Tom Heitfield spent a lot of time roller-skating in circles around the basement of his boyhood home. He liked skating all right, but the in-house laps weren’t just for fun, like his visits to the roller rink in nearby Purcellville, Va. At the rink, he could skate with pals from his elementary school. But in the basement, he rolled alone, while his father counted laps and took notes about the performance of his customized skates. The Heitfields, quite literally, were out to reinvent the wheel.
“I was the guinea pig,” says Heitfield. “Dad was the pioneer.”
They succeeded fabulously: The supervised skating sessions in the Heitfield basement resulted in the birth of the urethane wheel in the late ’60s.
Young Tom and his buddies at the rink were the first to benefit from the innovation, which was a vast improvement over wood and hard plastic wheels. But soon enough, whole generations of skaters, and then skateboarders, were rolling around on the products. Without the Heitfields’ work, it’s quite possible that in-line and aggressive skating, as well as the extreme skateboarding that today’s kids are wildly into, wouldn’t be so popularand might not even exist. The sidewalk scooters that have propped up the Sharper Image’s stock price wouldn’t be so practical or trendy, either.
And Tom Heitfield, certainly, wouldn’t now be making wheels for a living.
As it is, the Sterling resident is comptroller for Creative Urethanes, a company his father, who passed away three years ago, founded in Purcellville just to manufacture his rolling brainchildren.
The story of how urethane wheels went from the elder Heitfield’s head to his son’s feet and then around the globe is an American tale of entrepreneurship and pluck the likes of which won’t be repeated much in the 21st century.
In the late ’60s, Vernon Heitfield, a Navy veteran, was working for an electrical-engineering firm in Leesburg. The Cold War was using up much of our nation’s intellectual resources, and Heitfield was detailed to a project aimed at devising an antenna system capable of surviving an atomic bomb blast.
It was during this mission that the elder Heitfield, who hadn’t gone to college, first worked with urethanes, a family of rubberlike chemical compounds (also called polyurethanes) known for incredible durability and resistance to alcohols, hydrocarbons, and solvents that eat up rubber. A urethane-coated antenna, the thinking went, might endure a nuclear holocaust. The materials intrigued Heitfield to such a degree that even after he’d moved away from that project, he began brainstorming for ways to put urethanes to less dispiriting uses.
Tom, his youngest son, skated through much of his youth, in part because there were so few kid-friendly hangouts in the community. “You could either go to the bowling alley in Leesburg or the rink in Purcellville. That was it,” he recalls. “I would rather skate.”
Back in the day, the typical roller skate had two rows of two wheels made of either wood or a very hard plastic composite made to look like wood. Wood and composite wheels worked OK on cement and wood floors, but were too rigid and slippery for outdoor use and tended to damage more forgiving surfaces. While watching Tom at the rink one day, Vernon Heitfield, not a skater himself, decided that urethanes, with their superior “give,” might provide a smoother ride, last longer, and do less floor damage than the standard wheels.
So back at the office, he fashioned a batch of eight urethane wheels in an ad hoc tray similar to a cupcake pan, shaved them into shape, and took them home to put on his son’s skates. Then Vernon Heitfield began the great experiment in the basement.
“Dad recorded everything,” recalls Tom Heitfield. “He’d count all my laps, and if he had to go upstairs or he wasn’t home, he wanted me to keep skating and write down all my laps, so he could calculate how far I traveled on those wheels. Then he’d take them off the skates and measure the wear and tear.”
As the inventor had presumed, there was essentially no erosion.
So Heitfield made additional batches of wheels for other kids at the rink to use, and those wheels proved that the durability shown in the basement tests was no fluke. Though they didn’t provide quite as much speed as the hard wheels, the youngsters took to the “rubber” replacements, as much because of the many colors Heitfield could make them in as for the smoother ride.
Though from Day One the product had incredible potential on the consumer market, urethane wheels didn’t roll out of Purcellville right away. According to the younger Heitfield, that’s because his father was far more concerned with the science behind the new wheels than with their money-making potential. But a relative in Florida with a thirst for get-rich-quick ideas convinced Vernon Heitfield to let Rollerdrome, a large Jacksonville-area rink, in on the secret in 1968.
“I remember it was a weeknight, and I’m standing at the front of the rink selling tickets,” says Bill Buffington, owner of Rollerdrome at the time, “and this guy I’d never seen before walks in carrying a bunch of wheels and says, ‘You should try these things out.’ I was too busy to really talk to him much there, so I told him to drop them offI’d get to it.”
The next weekend, in the hours before opening up for business, Buffington put the wheels on and took a few laps around the empty rink. He then got on the phone and placed the first order for what would ultimately be millions of Heitfield’s wheels. Buffington, who retired in the mid-’80s, even put up the $5,000 seed money Vernon Heitfield needed to start up Creative Urethanesin what was an old dairy barnand make wheel-making his full-time job. The original assembly lines were powered by engines from old washing machines bought from a nearby coin laundry.
“On my first visit to Purcellville to see the plant, I go on all these back roads and finally get to this barn,” Buffington recalls. “The contraptions they had in there were something. My favorite was the machine that he used to shave the extra urethane off the wheels when they come out of the molds. I asked him what it was. He said it was a meat slicer that used to cut bologna before he got it. He was such an incredible thinker but was never into money or the business aspect of it.”
Others took care of that. Buffington quickly began marketing urethane roller-skate wheels under the name Rollersports. (Company slogan: “The Wheel With Pizzazz.”) Urethane-wheel technology later enabled the in-line skating boom in the mid-’80s with the founding of Rollerblade Inc.
Then there’s skateboarding. Not long after Buffington got into Vernon Heitfield’s wheels, Frank Nasworthy, a college classmate of another Heitfield boy, used them to replace the metal wheels on his skateboard. Nasworthy, too, was an instant convert. He started up his own company, Cadillac Wheels, which by the mid-’70s was credited with changing skateboarding from a strictly downhill sport to a vertical one. Nasworthy’s success with Heitfield’s wheels caused Buffington to branch into skateboards, too. Forever more, any empty swimming pool or public parkeven a staircasecould be considered suitable skateboarding terrain.
When the skateboard boom hit, Heitfield had to lease an empty pig slaughterhouse down the street from his Purcellville plant to keep up. Even though its wares were marketed under others’ names, Creative Urethanes became so legendary that skate punks would actually travel great distances to Purcellville just to rummage through the company’s trash in search of rejected wheels. “We were always pulling kids out of the dumpster,” laughs Tom Heitfield.
Currently, Creative Urethanes employs a staff of nearly 60. At its headquarters, a display case holds one wheel from the original batch of eight that Vernon Heitfield and his guinea pig son tested in their basement. Despite all the laps and the years, mold marks are still visible.
“People who knew him would say my dad thought out of the box,” says Tom Heitfield. “But the truth is, I don’t think he ever knew what the box was.”Dave McKenna