INTERVIEW BY ERIC DRESSEN
INTRODUCTION BY ERIC DRESSEN
PHOTOS BY TED TERREBONNE and GREG HALL
Tom Knox is a master of all terrain. From his early years, he pushed the limits of street skating with new trick variations that had never been seen before. From kickflip to wallrides to liptrick variations on curbs, Knox upped the ante for all that followed. After the world got a taste of him in the Speed Freaks video, he became a household name. Eric and Tom had the opportunity to travel the world in the ’80s in the name of skateboarding, constantly pushing the limits and barriers, of what was possible on a skateboard. Did you know that Tom is also an international Brazilian Jujitzu Champion? He’ll also take your cash in a game of skins on the golf course. In addition to his athletic interests, Knox is in a rockabilly style band called the Cacti Widders where he plays his role on the drums. Throughout his life, skateboarding has remained a constant, and has now come full circle. He’s back on Santa Cruz again, with partner in crime, Eric Dressen. The future for skateboarding looks bright.
“I REMEMBER WE WERE COMING IN FOR A LANDING IN JAPAN AND GROSSO HAD CHRISTIAN’S BOOM BOX, AND HE WAS JUST BLARING LYNYRD SKYNYRD AT TOP VOLUME. EVERYONE WAS YELLING, “YOU DON’T PLAY LYNYRD SKYNYRD ON AN AIRPLANE WHEN IT’S LANDING!”
Hey, Tom, It’s Eric.
Hey, Eric. What’s up?
Are you ready to start?
Where were you born?
I was born in Torrance, CA. We lived in Redondo until I was four years old.
Oh, really. That’s where I started skateboarding. When did you move to Visalia?
We moved to Visalia when I was four. I pretty much grew up in Visalia. I did all my schooling here. I kept going to southern California a lot, because my aunt and uncle lived there. We’d always go down and visit them.
How old were you when you first started skating?
I got my first skateboard when I was 11 or 12. I was in the sixth grade. It was a piece of shit generic Variflex board.
What kind of tricks were you doing on with that?
I was just pushing around. My friend down the street from me had a 3-foot quarter pipe that we used to do kickturns on and stuff. From there, it progressed. He built a half pipe. We tried tricks. I started buying magazines and seeing the bigger boards. The next board I got was a Santa Cruz Ramp Street Concave. That was in 1983.
When did you get serious about street skating?
It was probably around ’85. I always street skated, because that’s how I got to school. I rode my skateboard. We’d skate all around town. The big thing then was to be a vert skater. Everyone wanted to be a vert skater. We wanted to skate vert ramps and pools, but in ’85, there were no more vert ramps around. That’s when jump ramps and street plants started coming in. We just started street skating, and trying all the vert tricks on the street. We would try boardslides, lipslides and 50-50 grinds on curbs. That was the whole jump ramp phase. I was glad that I didn’t have to participate in the street plant phase. I broke my arm really bad when that whole thing came around, so I never got to learn them.
Yeah. I’ve never seen you do a street plant.
You never will.
[Laughs.] Who were your early influences? What skaters were you into back then?
I was into the vert skaters. I really liked Gator, Christian, Stevie, Lance and Chris Miller. I was trying to emulate on the street what those guys were doing on vert.
When did you start entering your first contests?
I entered my first contest when I was 12. It was a local ramp contest. I kept doing local contests for a long time, until I picked up my first sponsor.
Who was your first sponsor?
There was this local guy from around here who did a short run of boards. He gave me boards. I had a couple of shop sponsors. As far as skateboard sponsors, Santa Cruz was my very first sponsor.
How did you get sponsored by Santa Cruz?
Jason Jessee used to come up to our ramp. We had a big vert ramp at the Visalia YMCA in the mid ’80s. Jason Jessee, Steve Claar and all these vert dudes used to come up and skate all the time. I started hanging out with them and skating with them and we all became friends. Then I was at the San Luis Skate Camp in ’87. I was working there. I was the ‘do anything’-type dude just to be at skate camp.
That was one of the very first skate camps in California ever, wasn’t it?
Yeah. The year before that at Reedley was the very first year. The second year was at San Luis.
Did you see me there?
I remember seeing you. There was a bunch of heads there. Matt Hensley, Phil Shao, Mike and Greg Carroll were campers there. There were so many people at that camp.
I remember seeing Mike Carroll and Colby Carter there skating around.
Yeah. Chet Thomas was there, too. There was a bunch of dudes there that became top-notch pros.
Jason Jessee got you on Santa Cruz?
Yeah. Jason and Steve Keenan did. They were the ones that pushed for me to do it. Before that, this cat Steve Douglas was pushing hard to get me on Schmitt Stix, but Paul Schmitt told him that they didn’t want to sponsor any street skaters.
What happened when you got sponsored?
I was the first dude that was considered a pure street skater that they sponsored. Up to that time, the whole Santa Cruz team was vert skaters. Gavin O’Brien took a chance on sponsoring me. They had an A team and a B team. The A team was where they paid for dudes to go to the contests. The B team was on flow. At first, I was just on flow. Then I entered some contests and won, and they put me on the A team, right off the bat. I was pretty stoked on that.
I remember the first picture I ever saw of you was at the Arizona Nationals in ’88. Was that one of your first major contests?
The NSA had regions. You’d start in your own region, then do the Western regional and then the semi-finals. You had to go through three contests to get to the Nationals. I went to all the Western regionals and got first or second. Then I made it to the finals. That whole contest series was me, Ed Templeton, Ray Barbee and Danny Sargent. You could interchange our names in the top five of the am contests.
You got ripped off in the finals, didn’t you?
[Laughs.] Yeah. I think Mark Hinesman won that contest. I did a kickflip wallride in my run and did some stuff people weren’t doing back then. I think I fell on one of my tricks. Mark played it conservative. He didn’t fall, but he didn’t really do much, and he won the contest.
What was your first pro contest?
It was the Hawaii mini ramp contest. That was the one that you got second at.
That was a gnarly ramp.
Yeah. It was crazy. I was totally intimidated. I had a few tricks up my sleeve. I was skating in the practice session with Tony Hawk, and I did a blunt disaster right in front of him. He was like, ‘What was that?’ I said, ‘It was a blunt disaster.’ He’d never seen one before.
That ramp was gnarly. Scott Oster and I snuck in the arena the day before the contest at 5 a.m. and skated for a few hours. We got that ramp wired. Was your first street contest in Chicago?
No. The first street contest I entered was in Savannah. It was right after Hawaii.
Was that the Savannah Slamma?
Yeah. I made the cut there, and got 11th or 12th.
You still didn’t have a pro board then?
No. I didn’t have a pro board at Chicago either. I entered that contest and won. They weren’t expecting me to win. They were expecting you to win.
Yeah. It was funny. I flew out there with Roskopp to check out ‘Speed Freaks’. I saw your part when they were doing the editing. I was like, ‘He’s going to win this contest.’ They were like, ‘You’re going to win, Eric.’ I was like, ‘No. Tom’s going to win.’ I predicted that you were going to win before we even got there. That was our first trip together, huh?
Yeah. We went to the Turf after that. I didn’t have a board when I won that contest. Back in those days, they made you earn your board. You had to do good in the contest series. They weren’t even planning on making me a board. They were going to make me be pro for a year without a board. Then once I won that contest, they put my board out.
What was it like winning that contest?
It was surreal. I’d just won amateur contests up until then. It was weird to look at the standings and see the names of the guys that I beat like Christian, Stevie, Gonz, you and Tony. It was all heavy hitters. I think I was doing some stuff that people weren’t used to seeing in contests. It was more street-oriented. That’s when the contests changed from jump ramps up to cars. It became more obstacle-oriented.
Then it was rails and bank to walls.
Yeah. There were real banked hips and ledges.
After that contest they made you a board? Was that the Fire Pit?
Yeah. That was actually Corey O’Brien’s graphic that he didn’t want.
Did you start traveling more after that contest?
They were sending me out on demos before that, but then I started traveling a lot more.
I remember you used to take the Greyhound and do demos all over the place.
Exactly. They used to put me on a Greyhound or an Amtrak. I started flying after that.
How many hours did you spend on a Greyhound bus trying to get to a demo?
I don’t know, dude. There were too many days wasted, but I didn’t have a driver’s license.
[Laughs.] How old were you then when you won that contest?
I had just turned 16.
You left school early?
I took a proficiency exam and got out in my junior year. I was never in school. Even when I was in the amateur circuit, I was always missing school. I was smart enough to get out.
Did you have a skateboard club at your high school?
No. They hated skateboarding at my high school.
[Laughs.] What about filming for ‘Speed Freaks’?
There was a little promo video that they gave out to the shops, but ‘Speed Freaks’ was the first real video that I was in.
‘Speed Freaks’ was just one day in your life?
That was about five hours worth of filming. Tony Roberts showed up at my house at ten in the morning and we filmed until four in the afternoon. Gavin or Keenan would call me up and say, ‘This guy is going to be in town. He’s going to film you for the day. Go film your daily routine.’
That was the first time anyone saw you do the kickflip to wallride?
Yeah. That was the stuff I was doing on a daily basis. I would go out and skate all those spots.
Were you the first one to do a kickflip to wallride?
I don’t know. You never really know who was the first to do anything, but I hadn’t seen anyone do it before then.
You were the first one that I saw do it.
I’d seen someone do it before, but it was on a slightly banked wall or a banked ledge. That was a 90-degree wall that I did that one on in the video. It was a straight up wall.
My favorite part in that video was you in the parking lot skating those curbs and doing the lipslides, smith grinds, feeble grinds, blunts and all that stuff.
I got that from Ben Schroeder. I watched Ben skate at Raging Waters. He was doing lipslide smith grinds across the channel. I said, ‘I’m going to try it on a ledge or a curb.’
I used to think that a lot of that stuff was impossible on a little curb. You were knocking it out. It was crazy.
I used to skate that stuff all day long, and try to think of combination tricks. My favorite trick in that video that I did was the fakie nosegrind. It was basically a switch frontside 5-0. People weren’t doing that back then. People were doing ledge tricks, but it was all stationary. Nobody was moving. It was like a nosepick on a ledge. I tried to take stuff that people were doing stationary and I’d do it grinding. Instead of a nose pick, I’d do a nosegrind. Instead of a feeble, it was a feeble grind.
I remember you’d grind a pair of Indys down to the axle in one day.
Well, the curbs I skated near my house were really rough. We waxed the crap out of them, but they still tore up your trucks. I think there was at least one time that I skated one of my back trucks down to the axle in one day. Now it takes about three weeks at a skatepark or a pool before I’m down to the axle.
I remember after ‘Speed Freaks’ and winning that contest, you started going to Europe.
I took my first trip to Europe with you. My first trip was to France and Spain. We went over there and did some demos. Santa Cruz used to hook me up. They sent Natas and I to a bunch of demos in the States and then we met you guys over there.
I remember you had such a gnarly work ethic. You were totally determined and dedicated.
All I cared about was riding my skateboard.