Who knew that a Navy brat from Annandale would discover the key to the modern skateboard?
But that is exactly what Frank Nasworthy did in the summer of 1970. By deciding to replace his skateboard's clay wheels with high-tech synthetic rubber wheels he stumbled upon, Nasworthy made it possible to do the sort of tricks that today's average mall rat considers ho-hum.
Skateboarder David Baldwin displays his skills in a sport that might have fizzled out had it not been for an Annandale teenager who opted for new urethane wheels.
(1975 Photo Joe Heiberger -- The Washington Post)
"It was so revolutionary, it spawned an entire movement," said Stacy Peralta, a champion skateboarder in the 1970s who produced the cult skateboard film "Dogtown and Z-Boys." "Skateboarding wouldn't be where it is. It wouldn't exist."
Nasworthy's innovation, which he tested on the streets of Arlington and on the granite and marble playground of the Mall during that summer, resuscitated skateboarding, saving it from going the way of the hula hoop and the yo-yo.
Southern California was the center of surfing and skateboarding, but Nasworthy's discovery will preserve a place for the Washington area in skateboard history, said Michael Brooke, author of "The Concrete Wave," a history of the sport.
"It's amazing that the birthplace of the urethane wheel is Washington, D.C.," Brooke said.
Nasworthy didn't invent urethane. He wasn't even the first to make a wheel out of the petroleum-based compound. But, in the best tradition of American entrepreneurs, Nasworthy knew enough to recognize that the wheels would make a skateboard jump and rock and roll -- and that a few bucks could be made on that.
Nasworthy's father was a naval aviator who worked at the Pentagon, so his family spent the summer of 1970 in Northern Virginia. Elsewhere that year, "Love Story" and "M*A*S*H" drew crowds to air-conditioned theaters. The Chicago Seven were acquitted. In South Carolina, two white men tried to storm a school bus to prevent integration. Janis Joplin died.
One day Nasworthy and a high school friend, Bill Harward, went to visit another friend, whose family owned a plastics factory in Purcellville. The friend's dad tinkered with making things out of urethane. In the factory was a barrel filled with small wheels.
"I just looked at those wheels and thought, 'Wow, those would fit on our skateboards,' " Nasworthy recalled. "He told us to take as many as we wanted because they weren't perfect, and they were actually trying to figure out how to dispose of them."
He took about 30 to 40 wheels. When he got home, he put them on his skateboard and headed straight for the hills of Columbia Pike. Unlike balky clay wheels, the new wheels rode like a dream as he cruised toward the Pentagon, using parking garages and driveways along the way as private skate parks.
Then, he and his friends went to a nearby Toys R Us and bought up whatever clay-wheeled skateboards the store still had since the first wave of skateboarding had died five years earlier. They spent the rest of the summer carving the concrete slopes of the Washington area, the first teenage crew anywhere to have what is now considered a typical modern skateboard.
Their favorite places to skateboard included a Catholic girls' school and the area around the Lincoln Memorial. "There was so much concrete and granite around, so to skate all over it was a blast," he remembered.
The first skateboards in the 1950s were handmade, basically young boys nailing metal roller skate wheels to a piece of wood. If one survived the ride, his teeth would rattle, several skateboard pioneers recalled.
"First time I saw one was a bunch of kids coming down the Pacific Coast Highway on a one-by-six," said Hobie Alter, surf, skateboard and boating legend. "I said, 'You guys are nuts.' "
In 1959, the first skateboards hit toy stores. They were basically of the same crude design except they were made in a factory. In 1962, the first skateboard competition took place, and the first skateboard shop opened.
The skateboard craze took off nationwide in 1964, spread by Alter and a crew of the best California surfers. That summer, they rented a Ford Condor bus, filled it with gas and took off cross-country. In places where there were no waves, they played surfing movies and showed off their skateboard moves.
"Nobody had ever seen it," Alter said. His crew even made it onto "The Tonight Show" and had Johnny Carson riding a skateboard down a studio hallway.
But the early skateboards, with wheels made of metal or clay, just didn't grip well. "You couldn't maneuver it well. It was a joke," Brooke said. Kids were getting hurt; police chiefs were calling for bans on the boards. By Christmas 1965, the skateboard fad went bust.
After the summer of 1970, Nasworthy moved to California, but he never forgot about those amazing urethane wheels he got in Purcellville. Three years later, he got a company called Creative Urethanes to produce wheels specially for skateboards. (Nasworthy called them "Cadillac Wheels" because of their smooth ride.)
And he started pitching the wheels to skateboard manufacturers, skate shops and others. After some success, he said, Cadillac Wheels were overtaken in the marketplace by other manufacturers. Nasworthy, 53, is now an engineer for Hewlett-Packard in California.
Soon skateboarders began using the new urethane wheels to redefine what could be done on a skateboard. Stacy Peralta clearly remembered the first time he rode a board with urethane wheels.
"I took three pushes to the sidewalk, and it wasn't giving way -- I could build momentum," he said. "It was out of this world. Talk about a pinnacle moment in your life."
Peralta was part of a group of surfers from a tough part of Santa Monica, Calif., called "Dogtown." They would surf between the rotting piers of a closed amusement park. When the waves weren't up, the surfers took to skateboards. They pioneered quick surfing moves and a down-low style that created a new skateboarding aesthetic.
Soon, the group and its followers scouted the Los Angeles area for empty swimming pools in which they could practice new tricks and routines on the smooth concrete walls. Stylish photos of these radical pool sessions were reprinted in new skateboard magazines that were snapped up in 7-Eleven stores across the country, spurring skateboarding to new heights.
Skateboard routines and boards have changed since then, but the sport is still about freedom and attitude.
Nasworthy said skateboards fulfill a desire of kids to move, explore and experiment.
"It is still about the thrill of potential energy," he said, "and doing it in a manner that you can express yourself emotionally."