Tom Sims: The Pioneer’s Pioneer
Tom Sims has been skateboarding for over fifty years. He has accomplished many remarkable things and has been at the forefront of four major board sports: skateboarding, longboarding, snowboarding and wakeboarding. He is truly the godfather of action sports. Is he worth multi-millions? Hardly. But this has not dampened his stoke. Sims is a visionary who has never lost the love for riding. He’s not just lived life, he has embraced it. Tom Sims is not just the godfather of board sports. He is the embodiment of pure stoke. His passion has enabled hundreds of millions of others to enjoy the ride, too.THE SPARK
I was born in 1950. Early on, like any kid, I was always zipping around on my bicycle. In 1960 I was on a summer vacation visiting my grandparents in Los Angeles. I didn’t know what a skateboard was. I saw half a dozen kids going down the sidewalk. I was absolutely in a trance. I wanted to do this. I ran to my grandmother’s garage, which was a rat’s nest full of junk, and found some old rusty roller skates and took them apart. I nailed them to a 2×4 and went out and tried it. I am not sure if they laughed at me or not. Unfortunately, it didn’t really work. Some of the kids had metal-wheeled skateboards and some had fancy clay/composition wheels. I asked the kids with the fancy clay wheels where I could purchase them. They told me that Sears and Roebuck on Pico Blvd. had them. So I ran in the house and begged my dad to get a skateboard. He did; and from that day forward I lived on my skateboard. I just loved it beyond belief.
By the end of the second day I was as good as any of the kids out there on the sidewalk. I just found something I really loved to do. When I returned to New Jersey with my skateboard, my friends didn’t know what it was. For a while I was the only guy out there. You couldn’t buy skateboards on the East Coast. I was just extremely lucky. It was the first summer you could buy clay wheels. The composition-wheel board I got was one of the first. This was before Makaha. Three years later I picked up a Hobie skateboard. Unfortunately, the trucks broke; the metal was extremely weak. I also had some Chicago trucks, which proved to be much more durable, so I used them. I never put my skateboard away all throughout the ’60s.
My dad (Paul) bought me an electric drill for my fourth birthday. My mom was all ticked off; obviously he had bought himself a drill and used my birthday as the excuse. But I got to know power tools early. I wish my dad would have bought me a jigsaw for my birthday – that way all my decks wouldn’t have been rectangular. Even my first snowboards were rectangular.
My dad had been a surfer in the late 1930s, and I think he saw the connection between surfing and skateboarding. He never questioned the wisdom of me buying a skateboard. My mom never worried about me skateboarding either. From a very early age they encouraged me with my skateboarding and my experimenting. I just skated all the time. I think my parents letting me do this was pretty cool, since I grew up in a pretty conservative town.
YOU’RE UNDER ARREST … FOR SKATEBOARDING
In the early 1960s I got arrested in New Jersey for skateboarding. The police questioned me as though I was some kind of a crook. I was skating in the street and some lady must have called the cops, thinking I was a nuisance. Remember, skateboards were not available on the East Coast. So for the first few years, it was an unknown device. I got so hooked on skateboarding that everything grew from there. Snowboarding was just a skateboard for the snow.
By the mid-’60s I was getting very interested in surfing. In 1965 I rented a 10’ surfboard. The next year, my dad bought me a surfboard of my own. This is when I started longboard skateboarding. My hero was Mickey Dora. All I did was skateboard on my 4’ rectangular longboard. I wanted to hang ten and walk the board and drag the tail. My friend Don McKay and I were riding 48” boards. They felt so normal to us and felt so right. It felt like surfing on the street. I have just always loved longboards. When I started selling longboards in the ’70s, the only people interested in them were surfers.
AND NOW FOR SOME WAKEBOARDING
It was probably 1967 when I was being towed behind a boat in New Hampshire on a surfboard. This was not my idea. There were guys doing this in San Diego – folks like Joey Cabell and Mike Doyle. Later I moved to Santa Barbara and bought a Boston Whaler boat. When the surf and the fishing weren’t good, I would get towed on my 7’6” longboard. I decided to improve upon things. Since flotation wasn’t a factor, I could make it thinner, and this would enable me to make harder turns. I designed a board specifically created to be towed by a rope. I still have the prototypes in my barn.
When I brought my first skateboard back east, the wheels wore out pretty quickly. I rode the deck in the rain. So as a result, boards started to wear out. I had to start making boards for myself. I made some for a few friends, too. I wasn’t just lucky to have one of the first skateboards back east; they also paved my entire neighborhood with perfect asphalt. Green Mount Road was the best hill, and it was right in front of my house. In 1971 I moved to California (Santa Barbara) and just continued with my lifestyle, which was skateboarding, surfing and snowboarding.
I was living a boarding lifestyle 12 months out of the year. Building skateboards was a way for me to maintain this lifestyle. I didn’t get into making longboards to become a millionaire; I got into it to continue skating and surfing. One day a wealthy guy named Herb Clark saw me on Hot Springs Road in Montecito. He pulled up in a fancy car and asked me to help him with his skateboard business. It turned out that Herb was in the process of getting the Makaha license from Larry Stevenson. He hired me to help him. He asked me if I felt it was worth paying Larry a royalty of 50 cents a deck. This was before I had made a skateboard professionally. I told him that Makaha was hot in the ’60s but I wasn’t sure today what it was worth. I ended up going to Chicago in 1973 with Herb to man his booth for Makaha Skateboards at a trade show. Not one dealer stopped by our booth other than to laugh at our skateboards. This was my first experience in the world of skateboard business. The dealers all looked at it as a fad – as a dead sport from the 1960s.
I came back to California and kept building my longboards. Eventually people started asking for them. Al Merrick from Channel Islands Surfboards asked for some to put on his shelves. I wasn’t selling longboards to gain commercial success. I just loved longboards, and there were a few other people who loved them too. I think the first couple of guys who got good on longboards were Ed Economy and Brad Strandlund. They were riding 4’ skateboards in pools. I was happy to see longboarding get to that stage. The problem was I couldn’t keep up with orders. I couldn’t build them fast enough. So I started jobbing out some of the work. At the time, I lived in a $50 a month adobe hut. My skateboard factory was outdoors. I had to put them away in bad weather. I was living in a pretty bohemian area. The first hot tubs were installed in Montecito right there on Mountain Drive. Each time they paved a new hill, that became my new favorite spot. I had these hills almost to myself. I was always amazed that more people weren’t into it. The lack of interest was odd to me. Whether it was skateboarding, longboarding or snowboarding, I knew it was obviously fun.
LUCK/OPPORTUNITY/RIGHT PLACE/RIGHT TIME
I was at a skate contest and a guy approached me and asked if I was interested in having my own skateboard company. He had all the details worked out in advance. He handed me a check for $15,000. I was hesitant and asked him what the deal was all about. It was at the beginning of my enterprise. That money was the seed money. It turned out the guy’s name was Bill Tanner from Whittier. He wanted me to buy all his nuts and bolts from his company, which was called FTR Fasteners. So, yeah, I was in the right spot at the right time. This guy basically put the up money so I could start selling fiberglass boards like Bahne. I spent a year in Whittier making boards. Bill introduced me to a guy from a company called Poly Wheel that was making urethane wheels. This was at the time the first precision wheels were coming out. My first wheels were designed for precision bearings, and I got in the ground floor of that whole market. I mean, skateboarding was kind of my religion, so I think that’s why I was in the right place at the right time. It put me on the cutting edge of the sport. One day I was hiking in the mountains of Montecito and I came upon an empty cement reservoir called the Tea Bowl. It had a bunch of junk in it, so I recruited a whole lot of helpers. They spent a day cleaning it out and we ended up discovering we had this incredible terrain right near my house. That was another reason I guess I was lucky. Stacy Peralta came up there and couldn’t believe it. It was just a really neat thing to have so close to my house.
ROLL ’EM … AH, MAYBE NOT SO FAST
I was featured longboarding in a number of films. I was in Freewheelin’ with Stacy Peralta. I was also in the film Skateboard and in Five Summer Stories. I even got on the Merv Griffin show. I figured with all this exposure, people would realize how much fun longboarding was. But so few people embraced it early on. It just baffled me. It didn’t really bother me, because I was going to longboard no matter what. But it was surprising.
1977: THE YEAR VERT BROKE
I had to go along with what the market wanted, and 95 percent of the market wanted vert boards. I couldn’t go against that. I built what my team riders wanted. Every contest was vert. It was a situation in which the longboard market was just too microscopic. Once vert took over, the whole longboarding scene fell off the map. I think this is the reason why people have embraced longboarding over the past several decades. So many people just enjoy the fun that longboarding brings. A longboard is such a functional piece of transportation. I never looked at skateboarding in terms of economics; I have always viewed it as different people riding different equipment for different needs.VISION
In 1981 I was so busy trying to get snowboarding off the ground that I licensed my skateboard brand to Vision. I was making longboards up to that point, along with performance vert boards. It was a full spectrum of equipment. But when I licensed my name to Brad Dorfman (owner of Vision) he decided not to continue with the longboards because the market was so small. Vert was everything. During that time, Steve Rocco was our guy on the cutting edge of freestyle, and yet vert was so dominant. Steve became disgruntled with the vert scene and went on to create World Industries with Rodney Mullen. Even before I moved to Vision, I made a street wheel that was Rocco’s signature wheel. Steve had a vision for skateboarding that very few people shared.
For me street skateboarding was all about longboarding. But for Steve Rocco, it was about doing ollies and tricks. The sport was moving in a different direction. TRYING TO CONVINCE MY OWN PEOPLE Back in the late ’80s and early ’90s, I was trying to convince my own people that we needed to relaunch Sims Skateboards, but making longboards only. I saw the tie-in with surfing and snowboarding. My people were like, “No, no, no. Snowboarders aren’t interested in skateboards.” It was funny that I couldn’t find anyone in my own organization who shared my passion for longboards. It was a licensing agreement, so I thought that this would help the licensors. I was also excited about wakeboarding, and I couldn’t convince anyone to look at that, either. It’s true; even when Sims was going full bore, no one could get interested in wakeboards. I was surrounded by so many marketing guys that just never shared my vision. But I am pleased to see how big longboarding has become. It’s been really satisfying to watch it grow.
I feel completely vindicated on snowboarding. I was ridiculed for the first 20 years. I was never ridiculed for longboarding in the ’70s, but it is funny how the sport didn’t take off. I always stayed true to what I loved to do. What I do regret is not having a big interest in money. It worked against me. If I had been interested in money instead of just having fun snowboarding, surfing and longboarding, then I probably would have found the money to run my enterprise.
DON’T BANK ON THE BANK
I never could get a bank interested in my ideas. When I went to a bank with my ideas about snowboarding, they said, “You gotta be kidding.” When I went to them again to discuss wakeboarding, they said it was a fad like windsurfing and would go away. I didn’t mingle with millionaires and billionaires. So I didn’t have anyone around me who could put up the capital. In hindsight, I wish I had met someone with some brains and some money. Yesterday I was on the golf course and I turned to my wife and said, “I can snowboard and skateboard so good, how come I can’t figure out the game of golf?” Maybe I’m just not cut out for golf.
THE STEVE WOZNIAK OF ACTION SPORTS
So many of today’s success stories in the board-sports world were on the Sims skateboard or snowboard teams. I never wound up going into business with them. The only
explanation I can think of is people thought, “Gosh, if Sims, who just surfs and skates, can do it, I can certainly do it.” Steve Rocco builds World Industries. Pierre Andre creates a several-hundred-million-dollar skateboard shoe company. Tod Swank creates Foundation and now owns Watson Laminates. Dave Swift becomes a success in magazines. Brad Steward starts Morrow Snowboards. I wish I could have kept some of them on board to help with the business. I had a factory that was churning out board-sports success stories.
I was grooming Craig to be my right-hand man and become president of Sims Snowboards. All that I knew about the sport I had shared with him. He said, “Look, I need to finish my engineering degree.” I was thinking, this is going to be awesome because normally engineers don’t have a head on their shoulders when it comes to marketing. I knew that snowboarding was going to be big someday. When Burton recruited Craig away from me with grand enticements, it was a huge blow to Sims Snowboards. Craig had a huge wealth of knowledge, and all that information flowed right into Burton. Overnight, their organization understood the sport. Prior to that, Burton had been anti-halfpipe and prodownhill. Overnight they figured out high-back bindings and that the halfpipe was actually cool. Craig was a visionary, and when he left, he created the biggest enterprise in boardsports history. A boarder for life. Tom doubles for James Bond 007 in the 1985 film A View to a Kill. The world’s first knownwakeboard-specific prototype, built in 1979.
THE TIME CRUNCH
I don’t have 35 people working for me like I once did. That makes my life a lot less stressful. It can be bad for morale when you leave the office to go surfing or snowboarding and have to leave people in the office. But the truth is that if you’re a serious surfer, then you need to have a job that allows you to take off when there’s surf. If you don’t take the time off, you’ll never get really good surf. This means a lot of guys are in construction or are waiters. It’s a good thing I never took up windsurfing because I’d never have been around for work. One of my motivations for licensing my name to Vision Sports was to allow me to live the lifestyle I wanted. I was missing powder days. I was missing good surf. I was just never willing to commit to a 12-hour workday because there is no way you can commit to a boarding lifestyle.
My lifestyle still resolves around board sports. I do go golfing because my wife loves to golf. She also surfs. But if the surf’s up, I am surfing. If I am not busy with my avocado ranch (500 trees), I am out longboarding. I don’t wakeboard or skimboard much anymore. But every time I see some new asphalt, I make a mental note of it. The next time in the area, I have my board. I am always looking for new hills. I just love fresh asphalt. The wheels just seem to grip so well when it’s new. I spend a lot of time in the snowboard world taking care of my trademarks and licensees. Sims product is in many different shops around the world. And now I’ve got my new line of longboards and wheels. I’m probably busier than I have ever been, but I don’t have the headaches of day-to-day operations. It’s fun working on my longboard gear – doing prototypes and testing. It’s just fun being involved with board sports.
THE SCENE TODAY
What I find refreshing is seeing so many rock-solid people who are involved in the scene. There are some really great guys out there. Wayne Gallipoli over at Surf-Rodz. Jonny Miller is a super guy. There’s all these great companies too – like Sk8Kings. Chris Chaput is at the epicenter of performance equipment. The Madrid guys are good guys. There seems to be fewer sleazeballs in the longboard industry.
How cool would it be if ski hills made part of their mountains asphalt runs for longboarders? You could take the chairlift up the mountain. You could have runs with banked turns. Paving these runs would be an awfully neat thing.