Bryan Ridgeway Interview
By GSD and Larry Balma
Hailing from Huntington, West Virginia, Bryan Ridgeway started skateboarding in 1976 and became Tracker’s team manager in September 1983, a post he held all the way until 1997. Since then, his deep involvement in the skateboard industry has included various executive management positions at Blitz, Black Box, CreateAskate.org, DSM-Dwindle/Globe and Juggernaut, as well as consultation for Quiksilver (Hawk Clothing) and the National Scholastic Skateboard League. He also volunteers his global strategy expertise to Skateistan.org and The Stronghold Society.—GSD
When did you start skateboarding?
I saw my first skateboard on June 11, 1976 at my classmate Steve Diniaco’s end of school year party. I saw another classmate named John Kelly tick-tacking on the backyard basketball court. I was mesmerized and told my cousin about it the next day. He gave me two skateboards from his older brothers that he had in a closet. His name was Chris Kennedy. One had steel wheels and the other had clay, but I was aware urethane wheels existed after that party, so my mom helped me get a real board the following weekend. I just skated on the sidewalk on my block all Summer long by myself—every day, all day!
Which pros did you look up to before you moved to California?
Steve Caballero, Tony Hawk, Hosoi, Neil Blender and Mike McGill. I liked seeing Duane Peters doing some different things, for sure. Cab and Hawk would send letters back and forth to me. I was pen-pals with Stacy Peralta, who I admired as a leader. I liked all of their styles and innovation. I really liked whoever I thought was progressing the sport. El Gato was rad, too! I was mainly into Powell-Peralta guys and the ones who road Trackers, too.
What was Falcon skatepark really like?
Falcon was the first skatepark in Huntington, West Virginia. In the beginning, it was a pre-fab skatepark. The guy who owned it didn’t listen to anything we, as skateboarders, had to say. We were just kids. His attitude was, “I know better. I just want it to be challenging for you guys.” So they poured a miniature halfpipe that went downhill at a 25-degree angle. They also created this quarter of an acre freestyle area with nothing skateable on it. You had to be a really good skater to even be able to ride the place. So, no one could ever learn how to skateboard at Falcon skatepark. We went there anytime we could, though, until we discovered something better, which was Apple Skatepark in Columbus, Ohio. At Apple, you could actually ride across something and not gain 30 mph, you know, unlike Falcon, where you careened downhill and tried to save your own life by the end. Falcon was a miserable place, but it was a happening spot. One of the coolest things about Falcon was that I made some of the best friends of my life there, and they’re still my best friends 35-40 years later. And even when I went home to visit, I always had to skate Falcon, even though it was shitty.
Did you ever see any wildlife there?
Yeah (laughs), I used to go there when I was skating by myself a lot, and the halfpipe was always overgrown [with foliage] and closed down. It was hard to skate, because you had to get snakes out of there every now and then. I would just throw them over into the weeds. The mistake in doing that was that my board would fly out and go into the weeds that I threw the snake into. So, I’d have to leave my board in there until somebody cut down the weeds. It was a nightmare. I tried to fish it out, but the weeds were six feet tall, and there was no way I’d go in there with the snakes.
Have you ever eaten a hamburger in Cincinnati?
I actually had two in GSD’s kitchen—juicy ones, too. His mom made them. I took a train to his house from West Virginia in 1982 and stayed with him overnight. I barely slept, because he skated at night in his torn-off shorts. I wasn’t used to skating seven miles someplace, sessioning all day, then skating seven miles back. I wasn’t ready for that. I was like, “Garry is hardcore.”
Talk about when you first came to work at Tracker answering kid mail.
When I first started working a Tracker, there was a front office and basically a warehouse / manufacturing area. So, in the daytime, I would split my time between writing letters and working in the shop building trucks. I handled any mail that came in from kids, which was the same thing that originally created my relationship with Tracker: I sent letters to Tracker for stickers and somebody wrote back to me. At first, it was Jan Cleveland, then Peggy Cozens after that. Jan was an office manager for Tracker who handled fan mail before I arrived. Any letters or zines that I sent to Tracker went through her until she left the company in late 1983. She wrote back and even took a few calls from me. Eventually, I rented a room at Jan’s pad in Encinitas after I officially moved out to California. She lived with a few other people who also worked at Tracker. There were a lot of night owls in that house, and she always had freezer pops in stock! Jan was a good person and really cared about people. It was nice having a room I could rest in for about three months before I got a place with Grant Brittain in Solana Beach.
So, back to the mail, it was just like a scene from M.A.S.H. I saw that mail truck come in, and I was just like, “I got a hundred letters today. Oh, man.” But, I knew how it felt to get a reply, so that’s what I did. I not only made sure kids got stickers, I would look to see where they were from and say something cool. I had already become familiar with different states from the subscribers to my zine, The Monthly Shredder. I had 400 subscribers—that’s why it was so hard to publish that damned zine. 400 times 10 pages. How many sheets are in a ream, like, 500? I seriously must have used 10 reams of paper. It filled up my whole duffle bag while I rode my bike down to the post office to mail ’em out. When I would unload that bag, it was like a dead body. It must have weighed 100 pounds. It was a lot of paper. It may as well have been my paper route, because that load hit my bike every time I peddled. When I got home, my calf would be hurting.
I remember the first time I worked on the Lapper machine, I realized it was not as sophisticated as I used to think it would be after I saw how nicely packaged the Lappers were in the skateboard shop. Sometimes, you just don’t know what goes on behind the scenes. I’ll tell you what went on behind the scenes: it was a crazy contraption that somehow worked. You put on gloves, shoved three of these little flat cut-out pieces of plastic in a toaster oven, let them heat up, opened that thing and pulled out one every minute. You’d have to feed them in and pull them out one at a time. Then, you’d put that “toast” in a mold, and 10 minutes later, pull it out. As it was still kind of warm, you had to throw it into a bucket of water to cool off, like it was actually curing. That was some crazy stuff.
Then we had David Mock, a guy from Australia with super long hair, back there falling asleep in front of the wire wheel. It was the most dangerous machine, unless you put your head in the toaster oven. He would sit there and nod off while he de-burred axles. My hand almost didn’t fit between his head and the wire wheel. He was just a fraction of a second away from getting his hair caught up in it. I don’t know what would have happened, because the wheel was going strong. I mean, if he got caught in that thing…I don’t want to get into that stuff. At night, we would go skate Del Mar, then come back and work on TransWorld magazine. Back then it was bi-monthly, so we had a little time to spread it out a bit. But, it seems like it was always last-minute. Tracker was a cool place. Neil Blender and Lance Mountain would come down and we’d work on the magazine. Marty Jimenez, GSD and myself stayed there all the time. We slept on the floor for months and months. All of us would come and go, because we had keys to the building.
Sometimes, one of you guys would have the couch and I’d have the floor.
That’s right, that’s just how it goes. It was really cool; those were good times. You were down with people staying at your house. That was dedication. I don’t know of anybody else who had that going on at their house. It was just known that if you rode for Tracker, you could stay there. There were guys who stayed there who didn’t even ride for Tracker. I liked how you put them to work one day. I wasn’t there, and I was happy about that.
That was Louise. She got Jeff Grosso and John Lucero to pull up weeds.
That was cool, though. Nobody had money. We didn’t have places like that to stay at Upland. I’m sure some people had some spots, but there was no house up there for us to go to. It was kind of a little family scene at the Balma house, which was cool. So, that was the Tracker camp, which was welcome to all. We had a team house, but we let other people stay there and get rehab, too. We went all out. Nobody ever did anything like that. We hired Barry Zaritsky to be our physical trainer. We had everybody go over there to get rehabbed, worked on, iced, fed and everything else. If people from other teams got hurt, I’d take them over there every now and then. It was no big deal. We got a little bit of respect from doing cool stuff like that. We had no problem if they rode for Indy, Gullwing or whoever. If you got a really bad injury, we’d put you through Barry. They all had relationships with him anyway, so it was all good.
Besides the ad with you and GSD, what’s your favorite Tracker ad?
Well, there were Tracker ads before I worked at Tracker, and Tracker ads when I worked at Tracker. The one that I liked the most before I worked at Tracker was the Ray Bones ad where he was holding the honeycomb aluminum deck. While I was working at Tracker, there are still two more categories: ones I was involved in, and ones I wasn’t. The Tracker ad that I was involved in that I liked the most was the one that was laid out just like the Brady Bunch TV show. We had nine boxes holding the team guys like a little family. As far as other Tracker ads, there were a lot. I actually liked the one with the John Grigley wall ride. I liked the photo, that it was just a cinderblock wall ride. There were a lot of good ads, though. It was fun working on some of those with Stecyk.
Who were your favorite Tracker riders?
I like all of the Tracker riders. I basically had relationships with every rider, in one shape or form—that’s the cool thing. I wanted to have pro and am riders from all over the US and world who represented scenes and all cultures when possible. I definitely went for diversity, because that’s how all-inclusive I thought skateboarding could be. When I was homeless living on a trampoline at Del Mar, I would get fresh pillow cases from Steve and Art Godoy from Pennsylvania screened with their scarecrow graphic just to look out for me. Then there was Dan Wilkes, who we helped get a legit hearse that he could drive to events—no casket included. He also had a pet black scorpion, which I thought was just as spooky. I would hang with his dad in Dallas and learn more and more about jazz music. Everyone was so cool. Allen Losi was great to have on, too. I had a blast with all of them, but I thought it was cool when we got John “Tex” Gibson, from the old Caster days, back on Tracker. When Marty Jimenez and I were moving out to California in 1983, we stayed at Gibson’s house. That guy was exactly like I thought he would be: super cool, humble and down to Earth. If you took the word pro away from him, that dude was just a bro. I loved his style, and everybody loved the guy. I think the title on his business card was “Friend.” Getting him back on Tracker was one of the best things, which also made Jeff Phillips want to be part of the deal after he saw how cool and supportive we were of Tex. Neil Blender was really close with Jeff. I liked Phillips, because we would talk even when he was on Gullwing. I wasn’t trying to steal any of their guys, but I started rapping to Phillips and connected a little bit more.
During the 1986 World’s Fair in Vancouver, I was judging the contest, and playing team manager for Tracker. Of course, I drove other team riders, who didn’t have a real team manager, to the events and back to their hotels, too. That’s just the way I rolled for Indy or Gullwing. I hooked up anyone who needed it. Anyway, I went to the hospital with Jeff Phillips, who had a seven-inch splinter in his foot, because nobody else could go with him. The dude was in a lot of pain. I was sitting there with him in his room. It had nothing to do with Tracker. I just wanted to hang with him and give him some support. There was another time when he said he needed more [sponsor] support. I said, “I’ll send you some trucks, but you’ve got to quit Gullwing first. Just make sure that’s what you want to do.” He replied, “No, man, I want to hang out with you guys,” and that’s what he did. From that point on, I had to deal with him eating 20 bags of candy at every contest, and missing contests because he had tooth problems galore. He missed, like, three contests, because he had to have oral surgeries. I miss the guy to death. I just remember talking to him, hanging out with him, and how he told me he didn’t care what anybody else was able to do; he just wanted to be great in skateboarding. I think he was great at skateboarding. He can be proud of that. His mom can be proud of that.
Obviously, Tony Hawk, Lester Kasai, Adrian Demain, Sam Cunningham, Omar Hassan, Dan Rogers, Ron Chatman, Jeremy Klein and all of the people I travelled with on some crazy trips. All of those guys were really good to work with. During new eras, when Tracker got a new cycle of riders, I never lost touch with the guys I had great memories with, that I built relationships with and supported all of those years. They did just as much for the company, too, with their skating, innovations, progression, and just representing. Even if they left to ride other trucks, the only thing that changed was the shape of a truck, because those guys are my bros for life. There were a lot of things I worked on with people, like videos, and Bucky Lasek coming up. It was really cool seeing this little kid from Baltimore finally get to the point where he was going to be one of the leaders of the future, and he’s still killing it today. Omar Hassan. Everyone who’s ridden Trackers—even those who have come and gone—still has that little bond from the time that they spent with Tracker. They know they were part of something really special, too—a really great team with a history.
The list goes on for a long time, because there are a lot of guys, like John Grigley. I could just keep going. I liked working with the guys who came from other areas, like Ray Underhill, East Coast guys getting some attention. Mike McGill was back in Florida most the time, until he moved out to California. It was really easy for me to relate to all of the people from different areas in the US, and then around the world—all of the vert guys and freestyle guys. Tracker wanted to have the best guys all around the world, and people wanted to be on Tracker, they wanted to be affiliated with it. They felt like if you were on Tracker, you rode for the top company in skateboarding.
Do you recall any memorable events with the Tracker team?
Well, on the road, there were actually a lot, but I’m sure this book is a family show. I would say the Tracker tour when Lester Kasai and Adrian Demain went to 12 or 13 countries in Europe. We had guys like Matt Goldsby from other teams like Blockhead with us. We took 12 big boxes of t-shirts everywhere we went until we started depleting them. We had to carry all of those, plus our luggage, on the train through Spain, France, Italy, Switzerland, etc. We didn’t get rid of all of the t-shirts until we got to Norway at the end of the trip. What a hassle it was to take all of this stuff with us, blocking exits of the train so people couldn’t get off. We couldn’t even fit into a seat on the train, because we had too much shit. Nobody could go to the bathroom in our car, because we had boxes stacked up and we were sleeping on them
When we arrived in Barcelona, after a 10-hour overnight train ride, we got off and unloaded all of the boxes, because we were going to do some sightseeing all day. Omar Hassan, who was just 15 years old, had a lot of pent-up energy, so he did a little boardslide on a nearby bench. Then a cop came up and yelled, “What are you doing? You broke that bench!” Even though it was made out of cast iron, it was already tilted and warped. Then the cop said, “You have to pay $3,000 for that!” We were like, “What?” We only had eight hours in town, and they took Omar to the train station jail. Francisco Bergo from Sessions tried to bail him out. We were stuck there for eight hours, when Omar finally got out 10 minutes before we had to catch the next train out of town. We didn’t get to do any sightseeing or go to the demo.
Then, when we got over to France, a couple of bags got stolen out of the van. Lester’s passport was in it, so we couldn’t go to the next country without him. We were stuck there. Oh, it was a holiday, too, so the embassy was closed until Tuesday. Then we had to try to get an emergency passport. Finally, two days later, when we went to see if it got printed, Lester had to take a final test before they handed it to him. The clerk said, “Okay, we have a couple of questions for you. Where are you going next? How long will you be staying?” Then the most important one, “Who is the vice president of the Untied States?” Back then, I think it was Ronald Reagan and George Bush, but Lester said Jimmy Carter. The guy nodded his head yes, handed him the passport and said, “Okay, you’re an American.”
One time, Chris Carter, who was Tracker’s assistant team manger, and I were at Tracker headquarters getting ready to go judge a CASL contest. We were just standing there, when all of a sudden, this guy came running up to our front door trying to get in, asking, “Can I use the bathroom?” So, we let him use it, and then we heard all of these sirens coming around. We were like, “Man, what’s going on here?” There were five cop cars flying down our street. I just had a feeling that it was about this guy. So, Chris went outside and flagged down a cop, and they drew guns on him, thinking that he was the dude they were looking for. Then I ran out in the parking lot, and Chris said, “They’re looking for a guy who kidnapped a girl.” I said, “He’s probably the dude inside! I’m going to go lock him in!” Chris said, “Don’t, he might have a gun.” But, I went up to the door anyway, and as soon as I turned the knob to lock it, the dude walked up and put his hand on the glass. So, I gave the cops the key, and they went in the building and got him. It turns out he had kidnapped some girl in Arizona. So, we supposedly saved the girl. I guess they found her, and then we went and judged the CASL contest. Two days later, I got a ticket in Oceanside, and I said, “Two days ago, I helped you guys catch a kidnapper suspect.” They said, “Yeah, yeah, it’s going to be $150.” I was just like, “No love, man.” Then there were all of those Christmas parties at Pea Soup Anderson’s. If people only knew what went on at Pea Soup Anderson’s. There are a lot of stories, man.
Is there anything you want to say in closing?
When you talk about the history of Tracker over time, it’s really hard to name any other brand that’s as tried, tested and true. Tracker is right there at the top of skateboarding history. Tracker has contributed much more than just a truck to skateboarding. To all of the riders who have come and gone from Tracker, it’s been a place to go for support and gain camaraderie. It’s also been a hub for a lot of different things besides skateboarding. Some people who worked there have moved on to contribute more to skateboarding. They’ve been influenced by some of the things they’ve seen in the past, too, just like I was influenced to move to California. I didn’t plan to, but it happened, and that’s what I cherish. I never moved back to West Virginia, and there was a reason for that. I just can’t shake those memories. We’ve had some good times.
From the late ’70s all the way through the end of my era with Tracker in the late ’90s was an important time in skateboarding. To me, that was the most creative time in skateboarding, watching it grow and sustain. I think a lot of people take things for granted now, which they should, because they don’t have that history, they don’t have that knowledge and experience. It was a really creative group. Working with Craig Stecyk while I was at Tracker and just having all of the knowledge that was kicked down to me. I’m so happy that I’m the type of person who could absorb it, take it and use it for future things. Although I didn’t know then what I was learning, I know now. It was really impactful stuff. You guys at Tracker had vision, and all kinds of things going on in your heads that’s not taught at school. For me, one of the main things is I had the opportunity to work for Tracker all of those years. There are a lot of people who never get an opportunity to work in a place like Tracker.
I quit college halfway through to come and experience the growth of an entrepreneurial industry. It existed before I got there, but when I arrived, we were really thinking, “We’re going to do it right this time.” The ’70s skateparks had closed because of liability, but somehow we knew skateboarding was still going to work. The grassroots spirit we had coming from the East Coast helped us when we adjusted to California, because we had already been doing our stuff by ourselves. It’s just been a cool thing working with all of the people who have come and gone at Tracker. I’m still friends with people I met at Tracker back in the ’80s and I’m also friends with pretty much every skater. I still need to find Tom Groholski. I know he’s back in Florida delivering UPS boxes.
You and all of those other guys who moved out from the Midwest were really proud to work in the industry. You tried really hard, and a lot of you are still in the industry today. For you to leave college and move out to California to work for skateboarding is huge, especially when your family thought you were crazy.
Yeah, that wasn’t easy. It was not an easy phone call (laughs). You just took my airline ticket home, reimbursed me, and tore it up. I was, like, all right, I can learn whatever I need to know out here, can’t I? I didn’t hesitate, though. “So, Larry, where do I start?” “Well, we have these Lappers back here that need to be pressed. Welcome to your future (laughs).”
“From the deep hollers of Huntington west of Virginia, across the paved prairie and out past to the mountains of majestic concrete, Ridge rolled supreme, always advancing the sport.”–CR Stecyk III (skateboard industry analyst / historian / documentarian / participant / visionary)