Starting in 1975 and running for four carnage-filled years on a wicked stretch of pavement near Long Beach, the Signal Hill Speed Run was a skateboard contest like no other before or since. Created by Santa Barbara’s own Jim O’Mahoney, the once-a-year competition had but one simple goal: to crown the fastest person on the planet when it comes to riding a skateboard down a hill. In the process it became much, much more.
Long forgotten by the extreme sports loving masses, this epic and and innovative and moderately insane bit of Southern California history finally gets its due in this feature-length documentary by Mike Horelick and Jon Carnoy. They both answered a few of my questions recently.
Would you/have you skated Hill Street?
Mike & Jon: As kids, we definitely would not have skated down Hill Street. Far too steep, far too scary, and far too dangerous. That said, when we started on this project, some of the original competitors said, “Mike and Jon, we can train you guys a bit and before you know it you’ll be bombing Signal Hill.” The answer was a polite no. As adults, we still realize it’s far too steep, far too scary, well, you get the idea.
Talk a bit about how you sourced all the historical footage?
M&J: Finding the historical footage and photographs was definitely among the most challenging parts of this project. We helped people dig through old boxes in garages and called everyone we know that was there in an effort to find more images and tell the story. And that part of the project is never done – we’re still looking for more!
What is the appreciation level amongst the skate and surf world for just how radical and innovative and downright nuts the Signal Hill skaters were?
M&J: There is no doubt that the Signal Hill skaters are underappreciated by the current surf and skate world. That is one of the main reasons we decided to make this movie: to bring attention to the men and women who, excuse the expression for the female competitors, put their balls on the line. Described by racer John Hughes as a hill that looked like “you were going straight down to hell,” it’s time that these extreme athletes receive their due.
Do you think something like the four races could happen in this day and age?
M&J: While downhill skateboarding is alive and well, the rough-and-tumble approach of the Signal Hill Speed Run would not cut it as compared to modern sanctioned races. It was this free-thinking attitude that kept the races fresh, you never knew what you would see next: a well-practiced competitor or some drunk dude on a Big Wheel!
At what point did you realize, “Holy shit, we have an awesome story here with truly classic characters?”
MH: When I wrote the article for the L.A. Times, titled ‘Board Out Of Their Minds,’ and met many of them, I realized immediately that the men and women who raced Signal Hill were amazing characters that have been somewhat forgotten to history. Some were Vietnam vets looking for an outlet for what they had experienced in the war, others were surfers looking to replicate the feeling of the world’s largest waves, and then there were the women who were told the race was too dangerous, which made them want to enter even more. Combine that with the desire to go a breakneck speed down a steep drop of a hill without legitimate brakes, well, that’s a story Hollywood can’t make up.
How did Ben Harper, who narrates the film, get involved in the project?
M&J: So here we are sitting in the legendary Rip City Skate Shop in Santa Monica, when who comes in but Ben Harper, who besides being an amazing musician, is a huge skateboarder. We worked up the courage to show him a couple rough clips from the project, and he loved it. He remembered reading about the races back in the day as a skateboarding kid. Ben brings an enthusiasm for the project that you can’t fake. He serves as the storyteller of this amazing tale, and exceeded our expectations only by about a thousand times.
What was your biggest challenge in making the film?
JC: This film was probably the most difficult thing I have ever done. To make a movie about an event that occurred over thirty years ago is no simple task. Many photos and lots of footage have simply vanished. We started out trying to make a short film about the race, but when the City of Signal Hill came on board as a sponsor, we decided to make it a feature-length documentary. It’s also taken over three years. I often joke that if I knew how long it would take, I wouldn’t have made it. But that’s only a joke. Mike and I now have the responsibility to the racers to tell their story, and that is extremely important.
How did you track down all the former competitors? What the general consensus when you would tell them you were working on a film about Signal Hill?
M&J: Hunting down the competitors began many years ago, when we bought the classic skateboard brand Tunnel. They had a team that competed at the race, so that was the beginning. Next, when Mike wrote the article, more racers were contacted. Now we have done our best to locate every racer, and we were able to locate about 75 percent.
Most of the time, the skaters have been cooperative to the Nth degree. This is their story, their race. During race days, these men and women were heroes, signing autographs, testing themselves against the monstrous hill in an effort to enter the Guinness Book of World Records. They soon realized it wasn’t the racers helping Mike and Jon with their movie, it became the Signal Hill movie for all involved!
So when is the reunion contest?
M&J: Not sure about a reunion contest, but this project definitely got the racers fired up. Tommy Ryan said, “60 at 60,” referring to going 60 miles an hour at 60 years old. Roger Williams pulled out a skatecar and got that thing moving! This project brought many back together. We’ve all had a great time and look forward to sharing the story with the world!
The world premiere of Signal Hill Speed Run is on Fri., Jan. 25, 7 p.m., at the Lobero Theatre.