Tracker set the standard a quarter century ago.

One of the last categories of skateboard hardgoods to be inundated by new brands, trucks are the most technically challenging devices on a skateboard to design and manufacture. While sizes and subtle features have evolved over the years, the trucks skaters ride today are based on the same fundamental design principles as the original roller-skate type.

As skateboarding began to experience its second wave of popularity in the early 70s, thanks in part to improvements in wheels and bearings, a slew of brands began to appear. At the time most companies like Bahne and Cadillac focused on improving decks and wheels, using roller-skate trucks like those made by the Chicago roller-skate company, for their complete skateboards. These trucks were adapted to skateboards by mounting them onto flat metal baseplates, which would then be screwed into a board. Roller-skate trucks were narrow–less than two-inches wide–and flimsy, and required inserts over their seven-millimeter axles to accommodate the new eight-millimeter precision bearings, introduced with the Road Rider wheel in 1975.

A year earlier, a group of skaters in San Diego began sessioning the newly paved and unused streets and hills of La Costa. The smooth and long roads attracted skaters from all over, and many who first took up the sport in the early 60s were experiencing a personal renaissance with the newer, grippier urethane wheels. One such skater was Larry Balma, then a marine engineer and commercial fisherman whose technical background in designing and machining marine hydraulics and custom hot-rod parts inspired him to analyze the small, frail skateboard components at the time. The wheels were pretty good, he decided, but the narrow and short decks and the grossly under-performing trucks begged him to tinker with some new designs.

That year Balma got together with a group of skaters from La Costa and formed a design company to develop and market innovative skateboards. Gary Dodds was a metal-pattern maker with experience in the foundry business, and Dave Dominy had a knack for sales and promotion. The new company was known as Dodds, Dominy, and Balma, and it operated as a part-time venture for the trio.

While early experiments with San Diego woodworker Charlie Watson resulted in some of the first laminated-maple decks, the partners decided to focus on building a new truck. “To take advantage of the new urethane wheels, you needed a wider truck,” says Balma. “I had been a machinist, so I knew how to work with the metals, but I didn’t know how to work with urethane. So we ended up making the truck.”

Dodds, Dominy, and Balma incorporated in 1975 as Tracker Designs, Ltd. The name comes from the movement of train-car wheel assemblies–known as trucks–which track one-another along the rails. Balma, whose father worked for the Southern Pacific railroad, saw the similarity in the way that skateboard trucks and train carriages operate.

The original Tracker Truck, later known as the Fultrack model, was released that year and was far bigger and more stable than any other truck. With a hanger width of 4 1/4 inches, it was twice as wide as most of the roller-skate trucks being used on skateboards, and had many features that would later become standard on most other trucks: a stationary kingpin (adjusted with a top-mounted aircraft locknut), heat-treated chromoly axles, a four-hole mounting pattern on the baseplate, and a hanger profile with a reinforced triangular truss.

As revolutionary as their product was, success didn’t come overnight for the partners, none of whom had much business experience. Balma continued his fishing venture at first as they worked out of Dominy’s garage in Cardiff, California, avoiding over-investing in business permits and registration while the company got on i feet. “We were keeping away from business licenses and insurance and all that stuff,” he says. “They the IRS were trying to find us, and they couldn’t get past the P.O. box. I’m out fishing, and I’m calling in from the boat like, ‘What’s going on? We need this many of this. Did you order this and this?’ It was ship to shore, everybody in the world can listen to what you’re talking about, and they’re probably thinking, ‘God, how many trucks did these guys build?’ They’re thinking real semi-type trucks. So I sold my fishing boat, we got a place in Sorrento Valley in San Diego and became a real business.”

That same year, other skateboard-truck companies began to appear. Bahne and Bennett each came out with narrow models that resembled the original Chicago roller-skate truck in size and shape. Tracker eventually released a narrower truck, as well; the Haftrack featured a 2 5/8-inch hanger, but still had the signature triangular-truss face. It was followed soon after by the 3 3/8-inch Midtrack. With three trucks to choose from, including the widest model on the market, Tracker quickly became the leading skateboard-truck brand.

The history of the company began with three individuals banding together to develop and produce a revolutionary new truck, and is punctuated by the arrival and contributions of several key individuals over the years. In 1977, Peggy Cozens became Tracker’s first real business person. She ran the office and kept the company organized while the other three ran around building, promoting, selling, and shipping trucks. Years later, she and Balma founded TransWorld SKATEboarding magazine.

Several team riders were also responsible for maintaining the product’s high profile as the market was deluged by competitors: Tony Alva, Stacy Peralta, Lance Smith, Alan “Ollie” Gelfand, Henry Hester, Chris Yandell, and Greg Weaver all rode them. The actual Tracker team roster from the 70s reads like a virtual who’s who of that era.

When the market peaked, Tracker had 45 employees and an overhead that nearly put the company out of business when skateboarding took a dive in 1979. The company had, in the meantime, developed a couple of off-shoot manufacturing ventures. That year, Balma bought out Dodds, who took the injection-molded plastics business, and Dominy left two years later with the sailboard operation. In the meantime, Balma scaled down the company, bought his way out of the Sorrento Valley lease, and found a small building in Oceanside that was sufficient for the limited demand in the early 80s.

The only problems were that the building wasn’t finished, it didn’t have power or permits, and Balma couldn’t wait–to stay in business, he had to make trucks. So he hastily finished the interior and tapped into the nearby power line. “You’re not supposed to occupy a building that hasn’t been finalized by the city,” he says. “So we’re in there, and we have kind of a fire drill arranged with a generator out front and a wire from the generator to the sub panel,” he says. “If a guy with a clipboard showed up, Peggy would holler from the office. One of us would run to the back and disconnect the power, and another would go to the front and start the generator so it looked like we were running off the generator power.”

Eventually the city caught on, and Balma had to come clean on the permits and pirated utilities. By then, though, the company was reorganized and sustainable, and Balma had made some friends at City Hall. “There are a lot of people along the way who, when you get down in the dumps, they help you out and make it work,” he says. “I guess I’m basically a survivor and I make things happen. If you push hard enough and work the long hours, you can usually make it happen.”

As skateboarding progressed through the 70s, Tracker kept up with the new wider decks by releasing the Extrack and Sixtrack, its five- and six-inch trucks that rounded out the line. By 1980, the second wave had come and gone, as did most manufacturers. But Balma knew people would return to skateboarding, and he was determined to be there when they did. “If you look back, in the 60s they sold a lot of skateboards,” he says. “Then it completely died out and went away in a few years. Then in the 70s there were a lot of manufacturers making product, the whole sport got big, and then it died down, but it didn’t go away to nothing. There was still a group of hardcore skaters skating. Ten years earlier, there wasn’t anyone left skating to speak of, and there were no companies left making any product at all. Zero.”

In the early 80s, the handful of surviving manufacturers nurtured the hardcore scene by continuing to sponsor pros, hold contests, and provide equipment that met the needs of the evolving sport. “It was a neat thing to do, a neat industry, and a neat challenge,” says Balma. “So we stuck it out and made a go of it. I get pretty determined. All the time growing up, my mom kept telling me, ‘You can do anything you want to do. You can be anybody you want to be if you work hard enough to get there, but don’t ever say you can’t do it.’ So that’s always been in my mind.”

To help stimulate the sport’s growth, Balma believed skateboarding needed a magazine that could convey the excitement of the sport. By the early 80s, Skateboarder had become the watered-down and short-lived Action Now, and Thrasher was black and white and too harsh for the age group Balma thought the sport needed to attract. In 1983 he and Cozens launched TransWorld SKATEboarding, and staffed it with a handful of skaters they were associated with through the Tracker staff and team. “None of the companies that were making product had enough money to make a catalog or anything,” he says. “So the ads we put in Thrasher magazine became the catalog. And the stores couldn’t afford to buy all the product, but they would order stuff for people. So when little Johnny comes into the store, and his dad looks at what’s available, the first thing they pull out is the magazine. Then they’d see some hardcore stuff in there and say, ‘Well, wait a minute Johnny, let’s go look at the soccer balls over here.’ We were losing sales because of that; we were losing growth.”

Despite the challenges of a recessed market, Balma continued to prototype, test, and release new products with the help of his team, which at the time included such new-breed notables as Steve Caballero, Tony Hawk, and Neil Blender. Tracker’s super-lightweight magnesium-alloy truck, while expensive, gave vert skaters an edge in the air. The injection-molded plastics operation that he and his partners launched in the 70s had produced the plastic Coper grinding devices that clipped onto the trucks. And in 1982 he produced the injection-molded Ultralight baseplate to lighten his trucks even further.

At a time when vert was still king–though there wasn’t necessarily much to rule just then–Tracker offered an array of aluminum/magnesium/Ultralight combinations for the new aerialists to lighten their loads. “We kind of always had an R&D program, though not everything made it from the team R&D side into production,” says Balma. “It was in the 70s that we made our first polymer truck, but we didn’t find a material that would withstand the shock loads that skating could give it until the 80s. And then it had some flex in it, so if you wanted to ride your trucks really tight, you were gonna get some flex out of the baseplate.&qun usually make it happen.”

As skateboarding progressed through the 70s, Tracker kept up with the new wider decks by releasing the Extrack and Sixtrack, its five- and six-inch trucks that rounded out the line. By 1980, the second wave had come and gone, as did most manufacturers. But Balma knew people would return to skateboarding, and he was determined to be there when they did. “If you look back, in the 60s they sold a lot of skateboards,” he says. “Then it completely died out and went away in a few years. Then in the 70s there were a lot of manufacturers making product, the whole sport got big, and then it died down, but it didn’t go away to nothing. There was still a group of hardcore skaters skating. Ten years earlier, there wasn’t anyone left skating to speak of, and there were no companies left making any product at all. Zero.”

In the early 80s, the handful of surviving manufacturers nurtured the hardcore scene by continuing to sponsor pros, hold contests, and provide equipment that met the needs of the evolving sport. “It was a neat thing to do, a neat industry, and a neat challenge,” says Balma. “So we stuck it out and made a go of it. I get pretty determined. All the time growing up, my mom kept telling me, ‘You can do anything you want to do. You can be anybody you want to be if you work hard enough to get there, but don’t ever say you can’t do it.’ So that’s always been in my mind.”

To help stimulate the sport’s growth, Balma believed skateboarding needed a magazine that could convey the excitement of the sport. By the early 80s, Skateboarder had become the watered-down and short-lived Action Now, and Thrasher was black and white and too harsh for the age group Balma thought the sport needed to attract. In 1983 he and Cozens launched TransWorld SKATEboarding, and staffed it with a handful of skaters they were associated with through the Tracker staff and team. “None of the companies that were making product had enough money to make a catalog or anything,” he says. “So the ads we put in Thrasher magazine became the catalog. And the stores couldn’t afford to buy all the product, but they would order stuff for people. So when little Johnny comes into the store, and his dad looks at what’s available, the first thing they pull out is the magazine. Then they’d see some hardcore stuff in there and say, ‘Well, wait a minute Johnny, let’s go look at the soccer balls over here.’ We were losing sales because of that; we were losing growth.”

Despite the challenges of a recessed market, Balma continued to prototype, test, and release new products with the help of his team, which at the time included such new-breed notables as Steve Caballero, Tony Hawk, and Neil Blender. Tracker’s super-lightweight magnesium-alloy truck, while expensive, gave vert skaters an edge in the air. The injection-molded plastics operation that he and his partners launched in the 70s had produced the plastic Coper grinding devices that clipped onto the trucks. And in 1982 he produced the injection-molded Ultralight baseplate to lighten his trucks even further.

At a time when vert was still king–though there wasn’t necessarily much to rule just then–Tracker offered an array of aluminum/magnesium/Ultralight combinations for the new aerialists to lighten their loads. “We kind of always had an R&D program, though not everything made it from the team R&D side into production,” says Balma. “It was in the 70s that we made our first polymer truck, but we didn’t find a material that would withstand the shock loads that skating could give it until the 80s. And then it had some flex in it, so if you wanted to ride your trucks really tight, you were gonna get some flex out of the baseplate.”

A new carbon-fiber material and a more rigid design would replace the original Ultralight baseplate by 1986, but by then weight was no longer the primary concern. “People pretty much wanted aluminum baseplates at that point,” he says, though that didn’t stop him from tinkering further. “The fun part for me is the R&D. I’m real hands-on, I like to be prototyping stuff and getting feedback on it. I got swallowed by the business side a lot, but that’s where I tried to hire managers who would do the business side of things.”

Tracker’s had a long line of employees and managers who moved on and established themselves in other sectors of the industry. Bryan Ridgeway, Chris Carter, Marty Jiminez, and Joe Bowers, to name just a few. Many of them moved to California from the East Coast and Midwest, and brought with them a fresh perspective and vital energy that helped fuel the company and its team. “Those guys were kind of a clique. They had the M.E.S.S. (Mid Eastern Skateboard) series, and those guys traveled across four states, driving twelve hours, just to skate.”

Of the various western migrants, one who stayed on for the long haul is Buddy Carr. He moved out west from Ohio in 1985 to live in his car and work in the factory finishing aluminum parts. Carr’s since become a partner and general manager at the company. Working his way through the various departments, he says, has been the best training he could imagine to help him in his current role. “I’ve done everything from screen boards to pressing axles into hangers to booking airline tickets for our team guys,” he says. “I’ve seen a lot of changes. With all that history behind me, it helps me make better decisions–not just with skateboard trucks, but also with decks, clothing, and the like. You sort of know what it takes to produce something. It’s not like pushing a button and here it comes.”

One of the unique characteristics of the company, he says, is that Tracker handles every step of the truck-making process, with the exception of pouring the molten aluminum–their exclusive foundries do that. But everything from design to protoyping, and from finishing to assembling the parts all happens at Tracker’s Oceanside, California factory. “Here we’re developing new ways of doing things–not just how to package it, but how to manufacture a part,” says Carr. “You’ve got to make the master patterns of the trucks oversized, then know exactly how much they’re gonna shrink so that at the finish line, everything fits together. Most people have no idea. They just want to buy a truck from somebody else, and they don’t want to do the research. We go through all those things every time we design something. It’s a lot of work, but when we do come out with something, we’re really proud of that piece when it comes together. And it’s six- or twelve-months-worth of work to get to that point.”

By the late 80s, the triangular-truss hanger design that the original Tracker Fultrack featured had become standard on most major tuck brands. Tracker made this clear in a provocative ad that ran in early 1990 and compared the evolution of several competitors’ trucks. Having established that, the company was ready to try something new.

The Quicktrack was the first departure from the basic original design. Its larger profile was deceiving, as the truck was actually designed to be lighter than the Sixtrack. A steeper geometry also gave it unique turning properties, but the Quicktrack system was interchangeable with the Sixtrack. “The Quicktrack was a little taller, and it had a cast-in axle. It was a separate truck, but you could swap baseplates and have different feelings of stability.”

By the early 90s, street was king, and street enthusiasts were following the curb gurus in a mass migration toward shorter, low-profile trucks. Enter the Tracker B-52, the street skater’s answer to the Sixtrack. This truck resembled the classic Tracker profile, but was lower than the Sixtrack, and therefore less maneuverable. Just as well, though, as maneuverability wasn’t in vogue at the moment.

The B-52 went through a couple mutations as Balma grappled with slipping axles. One novel solution he devised was the floating axle, which literally slid freely through the hanger, eliminating the pinch of a slipped axle. A later version of the B-52 even replaced the locknuts that held the wheels on with E-clips for a lower profile. “The point was to let it slip,” says Carr. “We went the opposite way from cast-in axles and allowed it to slip so the wheels would never jam.” By the end of ’93, the B-52 had a fixed axle, and the truck remained the Track