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STYLE & CULTURE

Inventor's wild ride

Eric McClure got tired of falling off his snowboard. So he put on handlebars and brakes. And now the world has a new toy that's snowballing.

March 31, 2003|Janet Eastman | Times Staff Writer

Snowboarding wasn't smooth for Eric McClure -- something about locking his feet in a sideways stance and freefalling down a slope went against his survival instincts. He could stay upright on surfboards, skateboards and skis, just not this unforgiving plank. But he kept trying, kept falling, motivated to taste victory, not a mouthful of slush, alongside his son, Bryton.

Finally, he mastered the counterintuitive turning techniques, the muscle-burning heel-to-toe movements and the go-with-it attitude of the sport. Then he invented a way to make it simpler. He added handlebars and brakes to a snowboard deck, called it a Snow Jack and found 35,000 buyers in the first months of this winter season.

Now, the 40-year-old former music producer, whose only previous experience with design was Da Vinci-like drawings of out-there musical instruments, has a new partner: ski and snowboard giant Gen-X Sports. Their dream is to grab a larger hunk of the U.S.' $400-million-a-year recreational snow-slide business. Snowboards bring in a fourth of that, according to the National Sporting Goods Assn. Snow skates, decks and sleds make up the rest.

McClure's invention is the first patented snow scooter with handlebars, brakes and a swiveling, upturned tip. Snowboarding newbies like the zero training time: Just hop on, turn the handle and go. Seasoned riders think swinging the handlebars overhead while airborne is sick -- that is, cool. No special bindings or boots are necessary, just a helmet.

"Snow Jack is exactly what today's youth is looking for, that is, more than just a ride down the hill, but an adrenaline rush, excitement," says Gen-X's Greg Anger, who expects to sell 100,000 of the scooters this year without a lot of marketing muscle. "As they boot down the hill on Snow Jacks, they ride rails and cut sharp turns."

The Toronto-based company and its parent, Huffy, have found other sketches in McClure's notebook that they believe are worthy of a go. The designs are all top secret now, but Anger says by the end of the year "kids will be stoked" when they see new snow sliding devices made of plastic, foam and inflatable materials.

Since joining forces with the company in January, McClure has been jetting to toy shows, action sports conventions and face-to-faces with the new German distributor of the Schneejack. His assistant describes him as "well suited for his new job, because he's a big child who doesn't need any sleep."

When away from his snow-deprived home base in Irvine, he wanders in the white stuff to see what new ways kids have come up with to get around. "In Norway, children pedal the Snow Jack to school," says McClure, "and on the East Coast I saw one kid riding it down the sidewalk, earning money by shoveling snow around the neighborhood."

He's just returned from traveling back roads outside of Shanghai, searching for three more manufacturing plants to make the aluminum handlebars and connecting parts. The stainless steel board is covered in polyurethane -- "it's something that won't freeze and kids can leave it buried in the snow for a week and still ride it." The board is made in Long Beach, the scooter assembled in Tustin.

McClure's new job is as much of a surprise to him as finding that no one had a patent for a snow scooter. It's especially amazing in a rebel sport where modifications are a big part of the scene.

Since its start in the mid-1990s, snowboarding has been overrun by ice jockeys who mock tradition at every turn. Die-hards are constantly tinkering with their boards' flexibility, length, weight and shape. They strap on shock absorbers and even more ridiculous add-ons. One rider in Washington came up with a motorized snowboard that zooms to 35 mph, costs $5,000 and weighs 130 pounds (the Snow Jack is a tuck- under-the-arm 10 pounds).

Others have tried to tackle the trick of slowing down. The most complicated solution, almost worthy of class credit, came from a Dartmouth College engineer, who used a 3-volt battery to create positive and negative electric charges to increase friction and halt forward motion.

McClure's brake? A simple aluminum pedal that works like a snow groomer. "The Snow Jack is slower than a normal snowboard because the bottom has grooves in it, but if you lift up on the handlebars, you will fly," he says. "Step on the brake and push forward on the handlebars and you slow down."

McClure built his homemade sample to comply with scooter safety standards and had it approved by a consumer testing lab before going booth to booth at toy conventions to find a sales rep who would take it on. It wasn't long before he realized he was on the right trail. His first order was from Toys R Us for 1,500 units.

It was a rush to get them made for the December 2002 holiday season, but the price -- $99, compared to the typical snowboard at $250 -- got the attention of thin-walleted gift buyers.

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