By Steven Piper
A host of signs can be found at the bottom of Hill Street’s nearly 30-degree incline that bottoms out onto Obispo Avenue. Their messages are clear: no skateboarding, no bikes, and no trucks over three tons. In fact, skateboarding is no longer allowed anywhere in the city of Signal Hill.
The same was not true in the mid seventies– when the Signal Hill Speed Run tested the nerves of thrill-seeking skateboarders.
Searching for their fix of adrenaline, skaters would bomb down the hill, reaching speeds approaching 60 mile per hour. Crashes were not uncommon. Nor were the subsequent complimentary ambulance rides to the closest emergency room.
One competitor, Tina Trefethen, crashed into a pole at 58 miles per hour after crossing the finish line and had to have one of her lungs removed. After that crash, the city discontinued the event, ending a stint that had lasted from 1975 to 1978.
Realizing the historical significance of the downhill skaters and the precedent that they had set for extreme sports, Jon Carnoy and Mike Horelick, film producers and co-owners of Tunnel Skateboards, are in the process of documenting the Signal Hill Speed Run in a 44-minute film. The city’s redevelopment agency has awarded them a contract to produce a quality piece.
City Manager Ken Farfsing said he first heard of the speed runs after reading an article about the races in the Los Angeles Times. Coincidentally, Horelick authored the story. “We saw the article in the L.A. Times tracing extreme sports, which Signal Hill played a role in originating,” Farfsing said. “Extreme sports are going to grow exponentially, so it will be good to get Signal Hill in the literature.”
The documentary will be the fourth of four recent films that capture Signal Hill’s past. Preceding this creation were: Signal Hill, a Diamond in the Rough (2006), History of the Hancock Refinery Fire (2008), and Successes of the Redevelopment Agency (2009).
“We were more than pleasantly surprised to hear [the City] will be supporting the project,” Horelick said. “It enables us to make a better film. We are beyond happy.”
The final product will be entered into numerous film festivals, including the Sundance Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival, Newport Film Festival, and X-festival, which is dedicated exclusively to extreme sports.
When Horelick and Carnoy purchased the skateboard shop in 2005, they came across the idea for the film after interviewing some of the old Tunnel Skateboards team members. “They talked about how this Signal Hill race was the ultimate challenge,” said Horelick, who graduated from the University of Southern California with a Master of Fine Arts in screenwriting. “We were looking for an interesting topic, and this fit the bill perfectly.”
Carnoy, who has worked as director for the hit reality-TV series The Real World, said that he has fond memories of the races as a ten-year-old. “You are transporting yourself in a totally different way. It captures your imagination as a kid,” Carnoy said. As the speed run progressed, so did the competitor’s skateboard designs. After a couple years, skate cars, an enclosed, high-tech skateboard equipped with breaks and a parachute for stopping, emerged as the fastest skate-craft.
“You don’t see the person in the car, which is kind of mysterious. All you see is the helmet. It adds a space age feel to it,” said Carnoy.
The director and producer grew up in Menlo Park near Palo Alto and graduated from New York University’s film school directing program with a Master of Fine Arts.
The film itself will tell a story that, until now, has remained relatively unnoticed. The only visible remnant of the races in Signal Hill is a piece of artwork in Cherry Park that commemorates the streetcars used in the race. The enclosed skateboards lead to the widely practiced street luge. “A lot of the developments of skateboard racing started in Signal Hill: women entering the skate scene, sliding, and skate cars,” Horelick said. “With all those developments, street luge became a part of the X Games.” In that event, participants race while lying on their backs on skateboards, and it is an annual event at the X Games, a large competition dedicated to action sports.
In addition to portraying the speed run, a brief history of Signal Hill will be given, including the Model-T hill climb, which also took place on the steep incline of Hill Street. “The speed run is going to be the heart of the film,” Horelick said. “We will expand into other extreme sports of the day, like hang-gliding, surfing, and skiing. Many of the competitors in the event came from other extreme sports.”
In order to make deadline for the film festivals, Horelick and Carnoy expect to have the film finished by January or February. Before finishing the piece, the producers require additional footage and photos from 1978. Any documentation from that year’s race can be turned into the Signal Tribune’s office at 939 E. 27th St.