community, everybody tends to surf the most popular spots. It’s the same way on the North Shore. There was this hit of spots that you surfed. Crowded would be three or four guys. Until the Australians got over there, the crowds weren’t that bad. It was manageable.
Was there localism or was it pretty friendly because everyone was new to this world of surfing?
There was a little localism in town. Mainly, you just had to prove yourself. The first time we went there, we got into a situation and we took care of it the first day. After that, there was not too much trouble. You just have to remember the alcohol aspect. It’s just like any place you go that has a lot of locals. You just watch the alcohol content rise and violence go up with it. If you’re new to the area, you’re the likely candidate for the violence, so you learn really fast to go away. It was a great time, and there were a lot of barbecues and food. When we first got there, one Hawaiian lady thought we were too skinny, so she left buckets of fruit in front of our door every day. There was a lot of fish, so it was great. There was literally nobody there. You’d figure out all the old bars where you could get free food. You’d go in there for quarter beer, and you could eat for free. It was so cheap. We’d go in and fill up and cruise back out to the North Shore. [Laughs] Those were good times.
It sounds like it, but how long did that last?
It lasted until about the mid ‘60s. I was born in 1942, so we had about four years before the baby boomers hit. We were four years in front of the major population trend, so we would do things and, four years later, the baby boomers would do them, so we had this front door all the time. We had about four to seven years of something before it got really crowded in places. After that, it just got massed with tons of people.
What about when you came back to the mainland? Did surfing take off then?
For me, surfing was just something I did all the time. It was also a way that I could make a living. It took off in the mid ‘60s in Santa Cruz. I could make a pretty good living doing that. In the beginning of the ‘60s, I worked three jobs. A friend of mine’s father fished at night from 8PM until 5AM, net fishing Lampara, so we would do that all night, and then we would pack garbage from 5:30AM until about 8AM and then we would make surfboards and then we would either surf or go to bed. We would pull this routine for about two or three months and save our money and, in the winter, we could go anywhere we wanted. We would always pick cheap places like Hawaii, Mexico and Central America. You could take that money you earned all summer and it was enough to pay $15 a month for a house and $5 a week for food, so that money lasted a long time. We’d pick up junk cars to get around. It was a good life. You’d go through the winter and then come back to Santa Cruz. It was a good place to be. You always had a job, so you would come back and pull the same thing off. It allowed you to travel all over the world and, while you were traveling, you’d do other things. I had a stint in the music business. I sailed a 150-foot schooner for a year and a half all over the South Pacific. It opened up the doors to a lot of other things and it made for a very exciting life.
What was your draw to surfing in comparison to organized sports in school?
Well, organized sports always had a lot of rules and there was always a pecking order. In the town that I came from, it was football, basketball and track. The kids from the outlying cities, like Scotts Valley, Capitola and Soquel, would take the hardcore heavy sports like football. Baseball was kind of reserved for the rich kids. I played sports, surfed, and worked, but surfing was a freedom and an individual expression. At that time, you weren’t wrapped up in some sort of contest deal where you’d have to do off the lips 50 times to win. Surfing was just fun and the people you picked as friends, you picked not based on their surfing ability, but based on if they were good people or not. I made a lot of lifetime friends through surfing. Everybody had the same thing in common. Nobody cared about a new car or whatever. We just cared about going surfing, making boards, working, and spending as much time as we could in the water or in that lifestyle. A lot of my friends are still doing that today. Doug Haut is off fishing for three days up in the delta. Every day he’s on the ocean or on the water. Surfing was a good activity and lifestyle. It was freedom.
Freedom was the draw?
I think that was it. It was the freedom and the fun. You could go out and have fun by yourself. You surfed. You bodysurfed. You just had a good time. It was great, great life. Now you’ve got these prerequisites to be part of it, but there are a few soldiers still left.
What are the prerequisites you speak of?
Now you have to have a car, ten surfboards and sponsors. They’re starting to sponsor kids now. My nephew is 11 years old and they started sponsoring him because he does well in contests. But you have to let the kids go through it. You can’t say, “Don’t do this because I think this is bad.” He has to go through it and make up his own mind. The one thing I’ve kept him doing is surfing four-foot beaters all the way up to nine-foot boards, so he has it all going. Surfing is too much in the public eye now. There are too many people watching you. There are too many people that are aggro in the water and on the beach. I still surf a lot, but I pick my spots.
Do you think the caliber of waves is better now or then?
Well, the equipment was bad then, but you didn’t get the crowds. Now you have good equipment, but it’s crowded. I think the waves are the same, but there was more respect back then. There were more people that learned how to surf without a cord. You don’t just jump off your board and try to paddle back through the line-up. You had to work your way around the line-up, so you never interfered with somebody that was on a wave. Now these kids do a trick and think they’re a star. They jump off their board, and they’re paddling back through the line-up, which is totally in the way of the guy coming down the line, so this punk keeps you from drawing a long line on a wave. You get six guys on one wave that one guy should be surfing. I think that’s one of the biggest problems and then that creates all the aggro bullshit.
How did you get into the whole skateboard world? Were you skateboarding back in the ‘60s?
Yeah. In the ‘50s, it was roller skates and 2x4s. Everybody that was surfing would try to skate with those steel wheels and emulate surfing on the ground, but with that equipment, it didn’t work too well. In the early ‘60s, we started screwing around with Sure-Grip trucks, but we still had clay wheels with planks of sycamore wood. Then there was a big surge with Makaha in the mid ‘60s. I was visiting Don Hansen and I got a board from him and the first thing we did was try to shoot Thalia Street in Laguna Beach. It was Doug Haut and myself and we both ended up riding back up north with inner tubes under our ass, because we left all our skin on the street. The trick was surf style with no shoes and just trunks. That was the way we skated. If you went down, you left it on the ground. It wasn’t a pleasant trip. Plus, we were surfing on the way back up to Santa Cruz, so every time we went in the water, it was a painful experience. The boards sucked, and it was like skiing on hard pack ice. It was fun, but it wasn’t really cool because you really couldn’t put a lot of energy into it, because the wheels were so bad. In the late ‘60s, the surge came back with Makaha and Vita Pak. All those guys picked up on the warehouses that had all that crap in it from the first ‘60s run, with the clay wheels and they put it back on the market. We screwed around with it, but we didn’t get into it too far. In 1971, we had a reinforced plastics business and we were selling raw materials to all the boat makers, the surfboard shops and guys that made fairings for cars and tomato carriers. This was the beginning of Santa Cruz Skateboards, as the story goes. We got burned by this guy that was making fairings for Evel Knievel; he was Tracy Nelson from Fiberglass Works. We sold him a bunch of material he never paid for, so we went back and picked it all up from him and we had all this leftover pultruded fiberglass sheet. A friend of Jay’s, Jimmy Hoffman, was living in Hawaii and he asked us if we could make some skateboards for him to sell to McKully department store on Oahu. We had been working with and doing pultruded surfboard fins, so it was easy for us to make some pultruded decks from this leftover material. We went over to see this guy Joe Nazzaro in San Jose and we picked up roller sport urethane roller-skate wheels and Sure-Grip trucks and we made a complete. We made 500 boards, with loose ball bearings and they all sold immediately, so we did another 500 boards and they sold out also and it went on from there. Now we’re in a business that actually has some profit margins, because the surfboard business didn’t have any margin to it at all. We kept pumping that along, and then this guy Tony Roderick came into the shop from Rhode Island. His father did precision bearing rollers for Xerox and IBM. Tony came in with a Road Rider II wheel ready to have precision bearings put in it, so we grabbed onto that. They used 607 bearings, which fit the roller skate axles, which were 7mm at the time. I went out and found out that electric motors used a 608 bearing and whenever they make bearings they have left over “sound outs,” bearings that do not pass a sound rating. The 607 bearings cost about a dollar each, so I was able to negotiate a bearing price for the 608 sound outs for twenty cents each. We made an adapter sleeve to fit the 7mm roller skate axles at the time, until we all caught up to 8mm axles. That’s basically how everything went to an 8mm standard axle sizing for skateboarding. Now we had a revolutionary urethane wheel with precision bearings. Tony got in a car on the East Coast. Jay [Shuirman] and I got in a car on the West Coast and we just started going to shops and selling the wheels. It was just what the skateboard industry needed. Nasworthy introduced the urethane wheel with loose bearings and we introduced a better wheel with precision bearings.
Those are two huge advancements for skateboarding.
They were totally huge. It changed everything going forward. There was another wheel before Nasworthy came out with his urethane wheel, but it was a really hard indoor roller skate urethane wheel. Nasworthy brought out a wheel that you could actually use to implement surfing moves on a skateboard. You could make a hard turn and the board wasn’t going to go out from under you. You could go down a hill and work the hill, turning and carving. You could never do that before. The weakness to it all was the loose ball bearings. We were assembling skateboards with loose ball bearings and one day Jay knocked over a drum of about 300,000 steel balls on a dirt floor, so we knew there had to be a better way. With the precision bearings, once you started going fast, the main restrictions were the trucks. They had a good geometry, but they had speed wobbles. The wheels and decks, at the time, were good, but the trucks were still stuck in roller skate design. The Road Rider wheel and precision bearings really changed skateboarding.
Unbeknownst to us, there was a guy in Newport Beach, Ron Bennett, making a real skateboard truck, specifically for skateboarding. Just before Bennett’s truck came out, the roller skate industry tried to put the pressure on us. The guy that was doing Sure-Grip in L.A. told us that if we didn’t give him the Road Rider wheel exclusively, he wasn’t going to give us any more Sure-Grip trucks. They were one of the big five of roller skate industry people. They controlled all the roller skate business, and the supplies for rinks and the popcorn machines in the roller rinks too, but we had an ace in the hole. We knew Joe Nazzaro, who was actually bigger than the boys down in L.A. and Joe, in his own special way, told the guy to back off. Sure-Grip only lasted for another year because Bill Bahne had his truck and had taken over Chicago Trucks and he was just pumping his shit out. Then Ron Bennett came up with the Bennett truck. For me, that was the point where the high end skateboarding industry really began and we broke loose from the roller-skate guys. It was perfect timing and we all came from different areas, not knowing what the other guy was doing. We had Road Rider Wheels with the bearings. Mike and Larry Gordon came up with G&S, and, with Dave McIntyre, they had the Fibreflex board. We all ran into each other in L.A. at a contest, and it was like, “Whoa. Okay. We have skateboard wheels and bearings. We have skateboard trucks. We have composite skateboard decks. The three main components are now all leading edge and designed specifically for skateboarding. Now we have a real skateboarding industry.” All of a sudden, overnight, the roller skate people were non-players. All of us came out of the surfboard industry, give or take, and we knew the low margins in the surfboard industry sucked, so we started meeting at the San Clemente Inn and putting together the skateboard business and we set the margins you needed for it to be a real business. You needed X amount of profit margins all the way up the chain for it to all work. The retailer needs a 40% margin. The distributor needs 20-25% margin and the brand needs 35%. By having those margins in play, we had an industry. The industry then had the money to do promotion and marketing, product design, distribution and all the other shit that you need. Skateboarder Magazine had come onto the scene, so we had a vehicle for promoting our products. Once a month, six or seven of us would meet and go over this strategy. It was mainly for high-end skateboard products. There was always the guy doing Vita Pak or Variflex boards and the cheap stuff, but we were the guys that were interested in setting the foundation of an actual skateboard industry, not reliant on anyone but ourselves. It was Bill Bahne, me, Jay Shuirman, Brian Logan, Dave McIntyre, Dave Dominy, Paul Sims, Ron Bennett and a couple guys that came in from the magazine. It established the foundation for an industry and established the foundation of where you could have pro riders and advancement in technology. Before that, it was a fad. After we set it all up, it was an industry.
Being that all you guys were from the surfboard industry, it seemed as though everyone was always pushing innovation.
They were. Innovation and improving the products so you could skate better was always what NHS was about. From the day we launched Road Rider, it has never changed. We have a long list of innovations that came out of NHS. Some of them stuck and are still here today. Some of them failed, but we never stopped trying to innovate and we try to do it in all categories. A lot of guys focus on decks; we try to improve it all. With Road Rider, we did it with wheels by sizing. When Nasworthy came out, they had one size wheel fits all and there was one truck that fit all. When we came out, and the boards and trucks started to improve, we had the Road Rider II, Road Rider 4s, Road Rider Logan 5s, Road Rider 6s and Hester slalom wheels. We followed it up with Park Riders and OJ’s and we just kept improving and advancing and we really took over the shelf space in stores. Bennett saw the 608 bearing being the standard we set and he used the 8mm axle, which was perfect because our bearing prices were going to be cheap. The decks started improving. It morphed from the Fibreflex stuff, to the solid oak stuff that the Logan’s were doing. We were the first to jump on the maple ply deck and commercialize that technology, which was a huge innovation from solid wood. Jay and I were down in San Diego and we saw this laminated deck on Tracker Dave Dominy’s desk. I picked it up and looked at it, and it was like 9 or 11 plys. I said, “What are you going to do with this, Dave?” He goes, “Nothing, I don’t do decks. I do trucks.” I said, “Okay, thanks.” Jay and I got on the phone, and the next day we were on a plane to Wisconsin and we started making 5-ply bird’s eye maple decks and then 7-ply decks with a guy named Russell Lee. We were moving so fast at that time. You see an idea and jump on a plane and get it done. Dominy and Tracker started coming out with more trucks and had the first truck full line and he had a wider truck than the Bennett. He had a stronger truck. It didn’t turn as well as the Bennett, but it was overall a better skateboard truck for the time. Skating was evolving and you could push product into the channel and the kids would evolve with it. Not like in the 1990’s when the magazines, kids, shops and distributors shunned innovation and it was not cool to try something new or be different. We still suffer from that today. In the 70’s, kids would just keep evolving through it and it was really fun. The best part of that whole era was the skateboard racing part. It was really simple. To win the race, you had to finish first, beat the clock or the other guy to the finish line. We focused on making the best product so the guy finished first. That is where our “never satisfied” trip took hold. We always wanted to improve the stuff we make and we still do that today. Racing wasn’t subjective, where everyone wants to argue about who won. We got to really make a lot of cool product. For me, and Jay, that was great. From the 5-ply decks and the wheels and the graphite slalom boards, we then started creating the first prototypes of the Independent Suspension truck, which we patterned after a formula racecar with independent suspension. We’d lie under a glass table and watch somebody on a skateboard, probably John Hutson, Robert Garrett or Tim Piumarta at the time. We found out that with traditional trucks, when somebody turned the skateboard, only the edges of the wheels would be in contact with the ground. With our suspension trucks, when you turned, the wheels had at least a consistent 70% contact with the ground. If you had a good rider, he could push that turn to the limit, and he wouldn’t have to worry about sliding out. You match that with a flexible carbon loaded slalom board, where the guy pushes into the corner, digs in deep, and he doesn’t have to pull the board back up. Turner Summer Ski and those guys were using foam boards, so when they turned, they had to pull the board back up. Our guys could let the board take them back up, and matched that with the suspension trucks and the wheels we were formulating at the time, our riders were unbeatable. We’d test these boards, trucks and wheels, keep improving them, getting them back out to the riders to test and win and it was fun. It was just a really good deal, we had a blast. You’re well aware, Steve. You were the first real vert guy coming in and you set a whole different style and level. We had to approach that at a different angle with you, which was really cool. We got to go through all of these transitions on product and styles of skateboarding in a short period and it went really fast and we just tried to keep up.
Back in the Road Rider days, when you guys first started, did you have any idea that it was going to blow up so huge?
No. [Laughs] I had absolutely no idea. We were working out of the back of a funky surf shop, with wads of cash on the front seat of this old pickup truck. It was really raw, but we just hustled.
Was that the shop on the end of 41st Avenue in Santa Cruz?
Yeah. They tore it down and rebuilt it now, but it was funky, with chicken coops and dirt floors. Nobody had any idea that it was ever going to be that big. We didn’t realize even in the late ‘70s, how big it was until we were able to go back and look at the volumes we did and compare some numbers. We thought we were being taken out by Kryptonics, but when we went back and looked at the number of Road Rider and Park Rider wheels we sold compared to what Kryptonics sold we were like ten to one over them. We were selling so many wheels it was a joke. We had no clue. Absolutely none.
Now what about the story of the guy coming in with the wheel to the surf shop?
By total chance and stroke of luck, a urethane manufacturer from the East Coast, Tony Roderick, walked in the front door with a urethane wheel in hand. A clerk at O’Neil’s surf shop down the street, Mike Mitchell, turned him in our direction because he knew we were doing skateboards. Roderick had a revolutionary idea of blending a precision bearing, used in copy machines, with a urethane wheel. Road Rider Wheels were born that day and by 1976, we had sold over 6 million wheels worldwide. We thought the wheel was a good thing because it really worked. We said, “Let’s grab the tiger by the tail and hold on.” At the time Tony brought it in to show us, it was not really functioning well. We tweaked it around, and his dad tweaked it around and, voila, it was a huge improvement and it took off. Tony was this guy that probably nobody in the skate world even knows exists. As a matter of fact, in the skate world today, I don’t think they realize anybody existed before 1990. A lot of these guys now think skateboarding started in 1990. They have to know their history to know where they are going.
This is true.
[Laughs] That’s another story.
[Laughs] That’s too bad. Those generations aren’t as disposable as the current.
Yeah. There’s a really rich history in the ‘70s and ‘80s and I’m glad you’re doing this because it should be documented. If the history is not told, it’s going to become like surfing myth where everything that has been written revolved around one area. Skateboarding history is now being told mainly revolving around Dogtown, but it was all over the place at that same time. You know as well as I do when Dogtown was Dogtown, there were guys doing that same shit everywhere else. Everyone had their own scene.