Heavy Metal

My friend recently broke up with his girlfriend. “Ah, man … who cares? She was just too high-maintenance,” he moaned as he tried to reassure himself he’d made the right decision. I nodded my head a few times to make it look like I was listening, and drained the rest of my Rolling Rock. He still had seventeen bucks on him, and was doing his best to rid himself of her voodoo through a shot glass.

I had just walked out of the bar and was trying to figure out where the bus stop had been moved to, when a skater across the street slammed. He cartwheeled head over heels, and his board flipped over. He had some shiny trucks on that board, and they sparkled in the twilight. Clunky thoughts began to tumble around in my head when two of them collided and made a connection: truck companies are just like the high-maintenance girlfriend my friend broke up with. She had cost him a lot of money, she was always trying to fix a million different things, she cared what everybody thought of her, and if you did one thing wrong it almost ruined the whole deal.

I grabbed some newspapers to cover myself while I waited for the bus and thought of my good buddy Keith Cochrane at Venture. Keith knows his trucks. I remembered how back in 1992 he helped design the Venture Featherlight truck¿one of the most popular models at the time. At first it had been difficult for him to work with all the patterns and the design, but he learned quickly, and in no time he had it dialed.

Venture Keith didn’t have the background in engineering that seems so important for truck design. Actually, quite a few successful truck designers¿Chris Miller of Mercury; Paul Schmitt, Steve Douglas, and Garry Parkin of Destructo; and Tim Piumarta of Krux¿lack that specific technical training, but it hasn’t seemed to hurt them. A majority of truck designers have backgrounds in metalwork: Larry Balma of Tracker and Walt Tiege of Gullwing both worked as machinists, Donald Cassel of Grind King went to school for architecture, and Vinnie Lopez of Webb collaborated with people skilled in metalwork.

At that moment I wished one of my numerous truck-building buddies would drive by in his nice car bought with the millions made in the truck market. Wait, I forgot¿this is the late 90s, not the early 80s, and you don’t get rich off of trucks the way you used to.

The wind ripped a sheet of newspaper off me, and I was angry for having forgotten my jacket. As the anger warmed my blood, I remembered how angry and upset some of my truck-building buddies had been when something so tiny and seemingly insignificant popped up and ruined the whole truck. Tracker, Gullwing, Krux … most of them suffered unforeseen gremlins that appeared and almost devastated their trucks.

My good buddy Krux Tim once lamented to me that he almost killed Krux in the beginning. He made a mistake in the casting that caused the pivot to break on the first design. But that was a decade ago. Today Krux is alive and well, and Timmy-boy has a sharp-looking and -turning truck now.

Grind King Donald spent a year designing a truck he was happy with, and after that he burned through four designs before the truck began selling exceptionally well. “I scratch my head when I think about it,” Old Donny said concerning the G-5’s popularity. “I guess I owe it to the fact that it’s a good truck.”

Destructo’s tag team of innovators also spent a year designing a truck that made them all smile. They designed a baseplate using CAD and CAM (Computer Aided Drawing and Computer Aided Machining) with a center-drilled kingpin that “balances” the truck. Mercury Miller designed a truck with three pros (Caine Gayle, Jamie Thomas, and Chany Jeanguenin) who each rode different brands of trucks prior to Mercury. They reshaped the baseplate and hollowed it out, ridding the truck of wasted metal.

Lying there on that bench, I bet myself that Schmitt has a nice, rm sport-utility vehicle with a working heater.

Grind King Donald must have a nice car, too. He’d mentioned that it cost almost 30,000 dollars to start the truck company. And Gullwing Walt had once told me it cost 150,000 dollars to start up back in the late 70s and early 80s because die-casting was the then-popular truck-manufacturing process (considerably more expensive than the sand-casting method used today).

Manufacturers’ profit margins for trucks are considerably less than for boards, and a skater, on average, will buy a board every few months. According to my pal Phil Burcher at Precision Skates in Lincoln, Nebraska, most skaters replace trucks every six months to a year. On the other hand, the number of skateboard companies is in the triple digits, and there are significantly fewer truck companies.

That damn bus was taking its time, and shivering on the bench I thought of how long and arduous truck production can be. There are so many intricate steps involved in making a truck. First, you have to come up with a design that looks different than any other truck, then you make a model out of wood, Bondo, or plastic. After you’re convinced you have the design down, a preliminary sand cast is made, and that’s your first sample. After you’re sure the sample is exactly what you want, you have match plates made for the sand cast¿that alone can cost a few-thousand bucks. The match plates make an impression in sand, and the aluminum is poured into the mold. In production, some companies place the axles in the mold before pouring to achieve a no-slip axle. Next comes the burnishing that smoothes the rough edges around the casted parts. Then you drill the pivot, kingpin, and mounting holes; after this the finishing work is done: polishing, sanding, coloring, and installation of the axles, kingpins, grommets, pivot bushings, washers, and nuts.

Rain began to sprinkle, and I wished I were a smooth little axle, all tucked away in a cozy hanger. But the way my night was going, I would probably slip out. Axle slippage was an age-old problem that has recently been solved¿for the most part. In the old days, axles were pressed into hangers. When small wheels became the rage, axles were exposed and abused in a new and improved way that caused them to slide all over the place.

The skater across the street had cursed out his board after he slammed, and I wondered if many of my truck-building buddies cursed and ranted before the axle problem was solved. Krux Tim had initially accepted his metal specialist’s statement that you can’t cast Reynolds 356 (the base aluminum alloy most trucks are made of) around a standard axle, because it would make the axle squiggly. I remembered Timmy had in fact gotten mad and said, “Screw it¿let’s just do it.” So they designed a stronger axle, and poured. It worked. Timmy also drilled a hole in the truck above the pivot because he thought it would symbolize the human condition in the universe in a way Albert Camus had philosophized. No, wait, was that the only reason? Yes, now I remember¿as an afterthought, Tim had commented that the hole reduced a lot of weight and actually increased the strength of the truck when it was cast in.

The Nordic wind shot through the gaps in my newspaper blanket, and I was reminded of the new Webb truck. Vinnie Lopez and Jerard Labrie started Webb this year, and they’ve designed a truck with two holes through the “wingspan” (trucks have a noticeable lack of names for components) of the hanger. Between the sounds of my teeth chipping off from frantic chattering, I remembered Vinnie saying he guessed other companies couldn’t figure out how to get the parting line on the truck to be able to cast it with the holes. In fact, Vinnie had to get help from Jerry Fisher, who’d last worked on ACS trucks 25 years ago, and another fellow who operates the foundry where the trucks are produced. Webb’s first run was completed in April of this year. Vinnie also owns Area 51, a skate shop in Los Angeles; he asked kids who hang out there what they wanted in a truck, and all of them yapped about weight and color. “They didn’t care about how the damn thing functioned,” said Vinnie. “I couldn’t believe it!”

The truck with the prettiest colors would have to be the Titan Ti-Lite. The Ti-Lite is also the only major truck to be made overseas. But, like my paper blanket, it has had some problems. Phil at Precision stopped carrying them all together, even though they sold well. “They gave me a bunch of headaches,” he said. “The kingpins kept stripping. They’d send me extra kingpins, but it takes half an hour to hacksaw the old one off. I don’t have to deal with that kind of crap with other trucks.” Bob MacKay at Titan said the the company solved that problem, and the new ones are fine.

Titan started in December 1996 with no skate team. Bob said, “Some companies just want to deal with the pro people. That’s only about eight percent of the market. There’s 92 percent of the rest of the people skating.” Even though Bob has sponsored some of the “pro people,” he couldn’t remember exactly whom when we talked. He also called copers grindplates, so I have a suspicion that Bob doesn’t skate, as the majority of the other truck manufacturers do (or did).

The newspapers had all blown off of me. I tried to picture myself covered with a pretty blanket. Titan Bob also said that skaters like color coordinating their trucks to their boards. “Skateboards have bright colors. You might have a board that is prominently orange or red or blue. If you put a corresponding color truck to that, it looks absolutely dynamite.”

“Damn that!” I screamed out loud, shivering and cold there on that bench. “In the old days we only rode silver or anodized trucks, and even then we ground them down to the axle until they barked for mercy at every grind!” I gently wept for the days of trucks gone past.

A yuppie couple passed me, and the man put a dollar in my hand, telling me it would be all right. “You think so?” I growled, spittle spraying at them as they backed up. “Bob says that kids don’t buy a truck because it’s a great truck¿they buy it because it goes along with the deck they’re buying!”

The yuppie man crouched down like an angry cat and informed me he had a yellow belt in ninjitsu, and he would break my back like a twig if I didn’t stop my rant and step away from the lady.

“You think I want the girl?” I asked. “My friend at Webb says it’s a nightmare dealing with all the little intricacies of making trucks. Jesus! Venture Keith says kids want light trucks that turn well, and he busts his ass trying to make a good product that he¿as a skater¿would want to ride. Then Bob talks about color matching like Martha Stewart, and he sells a heap of trucks!”

“If Titan sells a lot of trucks, perhaps the rest of the industry should take notice and see who he appeals to. They need to adapt,” the lady said.

“Damn your black heart!” I said. “Don’t try to make sense of this¿this is the truck industry. A lot of people don’t want to change the old ways.”

The yuppie man wanted his dollar back. I told him I’d give his uptight Yuppie-ass the dollar if he could answer a single question: Who made the first wide skateboard truck?

“Larry Balma¿Tracker trucks, 1974,” he said smugly. “Give me my buck back. I used to skate in the early 80s.”

I licked the dollar bill, and the lady called me gross and pulled her boyfriend away. They walked off down the street. Well, he was right, it was Balma. And I had made a buck. The night was looking better.

Way back in 1974, Tracker Larry made a 4.25-inch-wide truck, more than twice as wide as the standard roller-skate/skateboard truck of the time. Back then trucks were less than two-inches wide. He concluded that his wider truck would turn better and be able pril of this year. Vinnie also owns Area 51, a skate shop in Los Angeles; he asked kids who hang out there what they wanted in a truck, and all of them yapped about weight and color. “They didn’t care about how the damn thing functioned,” said Vinnie. “I couldn’t believe it!”

The truck with the prettiest colors would have to be the Titan Ti-Lite. The Ti-Lite is also the only major truck to be made overseas. But, like my paper blanket, it has had some problems. Phil at Precision stopped carrying them all together, even though they sold well. “They gave me a bunch of headaches,” he said. “The kingpins kept stripping. They’d send me extra kingpins, but it takes half an hour to hacksaw the old one off. I don’t have to deal with that kind of crap with other trucks.” Bob MacKay at Titan said the the company solved that problem, and the new ones are fine.

Titan started in December 1996 with no skate team. Bob said, “Some companies just want to deal with the pro people. That’s only about eight percent of the market. There’s 92 percent of the rest of the people skating.” Even though Bob has sponsored some of the “pro people,” he couldn’t remember exactly whom when we talked. He also called copers grindplates, so I have a suspicion that Bob doesn’t skate, as the majority of the other truck manufacturers do (or did).

The newspapers had all blown off of me. I tried to picture myself covered with a pretty blanket. Titan Bob also said that skaters like color coordinating their trucks to their boards. “Skateboards have bright colors. You might have a board that is prominently orange or red or blue. If you put a corresponding color truck to that, it looks absolutely dynamite.”

“Damn that!” I screamed out loud, shivering and cold there on that bench. “In the old days we only rode silver or anodized trucks, and even then we ground them down to the axle until they barked for mercy at every grind!” I gently wept for the days of trucks gone past.

A yuppie couple passed me, and the man put a dollar in my hand, telling me it would be all right. “You think so?” I growled, spittle spraying at them as they backed up. “Bob says that kids don’t buy a truck because it’s a great truck¿they buy it because it goes along with the deck they’re buying!”

The yuppie man crouched down like an angry cat and informed me he had a yellow belt in ninjitsu, and he would break my back like a twig if I didn’t stop my rant and step away from the lady.

“You think I want the girl?” I asked. “My friend at Webb says it’s a nightmare dealing with all the little intricacies of making trucks. Jesus! Venture Keith says kids want light trucks that turn well, and he busts his ass trying to make a good product that he¿as a skater¿would want to ride. Then Bob talks about color matching like Martha Stewart, and he sells a heap of trucks!”

“If Titan sells a lot of trucks, perhaps the rest of the industry should take notice and see who he appeals to. They need to adapt,” the lady said.

“Damn your black heart!” I said. “Don’t try to make sense of this¿this is the truck industry. A lot of people don’t want to change the old ways.”

The yuppie man wanted his dollar back. I told him I’d give his uptight Yuppie-ass the dollar if he could answer a single question: Who made the first wide skateboard truck?

“Larry Balma¿Tracker trucks, 1974,” he said smugly. “Give me my buck back. I used to skate in the early 80s.”

I licked the dollar bill, and the lady called me gross and pulled her boyfriend away. They walked off down the street. Well, he was right, it was Balma. And I had made a buck. The night was looking better.

Way back in 1974, Tracker Larry made a 4.25-inch-wide truck, more than twice as wide as the standard roller-skate/skateboard truck of the time. Back then trucks were less than two-inches wide. He concluded that his wider truck would turn better and be able to distribute the stress along the truck more efficiently (a lot of the shorter trucks were breaking). He also made the first four-hole baseplate. Until then they had three holes, and some even screwed into the board rather than using mounting hardware. I bet Yuppie Man wouldn’t know that, or that Tracker was the first to have a fixed kingpin.

I sat on the bench and tried to make an origami swan with the dollar, but I only made some weird duck with one leg shorter than the other¿it looked like it had been hit by a truck. “How the heck does someone design a truck, with all the intricacies that entails?” I thought.

When I posed this question to Grind King Donald, he laughed and told me he’d been beating his head against the wall for the past ten years trying to perfect his truck. Krux Tim was always trying to innovate his design and even joked that black magic is involved in making a good truck that sells. Webb Vinnie said he did so much testing it was ridiculous. Venture Keith doesn’t change his designs as often as the competition¿he said, “If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.” But every few years he makes slight changes depending on what the kids want. And the Destructo trio labored for a year, pushing their production schedule back to achieve the design they wanted.

Precision Phil commented that Ventures are popular trucks, and Destructo is also selling well at his shop. “When Destructo first came out, they had big ads and everybody knew who the team riders were, so there was a lot of demand,” said Phil. “And I haven’t had a single problem with them.” The skaters who localize Precision reveal to Phil the factors of truck sales: “Kids are picking out trucks because of the colors quite a bit. Especially when the parents come in and help buy the board.” Phil has witnessed kids switching brands if they didn’t come in the right color.

There on the bus bench, I arched my head toward the sky and let loose a mad-banshee wail when I remembered Phil saying that. But, my wail drifted off as I recalled Phil commenting that he caters to skaters’ personal preferences and suggests a truck that suits their needs. “If the kid is notorious for breaking trucks, I’d suggest Independents,” said Phil. “I’d say they are a little heavier, but one of the strongest ones.” Precision carries over 200 trucks and fifteen different brands, so whatever a kid’s needs are, there is a truck at Precision for him.

How can a skateboarder miss with all the different truck companies available and more arriving almost monthly? For that matter, how does a truck company separate itself from the pack? Trucks don’t have graphics, so there goes a huge buying incentive for kids. Trucks come in colors, sort of quasi-graphics, and that seems to be a deciding factor¿at least for the first-time buyer. Colors seem to only sway the beginning skaters, apparently a massive percentage of the current market. But how do you get their attention when they become more involved in skating and realize they have to buy trucks that suit their riding styles?

The skater who slammed across the street had long ago ceased cursing his board and was talking to a rave chick. She’d come out of an after-hours club for a smoke, and was all dressed up with a Tide T-shirt on. I thought about their commercials for stain removal. “It’s all marketing,” I thought.

I remembered how Krux Tim had said, “With the other aspects of skating, half of it is marketing. But with trucks you get through the marketing bullshit real fast¿they either work or they don’t.”

Destructo Schmitt said marketing was what needed to be emphasized¿as well as a good truck. In other words, a complete package. Destructo’s marketing was so effective that people were pissed when the original production date was moved back a few months. A few truck companies produce trucks of varying heights, and all come in a variety of lengths. More than one of my truck-building buddies commented that perhaps everyone needed to learn a lesson from how Titan marketed their trucks to the younger kids.