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, growing up in Long Beach, O’Mahoney begged his parents to drive fast over the steepest section of Hill Street, an almost 30-degree incline in Signal Hill that mimicked the feeling of a roller coaster.
O’Mahoney told the TV producer he could create a downhill skateboarding race on the steep Signal Hill incline, bordered by oil fields. “It was also the location of the annual Model T Hill Climb, where they raced their souped-up Fords from the bottom to the top. It was the natural place to do it,” he explained.
So 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 to the sport of downhill.
Downhill skateboarding and street luge racing are popular again, with the North American Downhill Championships taking place this weekend at the Frank G. Bonelli Regional County Park in San Dimas. Marcus Rietema, the event’s organizer, said, “Everything we do today relates back to Signal Hill.”
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. Some skaters took illegal practice runs in the dark the night before.
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.
Skateboard purists claimed that true skateboarding means standing on your own two feet, while others said the rules did not prohibit Puccio’s unique style.
Puccio is credited with being the first to compete in a street luge style, then referred to as lay-down skateboarding, a sport that made its way to ESPN’s X Games in 1995.
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 asked if there were women in the race, and I was told they 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 had enough time to practice before the event, with generous helpings of road rash. 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 lean steering, friction brakes and parachutes for stopping. Steering wheels were not allowed.
Dave Dillberg took home the trophy with a 57-mph run, although he split the $1,000 prize with the next finisher, Henry Hester. Dillberg remembers that, like car racing, a winning skate-car driver needed a team of fabricators, pushers (who pushed them toward the starting line), designers and wheel and truck manufacturers.
Even with brakes, the skate-cars were much more dangerous than the stand-up skateboards. Terry Nails, whose aluminum skate-car was built by Harley-Davidson mechanics, remembers a strong wind blowing dirt across the road before his run. He went anyway, and when he crossed the finish line at more than 55 mph, 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 on Redondo Boulevard when he was hit by an old woman driving her car through the intersection. “My skate-car spun like a pinwheel until I wedged under the back of 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 exponentially and attendance was estimated at 5,000. There was now a women’s division and additional safety devices, such as a large net at the bottom of the hill to protect skaters and spectators.
Unfortunately, the large field of untested skate-car entries led to many crashes. At one point, so many ambulances had driven skateboarders to the hospital that the speed run had to be delayed until another ambulance was in place for the next inevitable crash. That year’s stand-up winner, John Hutson, felt the skate-cars betrayed the spirit of skateboarding and were far too dangerous.
Hutson proved right. Tina Trefethen, who won the women’s skate-car division, crashed hard into a pole after the finish line at 58 mph because of mechanical problems. After arriving at the hospital, Trefethen had to have her lung removed.
After Trefethen’s brush with death, the city of Signal Hill was no longer eager to play host to the event. Sponsors pulled out and O’Mahoney had to end the speed run.
A few years ago, competitor John Hughes organized a Signal Hill reunion that was attended by 14 racers. Besides beer and pizza, racers got to watch old footage of their races, crashes and all.
Despite the speed run’s legendary status, the city of Signal Hill does not honor the original race. Hill Street now has a sign forbidding skateboarding.