Downhill skateboarders risk breaking bones for the sake of an adrenaline rush. They go searching for perfectly paved runs-steep, smooth roads, ditches and parking structures-where they push the limits, going faster and longer than ever before.
The city is their playground, but it's not all fun and games. Since the advent of longboarding, downhillers have been living in a perpetual Tom and Jerry episode, pitted against security guards and police. The typical scene: a crew of skaters at 3 a.m. spot a cop and scatter from a hardcore session of bombing-racing, carving and sliding-down a nearly empty concourse parking structure.
The authorities say riders aren't supposed to be there. Yet the skaters' passion for their sport-particularly their desire for speed-overrides any official doctrine. They break the rules without hesitation.
Downhill skateboarding is not a crime.
The sport and its riders, however, have matured since the Dogtown days of reckless abandon. As safety and precaution have become the norm, the skaters have developed new ways to deal with overzealous security guards.
"We try to talk to them," says Tye Donnelly of the Inner Vision crew. Donnelly makes longboard skateboards out of exotic woods, and his team travels all over Southern California and Hawaii in search of new spots to skate. "We've converted some of them," he says.
Donnelly and his Inner Vision partners, Darrin Neiner and Brian Ward, show the guards their equipment: helmets, knee and elbow pads and slider gloves-hand protection used for sliding to a complete stop after reaching speeds of up to 45 mph.
"We treat it almost like a job," says Ward. "We do our best to stay injury-free. We don't get drunk and skate. We're not being foolish."
All three members of the crew are working professionals in their 30s-not hellions out wreaking havoc and thrashing all night. Both Donnelly and Neiner have small children at home.
"We're constantly pushing each other to the next level," says Neiner. "We don't limit ourselves, and that means we have to focus on equipment and safety."
Steve Lake, founder of Sector Nine skateboards, agrees that caution is imperative. "Anytime you choose to go down a hill without any brakes, it's going to be dangerous," he says.
Lake estimates that 85 percent of people riding longboards use them for transport, to ride to the beach or across town, and to have a good time. If he were to give any advice to the other 15 percent about hardcore downhilling, it would be safety-related. "I've seen what can happen. People fall, hit their heads and end up in a coma. They can fall and die. There's a time and a place for [downhilling], and it's not for everybody," he says.
Lake and partners Dennis Telfer, Dave Klimkiewicz and E.G. Fratantaro put longboarding on the map for good in 1993. They mass-produced the boards and brought them to the mainstream.
Telfer started it all by attaching trucks and wheels to a Burton snowboard. People saw him bombing hills, using the alluring surf-style carving method, and asked Lake and his crew to hook 'em up.
Sector Nine skateboards basically began in Lake's parents' backyard in La Jolla. His crew made long pintails out of plywood and fiberglass and sold the first boards for $25 each. Lake's parents soon stepped in and helped the crew out with an initial investment of $10,000. About a year later, their first big contract for longboards came from a Japanese distributor.
Now Sector Nine boards sell for $150 a pop, and the business is thriving not only for Lake and his colleagues, but also for other local companies, including Gravity, Dregs and Silverfish.
However, Lake says that for Sector Nine, it was never about revenue. "We look forward to going to work every day," he says. "We wanted to create a product where people could cruise and have a good time. It's just as much about that as anything else."
Victor Earhart, 60-year-old skateboard legend, longboard history guru and a board maker for Sector Nine, has been bombing hills in San Diego since 1963. He's one of the sport's most colorful and knowledgeable characters. He says Sector Nine came along at a good time, when nobody else was making that kind of product. Now, he says, it's time for the city to admit that the sport's not going anywhere anytime soon.
Earhart and Lake both agree that the city of San Diego should allow skaters to use existing parking garages after hours.
"We need somebody with a law degree to go to City Council meetings and propose a night where the police department blocks off a space for longboarding," Earhart says. "I look like Charlie Manson, so if I showed up at a council meeting, they would tell me to grab a broom and a dustpan and start sweeping."
The International Association of Skateboarding is sponsoring Go Skateboarding Day on June 21; thousands of kids and adults the world over will be hitting the streets on urethane wheels.