Lifestyles

Let the good times roll

MIKE MACBETH May 29 1978
Lifestyles

Let the good times roll

MIKE MACBETH May 29 1978

Let the good times roll

Lifestyles

Zero gravity is what they’re aiming for, wheels turning in midair, the weightless feeling, the rush, pushing their stomachs into their mouths. Skateboarders have had to find their thrills illicitly, riding the rim of an empty swimming pool, spiraling down a parking lot ramp, cutting the curve of a concrete spillway. They’ve mastered the streets and are looking for new surfaces to conquer, the perfect ride. The challenge is being met by the designers and builders of skateboard parks, little Disneylands built of moguls and tubes, pipes, snake runs and drop bowls, that imitate the best of the old thrills and add new twists of their own. Canada’s seventh park has just opened in Calgary. By the end of the year a dozen more should be testing the skills of skateboarders across the country.

Fathered out of surfboards with a bit of scooter thrown in, skateboards have been > around for a long time. The first craze be-

5 gan in the late 1940s when children atI tached roller-skate wheels to pieces of

6 wood and rolled down driveways—mostly I falling off. But play didn’t become sport g until 1970, when Californian Frank Nasii; worthy invented urethane wheels that easï ily traversed the small irregularities in

skating surfaces, allowing for creative manoeuvrability—surfing on wheels. Since then the technology has boomed. The $5 “clunker” that pleased the ’50s child can cost up to $200 today and a merely adequate board is $60. Like skiers, skateboarders tend to upgrade their equipment: it’s not unusual for a teen-ager to own half a dozen boards to suit different surfaces.

That flourishing of equipment is where sport becomes industry—in a big way. A report on NBC’S Today show estimated that 1978 U.S. gross sales of skateboards and their accoutrements will reach $1 billion. The giant American film industry grossed about $2.5 billion last year: skateboarding, just kid’s stuff, is expected to bring in 40 per cent as much. A study by SkateBoarder Magazine, one of the fastest growing publications in the United States, claims that each upper-middle-class American family owns two skateboards, a market penetration previously achieved only by television. appliances and automobiles.

The entrepreneurs of the industry are building skateboard parks as fast as they can pour concrete. An estimated 200 have opened in the United States since the first was built in June, 1976—125 of them in the last year. If the present growth rate of two per week increases to 10, as builders predict it will, America will have paved enough land for 2,000 skateboard parks by 1980. Although Canada can’t match the U.S. board for board or park for park (20 million American kids practise the ups and downs of skateboarding), Canadian businessmen are reaping their share of profits and contributing to an already awesome technology. The first skateboard park in the world was designed and built bv Toronto-born Chuck Cromie on his property at Port Orange, Florida. Precision Skateboard Products of Stoney Creek, Ontario, is marketing quality boards in North America, France and Germany. Partners Mel Oswald and Morely Wright saw the full return of their $100,000 investment, plus $205,000 in sales, by early April, less than six months after they opened shop. Ontario Skateboard Parks—the company that opened the first park in the East, at Markham, Ontario—has developed a nonslip urethane paint that protects and improves skating surfaces and eliminates hazardous concrete dust.

And two young Toronto businessmen are cashing in on what may be the most important innovation since the urethane

wheel—a prefabricated skateboard park. National Building Systems, owned by lawyer John Alexander Smith and former stockbroker Karel Rybka, has designed a park whose modular sections can be erected in a week. The core of the innovation is a cement-based product they call “Skatecrete.” An inch-thick layer is as strong as a standard six-inch skating surface, and the stuff can be moulded to weigh 90 per cent less than regular concrete. Skatecrete’s strength and lightness are what make the prefab landscapes financially feasible to ship.

National Building System’s success has been instantaneous. Entrepreneurs looking to cash in on a growth industry appreciate the time-saving, tent-folding advantage of the park kits. The first year’s output of their 12,000-square-foot Toronto factory has been presold. By year’s end Smith and Rybka plan to build two more facto-

ries in Georgia and California and three are slated for Europe. But the French can’t wait for the Paris plant to open: a Parisian company has ordered a 40-ton modular park to be crated up and shipped to France, at a cost of $160,000—which doesn’t include the $7,000 fare.

Pleasing the entrepreneurs is relatively easy as long as the profit’s there. But the real test of the prefab park will be the degree of thrill it excites in the connoisseurs of zero gravity. National Building System’s designer, Joe Campo, has proved he can create the thrills. Kids have elevated the 35-year-old Atlanta businessman to the status of folk hero by virtue of his superior skateboard park designs. Campo understands “the rush” (when short of time he

glides through airports on a honeycombed aluminum board) and his sensitive touch equals money in the bank for park owners. He has built or designed 15 per cent of the parks in the U.S. and is planning 70 more for 1978, 10 of them in Canada.

Though the boom has been travelling as fast as a fad, Campo thinks skateboarding has staying power. “We’re on the ground floor of a huge opportunity,” he grins. “Our market is worldwide.” The sport hit Britain last July: by September, equipment sales topped $98 million and 52 parks were under construction. Word of mouth spreads the news, as the builders of Calgary’s Skatopia 1 found out this spring. Sixty kids a day trooped past the construction site and 450 members, five of them over 40, had signed up before the park’s May 12 opening.

For parents reluctant to part with $60 to buy their children a new improved way to break bones, the safety record of skateboard parks should be reassuring. Of 28 deaths in the sport since 1955 (all in the U.S.) none has happened in parks, where safety equipment—helmet, knee guards and elbow pads—and supervision is mandatory. Over half of all accidents occur the first time someone climbs-on a skateboard. Even on the streets the sport is apparently safer than it looks. “The bad things you hear about skateboarding are mostly cocktail party negativism,” says Dr. Peggy Kirkpatrick, who conducted a comparative survey of skateboard and toboggan accidents at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children. In 35 days last winter, 30 children were brought into emergency after being hurt riding the slopes. One child died. The June to September skateboarding season took a less serious toll: of 60 children injured only one, who had been hit by a car, required extended hospital care. “They’re both unsupervised sports for the same age group,” says Kirkpatrick, “but skateboarding develops agility. With sledding all they get is fresh air.” The doctor likes the idea of skateboard parks: “We can’t keep our kids wrapped in cotton wool. We just have to make sure they’re off the streets, away from cars and little old ladies.”

With parks now open in Vancouver, Burnaby, Kelowna, Calgary, Winnipeg, Markham and Scarborough, and negotiation or construction under way in every major Canadian city, it shouldn’t be hard to keep skateboarders off the streets. Joe Campo expects the Canadian industry will continue to double in size for at least the next three years: the skateboard is clearly not another hula-hoop or yo-yo. Recently Campo—who must have been feeling expansive about the international market still to conquer—allowed some Japanese businessmen to photograph his drawings and designs for some rooftop skateboard parks in Tokyo. “It probably wasn’t a very good idea,” he admits, but with the confidence of a new-sung hero adds, “We can easily be copied, but we’re still the dudes.” MIKE MACBETH