The Archives: Larry Balma Shares 40 Years of Tracker Trucks & Skate Industry History
Larry Balma and his partners are credited with creating the modern skateboard truck in the early 70s. Looking back on this time, Balma calls himself a “fisherman by day and inventor by night.” This was nothing new for the young Alhambra, California native, who built his first skateboard at age 14 so that he “could practice surfing when I couldn’t get to the beach.”
By 1973, Balma had moved to Leucadia and was working as a commercial fisherman. He was patching lobster traps at his house one day, when he recalls: “My friends came by and shouted, ‘come on, we’re going skateboarding!’ I said, ‘skateboarding? I haven’t skateboarded in years.’ They said ‘no, we’ve got these new wheels!’ They were talking about the new polyurethane Cadillac wheels that had just been introduced by Frank Nasworthy.”
Balma credits Nasworthy’s wheels as “the Big Bang” that set his company, Tracker Trucks, and all other modern skateboard companies in motion. From there, he spent most of his free time skating the hills of La Costa and building skateboards with Sure Grip roller skate trucks. It didn’t take long for Balma to make the discovery that more durable bearings were needed to accomplish the type of skating his friends and he were interested in. After pricing out the cost of building this type of gear, Balma and his friends felt unsure whether the public would pay $30 or more for a skateboard. But they kept pushing their innovative ideas anyway, and in 1975, they introduced the first prototype for Tracker Trucks.
Forty years later, the company has taken its place in history as one of the iconic forefathers of skateboarding.
“My original partners Dave Dominy, Gary Dodds, and I knew we were on to something great, but had no idea how it would be accepted and revered all over the world.,” explains Balma. “We are honored that Tracker Trucks was inducted into The Skateboarding Hall of Fame as the 2015 ICON Award recipient.”
We recently caught up with Balma as his self-published book—which gained critical support on Kickstarter—is being introduced at specialty skate shops across the country. Here’s what he had to say about Tracker, shaping the skateboard industry, and where it’s all headed.
Initially, you didn't think there was a place for the Tracker Trucks when you were conceptualizing the company, based on the fact that $30+ for a skateboard was a steep pricepoint at the time. What made you and your partners change your mind over the course of those several years between when you first had the idea and actually launched the prototype?
Skateboarding was growing wildly because of the first Cadillac urethane wheels and the others that followed. My friend Bill Bahne had sold 100,000 skateboards in 1973 at a retail price of $30 each. Even though we knew it would be more expensive we decided to take another look at the possibility of producing a real skateboard truck that was wider and stronger.
When you came up with the idea for Tracker you were working as a Fisherman and as a lineman for the telephone company. Cable installations brought you into the huge aircraft factories and you mentioned these experiences really served as internships for you at a young age in the art of business. How did you translate that knowledge into the early days of Tracker?
I was also a mechanic, a journeyman machinist and a welder/fabricator. All my previous jobs gave me a real world insight into how much work it took, what was important, and how to strive for efficiency. I was also a commercial fisherman. Fishing in the open ocean is a very dangerous occupation; decisions on the ocean are life and death and you may not get another chance. I lost several friends during my eight years fishing. They made choices based on saving time, money, and gear instead of their lives. I learned to weigh all my choices and make a calculated decision in order to survive. Business decisions are easier because you only gamble with money, not your life.
In a recent interview, you mentioned that you thought perfectionism can hold people back from accomplishing what they set out to do. In hindsight, what are some of the key lessons you took away from those early years with Tracker that helped you continue to build the brand?
My father was a wonderful craftsman, but tried to make everything so perfect it severely limited his production and resulted in an unrealistic cost. The first lesson that you have to understand is that there is no one perfect skateboard truck design. Skaters are different height and weight and have different riding styles and they ride differing terrains and disciplines. Each skater needs a different cushion hardness to adjust their suspension. They enjoy the feel of one truck geometry more than another. The more options you offer, the more skaters you will be able to satisfy. The challenge is always to build a high quality durable product that you can be proud of, that functions as intended and be able to produce it as efficiently as possible in order to be price competitive.
You must be very frugal with your dollars. You save money on the rent while you are in the garage but you won't be paid for all your hours for a while down the road, and you will be paying everyone else that helps you. If you have a lot of passion in your product and work long, hard hours—and have a little luck—you have a chance at success. If you never try you will never have that chance… follow your dreams.
The time period when you started Tracker was completely different in the fact that you were pioneering a category that had lots of room for evolution and innovation—this is so amazing. What advice would you give to entrepreneurs today who are "working out of their garages" the same as you were back then, and who want to bring something innovative to the market?
There were no real skateboard trucks in 1974, just cheap, weak 1 7/8" wide roller skate trucks or copies with different names. We introduced the 4 1/4" wide Tracker Fultrack Truck constructed out of heat treated aircraft alloy materials, which was strong, lightweight and the first truck built for skateboarders by skateboarders. The skateboard market was growing and they needed stronger equipment, they needed Trackers. Bahne and Bennett skateboard trucks came out at the same time but they were still narrow, about 2 3/8" wide. The Bennett broke and Bahne was not as sexy. By the time they made wider trucks Tracker had production, the team, the name, and the quality. We remained the #1 selling truck brand for the next 15 years.
Today there is a lot of competition in the action sports industry. You need to have a unique product that you can produce at a decent cost along with a clever advertising program. You must be very frugal with your dollars. You save money on the rent while you are in the garage but you won't be paid for all your hours for a while down the road, and you will be paying everyone else that helps you. If you have a lot of passion in your product and work long, hard hours—and have a little luck—you have a chance at success. If you never try you will never have that chance… follow your dreams.
How did you come up with some of the early marketing campaigns, "In the spirit of competition"?
There were slalom competitions every weekend all around the globe in the early days. Downhill and slalom has a clear-cut winner every race. Skateparks were being built, a new place to compete. Competition is an emotional drive deep within our soul or spirit. Tracker Trucks were professional quality equipment used by the pro's. ‘Performance Proven’ was another campaign. On Trackers 40th anniversary, high quality, performance, and strength continue to be the driving force of the brand.
Tracker was extremely successful in the 70s, but also weathered the storm that saw the skateboarding industry fall again in the late 80s. What has it been like watching the evolution of the sport and the industry over the years?
There are boom and bust cycles in any action sports business and cycles in the overall economy. We had no history to look back on in the early days of skateboarding; we had to learn by the school of hard knocks. Today you can analyze history and plan for the future. Those who ignore history are bound to repeat it.
In the '90s the new group of aggressive manufacturers did not work together and fought dog-eat-dog, undercutting each other's prices and as a result profit margins shrank. As prices dropped and production costs increased, skateboard hard goods became more of a commodity.
Building on that question, what are your thoughts about the future of the industry–where do you see it headed?
Since the '70s when I became involved we have had formal industry manufacturer associations and also informal groups. There are always contest series willing to showcase our sport and promotors out to make a buck. In the '80s we had the Big Five. Brad Dorfman of Vision, George Powell of Powell/Peralta, Rich Novak of NHS, Fausto Vitello of Independent, and Thrasher and myself of Tracker and TransWorld SKATE. We all competed heavily with each other for market share but we came together once a month and worked together to promote our sport in order to grow the marketplace and enlarge our consumer base. We paid special attention to maintain decent profit margins on our products so that we could fund the promotions and our pro skaters. Each of us put up ten to twenty thousand dollars a month to subsidize events around the globe not to mention royalty's paid to our pro skaters.
In the '90s the new group of aggressive manufacturers did not work together and fought dog-eat-dog, undercutting each other's prices and as a result profit margins shrank. As prices dropped and production costs increased, skateboard hard goods became more of a commodity. Luckily the soft drink and shoe companies along with large media giants, which had been courted by the Big Five, finally came on board with their huge advertising budgets promoting skateboard events. This helped enable pro skaters to have a chance to earn a real living.
Jim Fitzpatrick of IASC, International Association of Skateboard Companies, promoted bills in California that became law and established skateboarding as a hazardous activity and this eliminated liability for personal injury allowing cities to build public skateparks. This has been adopted by many other states resulting in many more public skateparks. Passionate skaters and manufacturers who have enjoyed success are today giving back to skate communities in less fortunate cities and countries around the world. This is accomplished with individuals and groups working with fundraising foundations. The philanthropic act of giving back is admirable and the result is more happy skaters to enjoy our sport and expand our industry.
The skateboard market is still growing, the activity is more widely known and accepted, the pie is getting larger, and it is up to each manufacturer to find a product to satisfy the needs of today's consumer.
The raw beginnings of TransWorld began in the Tracker building upstairs of production…The factory was only three blocks from the beach and we would walk down to the shell bowl to skate and then paddle out for a surf, and come back to start our evening working on TWS and share some pizza. Around midnight or later I would come back into my office to crash on the couch and usually someone else already had that spot so I slept on the floor waking up at 6 a.m. to begin again. We had a blast in those early days and our passion literally oozed from the pages.
How did founding TransWorld SKATEboarding influence and evolve your perspective on the industry? What are some of your favorite memories from this time period?
My partner Peggy Cozens and I founded Imprimatur, Inc. dba TransWorld Publications with TransWorld SKATEboarding Magazine in 1983. Imprimatur is Latin for "let it be printed." Our goal was to showcase the sport of skateboarding and the skaters in all disciplines all around the globe. Our motto was to "grow and support the sport." Skateboarding is an individual rather than a team sport and the participants tend to be creative types. Skaters are artists, writers, musicians, photographers, and forward thinkers not bound by rules like team sports. It has been an awesome journey building the TransWorld family with all the creative people and helping to build the action sports industry with our many titles. All of the board sports are aggressively dynamic and exciting, and the participants have formed lifelong bonds with one another. I'm proud to be a part of this family.
The raw beginnings of TransWorld began in the Tracker building upstairs of production. Our staff included skaters like J. Grant Brittain, Garry Davis, Neil Blender, Bryan Ridgeway, Britt Parrott, Lance Mountain, and Jim Goodrich. We all had our day jobs and quit working around 4 p.m. The factory was only three blocks from the beach and we would walk down to the shell bowl to skate and then paddle out for a surf, and come back to start our evening working on TWS and share some pizza. Around midnight or later I would come back into my office to crash on the couch and usually someone else already had that spot so I slept on the floor waking up at 6 a.m. to begin again. We had a blast in those early days and our passion literally oozed from the pages.
What was it like putting this book together and taking a look back at all the incredible memories and stories along the way? How long of a process was the making of this book, especially compiling all of the interviews and imagery?
The journey producing “Tracker – Forty Years of Skateboard History” began four years ago with my wife Louise organizing our forty year collection and archives and scanning thousands of images. My first team manager/photographer Lance Smith joined us as photo editor. Garry Scott Davis, AKA GSD, became our art director and editor extraordinaire. Team managers Bryan Ridgeway and Buddy Carr and even Stacy Peralta offered valuable research and edit. David Hackett and Tony Magnusson brought content and advice. Jake Stewart and Cameron Wetzler were our video team. Evan Shoman helped with Photoshop, Peggy Cozens and Steve Vosseller proofread and Louise and Max Dufour kept us in focus.
Interviewing eighty five Tracker skaters was a real pleasure, some of whom I hadn't seen for over 30 years. Louise spent three or four days transcribing each interview and then GSD edited as many as 18 typewritten pages of interview down to three pages that would end up being one page of tiny type in the book.
We worked on the book for almost four years, with many long hours; it is not an easy task. We printed 1492 images out of the thousands that we considered to fill our 388 pages. We love our book and early comments from the skate community indicate that our consumers are equally stoked.
What's next for you and Tracker?
I am currently working on some new truck molds improving design and production efficiency; remember our sport is dynamic…