Jamie Hart clutches his skateboard and walks up the hill for the third time this recent morning – always back up the hill, like the myth of Sisyphus with a wooden deck and wheels.
An SUV slows down to take stock of Hart, whose long, graying ponytail peeks from the back of his helmet. Hart has set up dozens of cones in a zigzag pattern on a steep grade of Estates Drive, a makeshift slalom course in this otherwise upscale Wilhaggin neighborhood.
At the top, Hart, 62, places his skateboard on the ground, slides pads over his knees and pushes with his right foot. He takes flight, weaving between the cones with arms outstretched, hitting speeds close to 25 miles per hour, just like he did as a young man in the 1970s. At the end of his run, Hart drags a foot on the pavement to avoid launching into traffic on American River Drive.
Then it’s back up the hill.
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“I can do this all day long,” said Hart, as sweat trickled down his cheek. “There aren’t too many people my age that do this. I’m proud of it.”
Sacramento may be home to cliques of aging skaters, but few riders put their bodies at risk the way Hart does with downhill skateboarding, a sport that’s seen a resurgence in popularity over the past decade. This Sacramentan was one of the top competitors of slalom skateboarding in the 1970s and considered a legend of the sport.
And his wheels keep rolling. On Friday, Hart travels to Texas to compete in the weekend’s World Championships of Slalom Skateboarding.
Hart, a retiree from the retail truck business, will race in the masters division, which is geared for ages 45 and up. He’ll compete in three events: giant slalom, tight slalom and hybrid slalom. Hart ranks as its oldest competitor, and one of its toughest. He’s a veteran of such legendary downhill competitions as the Signal Hill Speed Run in Long Beach, a definitive contest from the mid-1970s that inspired a recent documentary.
“He was one of the top guys, and a nice guy and great competitor,” said Mike Horelick, the co-director of “The Signal Hill Speed Run” film. “Jamie Hart, Cliff Coleman, John Hutson – anyone who knows who these guys are respects them as icons. Jamie might be the last guy from Signal Hill who’s still competing.”
And not just competing, but still winning, and still staying relevant. At 59, Hart won a giant slalom contest in San Luis Obispo. Concrete Wave, a skateboard magazine that covered the event, said “a historic figure re-emerged” in describing Hart’s win.
‘Wide World’ appearance
In the darkened guest room of his Sierra Oaks home, Hart slides a tape into a videocassette recorder. He fixates on the screen as the grainy footage unspools.
The year is 1977. Hart is 26, sporting a bushy mustache that’s straight from the “Me Decade” and some thigh-hugging shorts. He steps to the starting line at the Catalina Classic skateboard contest as cameras from ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” capture the action. Host Jim Lampley narrates as Hart powers down the hill toward the finish line.
“As you watch Hart, see how smooth his style is,” Lampley says. “He is the leader after two runs. He needs a time of 27.170 in order to better his overall time. As he comes through the finish, he ends up with a good run ... but I don’t think his time will be quick enough .”
Hart hits the “stop” button and smiles. He came in second place that day, losing by just a few tenths of a second to Hutson, another downhill skateboarding icon. Hart netted $1,800 – half of that prize winnings, and the other $900 matched by his sponsor, Santa Cruz Skateboards. The money was nice, but the “Wide World of Sports” appearance, which included pre- and post-race interviews with him, counts as one of Hart’s greatest treasures.
“I was such a dark horse, and it was so unexpected,” Hart said. “It was like a dream.”
While street skating and aerial maneuvers from ramp and pool skating tend to dominate the sport’s coverage, downhill skateboarding was once among the sport’s key attractions. The Signal Hill Speed Run and other contests drew thousands, and were sometimes covered by such TV networks as ABC and CBS.
Modern street and vertical skateboarding might show off plenty of technical tricks, but no-frills speed and slalom contests, where competitors race for time, still provide plenty of thrills.
“Downhill skateboarding was supposed to be the next big thing, until people were crashing and it started to die out,” Horelick said. “It’s gained a lot of traction for many years. All ages compete and there’s an international circuit. It’s not to the level of the 1970s, but it’s a growing thing, and most importantly there are a lot of great athletes.”
His own bubblegum card
Hart keeps a room dedicated to the mementos collected over a life of skateboarding. Vintage issues of Skateboarder magazine that mention him are stacked on a small table. His Santa Cruz Skateboards team T-shirt hangs on a wall inside a frame. There’s enough vintage skateboard decks to make the room look like a mini museum.
Hart’s win at the Catalina Classic event netted his own bubblegum card from General Mills, which was capitalizing on the 1970s skateboarding craze via trading cards.
Hart first started skating in 1963, at the height of the “sidewalk surfing” fad. He’d already been something of a speed demon when it came to downhill skiing, and became known as a hellion behind the wheel when he started driving.
“I used to burn out around every street corner and leave rubber everywhere,” Hart said.
The development of urethane skateboarding wheels in the 1970s meant the speed limits of clay wheels could be broken. Hart and his friends would head east to El Dorado Hills to channel their inner daredevils and conquer new terrain.
“We’d go up there and camp out at night, and then we’d ride the hill at night, a road called Wilson Way,” said Hart. “We’d hit 40 miles per hour. This was all before El Dorado Hills was developed and it was just a nice, smooth road up there.”
But despite Hart’s growing skateboard fame and solid showing at contests, his parents hoped he’d step off the board at some point. The Hart family ran a successful Peterbilt dealership, and it was expected that their skateboarder son would turn his full attention to the family business.
“My dad’s standard line was: ‘How is skateboarding going to benefit you in the retail truck business? How are you going to get ahead in our business skateboarding?’” Hart said.
Hart established himself as one of the area’s top skateboarders, and banded together with other speed fiends under the name “Fat City Racing.” Hart and some of the team then became original members of the N-Men, a legendary Sacramento skateboard crew that’s been rolling since 1975.
“There was really nobody else of his caliber in Sacramento then,” said Randy Katen, a co-founder of the N-Men and the crew’s figurehead. “I don’t think he’ll ever stop. He’s in better shape than half the men in their 30s. He’s an athlete and trains like an athlete.”
Hart has worked hard to keep fit. In addition to hiking up hills, he stays in shape mostly through cycling. He says he logged 7,500 miles on his bike last year, and hit 712 miles during September.
“My new fan base is grandparents,” Hart said. “They go to these contests to watch their grandchildren compete. When they find out I’m their age and I’m doing it, and they’re sitting in a chair watching, all of a sudden they’re rooting for me.”
Wife unmoved by his injuries
Hart shows off the board that he hopes will bring him speedy success in Texas – a Johnny Miller “Thriller” deck from the company Jet. The surfboard-shaped board provides him with extra length and width for stability as he races downhill.
Four corners of the board are sanded down slightly to reduce the chance of “wheel bite,” a worst-case scenario that will send any skateboarder slamming onto the street.
Hart knows physical risks of the sport. Throughout his decades of skating, Hart has torn the meniscus in his knee, broken a rib and broken a cheekbone while simultaneously rupturing a sinus, among other skin-peeling events.
His wife of 23 years, Shannon Farrell-Hart, leaves it up to him to take his lumps.
“She has no sympathy for any road rash or any of my injuries,” Hart said. “She says, ‘There’s no fool like an old fool.’”
But Hart’s age might be one of his assets as a competitive downhill skateboarder. He has learned the intricacies of foot placement, such as treating his back foot as a rudder while he weaves between cones.
Hart also carefully considers his gear. He favors wheels that are slightly coned – like those on a NASCAR race car – and grip well in turns. Some of his skateboard set-ups cost upward of $1,000, with decks that contain carbon fiber for extra flexibility.
Hart passes on some of these tips to his 14-year-old son, Joey, who’s won some downhill competitions of his own. Some tips can’t be taught, but learned only by experience.
“Confidence is really important and being comfortable on the board,” said Hart, who has hit speed near 60 mph on his skateboard. “It’s about doing it enough to where you can jump on the board and your feet are always in the right spot.”
In Texas, Hart’s aiming for “clean runs,” or those in which no cones are knocked over as he races for the fastest time. He knows he’s lucky to be competing at all. He turns 63 in January, well past the expiration date for competitive skateboarders. But he has no plans to quit.
“I say it every time: I’m one injury away from retiring,” Hart said. “And then I have the injuries and I don’t retire. I just keep doing it.”