Wearing roller skates, and quite often covered in tattoos, you can find them handing out flyers and putting up posters at street fairs, clubs, parks and movie theaters. Their grassroots promotional efforts would make even the hardest-working local bands jealous, and their presence is seemingly everywhere lately. By day, they walk among us as teachers, waitresses, even soccer moms, but at night they take on new identities and do serious battle in the once dormant, but now thriving sport of roller derby.

The history of roller derby is a complicated one. Invented in America, the term has been around since the 1920s, but it’s the 1970s era that most people are familiar with.  Teams like the Los Angeles Thunderbirds and the Chicago Pioneers would do battle every week on national TV. At its peak, the sport drew more than 50,000 people to a Chicago baseball park. Since then there have been short-lived, entertainment-based revivals on TV, such as RollerGames in 1989 and RollerJam in 1999.

In the early 2000s, a grassroots effort was led by a new generation of women, who started forming underground do-it-yourself leagues featuring a punk rock look and ethic. A popular reality show, Rollergirls, based on the sport’s new direction and filmed in the Derby hotbed of Austin, Texas, helped spread the word to a younger generation. It’s this modern revival that brought to life the area’s most popular team, the Ventura County Derby Darlins.

Founded in early 2007, and despite humble beginnings, it is now arguably the county’s most popular sports team. It currently has two competing squads — the VenDolls and Battalion of Skates — with plans to launch a third team of newer recruits called the Cadets.

With a colorful and somewhat campy vibe, the VenDolls rock an old-school pinup look, while the Battalion of Skates are decked-out in camouflage. Despite required nicknames that would make some blush (e.g., Miss “Anita Slapahoe” and “Titty Kitty O’Leary”) it’s still family entertainment that has had a tremendous turnout so far this season. A staggering 600-plus crowd showed up for last month’s double header, but it’s this weekend’s flagship event, Battle for the Coast, that’s promising the biggest crowd ever.

The Battle is a colossal undertaking hosted by the Darlins, which is now in its third year. More than 10 teams from the West Coast, and as far away as Alaska, will descend on the Ventura County Fairgrounds for a two-day competition that draws roller derby fans from all over the country. It’s helping put the Darlins on the map nationally and spreading the word that Ventura is a derby hot town.

Whether it’s the promotions, camp factor or the recent television and film exposure, what players insist is the main factor for the sport’s popularity is plain old passion and integrity.

As Ventura County Derby Darlins marketing director Jessica Langdorf, who rolls under the name “Lucille Balls Out,” explains, “It’s an intense and sometimes dangerous sport. The girls will show up to practice with broken fingers, busted knees, dislocated jaws —  and they’ll still be ready to play. It’s pure passion. I think people really relate to that and want to support it. Half our audience is families coming to enjoy the sport, but there’s enough hard hits and action to keep a different crowd entertained, too. We take a massive amount of pride in it.”

Though the Ventura County Derby Darlins are the most well-known group locally, they’re no longer the only game in town. A key member in the Darlins early days, and the inventor of the Battle for the Coast event, is Corinna Owens. Owens, better known in the derby world as “Mollie Tuff Cocktail,” left the Darlins to start an Oxnard-based team, the Sugartown Rollergirls. Owens’ focus is to build a traditional “banked track” skating rink, which is different from the flat track that the Darlins use. Though her team practices weekly at Freedom Park in Camarillo, most of her time is spent raising funds and finding the right location. She remains supportive of the Darlins and is happy the Battle for the Coast has grown into a two-day event.

“My idea was to have a roller derby event that would bring in a much bigger crowd than the usual matches at the time. The first battle in 2007 was the first Roller Derby event at the fairgrounds in at least 20 years or more — noone really knew how long it had been — and now the fairgrounds are having regular matches. It’s amazing.”

Another Ventura-based group has also formed in the wake of the Darlins’ success: the West Coast Derby Knockouts. With less than a year in the game,  they’ve competed in several bouts, and practice three times a week at Skating Plus in Ventura. They’ll be taking on one of the Darlins’ teams later this month.

So, with a recent big-budget movie spotlighting the sport, the cringe-worthy Whip It, and dollar signs instead of DIY integrity in the minds of many fly-by-night promoters and leagues, the big question now is: Will this latest roller revival last, or will it become another footnote in the sport’s unique history?

West Coast Derby Knockouts founder Sara Hellenbrand, aka “Ooh Sarakuda,” doesn’t think so.

“I don’t see the peak coming for a couple more years. Especially in this area,” she said. “With the rockabilly, car show and art culture so popular in Ventura, roller derby fits right in. Also, the Ventura County Derby Darlins do such a phenomenal job promoting roller derby as an actual sport that it’s no longer a niche market supporting it. It’s for everybody.”    

Battle for the Coast takes place Saturday, May 1, and Sunday, May 2, at the Ventura County Fairgrounds, 10 W. Harbor Blvd. For more information, visit www.battleforthecoast.com. To learn more about the teams mentioned, visit: www.vcderbydarlins.com, www.westcoastderbyknockouts.com and www.myspace.com/sugartownrollergirls.  

chris@armyoffreshmen.com