Longform

Legendary Dallas Skateboarders, Rebuffed By The City In Their Efforts To Build A Public Skatepark, Go Underground And Build Their Own.

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Newton's biggest legacy, though, is the skateboard company he opened in 1976 in his mother's garage: Zorlac. Branded with dark, elaborate images of skulls and bats drawn by the punk artist Pushead (famous for his Metallica and Misfits album covers), Zorlac grew into one of the most respected brands in skateboarding and one of the largest outside California, sending top skaters like Johnson across the world on promotional tours.

In the lean years after the first private parks closed around 1980, Newton put 250,000 miles on his '76 Datsun pickup, towing a skate ramp across the state to meet-ups with star national skaters. "We would drive to San Antonio to skate the afternoon and drive home. That's stupid. But everybody wanted to skate so many things, all the time," Newton recalls. "A quarter-million miles with no air conditioning. But we didn't know any better."

Newton and Zorlac were in prime position to take advantage when skating took off again in the mid-'80s, endorsed by Jeff Phillips, who cemented a place as the top boarding talent in Dallas. He thrilled crowds of cheering kids at the Blue Ramp (later known, after a new paint job and an expansion, as the Clown Ramp) at Bachman Lake with his signature trick, the "Phillips 66," a 360-degree inversion with a blind backward approach. Stories spread about the contest Phillips won riding sky-high on acid—and he was one of the sport's good guys. Flying above the ramps in a helmet topped with a fake mohawk, Craig Johnson was the underground skate scene's dreadlocked cult hero.

The wave of popularity that Zorlac and the rest of local skate culture rode through the '80s, cresting at the end of that decade, crashed hard in the early '90s. In 1986, Newton partnered with a group of California businessmen hoping to keep Zorlac running and expand its reach, but the deal never panned out the way he'd hoped. After the brand reached its peak, Newton says the Californians shoved him aside and mismanaged the company finances in his absence. For years, Newton was left without control of the signature Texas brand he'd built. He and the investors are still locked up in a trademark dispute.

Buckling under the tough times, the latest wave of skateparks shuttered, the skaters set loose on the streets again to explore the urban landscape. "Vert" skating gave way to a street style, and a whole new crop of skaters grew up with a very different vision of the sport, brushing aside many of their old "vert" idols. By then, Phillips wasn't just a pro boarder; he was a skatepark owner too, running the Jeff Phillips Skatepark—along Stemmons Freeway at Northwest Highway—with his business partner, fellow Zorlac skater Billy Smith. Phillips, like Newton and Coker before him, had become an anchor to the local skate scene; the treehouse he built above his home near White Rock Lake was a major skater hangout. As he faced another round of uncertainty in the sport he'd built his life around, skaters recall that by late 1993 Phillips had fallen into a detached haze. On Christmas day, loaded up on alcohol and Valium, Phillips shot and killed himself at home. Just a few years before the X Games reinvigorated the sport, Dallas skater culture hit a low point, without the old parks that had anchored the sport, and without its greatest skating legend.

"He was the most likable guy you've ever met. You look at what's going on, you figure, 'Oh, he's on top of the world,'" Newton says. "It was pretty bad. We'll never know why he did it."

Skaters like Jon Comer and Mike Crum, who skated Phillips' park and the Clown Ramp as kids, grew up during this lull, and were ready to ride the sport's next big wave from the X Games. A new generation of kids grew up watching Crum compete against Tony Hawk and other skate stars on ESPN. Old ringleaders like Coker and Newton fell out of the scene, setting aside their calling to pour their efforts into new ventures.

In 2007, while the plans were being proposed for the Trinity Strand Trail, a 7.8-mile hike-and-bike path past Stemmons Freeway at Oak Lawn Avenue, Coker decided it was a good fit for a public skatepark. He says his motivation was simple. "I love skateboarding, and it has done a lot of positive things for my life," he says. "It just seemed like a travesty that the eighth-largest city in the U.S.A. did not—and still does not—have a skateboard park."

Coker teamed with his friend Peter Benati, who runs the Dallas-based marketing firm TractorBeam, and quickly rallied support among old boarders. Plans drawn up by Grindline, a Seattle-based custom skatepark builder, proposed a large, irregularly shaped street course including a few small bowls, surrounded by trees and small ponds. Coker says he lined up a donor who'd post a million-dollar donation to build the course in the future Stemmons Park, at the point where the Katy Trail would connect to the Trinity Strand Trail.

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Patrick Michels
Contact: Patrick Michels