Russ “Rockit Man” Gosnell Complete Interview

Russ “Rockit Man” Gosnell Complete Interview
August 25, 2017 Louise Balma

Russ Gosnell Interview

Russ on the Tracker Ramp behind Tracker headquarters in Sorrento Valley in 1976. photo by Lance Smith

By Larry Balma and Lance Smith

 

In the early days of Tracker, Russ Gosnell was one of the gnarliest pro skaters around. Particularly hard on equipment, Russ became our best truck test pilot, and miraculously transformed himself into the Rockit Man, who was responsible for promoting Rockit Skateboards, one of the first—if not the first—stiff laminated maple decks.—GSD

 

LS: Did you like the VC bowl and Escondido reservoir because they were so surf style?

 

Yeah, it was surf style, with the transitions and the speed, and it was way before we had skateparks. All we had was crusty concrete ditches alongside a freeway and things like that. It had a sidewalk around it so you could really push.

 

LS: Which trucks did you ride at the reservoirs?

 

I started out with Chicago Roller Derby trucks with clay loose ball bearing wheels, and then we made our own boards. My brother Steve grew up next door to Stacy Peralta, so when the Zephyr came out, Steve and I had the only two Zephyr skateboards in San Diego county, and we had clay wheels on those at first. Then Frank Nasworthy came out with the Cadillac wheels, and I got my first pair of loose ball bearing Cadillacs. The Cadillac urethane wheels, Tracker Trucks and Rockit laminated boards just changed the whole world, and made skateboarding a legitimate sport. Before that, it was just something we did to fool around when the surf was flat.

photo Bruce Cooley

LMB: When did you get your first set of Trackers?

 

I got my first set of Trackers from Larry Balma and Dave Dominy in the mid ’70s, and then went to work in the shop soon after that.

 

LMB: In the production shop?

 

Yes, I was grinding trucks, doing assembly and the dreaded delivery. I remember Lance Smith was so happy I started doing the delivery. He said, “I’m done, I’m burnt, get me outta here.”

 

LS: What was it like when you got your first precision bearings? Which were the first urethane wheels you rode?

 

My first urethane wheels were the small Road Riders, then the OJs came out and Road Riders were done, because the big Road Riders were too tall and too tippy for the banks and pools. The OJs were a little smaller, and they had the rounded edge with the bevel on the backside. They were coping-friendly and made out of good urethane. I rode some Tunnel Rocks. They were insanely fast, but they got flat spots easily. Then the big boom came with the Kryptonics.

LS: So, did you go from the Fultrack to the Midtrack?

 

Yeah.

Russ with Tony Alva waiting to take his run.

LS: How did the Midtracks feel?

 

The Haftracks were a little narrow, so I went to the wider wheels, to make them wider. But, the wider wheels had too much drag, and didn’t have the same response. Then I went to Midtracks, so I could cut down the width of the wheels, and there was just enough truck in between the wheels to fit the coping really well and held you in. You’d come up and grind, and your bottom wheel would hook you in. The Fultracks came about with pool riding, because the boards went from 7 ½” and 8” wide to 10” and 11” wide, so that’s why everybody went to the Fultracks. But, the hang up with them was you had too much space in between your wheels, and you’d hit your kingpin. That’s why Tracker came out with the Copers and Lappers.

 

LS: Did you get a chance to use the Lapper or the Coper? What did you think of those?

 

I didn’t like them, because you would burn them out in a couple of hours. I remember burning out a set of Copers to the axles in a weekend.

photo Bruce Cooley

LMB: The Rockit Man was gnarly! So, what terrain did you ride, and which was your favorite?

 

My all-time favorite was the Escondido reservoir, and the El Cajon skatepark. It had some awesome snake runs and bowls with smooth, rounded tops that you could do no-hand power slides across the lip. Backyard pools were always exciting, because you never knew what you would get. Some were like riding big waves at Mavericks. Spring Valley had one of the best skatepark pools, and Del Mar also had a great pool. It was a little rough, but it was all right. Long, concrete halfpipes like Anaheim. When the surf was flat, we’d just hit the streets, downhill with banked driveways. I also skated La Costa a lot, and messed around a little with freestyle. I liked the pools and banks best, though.

 

LMB: There weren’t many backyard halfpipes yet.

 

They were death traps. They were only eight feet wide with rough transitions, too much vertical, and usually made out of old, splintery plywood. But, that’s all we had until things like the Tracker ramp came along.

 

LMB: So, tell me about the Tracker ramp.

 

It was cool. Stacy Peralta and I used to travel for a bank doing promotions and skateboard exhibitions on it. It was mounted on a trailer, and the two sides folded up and together. It looked like some sort of airplane wing. People had no idea what it was as we drove down the road. We made the coping out of an oak banister. It was 16 feet wide, eight feet high, and the wheels gripped really good on the Lexan surface. That was the funnest ramp I ever rode. I rode some of the Pepsi ramps, but at eight feet wide and 20 feet tall, they were death traps, too. Pretty harsh.

Russ on the Tracker Ramp in 1977. photo Lance Smith

LMB: The only thing I wish we had was rollout platforms.

 

Yeah, that was way before all of that. It was probably one of the first ramps to be user-friendly. It really worked. There were a lot of terrible ones out there for years.

 

LS: Did you ever get a chance to skate Mt Baldy pipeline?

 

Yes, I did. Full pipes were a blast. Being down South, we didn’t have many available. There was one in National City, but it was a small, tight thing. But, that’s all we had down here. It was a trip to go to Upland or Mt. Baldy.

 

LMB: Why was Tracker so important in the history of skateboarding?

 

Prior to that, all we had was Chicago roller skates, and we ripped the old, crappy steel trucks off of those and converted them to our skateboards. Tracker was actually a truck that was made for skateboarding specifically and designed for the urethane wheels when they came out. Basically, Tracker Trucks revolutionized skateboarding at that point.

1976 Tracker Halftrack ad

LMB: Which tricks were invented on Tracker Trucks?

 

Gosh, that’s a long list, so many people! I would say just about everything at that time. Basically, I think Tracker started it all. Everybody was riding them, and everybody had their tricks and their own variations. It just took off from there.

 

LMB: Did you invent any tricks on Trackers?

 

Yes, I would come straight up, slide the back end around, bounce off the coping and sideslip half way down. I called it a rock walk [cess slide]. Other guys had their variations of it. But, I remember it worked really good at Mark Headley’s pool, which was 13 feet deep, and then the thing went over vertical. I believe in my Who’s Hot article, there were pictures of me doing one of the slides up onto the tile. That was one of the only ways to get up to the tile, because the over-vert would pitch you. That thing was dangerous.

 

LS: It’s still there.

 

Really? Oh, my God! That thing was a death pit, it was ruthless skateboarding. It was a perfect shape. I think it had, like, 10 feet of vertical, maybe three feet of over-vertical.

 

LMB: Who were Tracker’s best riders?

 

Well, that’s a long list, too. There’s myself, Henry Hester, Stacy Peralta, Wally Inouye, Shogo Kubo, Chris Strople, John Hughes. I’d have to sit down with a pencil and paper to figure out that one. There was a ton of people.

 

LMB: Do you have a quote for the Tracker book?

 

Meeting the guys at Tracker, and them giving me the opportunity was one of the greatest things. I got to work in parts of the industry. There was a lot to be learned about business, and it opened up a whole other world, traveling and getting paid to do something I liked. It helped to make skateboarding mainstream, because when we first started, everybody wanted to kill you if you were a surfer or skateboarder. Boom!

Russ’s favorite Tracker Ad 1977. photo sequence by Bruce Cooley

LMB: Do you have a favorite Tracker ad?

 

Yes, I do. At the Spring Valley pool, I did a big carve in the deep end, then came up, hit the little love seat and did a canyon jump across the open end of the shallow. My good photographer friend Bruce Cooley shot the ad. There’s a picture of me in mid flight, and the sequence. That’s my all-time favorite.

LMB: Was that a Tracker ad or a Rockit ad?

 

Rockit and Tracker. I believe it had the Tracker logo below it, too. It was kind of a combo.

 

LMB: Do you recall a memorable story or event with the Tracker team?

 

When the movie Skateboard came out, the day I spent out with you guys at the Valley Center Bowl with Lance and everybody. A lot of the travel, like the first time the East met the West in the pro bowl challenge at the Kona skatepark in Jacksonville, Florida. It came down to their hot guy, Jimmy Plummer and myself. That sticks out, because I won.

1977 Tracker Rockit ad

LMB: You were known as the Rockit Man. How did you get involved with Rockit?

 

When my brother and I were first skateboarding, before the pro thing, we shaped our own boards out of some marine plywood. Before the Rockit, boards were made out of oak hardwood. I destroyed two or three hardwood boards a day. And through the innovation of you guys at Tracker, that’s when the first maple laminate boards came out. So, between my riding and input, and your guys’ expertise at being able to research and build them, that’s how the Rockit came about. It was kind of like a water ski laminate. I remember a guy down at the water ski shop….

 

LMB: Charlie Watson.

 

No, before that came Bob Sackit, then G&S got involved with it. Bob Sackit had a little ski shop and started building them down there. That’s how all of that evolved.

 

LMB: So, you were the main R&D guy for Rockit. What were the first changes to the boards in that first year there?

 

We had to determine which lengths were good for pools, and for freestyle. Some of the thinner laminates worked out better for shorter freestyle boards. I think we settled somewhere around 30” for a good pool board. The Rockit had many more laminates for more strength, which also gave it more flex and punch out of the bowls without breaking. We had a straight flat board, and then we had a board with a rocker like the old Zephyr.

1976 Rockit tail

LMB: Then we added the kicktail [which was originally developed by Larry Stevenson for Makaha in 1970].

 

The kicktail revolutionized skateboarding, like the double kicktail has since. When we first started out, we just had the flat boards and we shaped them like surfboards: swallow tails, pin tails and what have you. We had no grip tape, so you had to monkey grip them with your feet to stay on. Then other board brands started to put the wedge kicktails on the solid wood boards to keep your back foot from sliding off.

LMB: Part of the beauty of laminated boards was that you could build that kicktail right into the shape.

 

Yeah, you could heat press it right in, and it was a smooth transition, more of a hook to hold your foot.

1976 Rockit Deck the first modern custom laminated stiff deck produced by Tracker.

 

LMB: Okay, we talked about the Rockit deck with a rocker, and then the hook tail, and then finally this Rockit deck with a molded kicktail.

 

The hook tail really worked good in the pools, because it would hold your foot in so you couldn’t slide off. The only problem I had with that was when the hook wore down, it was gone. But, since they went to the flat kicktail, it was a lot more friendly for freestyle and all-around cruising and riding. The rocker board worked good for giant slalom and downhill. It held you in really good.

 

LMB: The kicktail is what helped Alan Gelfand develop the Ollie.

 

Yes, it did. [Makaha, followed by] Rockit is where kicktails came from.

At his home that he loved. Russ “Rockit Man” Gosnell left us too soon but not without leaving his mark on skateboarding. Russ may you fly the heavens forever. RIP Rockit Man.

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