A while back I was scrolling through skateboard-related patent filings on Google. You find all sorts of weird gems there, like the original kicktail (which looks nothing like kicktails today) or the inline skateboard (which is somehow dumber than it sounds), and while I was browsing I came across the patent design for the Tail Devil.
If you don’t remember them, Tail Devils were little plates you stuck to the bottom of your tail and scraped against the ground to shoot out sparks. They only lasted for an afternoon, but in that short time they could transform a skateboard into something even more fun and accessible. Dragging your tail down the street, the most basic and frowned upon maneuver, suddenly became the most rewarding thing to do.
I never knew where Tail Devils came from or where they went, as you won’t find them in stores today and they’re barely available online. So, I did a little more searching and got in touch with the creator, a skater named Scott Starr, who told me the story.
Tail Devils took inspiration from an apparent ‘70s trend where skateboarders would drill skinny holes into their truck axles and stuff flint rods into them, which they took from butane lighters. When they grinded cement pool coping, the ends of the flint would emit little sparks. “You’d get a little bing,” Starr told me. “It didn’t show up very bright on a sunny day, but it was like, wow, I got a spark.”
The problem with the DIY flint sticks though, aside from them falling out, was that they could never make sparks big enough to show up in photos.
Decades later, around 2000 or 2001, Jim O’Mahoney, a Skateboard Hall of Fame inductee, asked Starr to help him recreate the sparking trucks for a photoshoot. Rather than use the old flint method, Starr got a hold of mischmetal, a mixture of rare-earth elements that easily breaks into shards, creating bigger sparks in the process.
“We glued it to the back axle and sparks flew,” Starr said, “but it would break off after the second or third time because the metal snapped.”
However, kids who saw them experimenting didn’t care about the longevity. Starr said they ran up asking to buy their own sparking devices on the spot. That was Starr’s first hint that a well-made, easy to use sparking attachment could be a hit.
“Everybody thought it would be a quick, million dollar money-maker,” Starr said. “I had envisioned making a toy that would go down like the hula hoop or the frisbee, a generic toy that every kid gets on his third birthday from his uncle.”
There had been an earlier sparking attachment made by G&S trucks in the ‘70s, called the Speed Spark. It looked like a pair of curb feelers that hung off the kingpin and dragged on the ground.
Starr remembered that those never sold well, so he knew whatever he came up with had to have a better design. He also realized that a spark plate would be much more versatile on the tail, which would let people spark it on any ledge, curb, or coping, and even complete beginners could have fun with it.
After many designs, he cut a bar of mischmetal into small slices and fit them into a plastic mold that could be attached to the bottom of the tail. This would become the Tail Devil.
For a disposable toy marketed to children, the Tail Devil actually had some pretty careful considerations built in. The thin flank of plastic leading up to the thicker back end added flexibility for attaching to different tail steepnesses. The tapered shape let you mount multiple Tail Devils side by side, if you wanted to go overboard. Even the grade of plastic was tailored to this specific use.
The name, however, came simply — “I didn’t want the word ‘sparks’ or ‘skateboarding’ anywhere in it, and we all got the devil chasing us in life.” In 2003, with two of his friends, Jim Kuhlman as the financial backer and Rocco Cablayan (who was later bought out by Bryson Richardson), Starr founded a company, 3 Guys On Fire, to start making and selling the product.
tail devil schematics
Because Starr had already been working in skateboarding for decades as a photographer (he was one of Thrasher’s early staff photographers), he had an in to start advertising Tail Devils in the magazines. His tactic wasn’t to take out full-page ads, but rather ask skateboarders he was shooting with to put Tail Devil stickers on their boards, knowing the stickers would end up in the magazines for free.
Starr had most success selling Tail Devils in person, where people could see them in action. Skate shops could be hesitant to stock something so gimmicky, and pros pretty much never agreed to be photographed skating one.
“The average really good skater would tell me in private that they loved it, but they couldn’t do it in public because of their image,” Starr said. “So many skaters told me that: ‘I can’t do it because I’ll get laughed at.’”
Starr wasn’t defensive of Tail Devil’s public perception. He accepted people calling it wack and focused instead on showing off the product, knowing that his target demographic (teenage and pre-teen skateboarders) couldn’t resist a toy that had potential to ignite fires. He also wasn’t shy about tapping into another time-tested marketing device: naked celebrities.
When Starr uploaded a short promo video to YouTube, he snuck a single frame of the Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee sex tape right into the middle of the video. That way, the image of a topless Pamela Anderson would become the thumbnail for the video, luring people to click and watch regardless of the title.
Although YouTube removed the video, Starr figured out a temporary workaround to still get the views. He waited until Christmas Eve, when he guessed most YouTube employees wouldn’t be working, and reuploaded it with a different nude celebrity thumbnail image: Jessica Simpson’s nip slip. To increase the video’s presence, he also made a point of replying to every comment on it.
YouTube removed the video again, but Starr just uploaded once more with the Pam Anderson image. In the end, Starr claimed that Tail Devils had, one way or another, been seen by millions.
While Tail Devils were getting decent publicity — they didn’t have magazine ads, but Powell O.G. Frankie Hill agreed to skate them — they had certain logistical problems to resolve.
When Starr would go into skate shops that stocked Tail Devils, he told me they would often be sold out. But, they weren’t eager to restock for two important reasons:
1) the profit margin on a $10 product wasn’t that high
2) 3 Guys On Fire didn’t sell any other products, so it wasn’t worth the extra work for shops to contact them just to order this toy when they had larger brands and distributors to focus on supplying products that were actually keeping them in business.
At its height, Starr said he wasn’t taking in much money from Tail Devils. “I think we sold a million of them in total. But when you’re giving a ton of them away you’re making 25¢ on each one, you’re not making much of anything.”
Fortunately, around 2009-10, Starr had begun working out a deal with Wham-O, the toy company behind hula hoops and frisbees, to create an entire line of Tail Devil products. The deal, which would expand Tail Devils to bikes, rollerblades, hockey pucks, scooters, and downhill longboard gloves, was going to be Starr’s way to finally get his sparking toys into the hands of kids around the world.
However, in 2010, Wham-O underwent executive changes, and the new managers scraped a number of upcoming projects, including Tail Devils. At the same time, Starr developed Ménière’s disease, an inner-ear disease that causes incapacitating vertigo and dizziness. The sickness put him out of commission for the next two years, during which time 3 Guys On Fire stopped functioning properly.
After he started to recover, Starr felt like he was the only one able to turn the company around. But the task of building it back up and finding a deal with a different toy company was too daunting, so he let it fizzle out.
“The only reason ours went as far as it did was because I was already in the skateboard industry,” Starr said. “If you were Joe Blow coming into the scene, they would laugh you out of the trade show. But nobody could laugh at me because of who I was.”
sparking trucks (not made by tail devil)
Today, Starr lives in Santa Barbara, California, where among other things he works on archiving surf and skate photos and videos dating back to the early-‘60s. He doesn’t have plans to bring Tail Devils back, although that doesn’t mean others haven’t tried to reignite the spark.
Shortly after launching Tail Devil in the early-2000s, a brand called Torch popped up, selling trucks with sparking plates embedded in the axle. They lasted maybe a year at most, which Starr credited to their heavy design.
For Starr, I think he’s content knowing he was able to take the janky idea of stuffing flint sticks into trucks and make it accessible to everyone. “I would tell people you don’t even need to put [Tail Devils] on a skateboard,” Starr said. “We would stick four or five on a milk crate and skid it downhill. SKRRRR!”
When you think about it, there’s not many ways to improve a skateboard. Rails, copers, risers, “shock pads,” U-bolts, and countless other gimmicks have all tried to make skateboards perform better in one way or another, and they largely fell by the wayside. But Tail Devils were a rare invention that simply tried to make skateboards more fun. Sure, they were a gimmick, but at least they were a fun one.