Hot Wheels

Or: How Tony Hawk turned skateboarding into a multimillion-dollar international obsession

Were it not for skateboarding, it's likely Tony Hawk might have ended up a juvenile delinquent, one of those safety-pinned punks who wash up on the Southern California shores during high tide. He was, he likes to say, the pre-school dropout, causing grief for his mother and father, who had Tony around the time their three other children were nearly grown and out of the house. In Occupation: Skateboarder, Hawk refers to himself as “an accident,” and he spent the earliest part of his childhood punishing his parents for their, well, mistake: He was the crybaby, the spaz, the scab collector, the tiny kid with the enormous IQ who fought for the attention of parents who never expected his arrival. He was, simply, a pain in the ass.

When Tony was six years old, his eighteen-year-old brother Steve gave him his first board: a beat-to-hell banana board. By the time he entered fourth grade, Tony was skating around local parks; he fell in love with the bumps and bruises, the thrill of the board. By 1980, he was a member of the so-called Bones Brigade. He had his first sponsor (a team co-founded by Stacy Peralta, “the Arnold Palmer of skateboarding,” as Hawk writes in his book), his first teammates, and his first taste of the big time. Two years later, Hawk turned pro -- and he was one of but 35 pro skaters in the world, a number that has since multiplied a hundredfold. By 1985, Hawk recognized that the thing that saved him from a troubled childhood had become, quietly and quickly, his entire life.

“I think I discovered that skating was going to become my career around my junior year of high school, when I started making really good money and realizing that I already had a career,” he says. “Teachers were trying to guide me this way and that way, and I was already making a better living than they were, so when I graduated I was ready to dive in even more as far as traveling and touring and competing.”

Tony Hawk, the Silver Skateboarder, in action
Tony Hawk, the Silver Skateboarder, in action

His father even got into the business, starting the National Skateboard Association in 1983. For a while, things were rough when Frank Hawk crashed his son's private utopia; Tony's friends thought of his pop as a dictator. But long before Frank's death in 1995, father and son made their peace, and Frank Hawk's NSA became one of the key ingredients to skateboarding's popularity during the 1980s. The other was his son.

Tony Hawk is now retired from the sport, meaning he no longer competes on the circuit; he stopped last year, not long after he managed the nearly impossible feat of completing the infamous 900 -- two and a half rotations in mid-air. He now spends his time with his second wife and their child, and he's on what seems like the never-ending skatepark tour, demonstrating his skills for the thousands of teens who line the pipes to watch their poster come to life. Others came before Tony Hawk, and they made skateboarding legit. They made it a life. But Tony Hawk made it a lifestyle.

“Yeah, but I think it's always been a lifestyle, and I think that's something that has been obvious throughout skating's rise in popularity,” he says, and his modesty is sincere. “When we were growing up, that was our community. It was everything we knew: skating and the music that surrounded it and the look. It all evolved, but it's still a complete package of everything, and when people finally took notice of it, they liked all aspects of it. It may be more diluted now -- it's safer -- but it hasn't lost anything. It's still the thing I love.”

Yes, Tony Hawk is the quintessential 21st-century celebrity: He's 31 years old, skateboards for a living, and got HarperCollins to publish his self-penned life story. Albert Einstein never even wrote an autobiography. But he never performed a Backside Shove-It Frontside Nosegrind either.

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