Racing’s Renaissance

For the past year, legendary Dogtown protégés Steve Olson and Dave Hackett have been squaring off against each other almost every month, competing head-to-head for 1,000-dollar pro purses. No, it’s not an old-school pool-contest series. It’s the renaissance of slalom skateboarding, and these Grand Masters of cool are way into it–together with dedicated pro competitors, amateur enthusiasts of all ages and both genders, and racing legends from previous eras such as Tommy Ryan, Henry Hester, and John Hutson.

Veteran racer and former standup speed record-holder Jack Smith, one of the key players in the current movement, distinguishes slalom from other aggressive forms of skateboarding. “The main difference is you turn,” he says. “You don’t ollie. You do it on hills. It’s very equipment-oriented. You have to have equipment that works. All the image in the world will not win you a slalom race. You have to beat your competitor based on performance, not on a judge’s whim.”

Although hardly highlighted in the mainstream skateboard press, slalom-specific gear is now available from a surprising number of U.S. companies: decks by Bahne, Comet, Ick, Pocket Pistol, Roe and Turner; trucks from Seismic, Tracker, and Turner; wheels from ABEC-11, Bahne, and Turner. European brands include Airflow, Indiana, and Summit.

Slalom decks typically have no nose or tail and include a flexible camber that racers work like a spring to propel themselves out of turns. Trucks are engineered for quicker, more powerful steering, while wheels are designed to optimize both speed and grip.

Turner Downhill head Howard Gordon is carrying the torch lit by the late legendary deck craftsman Bob Turner. “Slalom is a considerably different sport, a lot closer in its roots to the carving of skiing or snowboarding or, for that matter, surfing,” Gordon says. “It’s all about speed and long lines and the excitement of powering down the hill.”

Along with flatland freestyle, slalom was one of skateboarding’s original disciplines, taking obvious inspiration from slalom skiing. Virtually all major competitions in the 1960s and mid-70s featured a slalom event, including a famous showdown between Hester and Tony Alva televised on ABC’s Wide World Of Sports as part of the 1976 Carlsbad Hang Ten World Championships.

Slalom was prime fodder for network sports television as late as 1978, when CBS Sports Spectacular broadcast the FreeFormer World Championships in Akron, Ohio. But momentum in the late 70s shifted decisively to aggressive styles, and by the early 80s the U.S. slalom scene had mostly dissipated.

Things were different in Europe. During the late 80s and early 90s, slalom blossomed there thanks in large measure to multi-time Swedish and European champion Jani Soderhall. He published a ‘zine called Slalom! and ran the International Slalom Skateboarding Association (ISSA) that sanctioned high-profile races throughout the continent, occasionally drawing top racers from the U.S.

The 1993 Jeux de Pyrenées, an alternative-sport Olympiad sanctioned by the French and Spanish Olympic Committees, included slalom and standup-downhill skateboarding, and also helped inspire the X-Games. But slalom momentum never carried from Europe to the American skate scene, which tends to start its own trends.

European slalom lulled a few years later, but American interest began regrouping in the late 90s with crossover energy from longboard and downhill enthusiasts, pollinated internationally via the vigorous discussion forums on Adam Nathanson’s highly influential Northern California Downhill Skateboarding Association Web site at ncdsa.com.

Scott Peer, head of the Westwood Ski Club, kick started the renaissance in 2000 by including slalom in his series of luge, standup-skateboard, and inline races at West L.A. College.

The most significant turning point came in May 2001, when Jack Smith boldly staged the World Championships in his hometown of Morro Bay, California.irst conceived as a national championship, interest from foreign racers prompted Smith to recast the event as an international showdown. Comet racer Gary Cross took first place in the pro class, with Swiss racer Maurus Strobel, representing Indiana, finishing a close second.

The success of the Morro Bay and subsequent events encouraged Smith and 1970s slalom competitors John Krisik and Don O’Shei to organize the FCR (Fat City Racing) series. It consists of eight races with both pro and open divisions, and it culminates this October in Morro Bay with the 2002 Worlds. The fifth FCR contest, held in July on the historic slalom hills of La Costa, was broadcast several times in mid August on the Fox Sports network.

Gordon has observed steady growth in the number of participants at the elite-class events. “The World Championships drew 70 racers from around the world,” he says. “By the end of last year, we had 80 or 90 just from the U.S. competing at La Costa. This year the FCR pro series has definitely helped move the sport forward.

“A lot of the participants are coming from snowboarding, skiing or surfing. So we’re tapping a different group of folks. That’s exciting for traditional skate shops who’re looking to develop new markets.”

Smith lists other factors that are contributing to the renaissance: “You have this age group of guys who still want to skate, but not necessarily ramp, vertical, or street. Slalom is something they could still do with a great deal of skill. And they now have the time and the money to travel.”

Many racers are also old friends who use the occasion of a slalom contest to get together. “The World Championships last year were similar to a high school reunion,” says Smith. “An interesting part of racing today is, you’ve got guys who grew up reading about legends like Henry Hester and John Hutson. Now they get to race against their old idols, and afterwards drink beer together and listen to great stories. A lot of the guys who’re racing have children, too, and this is a way for them to enjoy skating with their kids.”

The American revival may spark renewed developments overseas, with plans already underway to stage a major event next year in Soderhall’s adopted hometown of Paris.

As gear offerings multiply and past enthusiasts return in expanding numbers, the main question remains: Will slalom catch on among younger skaters? Increasing numbers of regional contests, such as the Grass Roots series, suggest solid potential for the future. “Definitely what powered the resurgence was the return of racers from 25 years ago,” says Gordon. “But a lot of participants are new. My kids–Lauren, age thirteen, and Dylan, age ten–and I discovered slalom only a year ago, and now we all compete in the FCR races. My daughter gets to race against other girls as well as ladies who raced pro in the 70s, and my son has become great friends with other kid racers, as well as pros like Hackett, Hester, Richy Carrasco, Brad Edwards, and many others. It’s been a super experience.”

Smith says that many of the current contenders raced back in the day, but at every event he’s seeing more younger competitors–both boys and girls: “When they try it, kids enjoy it. They can measure their improvement. It’s a work-reward program. They begin running a course at the start of the day, and by the end of the day, they’ve shaved off two seconds.”

Smith’s previous attempts to expose younger skaters to slalom via mainstream skate media have ended in a classic catch 22. “In the past, when I’ve approached the skateboard media about slalom, editors have told me that kids aren’t interested in it,” he says. “My comment to them is, ‘How would you know? You’ve never shown slalom to the kids.'”

A sea change is clearly underway. “We’re all here to celebrate the spirit of racing using skateboards,” says FCR series points leader and Turner Team Captain Paul Dunn. “Racing improves the breed. There’s no subjectivity to it. It’s all timed events. You are forced to make yourself faster with technique and equipment. All you need are a stack of cones and an empty parking lot.”

This seemingly low barrier to entry is the same one cited when industry veterans are asked to explain the dominance of street skating today–it’s cheap and accessible. “Slalom gear is an easy sale once you have a few participants,” says Dunn. “And it’s self-perpetuating because people need to move up on equipment levels as they get better. Granted, slalom decks will outlast your average street board by years, but there will eventually be a need for any serious rider to own many different decks.”l timed events. You are forced to make yourself faster with technique and equipment. All you need are a stack of cones and an empty parking lot.”

This seemingly low barrier to entry is the same one cited when industry veterans are asked to explain the dominance of street skating today–it’s cheap and accessible. “Slalom gear is an easy sale once you have a few participants,” says Dunn. “And it’s self-perpetuating because people need to move up on equipment levels as they get better. Granted, slalom decks will outlast your average street board by years, but there will eventually be a need for any serious rider to own many different decks.”