Austin's prodigal son: Chase Hawk

Brett Wilhelm/ESPN

Chase Hawk, at X Games Munich in 2013.

Chase Hawk is fond of the expression, "Respect your elders."

At 27, he's not exactly the youngest pro BMXer on the block, but he started early and was brought up by older BMX riders in a place that has become a cultural mecca for BMX in the United States: Austin, Texas. So there's quite a bit that Hawk knows about elders and respect.

"My dad bought me my first BMX bike when I was 7," Hawk says. The year was 1994, and Hawk was just getting into BMX racing. By then, Austin had already gained a reputation as a destination for progressive BMX riding and a healthy scene to support it. To understand Hawk's place in that scene, however, you have to understand the evolution of the Austin BMX scene itself.

BMX enjoyed a healthy worldwide popularity in the '80s, and during this heydey, Austin hosted several noteworthy competitions: The American Freestyle Association (AFA) and Ron Wilkerson's 2-Hip King of Vert series. At the time, the Austin BMX scene was anchored by a local BMX mail-order shop called Trend Bike Source. Trend placed irreverent advertisements in the BMX magazines of the time, and the shop offered a knowledgeable staff and affordable prices. Their reputation in BMX quickly grew beyond mail order.

The first rider-owned BMX hard goods brand based in Austin, Homeless Bikes, was officially born in 1991, after a stint as a T-shirt brand and BMX crew that made BMX videos that were sold by Trend.

As a hard-goods brand, Homeless sold BMX frames and forks and sponsored a team of local riders that included Steve Orneales, Ed Koenning, Eben Krackau, Jeff Harris, Lee Sultemeier and Kevin Gutierrez. (Gutierrez is among Chase Hawk's list of favorite riders. "I know how important he was to the growth of the sport," Hawk says.)

Then Homeless impacted the worldwide BMX community with two full-length video releases.

Phil Ellsworth/ESPN Images

The city-sanctioned BMX trails located in the middle of downtown Austin known as Ninth Street served as Chase's training grounds during his early years, and he still rules them. Dipped 360 at height.

Under the direction of owners/creators Dave Parrick and James Shepherd, Homeless made two videos that would go on to become legendary in the realm of BMX videos: "Highway To Hell," released in 1992, and "Trash," released one year later and self-described as, "A film based loosely on the handrail."

Both videos broke entirely new ground on the riding of the era and were integral to the progression of BMX riding. BMX luminary Mat Hoffman may have been the first rider to figure out how to grind a handrail, but it was the Homeless crew who opened up BMX's collective eyes to the possibility of what could be done in the realm of BMX grinds -- a reality that is still being explored more than 20 years later.

The BMX industry took a nose dive in early '90s, but by then, Austin had already birthed a new generation of BMX riders who were paving their own way. By the late '90s, influenced by the original Homeless videos and mild winter temperatures, a steady influx of BMX riders from the U.S. and overseas began arriving in Austin to explore now-famous riding spots and ride the city-sanctioned BMX trails located in the downtown area, Ninth Street.

Established pros (and former X Games competitors) of the time -- such as Taj Mihelich, Joe Rich, Sandy Carson and Ruben Alcantara -- adopted Austin as their home, and videos such as Props Video Magazine's "Road Fools 1" documented the many riding spots, as well as the attractive nightlife of Austin.

And it was there, in this point of the evolution of the Austin BMX scene that a young local named Chase Hawk was just starting to realize his potential outside of traditional BMX racing.

"I raced for about seven years before a skatepark opened up near my house," Hawk says. "I rode at Ninth Street [trails] on and off while I was racing, so I always had a dirt background."

"I barely remember him not being able to jump everything," Austin Ninth Street local Todd Moon says. "It was real obvious he had an above natural talent for BMX. He started jumping big jumps when it just looked ridiculous to see a kid that small huck himself over big jumps at full speed."

In early 2001, Hawk received his first photos in Dig BMX magazine. In a section that highlighted upcoming talent, Dig BMX contributing photographer Chris Hallman captured photos of Hawk riding a race bike at the trails and wrote, "I wouldn't be surprised if he becomes a top pro in the future." He was 14 years old at the time.

Around the same time, Hawk was invited on his first road trip with Props Video Magazine. Because he was home-schooled by his father, he was allowed time off to film for the video. It was the BMX world's first glimpse into Hawk's effortless style and bike control. The BMX world liked what it saw.

"Chase's style was solid and timeless," former Dig BMX photographer Sandy Carson says. "His style outdid his actual body size at the time." A year later, Carson shot Chase Hawk's first BMX magazine cover for Dig BMX.

"I mostly remember after that magazine came out, Chase really started to gain popularity with younger riders," says Tom Williams, who worked at Trend Bike Source and later went on to start Empire BMX with his wife, Tina. "We'd get calls from customers at Trend asking if we knew Chase or if we rode with him."

Through the years with Austin native Chase Hawk

In 2003, Tom and Tina Williams attempted to purchase Trend Bike Source from the owner, but their offer was refused. So they made a decision to leave Trend and open Empire BMX, hoping to gain the support of the ever-growing BMX community. Not long after, Trend was out of business and Empire BMX was the new hub of BMX activity in Austin.

One of their first team riders was Chase Hawk.

"When we decided to start Empire, Chase was the new up-and-coming young gun in Austin. Since we were a new company, he was the perfect fit for us, and we both grew together. He was part of the movement," Williams says.

Additional sponsors had come calling, as well, including Fit Bike Co., Odyssey BMX and Vans Shoes, along with video parts in seminal videos, countless magazine photos and accolades from fellow pro riders.

Alongside Hawk's ascent into the pro BMX ranks, Austin's BMX scene continued to grow at a phenomenal rate. New sets of BMX trails appeared, Empire BMX outgrew its original home, BMX brands such as Terrible One, Mutiny Bikes, Odyssey Components and Sunday Bikes claimed Austin as their home base, and new skate parks were built to handle the growing demands of the local BMX riders and skateboarders. And BMXers from all over the world continued to flock to Austin.

"The amount of locals that I have seen come and go, and the amount of world travelers that have visited year after year has been pretty life-changing and surreal," Hawk says.

These days, Chase Hawk continues to call Austin, Texas, home, and he hasn't let any of the trappings of the pro BMX lifestyle go to his head. He's grounded, appreciative and aware that his upbringing amid such a vibrant BMX scene helped to shape him into the BMX rider he is today.

"Chase's growth paralleled Austin's growth as a BMX mecca," Williams says. "Chase rode every day with legends like Joe Rich and Taj Mihelich, and the previous generations of Austin heavyweights like the Homeless crew. All those guys were watchful over him. The average kid who jumps in BMX now wouldn't have any idea who those guys were, but Chase was raised by them in large part."

Recently, Kevin Gutierrez (an original member of the Homeless Bikes crew now in his mid-40s), was in the market for a new BMX bike. Being one of Hawk's favorite riders, and a trusted friend since he was a child, Chase went out of his way to get him a new bike free of cost.

"I owe a lot to these dudes. I hope kids these days can appreciate the history of BMX and know how important these riders were to the growth of this sport," Hawk says. In a city where BMX runs deep and multiple generations of BMX riders ride alongside one another, Chase Hawk continues to respect his elders.

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