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Short History of Roller Derby A Short History of the Sport of Roller Derby

A Short History of the Sport of Roller Derby

Thank you to Ginger Snap, Feistycrow Designs  and the Gotham Girls Roller Derby league for researching the first 70 years and sharing a lot of other interesting info included here.


1932                 Roller Derby is created by Leo Seltzer on a napkin at Johnny Ricketts in Chicago.  He coined the term to describe a long-term endurance race, inspired by the popularity of roller skating and marrying it to the idea of dance-a-thons that were fashionable at the time.

1935                 First Trans-continental Roller Derby is played in Chicago.  Twenty-five 2-player pairs competed in the contest to roller skate 3,000 miles, equal to the distance between San Diego and New York City, around an oval track.  Starting on August 13, the teams raced to cover as much distance as they could each day in 11.5 hour shifts.  On Sunday, September 22nd, Clarice Martin and Bernie McKay won the title, one of only nine teams to finish the 39-day event.

1937                 Sportswriter Damon Runyon suggests more physical contact in a conversation with Leo Seltzer - and roller derby begins its evolution into what we know today.

1937                 Leo Seltzer creates the International Roller Derby League (IRDL), known for the skaters' pride in their skating and athletic ability.  Surviving, now-retired skaters insist to this day that the games were competitive, but also that it was important to be showy to draw fans.

1937                 Roller Games was started as a competing outfit to Seltzer's IRDL.  The Roller Games league was known for its antics, showmanship and disproportionate theatrical violence.  A rivalry was born, that later culminated in a game played in the late 1960s.

1973                 IRDL holds its last official game.  Transportation costs during the gas crisis of the 70's were blamed for low attendance and the ultimate death of this first incarnation of roller derby. 

1977                 David Lipschultz forms the International Roller Skating League is formed, made up of part-time skaters with day jobs, and folds in 1987.

1980s                American Skating Association, another league of part-time skaters, is born in the mid-80s.

1984                 Roller Jam is created by Knoxville television producer, Stephen Land.  In an attempt to capitalize on pro wrestling's popularity with TV viewers, the co-ed game was re-worked to include a figure-8 track, a pit of live alligators, and choreographed games performed by in-line skaters.  This era was considered to be the Dark Age of Roller Derby by most - but is also cited as an early source of inspiration for many of the current generation of skaters, who saw Roller Jam when they were impressionable young girls.  Roller Jam lasted for 2 years on TNN, which is now Spike TV.

2001                 Bad Girl Good Woman Productions (BGGW) is formed and creates the first all-girl roller derby game of the new generation.  Founders form four teams and, a year later, stage their first bout during the summer of 2002 in Austin, Texas.  Shortly after, the league later suffers a split over business plans.

2002                 Texas Rollergirls are formed from members of the first BGGW teams.  The BGGW league (also known as the Lonestar Rollergirls or Texas Roller Derby) go on to skate banked-track roller derby, while the new Texas Rollergirls embrace the flat-track format.

2003                 Ivanna S. Pankin founds Arizona Roller Derby in July, and the league holds its first competitive, flat-track exhibition bout in Tempe, Arizona in November of 2003, with advice and support from the Texas Rollergirls and guest skaters from the BGGW Lonestar Rollergirls.  More DIY all-female leagues are created by scrappy women in Los Angeles, New York, Tucson and North Carolina in the late summer / early fall of 2003, and the current generation of roller derby skaters start getting to know each other and sharing notes.  The New Renaissance of Roller Derby is born - and the gospel spreads like wildfire thanks to the internet and email.

2004                 The United Leagues Coalition (ULC) is created as an online message board to help other flat-track leagues get started, and foster inter-league games between established teams. Founders of leagues from Seattle to Philadelphia and everywhere in between compare notes and begin training.

2004                 The first inter-league games of the new generation commence with an April challenge issued from Tempe, Arizona to the Texas Rollergirls and accepted in November of 2004.  Arizona Roller Derby hosts the Texas skaters in Tempe on a Saturday, and Tucson Roller Derby hosts another Texas Rollergirls team in Tucson the following Sunday.  Two weeks later the three leagues go against each other again in a double-header game in Austin.  The legendary games are attended by a record-breaking number of fans, including skaters representing more than 15 DIY all-girl leagues from every corner of the country.

2005                 United Leagues Coalition is formalized.  ULC representatives from over 20 leagues finally meet in person in Chicago in July of 2005 in a historic, face-to-face conference to determine the future of the organization as a governing body for all-girl, flat-track roller derby - after over a year of working closely together online.  The girls collaborate on a plan to develop a cohesive sport with shared rules and requirements for game play.  The meetings, led by members of founding leagues and rookies from newly-formed leagues, result in a democratic voting structure and a timeline for meeting specific goals to foster inter-league bouting.  Representatives begin discussing an official name for the coalition - a discussion that persists to this day.

2005                 The Sin City Rollergirls are founded in Las Vegas the very next weekend.  Arch-rival captains on the track, and business partners for AZRD behind-the-scenes, Trish the Dish and Ivanna S. Pankin hand over management of Arizona Roller Derby to the next generation of skaters, and move to Las Vegas to speed planning of a convention for late summer.  They start recruiting skaters for SCRG upon arrival in Vegas in late July of 2005. 

2005                 RollerCon '05, the first All-Girl Roller Derby convention, takes Las Vegas by storm in late August of 2005.  More than 400 skaters from over 50 leagues descend on Las Vegas.  Flat- and banked-track leagues are represented, including retired skaters from historic teams of the 1950s and 60s. Even descendants of Leo Seltzer attend the weekend-long party, which includes dinners, live bands, and a now-infamous two-hour, multi-league scrimmage in 107-degree heat outdoors on Saturday at noon.  Flat- and banked-track skaters find that in spite of their differences, they are equally susceptible to heat stroke. Survivors practice the story they'll tell their grandchildren over drinks the rest of the weekend.

2005                 The Sin City Rollergirls play their first game, an inter-league match against Arizona Roller Derby's rookie team, the Smash Squad, on October 22nd of 2005, qualifying as a Division 2 league just in time to be invited to a planned tournament in 2006.  The SCRG Neander Dolls win by over 20 points, and create an aggressive season schedule unlike any seen by the new generation of skaters, most of whom play once at month at the most.  SCRG schedules free games for nearly every weekend, and issues challenges to nearby leagues for public, ticketed games once a month.  The Neander Dolls current schedule can be seen at http://sincityrollergirls.com/schedule.html.


2006                 The Dust Devil Tucson International Tournament - the first tournament of the all-girl, flat-track, skater-owned DIY leagues is scheduled for February 24th - 26th, 2006 and hosted by Tucson Roller Derby at Blade World in Tucson, Arizona.  Eighteen leagues, including the Sin City Rollergirls, have registered for the tournament.  Only one league will earn the title of best in the country.  Will it be the Neander Dolls? 



  • Roller derby is one of the few sports that has always been integrated, racially and sexually.  From the beginning black & white players and male & female skaters were dukin' it out on the same teams!   We're still proud to be racially integrated, but today's games feature only female skaters.  We still love our boys, though, and they are integral to the success of our league, functioning as refs, scorekeepers, heavy-lifters, water boys, shoulder-rubbers and more.
  • Helmets and safety gear weren't required for players until the mid-60s, when insurance companies finally demanded it - and even then, skaters resisted.  Today's flat-track leagues are very safety-conscious, since we skate on a variety of hard surfaces. The Sin City Rollergirls, for example, play on bare concrete.  So we require specially designed knee, elbow and wrist pads, with sturdy helmets and mouth guards for our players.
  • Only one skater has ever been killed on the track.  In a game in Kansas City in 1940, Steve Irwin tripped, went over the rail and crashed into some chairs.  He seemed fine, so officials let him finish the game.  After his team won, he collapsed and died.  Roller derby skaters come from a long line of dedicated athletes!
  • Roller derby and the birth of sports on TV: In the early days of television, networks were desperate for programming.  Leo Seltzer exploited that by sending tapes of games to every rural station he could find - so that obscure time-slots that would normally be off the air brought derby games into living rooms across the country, instead.  Seltzer believed that TV was key marketing that would boost ticket sales, the cornerstone of his revenue plan.  But history has shown that while he was on the right track, he had it backwards!  TV coverage of pro sports is what keeps teams and franchises afloat these days, independent of ticket sales.



Loretta "Lil' Iodine" Behrens            Loretta is a 5 foot tall, red-headed, loud-mouthed living legend and very close friend of the Sin City Rollergirls.  An outspoken and formidable blocker in her day, she's now just as formidable among the fan groups and "roller derby has-beens" (her affectionate name for her generation of skaters) on the web.  She joins us regularly at practices and on the sideline during games, skating with her walker and letting everyone know exactly what's on her mind. 

Frankie Macedo           Frankie captained many teams and coached all over the world during the first generation of roller derby, then finally retired in Las Vegas, to our delight.  He's an unofficial coach's advisor to our trainers and one of our favorite male skaters of all times.

Anne Calvello              The "Demon of the Derby," Anne is a legendary roller derby villain who skated in seven decades of the sport.  With her multi-colored hair, wild glasses and Leo-the-Lion uniform flare, screaming obscenities at the crowd, she was the Dennis Rodman of the derby.  She was sometimes called "Banana Nose Calvello" because she broke her nose so many times during games. 

Charlie O'Connell        One of the all-time stars of the first generation of roller derby, Charlie played Pivot and was a notorious ladies man on and off the track.  He had so many breaks in his arms that toward the end of his career, doctors forced him to skate with braces, insisting he would be faced with loss of movement if he broke them one more time.

Mike Gammon             Mike skated on the New York Chiefs with his mother and father, Gene Gammon and Gerry Murray, then married another skater, Judy McGuire.  He helped the Seltzers publicly rejuvenate derby many times.

Joanie Weston             "The Blonde Bomber" was known as a kick-ass pivot, but she was more famous for her athleticism and adorable pigtails.  She's the subject of an upcoming book by Andrew Epstein, a former skater and amateur roller derby historian.

Leo Seltzer                  Leo created roller derby and founded the IRDL, and his family has been involved ever since.

Oliver Seltzer              Oliver is Leo's uncle; he formed/owned the Roller Derby Skate Corporation.

Jerry Seltzer                Jerry is Leo's son - he took over the IRDL for his dad in 1950.



Roller Derby Mania         Promo film for the 1970s Bombers

DERBY                            Slow but interesting late 70s documentary about a super-fan desperate to join roller derby

Kansas City Bomber        70's banked track masterpiece featuring Raquel Welch

Unholy Rollers                70's B-movie featuring the trials and tribulations of a short-tempered factory worker-turned-roller-derby queen, played with maximum attitude by a Playboy Bunny.  The main character famously sports the winged-skate-with-dagger tattoo that was drilled into countless numbers of this generation of rollergirls during RollerCon '05.

Demon of the Derby        Relatively recent documentary available online about Anne Calvello

Lipstick and Dynamite     2005 documentary about women's pro wrestling with incidental tie-ins to wrestlers who skated for roller derby teams.  Highly recommended for an inside view on the history of women's sports.



Five Strides on the Banked Track by Frank DeFord

Roller Derby to RollerJam - the Authorized Story of an Unauthorized Sport - by Keith Coppage






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