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Original Issue

Downhill all the way

Risking everybody's neck, contestants in the world speed championship in Signal Hill, Calif. almost hit a mile a minute—and they did hit several spectators

I like to go fast," said Roger Williams. "No matter what I'm in, I like to go fast."

What he was going fast in on a recent Sunday morning was an expensive little vehicle called a skatecar, an aerodynamically sound silver dart that carried him from obscurity into The Guinness Book of World Records.

Wearing a helmet and a leather suit, he stretched his 5'6" out prone on a 9'11" skateboard, his arms fully extended in front of him so that his hands were near the brakes and the devices to pop loose the nylon parachute folded up by his boots. His associates had encapsulated him in a needle-nosed, fiber glass fairing with a Plexiglas windshield. Using carefully rehearsed steps and a balanced push, two aides got the car to the brink of a steep hill and sent it plummeting down, a blur rocketing through a speed trap at a world-record 59.92 mph.

The event was Round 1 of the California FreeFormer World Skateboard Speed Championships (Round 2 will be held July 1-2 at Derby Downs, Akron, Ohio). The site was Hill Street in Signal Hill, Calif., a town completely surrounded by the city of Long Beach and floating atop a huge lake of oil. The 600-yard course begins with a gradual slope and then abruptly steepens. With oil rigs bobbing up and down in the fields on either side of the "track," the championships had all the ambience of a picnic in a gas station. There were no bleachers, but there was also no admission charge, so approximately 5,000 people showed up to bake in the sunshine, drink beer atop their RVs and watch the competition—not to mention dodging flying parts and skateboarders.

Williams, 28, representing Hobie Skateboards, won the modified division. John Hutson, 24, a professional rider for Santa Cruz Skateboards, won the stand-up division (from a crouch) with a speed of 53.45 mph. The women's open division was won by Tina Trevethen (57.69 mph), whose FreeFormer skatecar went out of control at the end of the second of her two runs, veered into the unprotected crowd and crashed. Trevethen suffered a broken rib, and several onlookers had to be treated at a local hospital for contusions and lacerations.

The sponsor of the event, FreeFormer Skateboards, had put up chain-link fencing along both sides of the steep part of Hill Street, but not along the lower section, where skatecar riders were wobbling, fishtailing and careening, despite brakes and 'chutes. All that separated the skatecars from the first row of gaping spectators was a curb and a thin yellow rope. A spokesman for FreeFormer said plenty of fencing had been ordered, but the city of Signal Hill, for some reason, had refused to allow any of it to be put up along the lower end of the course.

FreeFormer, which turns out 25,000 boards a day at its Torrance, Calif. plant and claims to sell more than any other company in the world, had five skate-cars entered. The cars, which cost up to $3,000—as much as $1,000 for the paint job—have no steering devices and are maneuvered by the driver shifting his weight. They are not commercially available, being extremely hazardous and illegal on public thoroughfares.

Two of the FreeFormer cars, Trevethen's and one ridden by Mark Bowden, crashed at the bottom of the hill. "Stand-up is so much safer," said Bowden, limping back from the hospital, where he had gone for precautionary X rays. "The cars are just too dangerous."

"I'm against 'em," said stand-up champion Hutson. "They shouldn't be part of skateboarding."

Williams' car, which broke the record of 57.3 mph set at Signal Hill last year, had been exhaustively prepared by the driver and his fellow designers, Tom and John West and Dennis Pappas. "We tested the brakes, wheels and bearings and we photographed it all with movie cameras," he said. "We also filmed our pushers. That was the best thing about taking movies—the pushers learned a lot. They had to get their timing down. If they didn't, one would push a little bit harder than the other and set me off at an angle right off the bat.

"The only time I'm nervous is when they get me in the car and then say, 'Wait,' then, 'Get out, we got a delay,' then, 'Get back in.' That kind of stuff gets me on edge. Otherwise I just can't wait to get down the hill. I look about 20 feet out in front of me, trying to keep the line I set until I hit the triplines, and then I start working on my brakes."

For winning his division, Williams got a trophy and $1,000, which he split with his crew. Hutson also got a trophy and $1,000. He competed aboard the lightest skateboard in the contest-6[1/10] pounds. 36" long, made mostly of aluminum—and wearing $350 leathers that were in fact partly nylon and had the lining ripped out. This was to make them more flexible and to allow him to get down into a tighter tuck than he could have normally.

"What I was thinking about was getting off to a really fast start," Hutson said. "In fact, I was up against the rear rope, pushing back about three or four more feet. I wanted to get the utmost out of my start and get into my tuck as soon as possible.

"Once I was into it, I was up to maybe 35 or 40 mph. I hit the drop and, I guess because I was pretty much faster than most of the riders, the crowd started hooting and hollering.

"I was aware of the enthusiasm, but my eyes were just focused straight ahead on the pavement. I was keyed on my line. There was a line on the pavement that I'd picked out the day before, and that's the only thing I saw." Amazingly, Hutson had exactly the same clocking for both runs.

For the stand-up riders, there was no need for brakes or parachutes at the bottom of Hill Street. Said Hutson, "You just raise up. It's like putting the brakes on a car."

Of course, Tina Trevethen (who is also a hang-gliding champion) was enclosed by her skatecar's fairing and couldn't raise up when her parachute failed to open. But she did win the $1,000 women's prize and trophy, as she was doubtless pleased to learn after she emerged from surgery.


Lying prone in this skatecar, Roger Williams shot down Hill Street at a world-record 59.92 mph.