SIGNAL HILL SPEED RUN
Skateboarding documentary, The Signal Hill Speed Run, does a fine job of chronicling some of the most dangerous downhill racing ever seen in skateboarding. When this movie comes to your town, or you have the chance to watch it, get on it. This is pure crash-up-demolition-derby-style skateboarding.
The Signal Hill Speed Run
Synopsis: It was 1975 and skateboarding was hugely popular when Jim O’Mahoney, head of the U.S. Skateboard Assn., got a call from the producer of ABC’s television show, “The Guinness Book of World Records.” The producer wanted to shoot a skateboarding event for the show. As a child, O’Mahoney begged his parents to drive fast over the steepest section of Hill Street, an almost 30-degree incline in Signal Hill. O’Mahoney told the TV producer he could create a downhill skateboarding race on the steep Signal Hill incline, bordered by oil fields.
For the next four years, Signal Hill was the site of some of skateboarding’s hairiest races and most vicious wipeouts. The Signal Hill Speed Run, the world’s first downhill skateboard race, also prompted several developments in the sport, including street luge racing, fully enclosed skate-cars and the introduction of women. The contestants in Signal Hill’s downhill races remember them as wild, death-defying parties on wheels.
Before the first race in 1975, O’Mahoney got insurance, had police block off the streets and got a permit from a confused Signal Hill Chamber of Commerce that didn’t quite understand the event’s danger.
Surfer Guy Grundy remembers getting a call asking if he wanted to enter the first event. He quickly got to work practicing and finding a helmet and leathers for safety. The day of the event, it was clear that not everyone had prepared like Grundy. “One guy in shorts and a T-shirt looked down the hill and said there is no way I’m going down that. ‘You are absolutely nuts,’ ” Grundy recalls. “About six of us turned up to compete, but only two even tried” to race.
The other competitor, Garrison Hitchcock, fell and dislocated his shoulder. Grundy made it down without incident and his top speed of 50.25 mph earned him a trophy and entry into the Guinness Book of World Records.
The next year, a bigger crowd was on hand to witness a more competitive contest. Chuy Madrigal wouldn’t let a broken arm keep him out. He hid his cast from O’Mahoney under extra large gloves. In the race, he wiped out but didn’t re-injure his arm thanks to a custom fiberglass cast made by fellow competitor Dave Dillberg.
It was a race, but many spectators and contestants treated it more like a party. The crowd went wild when a drunk spectator in a bathing suit grabbed a plastic Big Wheel and shot the hill without incident, although his clocked speed of 36 mph kept him out of contention.
In a more dangerous moment, one stand-up skateboarder fell on the hill, and his aluminum skateboard shot out from under him and careened through the crowd, clipping a boy in the leg, and sticking in the side of a car. O’Mahoney had planned ahead and had ambulances at the ready, and they quickly whisked the boy to the hospital.
In the 1976 contest, San Pedro longshoreman Sam Puccio Jr., who skipped his daughter’s baptism to compete, laid on his back on a homemade skateboard fashioned out of a two-by-six plank and clocked 54 mph, claiming the $1,000 winner-take-all prize. Puccio is credited with being the first ever to compete in a street luge style.
To end the controversy, O’Mahoney created separate divisions, modified and stand-up, for the 1977 event. But more controversy ensued when Leslie Jo Ritzma wanted to sign up for the contest. “I was told we weren’t allowed to enter. I thought that was stupid,” she remembers.
After appealing, she was allowed to compete, but she’d never done any downhill skateboarding. She did well in the race and her 51 mph put her in the Guinness Book as the world’s fastest female skateboarder.
By 1977 the race had a new class of vehicles called skate-cars, futuristic-looking enclosed skateboards with friction brakes and parachutes for stopping. Steering wheels were not allowed. Dave Dillberg, a skate car racer, said that a winning skate-car driver needed a team of fabricators, pushers, designers and wheel and truck manufacturers.
Even with brakes, the skate-cars were much more dangerous than the stand-up skateboards. Terry Nails remembers a strong wind blowing dirt across the road before his run. He went anyway, and when he crossed the finish line, he had no chance of stopping because the dirt had made the brakes all but worthless.
“There were hay bales about 50 yards before the intersection. I passed through them like a lawn dart through a balloon,” Nails says. He was heading for a brick wall when he was hit by an old woman driving her car. “My skate-car spun until I wedged under a passing pickup,” he continued. The crowd thought it had witnessed the contest’s first fatality.
“I don’t remember a lot except they took me in an ambulance to the hospital,” Nails said. “There was a car accident on the freeway so the doctors didn’t have a chance to look at me.” So he checked himself out and went back to the hill with a bottle of Jack Daniels and a cane, fractured ribs and all.
By 1978, the race had grown and attendance was 5,000…
Photos from the premiere of Signal Hill Speed Run Movie courtesy of skatewhat.com.