Get our free newsletter
For the slo-rolling print platform of Washington City Paper, I wrote this week about longboard skateboarding.
Longboarding gets my vote this week for Next Big Thing. I always love talking to skateboard enthusiasts. Like surfers, they’re waaay more serene than the rest of us.
And working on the story, I was reminded of our local contributions to the skating realm, and how those contributions are overlooked. This area never gets the credit it deserves for being the birthplace of modern bluegrass, pro wrestling, and skateboarding.
The gospel of bluegrass, for example, was spread at WAMU. Wrestling as a television powerhouse was born at Turner’s Arena on W Street through promotions by WWE honcho Vince McMahon‘s dad.
And who knows what skateboarding would look like without urethane wheels, which were invented in the 1960s by Northern Virginian Vernon Heitfield.
The wheels grew out of a Cold War project. Heitfield was working for an electrical-engineering firm in Leesburg working on military tasks. His team was charged with devising an antenna system capable of surviving an atomic bomb blast.
And the thinking was a urethane-coated antenna might be just the ticket.
Heitfield, who lived in Purcellville, was impressed by the durability of urethanes, and away from work decided to try to put the compounds to more mainstream uses.
His son, Tom Heitfield, was an avid roller skater.
“You could either go to the bowling alley in Leesburg or the rink in Purcellville. That was it,” Tom Heitfield told me in 2000. “I would rather skate.”
Skating wheels were made of either wood or a plastic composite, which were fine on cement and wood floors but were too hard for outdoor use. A light bulb went off in Vernon Heitfield’s head one day while watching Tom skate. Urethane wheels would let the skaters roll outside and do less damage to rink floors than traditional wheels.
Vernon Heitfield made a tray of eight urethane wheels at work, and brought them home to put on his son’s skates. He then made Tom roll around the basement of the famly home, which was turned into a skate lab.
“Dad recorded everything,” Tom Heitfield told me. “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.”
Vernon Heitfield, who died in 1997, wasn’t concerned with marketing his brainchild. But when Bill Buffington, the owner of Rollerdrome, a large Jacksonville-area roller rink, found out about the urethane wheels, he asked for permission from Heitfield to start using the avant garde product in 1968.
“I remember it was a weeknight, and I’m standing at the front of the rink selling tickets,” Buffington told me in 2000, “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 off—I’d get to it.”
Buffington shortly thereafter tested the “rubber” wheels himself, and was immediately so floored he gave Heitfield $5,000 to establish a company, Creative Urethanes, and build a plant in an old dairy barn in Purcellville. Heitfield started up an assembly line using various engines, including some from old washing machines he bought from a laundromat.
“The contraptions they had [at the Purcellville plant]were something,” Buffington told me. “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 [Vernon Heitfield] 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.”
Buffington started selling Heitfield’s urethane roller-skate wheels under the name Rollersports, and rollerblading took off. (Company slogan: “The Wheel With Pizzazz.”)
Then Frank Nasworthy, a college classmate of another Heitfield son, put the urethane wheels on his skateboard in place of traditional metal wheels.
Nasworthy founded his own company, Cadillac Wheels, to market the wheels Heitfield manufactured to skateboarders, and the world was never the same. By the mid-’70s skateboarders began targeting empty swimming pools and parking garages as playgrounds.
Last time I checked, Creative Urethanes was still rolling out skating wheels, though from a new plant in Winchester, Va.
So, you non-skaters, when you see longboarders cruising down downtown bike lanes and “bombing” hills in Rock Creek Park, the overwhelming emotion should be local pride.
And, with the Cold War as a backdrop, meat slicers in the barn, and kids rolling around in a basement while Dad takes notes, tell me there’s not a movie in Vernon Heitfield’s life!