Video Rewind tells the BTS stories of VHS favorites, one rental at a time! Press play and adjust your tracking for “Rad” (1986).
The opening scene in Bruce Brown’s 1972 Oscar-nominated motorcycle racing documentary On Any Sunday shows kids riding their bicycles off-road in imitation of motorcyclists. Around this same time, the popularity in motorcycle culture would evolve to include other forms of riding, creating a racing sport that traded the paved road for the dirt track known as Motocross.
Inspired by the young Motocross stars of the day, kids in southern California began racing their bikes on dirt tracks. Being both widely available and customizable for easier handling, bikes like the Schwinn Sting-Ray were the bikes of choice for this new form of off-road racing.
This was the beginning of a new, youth-oriented bike sport called Bicycle Motocross, better known as BMX.
The trend captured the attention of America’s youth, and by the mid-1970s, manufacturers were designing and selling bikes specifically for the new BMX craze. Tracks and courses were built first in California, but soon spread across the country, and organizations like the National Bicycle League were formed. By 1981, the International BMX Federation was founded, with the first World Championships being held a year later.
By this time, kids in every state could be observed riding and racing their BMX bikes with neighborhood friends and on city streets.
One such observer was Sam Bernard, a screenwriter whose film 3:15 the Moment of Truth was waiting to find a distributor.
Bernard was vaguely aware of BMX, just seeing some riders on the streets every now and then. Watching them piqued his interest, and after picking up a bike magazine at The Beverly Hills Bicycle Shop, Bernard learned more about the bike culture. He also learned that 7 million BMX bikes were sold the previous year.
Sensing an untapped opportunity that he described as a “great, primal activity,” Bernard talked about BMX culture with his writing partner, Geoffrey Edwards, about the possibility of featuring BMX stunts in a film. Edwards liked the idea and mentioned it to producer Sam Levy, who then brought it to the attention of director Hal Needham (Levy worked with Needham on Smokey and the Bandit).
Hal Needham was a tree topper before joining the military where he became a paratrooper. From there, he performed in an aerial thrill show before moving out to California. His first job in Hollywood was an airplane sequence in The Spirit of St. Louis starring James Stewart in 1957, which he turned into a legendary career as a stuntman.
Needham would go on to perform in thousands of TV episodes and over 300 movies, becoming the most versatile, highest-paid stuntman in the world for more than a decade. He then turned his love for stunt work into a sub-genre of sorts, directing stunt-based car movies like Smokey and the Bandit, The Cannonball Run, and Stroker Ace, all starring the biggest star at the time, Burt Reynolds.
If the Academy Awards ever institutes a trophy for stunt work, it should be called the Needham, not the Oscar.
“I blow up cars, I race cars, I jump cars, I don’t know anything about a bicycle,” was Needham’s initial response to a possible movie based on BMX.
But he was familiar with motorcycles, so comparing the two in his mind is what kept Needham interested. Bernard, despite being sick with the flu, thought the best way to completely sell Needham on the idea was to take him to a BMX exhibition at the Equestrian Center at Griffin Park in Los Angeles. Needham was “blown away” by what he saw these young riders doing on a bike. He immediately saw the potential a film centering around BMX could have and got excited about doing something different.
“I wanted to give it a whirl,” he said.
From there, Needham, Bernard, and Edwards began to develop a script.
“We knew it would end in a big race,” said Bernard, “we didn’t know what it was.”
Bernard and Edwards wrote the script in just nine days, all except the last, big race, which simply said “the big race,” on page 91 of the first draft. Needham had seen some BMX races on TV, which basically consisted of the riders going down a plank and rounding some corners while navigating a few bumps and mounds for about 100 yards. Needham knew the film needed more, something intimidating and never before seen.
After reading the first draft of the script he came up with the idea of Hell Track.
This would become the legendary course where the big race would be held at the end of the film. Hell Track also became the title of the film (contrary to the often reported but incorrect Balls Out).
The Hell Track race sequence would take two weeks to write, with Needham explaining the layout of the course and Bernard and Edwards translating that into a workable shooting screenplay. In the finished product, many advertisers are featured at Hell Track and on the riders themselves, something new that Hal Needham applied to the BMX world from his knowledge of stock car racing.
Needham knew that to really bring the BMX art form to life the riding in the movie held just as much importance as the actors cast. This is where his stuntman instincts really served the film well as director.
Hell Track had to have a groundbreaking quality, with the BMX riding being the ultimate centerpiece to help the movie stand out among the explosion of teen movies in the 1980s.
So, in addition to hiring traditional Hollywood actors, a memo was sent out to real BMX teams asking if they wanted to participate in the film. One team was GT Bikes out of Huntington Beach, California.
When Eddie Fiola read the script for Hell Track, he identified so strongly with the story that he said “it came right out of my heart.” He wasn’t sure if the movie was based on his life or not, but he felt he could have “based his life off the movie.”
In 1982, Fiola, along with fellow rider Bob Morales, signed for Kuwahara to help design and promote the BMX bike used in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. The following year he would sign with GT Bikes, rising to fame winning many titles including the title of King Of The Skatepark five years in a row while also performing in competitions around the world.
Being the most popular BMX rider of the era, Needham knew he had to have Fiola work on the film, hiring him as technical advisor and stunt double/rider for the film’s main character, Cru Jones.
Fiola’s GT teammate Martin Aparijo also jumped at the chance to be featured in Hell Track.
Aparijo was instrumental in laying the foundation for and inventing dozens of “flatland” tricks in the mid 1980s. Flatland is a freestyle riding technique that occurs on flat, smooth surfaces instead of the jumps and ramps on dirt tracks. As BMX grew in popularity throughout the ’80s, Aparijo was instrumental in progressing the flatland style, a technique quickly adapted by BMX culture.
Like Fiola, Aparijo was brought on board of Hell Track to perform bike stunts and work as a double for various characters. In all, more than 25 of the most cutting edge and recognizable names in BMX were hired to work on the film.
Playing Bart Taylor, the “villain” of the film and the favorite to win Hell Track on the rival BMX team, would be Olympic gold medalist Bart Conner.
Conner took home the gold as a gymnast in the 1984 summer Olympic Games and was looking at what to do next when he got a call from his agent in New York. His agent said Hal Needham is asking about him being in his new movie about BMX, “kind of like gymnastics on a bike.” His agent and Conner both thought it would be a good fit, with Conner, as a gymnast, relating to the movement and balance required for such a freestyle sport.
Conner noted that it didn’t hurt that he had the look of “the blonde arrogant guy from Karate Kid.”
Needham then met Conner at his house in Oklahoma, where Conner was ready and prepared to read lines. The audition was anything but usual with the two simply having a conversation (one of the topics being race cars), as they drove around town. After the conversation, Needham said, “ok, you’re in my movie.” Conner then drove Needham back to the airport.
Playing the two leads would be relative newcomer Bill Allen as Cru Jones and Lori Loughlin as Christian, the more down to Earth rider on the rival team and love interest of Cru.
After seeing Bill Allen on an episode of Hill Street Blues right at the time of casting for the film, Needham was impressed with the young actor and thought he had the BMX rider look that was needed for Cru Jones (even beating out Robert Downey, Jr. for the role). In order to match up with stunt double Eddie Fiola, Allen had to dye his sandy blonde hair a solid black.
By 1986, Lori Loughlin was making a name for herself with audiences of all ages. She spent four years on the long-running mystery-drama soap opera The Edge of Night and played to the younger crowd in the horror movie Amityville 3-D, and teen-targeted films The New Kids and Secret Admirer opposite C. Thomas Howell and Kelly Preston. Loughlin admitted knowing very little about BMX, but found the script to be “very good and having a lot of potential.”
After a mere five-minute meeting, the filmmakers knew Loughlin was the perfect choice to play Christian.
The original idea for Hell Track was about a teen in high school named Cru Jones who just wants to ride his bike, who doesn’t want to face the reality of growing up. With graduation right around the corner, “he does everything he can to fail,” said writer Sam Bernard. Riding his bike and continuing to do so was all that mattered, graduation and college be damned. With Hell Track coming to his local town, and the winning prize being $100,000, Cru’s main focus becomes nothing but winning that race.
This is when Academy Award-nominated actress Talia Shire (Rocky) and her husband Jack Schwartzman became involved with the film.
The husband and wife created TaliaFilm II, a production company that had success in 1983 with Sean Connery’s final role as James Bond in Never Say Never Again.
“BMX at that time, that was brand new…and Jack was fascinated with it, as was I,” said Shire. Being involved with two other projects at the time, Lion Heart and Hyper Sapien, Shire said that TaliaFilm sought family-friendly entertainment and movies that “inspired young people so that they have a feeling that they could do something in their world.”
The filmmakers met with Jack Schwartzman and Talia Shire at their house and discussed Hell Track over bread pudding. Schwartzman and Shire were excited to get involved, but before they did, they requested a few minor changes to the story.
According to Sam Bernard, Needham was easy to convince. Instead of Cru blowing off his S.A.T., they asked that he merely delay taking the test while he trained on his bike.
They also wanted some sort of push for college instead of the kid doing everything to avoid it…and getting away with it. This led to Talia Shire herself being cast as Cru’s mother, a caring parental figure who wouldn’t let Cru simply rule out college.
Jack Schwartzman came on board as an executive producer, and while the film would keep its cutting edge, BMX rebel spirit, it now had more of a clean, positive message.
The title Hell Track was also out. From now on the movie would be known as Rad.
Rad would tell the story of Cru Jones (Bill Allen), a high school student who delivers newspapers in his small town. All Cru wants to do is hang out with his friends, riding and doing tricks on their BMX bikes. When a once in a lifetime opportunity arises to compete in a major BMX race known as Hell Track that is coming to his town, Cru puts his entire focus on qualifying for the race.
The obstacles of Hell Track aren’t the only things in Cru’s way. Cru must contend with number one rated, rival rider Bart Taylor (Bart Conner), convince his mother (Talia Shire) that he must attempt a BMX career before going to college, as well as maneuver a budding romance with fellow rider Christian (Lori Loughlin).
Filming on Rad began in August of 1985, in Cochrane and Calgary, Alberta, Canada (to be called Cochrane, USA, in the movie).
Spending American dollars in Canada at the time spread the budget and got the filmmakers more for less. Director Hal Needham was also familiar with Calgary because he spent time there working on the Dustin Hoffman film Little Big Man during the summer of 1969, remembering the area offered “spectacular scenery.”
“We were shooting two movies at the same time up there then, Rad and Hyper Sapien,” said Shire of TaliaFIlm. “It was an exciting time and we all had a lot of fun.”
All of the cast and riders stayed together in the same hotel for several weeks during filming. Leaving their room doors open, riding up and down the hallways, and throwing water balloons off the balconies, by all accounts the shoot was a memorable experience for all involved, especially Bill Allen.
As a kid in Wichita, Kansas, Allen wasn’t allowed to ride a bike. “My parents were very overprotective and wouldn’t let me have a bicycle growing up,” says Allen. Allen took full advantage of his time on Rad, riding up and down the streets on his BMX with the other riders. He even rode a few times on the weekends with Talia Shire’s young son, future actor, and Wes Anderson favorite, Jason Schwartzman.
One person who didn’t partake in any extracurricular bike riding was Bart Conner. Conner had a heroic Olympic performance, battling through a number of injuries to claim the gold medal. One injury at a gymnastics exhibition caused him to blow out his knee, leaving Conner in a leg brace during much of filming (notice a lot of scenes are from the waist up).
Allen remembers being surprised that Conner was so banged up on set. “Bart was dealing with such physical pain at the time that he could hardly walk,” said Allen, adding, “Hal [Needham], being an old school stuntman, said, ‘I’ve got a sack full of Percocet, come on down, I’ll fix you up.’”
Needham’s go-for-broke, tough, simplistic (and humorous) philosophy and style mixed well with the wacky, cheesiness of the 1980s, giving the film an approach that is often melodramatic but full of heart.
The most obvious example of this in the film is the infamous “bike boogie” scene at the prom.
The film has Cru and Christian take their bikes to the dance floor to perform reality-defying tricks in unison, a sort of swaying and gliding BMX tango, filmed in slow motion to the sounds of John Farnham’s “Send Me an Angel” (it was “White Wedding” by Billy Idol that played during filming), all to the chagrin of the onlooking Bart Taylor. (Farnham also has “Break the Ice” on the soundtrack, a brilliant, ’80s fist-pumping rock anthem).
Knowing the bike boogie during the prom scene would be virtually impossible to actually perform, let alone perform and successfully film, Needham had a platform constructed with wheels. The bikes were then mounted on the platform so the riders could perform the tricks on stationary bikes with the illusion of the bikes being in motion (Pat Romano donned a wig to double as Loughlin while Martin Aparijo filled in for Bill Allen).
On its face, the scene is ludicrous in its presentation and laughable in its cheesiness. But when viewed in the context of the film as a whole, the bike boogie is a sparkling piece in a magical puzzle.
The close-ups on both Allen and Loughlin as they glide on their bikes, watching each other while effortlessly leaning, rising, spinning, and more, unexpectedly sell the sequence. Needham manages to create an unforgettable, mentally transportive moment that plays like a fantasy.
The dedication of Allen and Loughlin to honestly present such a goofy montage helps ground the scene, but Needham films it like something out of a dream. The viewer has to wonder, did that really just happen? Or was the scene shown through the point of view of Cru and Christian, emotionally altered and heightened by their teenage hormones and attraction to each other?
Either way, the bike boogie at the prom in Rad is the type of scene that could only come out of the ’80s — and you can’t help but smile wide and love every mystifying moment of it.
(You’d never know that Allen was sick as a dog with food poisoning while filming the scenes.)
Allen and Loughlin are committed to the material, maintaining the simplistic sincerity of Cru and Christian for the remainder of the film.
Their handling of the characters as actors is what makes Rad so endearing and gets the viewer into the story. The cheesiness actually becomes quite touching through their pure, unfiltered performances. When Loughlin says to Cru, “I believe in you, don’t you believe in yourself,” it’s impossible to answer no after such a genuine and hopeful question that is said more like a statement.
Loughlin is exactly who was needed opposite Cru Jones, because not only does he fall in love with her, but her unhindered optimism is so infectious that the viewer does as well. This infectious quality can also be seen in Allen. When a race organizer asks Cru who he rides for, meaning a sponsor, Allen responds earnestly with, “me. I ride for me,” as if that’s the obvious and only answer.This naivete of youth mixed with passion is the beating heart of RAD. Click To Tweet
As Talia Shire alluded to, this all leads to the empowerment of the young characters. Especially when they have a common enemy: Duke Best, played by Golden Globe nominee veteran actor Jack Weston.
Best is the president of the Federation of American Bicyclists and the owner of Mongoose Racing, the sponsor for Bart Taylor.
Best is the typical self-important, evil capitalist who has “millions” tied up in Bart Taylor merchandise, ready to ship to stores and profit off of the gifted rider winning Hell Track. Of course, he has to win first and Best will do everything he can to make sure that happens, even if it means changing the qualifying rules to see to it that Cru can’t compete.
Weston is clearly having a blast playing such a sleazy character.
While we root against him at every turn, we also have a lot of fun watching him be a scumbag trying to cheat a kid for monetary gain.
But that infectious quality of Cru and Christian inspires the town to rally around him and create their own sponsor to qualify for the race: Rad Racing.
“When we finally shot at Hell Track, that was scary. It was enormous. I went to the set and I was terrified,” remembers Shire.
Obviously, Shire wasn’t a skilled BMX rider, but even the talented professionals were intimidated, to say the least. One rider took one look at the 25-foot sheer drop that starts the race and quit at the sight of it.
Kevin Hull of GT Bikes recalls arriving on set and seeing Hell Track for the first time.
“When I got there they were still finishing the track. I could not believe what I was seeing. The starting hill was huge and steep.”
Like Hell Track itself, the start of filming there was anything but easy.
Two days before filming on the Hell Track sequence was set to begin, the Alberta weather, which changed by the day, took a turn for the worse and started to rain. The track and field it was on was left soaked. “It was a mud hole,” said Needham.
To quickly remedy the situation, Needham asked the producers to bring in a couple of helicopters. Knowing the amount of wind the blades can produce, Needham had the helicopters fly one after the other about 20 feet above the track, working as giant fans to dry everything out. Needham’s quick thinking worked, and they were up and shooting by noon, painting the changing, mid-September leaves green to resemble the summertime setting of the film.
Filming the Hell Track sequence proved to be a tedious and tiring process.
To capture the proper footage needed the riders couldn’t just ride the track, it had to be done one section at a time.
“Everything was shot in sections starting with the first turn and working around the track,” said Kevin Hull. Also, because many angles and shots were needed to edit an exciting race sequence, each section was filmed at least five times before moving on to the next section. This repetition included José Yáñez performing Cru’s iconic bike backflip.
Backflips are more common today, even among younger riders, but Bill Allen remembers “at the time it was groundbreaking stuff.”
All in all, the grueling process to capture footage for the big Hell Track race took two weeks to film.
Interestingly, the last part of the race to be filmed was the steep wall at the start of Hell Track.
“Nobody wanted to be the first one to ride down it,” remembers Kevin Hull. “Every day we were there filming we would try to figure out the best way down the start and who was going to try it first.”
According to Needham and Allen, Beatle Rosecrans, the youngest of the riders, was the first to go down. Allen said Rosecrans would use a ladder to climb up a third of the wall and go down, then climb half the wall and go down, until finally attempting it from the top of the wall. Being the youngest rider there, and the first to ride the drop, then the older riders had no choice but to do it themselves.
Filming wrapped in early October of 1985, and the cast had nothing but positive things to say about director Hal Needham. He would often stay late after they wrapped for the day and share stories with the cast and crew about his years working with Hollywood legends and stars such as Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, Burt Reynolds, and Kirk Douglas.
Shire said Needham “was such a lovely, good man.” And regarding the dangerous Hell Track and stunts, she said Needham “would be protective and make sure everybody would be okay….[he] handled it perfectly.” Lori Loughlin at the time added, “Hal is very open and very easy to work with.”
The respect went both ways. Needham would later praise the young riders, saying how many angles and shots are required to get the amount of footage needed. “Those kids really worked their butts off…they never gave up, they never said they’re tired.”
Rad was full of heart, both on-set and off.
Prior to the film’s theatrical release, the producers had a unique approach to marketing the film.
In an effort to raise awareness leading up to Rad‘s red carpet premiere, two black vans were outfitted with giant televisions hooked up in the back. Talia Shire explains, “we had two guys who crisscrossed the United States and they would open the doors of the van and play parts of the movie. We knew we had to bring it to the audience’s attention.”
However genius this was, the trailer marketed it more as a teen family film, not necessarily focusing on the teens on BMX bikes performing cutting edge stunts.
The marketing missed the target, bringing in a younger audience than expected. For all the care and effort that Needham put into featuring legit BMX riders in the film, the teen crowd with BMX bikes weren’t enticed to show up to theaters.
When Rad opened on March 21, 1986, it was ravaged by critics and only managed less than half a million dollars in ticket sales, topping out a few weeks later at just over $2 million. Seeing the opening weekend numbers was a personal blow to both Talia Shire and Jack Schwartzman.
“Jack and I had such hopes. And then the movie tanked at the theaters. It broke our hearts.”
Later that year in mid-October, the news didn’t get any better when Rad became available to rent. The film debuted at #28 on the Billboard rental charts, falling out of the top 40 after 6 weeks.
After the film was thought dead and forgotten, all of the cast and crew having moved on from it, a funny thing happened. Bike shops across the country were selling Rad in their stores, hitting the key demographic for the film. With curious buyers watching and then telling their friends, Rad began to catch on through word of mouth. A steady life through rentals and on-home video followed.
It may have taken a few years, but the film was finally reaching an audience.
In the decades to come, the audience grew large enough to give Rad cult status.
This eventually led to a community of devoted Rad fans, (Rad Army), and inspired several cast reunions and special screenings.
Through streaming and social media, love for the film has gone global. “I’m still hearing from people in New Zealand and Australia and the Philippines,” said Bill Allen, “so it really had a worldwide effect.”
This audience love of the film (critics be damned), was apparent in 2013 through the large discrepancy on the website Rotten Tomatoes with an audience rating of 91 against a critical rating of zero. “That should tell you a thing or two about this movie in particular in that the fans went crazy for it, still do to this day,” said Allen, “it’s deep-fried in ’80s cheese. But that’s a huge part of the allure and the charm, especially for the fans.”
So with all the love, why did it take so long for Rad to get a proper DVD/Blu-ray release? After the death of Jack Schwartzman in 1994, various legal issues and contracts/rights complications kept Rad from a DVD release.
“Jack died and things became very murky and complex,” said Shire, “I would ask them about a DVD release and they would assure me that one was coming but I kept asking and they told me that they had to rethink it. I think it became mired in the aftermath of the estate after [Jack’s] death.”
It would be 34 years between official releases of Rad (with many bootlegs in between), when it was announced that a 4K restoration would be released by Vinegar Syndrome in 2020 (it quickly sold out). And to keep it in the family, Robert Schwartzman, Talia and Jack’s son (who was 3 years old during the filming of Rad), would oversee the restoration through his company Utopia Distribution.
Mondo would also release a Blu-ray in 2021.
The cast of Rad would go on to have varying degrees of success in their careers.
Lori Loughlin would find big success a few years later playing Aunt Becky on the hit TV show Full House, and go on to star in many TV shows and made-for-TV movies.
As for the others, the film would have life-changing effects on them all.
“Because of the movie I got on a bike and took it seriously,” said Allen. He owns a freestyle bike and still rides with a group of enthusiasts who gather at Huntington Beach on a regular basis. (his autobiography, My Rad Career, was released in 2014).
BMX pro, Eddie Fiola, continued with performing stunts in movies, becoming a regular in the stuntman industry. “I used to get paid to ride my bike, now I get paid to fall off my bike,” he jokes.
Bart Conner still gets recognized to this day as Bart Taylor, including being at a celebrity fundraiser standing between Magic Johnson and Shaquille O’Neal, with O’Neal leaning down to whisper, “Hey man, I loved you in that movie Rad. That was cool.”
“BMX was coming into its own, definitely, and Rad captured that zeitgeist,” said Allen. “It really, definitely, no doubt, helped kick the sport into high gear and spread the gospel of BMX.”
Not only did the release of Rad coincide with the exact moment that BMX was just entering the mainstream, but it also had the good fortune of growing organically alongside the craze. In this way, Rad functioned as a sort of X Games before X Games.
If the film had come out at any other time, it may have either slipped just beneath the moment or perhaps viewed as a film simply riding the wave of a popular trend.
Instead, it rode alongside the BMX boom and presented a sincere and exciting look at this new art form.
While all of the adrenaline-pumping BMX tricks grabbed the attention of the youth who experienced Rad back in the late 1980s and early ’90s, it was the sincerity in approach and execution that really kept the movie in their hearts over the years. This film was made for young people in the middle of growing up, an emotional time where everything seems intensified and urgent.
That’s the magic of Rad, capturing such a time in a way that feels honest. The campy, cheesy moments in the movie are what moments feel like when we’re young: bigger, brighter, dangerous, life-changing. We never doubt that Cru will win the big race, but that’s not the point. Sometimes you want to know the mediocre student in a small town is good enough to find his way.