Skateboarding legend Tony Alva on his board in a dry pool
Skateboarding legend Tony Alva doing his thing.
Coast Life

Legendary skater Tony Alva reflects on what Santa Cruz Skateboards has meant in his career

As NHS Inc., the parent company of Santa Cruz Skateboards, celebrates its 50th anniversary, Wallace Baine tracked down Tony Alva to get a sense of Santa Cruz Skateboards’ impact not just on Alva’s career but on the skate world at large.

On Saturday, Santa Cruz Skateboards is celebrating its 50th anniversary with several activities, including a big free concert on the beach with the legendary band Dinosaur Jr.

Last week, Lookout caught up with one of skateboarding’s all-time greats, onetime “Z-Boy” Tony Alva, to talk about the role that Santa Cruz Skateboards and NHS Inc., its parent company, played in his legendary career.

Alva, 66, is credited with bringing surfing styles to skateboarding when he began skating professionally in the 1970s. As a young skater, he was part of the celebrated Z-Boys, who pioneered a skateboarding style in the empty swimming pools of drought-stricken Southern California. Alva is also known as an entrepreneur in the urban sports industry and as a musician with the psychedelic Los Angeles band His Eyes Have Fangs.

The following interview was edited for length and clarity.

Lookout: Thanks for taking the time to chat about Santa Cruz Skateboards. Are you in SoCal today?

Tony Alva: Oh, no problem. Yeah, I live right up in the canyon on the other side of Malibu. I surf out there quite a bit. Malibu is like my little Santa Cruz. I love Santa Cruz. My son lives up there. As matter of fact, he lived in Bonny Doon and Davenport for quite a while, and now he’s just a little farther up in the hills. He comes down and does all his surfing in the Santa Cruz area.

Lookout: Yep, it’s a pretty great place for that.

Alva: [Santa Cruz is] famous for the guys like … well, the most famous one was the young guy they made the movie about, Jay Moriarity. Surely, he died at a very young age. But you know what? He went out in a blaze of glory, as we say in the surfing world.

Lookout: We know his story well around here, as well as his mentor Frosty [Hesson].

Alva: Yeah, I met [Frosty] once. You’re not even gonna believe this. I met him in the middle of the desert in Baja California, of all places. He was at the next campfire over, and he was telling stories, as we do as surfers, and I figured out who he was. He’s got this big drive-anywhere kind of van. And he had his family with him.

Lookout: Well, I have been covering NHS for many years. And we all know what Santa Cruz Skateboards has meant locally. What I don’t know, and maybe you can help me with, is how Santa Cruz Skateboards is seen in the skateboarding industry as a whole, and with skateboarding pros like you.

Alva: I’d say, first and foremost internationally. Basically it’s like California lifestyle. What people just don’t understand is that it’s not that L.A./San Diego, kind of Southern California thing. It’s a very Northern California vibe. And I found out, basically from competing against guys that were sponsored by Santa Cruz [Skateboards] back in the day. I mean, these guys were formidable, they had a different attitude towards what they’re doing. They might be surfers, they might be skaters, but these guys are serious about what they do.

I was graciously accepted by the guys that actually own the company, [the late] Jay Shuirman and Richard Novak. I was a really good skater at a very young age. But I was just riding wood boards, so I didn’t have any technical advantage. But they decided to help me out by giving me a technical advantage. [In the early 1970s,] they started a wheel company that was their first and foremost adventure into the skateboarding industry. And it was called Road Riders. And those guys hooked me up, and they would bring me custom made Road Rider wheels with sealed bearings in them. I was 16 years old when they started Santa Cruz [Skateboards]. So I had just basically qualified as a pro skateboarder. I wasn’t even out of high school yet when I first met Richard Novak.

inside the headquarters of NHS, the company behind Santa Cruz Skateboards and other iconic skate brands
Road Rider wheels were a game-changer in the skateboarding industry.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout: Now, those sealed-bearing Road Rider wheels. Those were like game-changers, right? Because before that time, the wheel bearings would come out and you’d have to stop skating and repack them, right?

Alva: And the Cadillac wheels didn’t have those bearings. [Note: The Southern California-based company Cadillac marketed the first urethane skateboarding wheels, released the same year that SCS opened for business.] They just had the loose ball bearings. Those guys [at SCS] took it to another level because not only was their formula better, they added color to the wheels. Before that, the color was just natural, which looked like honey, which wasn’t bad, but the red-colored [Road Riders] ones made them iconic right away. Like you could spot those wheels from a mile away. And you knew when the guy had a set of those that they had an advantage. They were the best by far. It’s like having a super good set of tires on your car. I still ride them, if you want to know the truth, I have a board set aside specifically for that type of wheel.

Lookout: The other thing about NHS was their genius at branding. What is your experience with the Santa Cruz Skateboards brand?

Alva: Oh, it’s a major genius. Are you kidding? I mean, you can go anywhere in the world. You could be in Japan, you could be in the middle of, like, Portugal, you could be in Morocco. You can be anywhere, and if somebody has a Santa Cruz shirt on, that’s not only a conversation-starter, but it’s almost like having a sense of identification [with skateboarding], you know what I mean?

Lookout: So, in your career, Santa Cruz Skateboards gave you a real, measurable advantage in competition?

Alva: The bottom line is, if I didn’t have those Road Riders, I wouldn’t have won. I would not have been able to compete on the level that I did. I would not have won those contests, and I wouldn’t have been able to keep up with these guys. Remember, a lot of these guys, especially in racing, they’re big dudes. They were like, almost 200 pounds. I was like 70 pounds with my socks wet. So if I didn’t have those wheels that Novak and Jay Shuirman would bring me, I probably would not have been able to keep up with those guys.

I wasn’t even sponsored by those guys [at SCS]. They had some amazing team riders, like Rob Roskopp and Keith Meek, who’s still around today. They just always had an eye for talent, and for really good guys. Even though I was not officially one of their team guys — you know what? — deep down in my heart, when I go to Santa Cruz, and especially when I see Rich Novak or [former CEO and current executive chairman] Bob Denike or any of the guys that run NHS, I feel like I’m part of their family.

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