By Amy Silverman
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While you are sleeping tonight, somewhere in the world there will be a Zamboni chugging away in some rink making fresh ice while the preteen skating minxes and the hockey players become impatient. Zambonis have been sold in Russia, China and South Africa. Zambonis rule the rinks in Australia, Korea and Japan, too.
The Bethlehem of 'bonis is the town of Paramount, California. Paramount's Mary, Joseph and Holy Father all wrapped into one was Mr. Frank Zamboni, nonskating, ninth-grade dropout. He started an icehouse in 1922, which the home refrigerator squashed a few years later.
What to do with all that water-freezing equipment? In the late '30s, he built himself a rink, cleverly named it Iceland, and resurfaced the ice in the common method of the day. One that involved four men, a tractor, a hose and an hour and a half.
Frank started scratching his head. By 1949, he had created an enormous contraption with wooden sides housing a conveyor belt to pick up shavings and spray out water, all riding on the body and engine of a Jeep. It worked.
Sonja Henie was a big name in figure skating back then, and when she came to Iceland to rehearse with her troupe, she fell for Frank's baby. He built another one for her. She took it on tour. Needless to say, the monster spoke for itself; soon rink owners throughout the country were ordering up. Frank and company needed a name. They thought of Paramount Engineering Co. That was taken.
But what about, well, why not?! Mama mia! Zamboni it was, and Zamboni it is!
Frank went to that big rink in the sky back in '88, and his son Richard took over. A couple other companies have made ice resurfacers over the years, but that's like trying to reinvent the Frisbee. Zambonis now start at about $50,000, but the average life expectancy is 20 years. A Zamboni was mentioned in a Peanuts cartoon. There are Zamboni fan clubs, and there was a winning thoroughbred horse named Zamboni in the '80s.
Like a gunslinger, a test pilot, a really fast short-order cook, Tom Youngs is something of a badass when he gets behind the wheel of his Zamboni. That's just the way it is with Zam jockeys, and not just anyone can cut the frigid mustard.
"We're kinda in our own little world," he admits. "My boss, once I told him, 'I'm the best there is, the best there was, the best there'll ever be.'"
Youngs is quick with the resurfacing, that much is true. Just ask him.
"Everybody that comes in this building says I'm the fastest they've ever seen drive the machine," he says quietly. "I don't do anything different from anybody else that climbs on that thing, but for some reason I'm down to the six, six-and-a-half-minute mark. It usually takes eight to ten minutes."
Youngs has even heard tell of Zam jocks greater than he; yet it is perhaps the stuff of legend.
"I know the driver in Vegas," he says. "They have two machines there. I knew that the one guy would do 360s in between periods, and then I heard a rumor that both guys would start out at opposite directions and go past each other and do 360s, and another one was where they would drive by each other and high five." He shudders, shrugs. "But I've never seen this."
Then there's something that even the strongest Zam studs don't like to mention. It can send a man to bed at night with fists clenched and teeth gritting in the dark:
"Yeah," whispers Youngs, his voice not cracking. "I've seen guys who just can't do it. A lot of it is intimidation, they're scared of it out there. And that's the one thing, you can't really be scared of it."
It? It? It? . . . What is It?
"It's hard to say," he says, frowning. "I don't know if it's that it's such a big machine, and when you start going into a slide it feels like you're going to lose control. It'd be pretty embarrassing if you put the thing through the wall. And there's the crowds, thousands of people watching you, kids standing by the boards waving."
Youngs is not ashamed to admit that, way back when, it was hard for him.
"The first two times out there, it was. I'm used to driving on ice, so that didn't bother me, but the difficult thing is, when you come around corners, it's easy to mess up your lines. But by the fifth time, I did it. I could make a perfect pass.
"Now, I horse around a little bit too much. I'll take another driver out, they might be having problems doing one particular thing, and they say, 'I want to do it like you do it.' I'll say, 'Don't drive the way I do.' When I first came here, I wouldn't drive that radical until I learned the machine, learned to feel what it's going to do."