Chris Strople Interview
By Larry Balma and Lance Smith
In the late 1970s, Sierra Madre, California native Chris Strople was one of the top pro vert skateboarders in the world. The inventor of the alley-oop and rock ’n’ roll boardslide, he was also a faithful Tracker test rider who could often be seen piloting prototype trucks in many a magazine shot. A skateboarder for life, Chris still embarks on road trips to this day, hitting up skateparks near and far.—GSD
LMB: When did you start skating?
I started in 1966, when I was six, on a neighbor’s Hobie Vita Pakt board with clay wheels. I skated hills and bombed his steep driveway. The first time I skated a pool was with my brothers at an abandoned motel across from the Santa Anita racetrack. It was a huge 12-foot deep keyhole. I skated barefoot, so we called it the blood bowl due to all of the wipe-outs. The first time I carved over the light, which was nine feet high, I was a vert skater from then on. I competed in downhill and slalom. I still have my trophies. Wally Inouye lived in Montebello. That’s when he skated for Sims. He gave me my first set of Haftracks. Wally is one of the most tried and true Tracker guys through the last 40 years.
LMB: When did you first come down to the San Diego area?
Wally brought me down here in 1976, when I met Lance Smith and Gunnar Haugo at the Kona Bowl. Through Wally, I also met Rodney Jesse, Murray Estes and Sonny Miller, and we all skated the spots down here. I was skating for Sims at the time, but I broke every board he gave me. So, Curtis Hesselgrave introduced me to Billy Caster, who was very anal about quality—his craftsmanship was incredible. Soon after I got on Caster, I moved into a house in Cardiff with Curtis, Waldo Autry and Brad Strandland. I was the kid in the bunch. After the Cardiff house, I lived in Tom Stewart’s garage, then in the San Elijo campgrounds for a while.
LMB: I was looking at a bunch of photos of you in skateboard magazines of the ’70s. You were riding prototype Trackers with hanger extensions when we were going through the stages of widening our trucks.
The reason for the extensions was because each Tracker truck had a different pivot angle. In order to get a feel for which turning radius we wanted in the truck, we would slap some eight-inch axles on a Haftrack with extensions to see how they worked. I actually rode them in a contest at Winchester. I took a bunch of axles up there and we had some other ones set off to the side, so in case I bent them, I could change them out really quickly in between runs. The lightness of them with the magnesium baseplates was also unique. Plastic baseplates didn’t work too well. Bennett figured out that, but he kept on making plastic baseplates anyway. I think the first major product liability suits in skateboarding were against Ron Bennett for his plastic baseplates. He had no product liability insurance, from what I understand.
LMB: At the 1978 Skateboarder magazine awards, they called Mr. Bennett up, gave him a trophy, and the base of it fell off onto the floor. Everyone burst out laughing, because they were very familiar with the infamous broken Bennett baseplates.
There were very few truck companies back then. Tracker was it before Indy was even around.
LS: Bennett might have beaten us by a month or so.
Yeah, but Bennett never progressed. Tracker just took over. Bennetts didn’t work too well in bowls. Tracker was always good to me and helped pay my rent so I could surf and skate all the time.
LMB: How did you end up doing a stint on Gullwing?
Mike Williams was pretty persuasive. He made sure we got around. Shogo Kubo, Wally and myself went on quite a bit of trips to various places, including the Arizona pipes. Then I had a problem with Gullwings just breaking and I was done with it. After I almost killed myself for the eighteenth time, I came back to Tracker. It was my second go around with Tracker. You offered me money, which, at the time, no one else did. I thought, “As long as I don’t have to work and I can just surf and skate, this will work out.”
LS: What year was this?
It had to be 1977-’78. I rode Gullwings when they were still small and we were on the skinny boards. I didn’t progress to the wider boards on Gullwings. That happened when I came back and skated for Tracker.
LMB: Why was Tracker so important in the history of skateboarding?
Tracker was the first real truck that was made for bowl riding and downhill. Bennetts weren’t as well-made to take the abuse that skating had evolved to dish out. Tracker was the first to make a truck with abuse in mind. All of the others progressed from Chicago to Oak Street to ACS to Bennett. But, with that plastic baseplate, Bennett just couldn’t take the abuse. Tracker was very important for forging a whole product line with modern materials.
Tracker was definitely part of the whole history of skateboarding, and progressed it with the trucks. Independent should have given you guys some credit. Thanks for having faith in me to be a good skater for you guys. It worked out mutually for all of us, and we got to have a hell of a time doing it. The camaraderie of skateboarding is important, and I see that now more than ever. There’s this whole 40 and 50 year-old set who show up at the skateparks, just like the old guys who surf at San Onofre. It’s unbelievable, it’s great. I never thought I would still be rolling around at this age. It’s good to see everybody healthy, happy and breathing.
There’s a guy in Seattle, Ben Rupp, who is filming a documentary called My Knees Hurt about old guys who still skate. He found out about Wally and I when we were up there in September. Ben couldn’t believe that, at our age, we actually plan road trips to go to skateparks. It was pretty mind blowing. We showed up in Bum Fuck, Washington, a town of 800 people, and they had a killer new skatepark. Two van loads of old guys pulled up, got out of the car, and the locals looked at us like, “What the Hell is this?” “We’re here to skate your park.” It’s crazy. We do those trips about twice a year.
LMB: Did you invent any tricks on Trackers?
The alley-oop and rock ’n’ roll boardslide were definitely invented on Trackers. Most of the tricks that I did later on were forged, for lack of a better term, on Tracker Trucks. Due to their durability, there wasn’t a better truck at the time. Plus, the guys building them were great, too. They were actually skaters, and it made a big difference. As we knew back in those days, a lot of guys who got into the skateboard business didn’t understand skating, so it was quite a pleasure to work with people at Tracker to help on the research and development, and make them better. You guys were always open to listen, which made it a lot better. All of the other truck brands didn’t listen to the skaters about what was right and wrong, and how they could make their trucks better and more progressive.
LMB: You rode all of the Tracker prototypes, then you came back and told us about which geometry worked better at which width.
What turned better and what worked on the street would not necessarily work in a bowl. Around that time, Del Mar was built, and San Diego had a lot of great places to go skate, to test out the trucks in different mediums. You could go ride downhill on them, race some slalom, go to a skatepark, do some freestyle. Tracker had a truck for each kind of skating, but no one else did at the time. It was “one truck fits all.” I learned what a 30 degree angle pivot does, as opposed to a 35. If you ask a skater these days what the pivot angle on their truck is, they look a little confused.
LS: You were always good at knowing your mechanics.
A lot of that came from Brad Strandland, because he was so anal about equipment. Billy Caster also stressed on how the boards were made. Having the better equipment, we had an edge. We tested a lot of stuff for TRW Bearings at the time. They would show up and hand us this case, and we’d be like, “These are some cool-looking bearings.” They said, “That’s a six-hundred dollar set of bearings.” They found that skating put so much stress on their bearings that they couldn’t test them in a machine as good as we could skating. This was right around when the Catalina Classic was happening.
LS: What set-up did you use in that contest?
A G&S Fibreflex with Tracker Fultracks and the first OJs, which were really good wheels. I was lighter than the other guys riding down Signal Hill, so they would go faster than me because of the weight difference. I grew up bombing hills in Sierra Madre, so I would bomb any hill.
LS: Did you skate the Mt. Baldy pipeline much?
Yes, but not the widow maker, which is a huge run-off channel in case the dam overflows. You can’t even walk to the top of it. You have to go up the side because it’s so steep. Guys always wanted to bomb it. I saw somebody try it and get helicoptered out of there. I remember there was no graffiti the first time I went to the Mt. Baldy pipeline in 1975. It wasn’t even painted yet, and there was no tar on the bottom. I also remember seeing the Upland Pipeline skatepark—especially the 15 bowl—chalked out in the dirt. I couldn’t fathom it. Then when they dug the hole for the 15 footer, we realized nothing had ever been dug that deep at a skatepark before. I wondered, “Are we going to be able to get to the top of that thing?” Then there was the Vertibowl at Paramount, which had eight feet of vert. It was fun to draw lines around skateparks back then.
LS: Do you recall any trips with the Tracker team?
Yes, skateboarding was great. I owe a lot to skateboarding, getting to travel and meet guys like Gunnar Haugo and you. We went on a trip to the East Coast for the grand opening of Cherry Hill Skatepark in New Jersey in 1979. We started in Florida and met up with Barry Zaritsky. I was with Shugo Kubo, and Tony Alva and Jay Adams flew out to meet us. Up until then, the East Coast skaters didn’t have much good terrain, so thank God they got a great park, because they all progressed and became really good skaters.
LMB: Back then, there were no videos, so guys didn’t know how to do tricks until they saw it in real life.
Yeah, which reminds me of something really sad. Wally had a huge collection of super 8 movies of skating, but, for some reason, someone took them. Wally had incredible footage of the pipes in Arizona, the Fruit Bowl and other epic spots, but we can’t find them. And they’re getting to the age that if they’re not stored right, they’ll be gone. We used to film ourselves in super 8 and go back and watch them to check our style like people do with iPhones today. I feel sorry for the current generation. The top guys don’t get as much out of it as they should. Skateboarding should be in the Olympics. The X Games is ESPN’s second-highest rated program besides football. That’s their dirty little secret. What do you think people were watching in the Olympics: pixies doing triple axles, or snowboarders doing 20 footers out of the halfpipe?
LMB: Back in the ’70s, you guys figured out how to fall, and Rector designed safety gear based on that.
You’re right. After I retired from skating around 1990, it took a good seven years to heal, if not longer. Eventually, the swellbows went down. I was wracked.
LS: You don’t have any permanent injuries?
I just had some surgery done on my foot. I tore up a ligament in my toe. I skate now, but I stay out of the air.