About four years ago, co-directors Jon Carnoy and Mike Horelick set out on a journey to bring light to a relatively unnoticed subject– a downhill skateboarding competition in Signal Hill that has been called “the first X Game.” Their mission led them to produce a City-sponsored documentary that debuted last week and is being featured in several film festivals in coming months.
The near 90-minute film, narrated by singer and musician Ben Harper, chronicles the Signal Hill Speed Run, a downhill skateboarding competition that ran for a brief, four-year stint from 1975 to 1978. Today, however, skateboarding anywhere in Signal Hill’s rolling streets is illegal, and only pedestrians use the hill’s steep incline for recreational activity.
After a world premiere at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival last Friday, about 300 people, including City officials and original skateboarders of the run, were able to watch the film for the first time during a private screening at the University Theatre at California State University, Long Beach on Sunday, Jan. 27.
The documentary became even more meaningful to locals and the skateboarding community last week after the passing of Don “Waldo” Autry, a Long Beach native considered a skateboarding “legend” by friends and family, just days before the debut event.
Although virtually unknown today, the contest, which attracted daredevils of all types, including women, achieved legendary status in its heyday and is credited with paving the way for extreme sports.
“To me, the skaters of today really have no idea where they came from… and this is it,” said John Hughes, who, in his early 20s, placed second in the speed run for riding a kneeboard in 1976. Hughes, who said he thought the film was “outrageous,” said he held back tears while watching the old footage.
Thrill-seeking skateboarders, brave enough to take on the more than 30-degree-angle slope of Hill Street in Signal Hill, broke world records, as the first to reach speeds of more than 50 miles per hour. Whether standing up, lying down or on their knees, competitors, who wore dazzling leather suits and helmets, barreled down the hill for the fastest times. The hill, which the speed run’s founders described as a “roller-coaster,” was also famous for the Model T Hill Climb in the 1920s.
Despite the danger, however, the City of Signal Hill permitted the skateboarding competition that was first staged and promoted by Skateboard and Hang-Glider magazine publisher Jim O’Mahoney, now owner of the Santa Barbara Surf Museum. The run was started as part of the Guinness World Records TV show, and the contest went on to become an annual event with dozens of competitors, drawing crowds of 5,000 people and receiving coverage by television news crews and Sports Illustrated.
Guy “Grundy” Spagnoli, who later became a professional surfer, completed the first attempt down the hill without any practice runs, clocking in at 50.2 miles an hour. One year later, Sam Puccio Jr. rode down on his back on a homemade skateboard, passing the finish line at 54 miles per hour. That skateboard would become the unofficial prototype for what is used today in “street luge” races.
The speedsters eventually started bombing down the hill in “skate cars”– metal, enclosed, aerodynamic skateboard contraptions that required parachutes for stopping.
Some of the risk-takers, however, ended up careening into the crowd and open traffic, since the skate cars were hard to steer. Some racers wiped out in injurious falls and near-death accidents, which caused the City to eventually close the books on the contest.
“Basically, the accidents started adding up, and the City of Signal Hill decided in 1979…to not give out a permit again for another speed run,” Horelick said. “That was sort of the death of the speed run there, but skateboard racing still continues and did move on to other places.”
For some racers, however, injuries were life-changing. Tina Trefethen, a champion hang-glider, was 21 years old in 1978 when she crashed into a pole coming down the hill at approximately 58 miles an hour. The major accident landed her in the hospital after breaking her wrists and several ribs, and she had to have a lung removed.
Watching the series of events unfold on the big screen was “very emotional,” she said in a phone interview. “It was pretty hard for me to watch some of that,” said Trefethen, who said she stays busy today fabricating and engineering ultra-light airplanes and racecars. “It‘s very amazing I’m alive… I appreciate every day… I wonder, ‘What if that never would have happened to me?’”
Filmmakers Horelick and Carnoy first came across vintage skateboard photos of the run after purchasing a skateboard shop and the Tunnel Skateboard brand in 2005. Horelick, an author who graduated with a master’s degree in screenwriting from USC, and Carnoy, who has worked as director for the reality-TV series The Real World after graduating from New York University, then both approached the City of Signal Hill and the Signal Hill Historical Society to be involved in the research and making of the documentary.
For years, that part of the city’s history has gone relatively overlooked, except for artwork in Cherry Park that commemorates the skate cars.
Signal Hill City Manager Ken Farfsing said that an article in the L.A. Times written by Horelick in 2007 noted that the City had not properly honored the race. Although the City has highly honored the City’s well-known oil history, there were no plaques or monuments about the speed run, which is why Farfsing said he wanted to make sure the City collaborated with the directors on the documentary. In 2010, the City’s redevelopment agency awarded the directors a contract to produce the film, and the rest was “history,” he said during the screening.
“They didn’t realize in the late 1970s that they were really giving birth to a brand-new sport,” said Farfsing, who added that “street luge,” although not yet an Olympic sport, was added to the X Games in 1995. He said the speed run is also considered the launching pad for downhill skateboarding and other extreme sports, such as big-wave riding and snowboarding. “You really are pioneers,” Farfsing said.
The documentary is the fourth film about Signal Hill’s history sponsored by the City. Other documentary films include: Signal Hill, a Diamond in the Rough (2006); History of the Hancock Refinery Fire (2008); and Successes of the Redevelopment Agency (2009).
Horelick said The Signal Hill Speed Run is showing again at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival Saturday, Feb. 2, and then at the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival in March.