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The untold story of why scores soared at the 1989 ABC Tournament

JEFF RICHGELS | Posted: Tuesday, June 19, 2018 8:00 am
The untold story of why scores soared at the 1989 ABC Tournament
Mark Jensen has his arms raised after shooting a perfect game at the 1989 ABC Tournament, while Chilton Vending teammate Mark Lewis jumps in celebration. Photo courtesy Mark Jensen.

Any bowler who was around in 1989 will never forget that year’s American Bowling Congress Tournament (now the United States Bowling Congress Open Championships) in Wichita, Kansas.

Every Eagle-winning record was smashed as the huge scores rolled in: 3,481 in team beating the record of 3,327, 1,499 in doubles surpassing the record of 1,453, 813 in singles crushing the record of 782, 2,227 in all-events routing the record of 2,142, and 10,107 in team all-events obliterating the record of 9,695.

It wasn’t the balls, as urethanes had been introduced several years earlier and the Xcalibur launching the reactive resin era was still a little more than a couple of years away.

Some pointed to the advent of the vacuum stripper, but long-time lane man and former Kegel technician Ted Thompson said it didn’t get the back ends any cleaner than a good lane man, and scoring typically went up in that era after some carrydown of oil created some hold. (Fresh conditions with clean back-ends often are toughest in today’s game as well.)

Because the carry was so good — “You can’t leave a 10-pin,” was something I heard from more than one right-hander — there were theories about something being different with the kickbacks and flat gutters, and that was true, said Lou Trunk, stand-by service manager for the USBC Open Championships and Women's Championships since 1987 and QubicaAMF bowling equipment installation contractor since 1977.

Trunk said that as part of the lane and machine installation for the 1989 ABC Tournament, he tightened the pindeck area, doubled the support under the pindecks, custom cut each flatgutter for an exact tight fit, and put a fourth flatgutter support under the flatgutters.

"Our theory was to keep the energy in the pins and not lose energy to the kickbacks and flatgutters," Trunk said. "It definitely helped, and it was the 'proximate cause' for the high scores as far as ABC was concerned."

Ultimately, though, the lane surface became widely accepted as the main reason for the high scores as the 1989 ABC marked the tournament debut of AMF’s HPL synthetic lanes.

Most became even more convinced it was the HPLs when scores again were much higher in 1991 and 1993 with that surface at the ABC Tournament compared to 1988, 1990, 1992 and 1994 with Brunswick synthetics. Winning scores for the ABC/USBC tourney are at this page.

AMF even bragged about its high-scoring lanes in ads in publications like Bowlers Journal.

But it wasn’t the surface itself, it was how the surface was installed, Trunk and Thompson said.

The 1989 ABC Tournament was the dawning of the age of topography, something that is being revealed on the record in print for the first time here by Trunk, who wrote this detailed series on topography, and Thompson, another topography expert.

Thompson has been a patient source in explaining topography to me as I’ve crafted stories on the complex but crucial topic, starting with this lengthy story and this related story in 2014 that together could be considered a layman’s bible on the topic.

With USBC’s embrace of the importance of topography in recent years and his career in the industry winding down, Trunk agreed to speak on the record about the discovery of the huge significance of topography in synthetic lanes and its gigantic influence on ball motion. Thompson joined him in a conference call interview that stretched to about 90 minutes earlier this year.

Trunk was with AMF for 40 years and was in charge of installing AMF lanes for the ABC Tournament starting in 1987, which was the last year of wood lanes for the tournament. AMF and Brunswick alternated tournaments for many years when it was a new install ever year — before the new National Bowling Stadium became a host in 1995. Brunswick first installed synthetics in 1980 in Louisville.

Trunk and Kegel founder John Davis, who died in 2013, bonded decades ago over a love of everything bowling, from pinspotters to lane machines.

With the debut of AMF’s HPL synthetics in 1989, Trunk recalled that “John and I talked and I said, ‘I’m going to make these things so perfect.' Because there was too much luck of the draw in it for my preferences: you could get a good pair or you could get a crappy pair. As fair play minded as I’ve always been my whole life, this bothered me the most. I said, ‘It’s a national tournament. It shouldn’t matter what lane you’re on. It shouldn’t matter what time you bowl.’ ” 

Topography has always been a factor in bowling, and was the reason why the ABC instituted standards for lane flatness decades ago and a requirement that wood lanes be resurfaced each year, a rule that was changed in the 1960s to every two years.

“Those rules were not about higher scores but about giving everybody an equal chance no matter how you threw it,” Thompson said. “And that’s what it did — there’s old writings that say that the lane level rule in 1939 actually did more to popularize the game of bowling than any rule before it.”

Synthetics aren’t resurfaced and also aren’t perfectly flat, as is commonly known today but wasn’t in the late 1980s.

Trunk said he and Davis theorized that installing the lanes with slight dishes (sloping from outside to the middle) would create a good scoring environment, and making sure every lane was as close to the same as was humanly possible would make for the fairest environment.

“So I put them in and I had perfect little 15-thousandths dishes on every lane in Wichita,” much flatter than the USBC standard of 40 thousandths, Trunk said, “We didn’t have the lane mapper (machine) yet, but on my hands and knees I took down all the measurements with a USBC level. It took me three days just to measure the lanes, the same thing that the mapper would do in three hours today. And I didn’t even do it every 21, or 42 inches like the mapper would. I did it every 5 feet at that time just to try to get what was going on. And it still took forever.

“There were no crowns (sloping from the middle to the outside) in the whole house anywhere. John and I thought to have a good scoring condition you need more oil in the middle and less on the outsides, and so we thought the same must be true about gravity. If we have a little bumper toward the outside, that’s good. If you have a crown, it’s going to play like the middle is dry and the outside is wet … if you miss right and it’s going to go right, that’s bad!”

While a flat lane is fairest and makes friction the only factor bowlers have to deal with — as is the case with freshly resurfaced wood lanes — having the benefit of a bowl is better than the penalty of a crown was their theory, Trunk said.

One benefit of leveled topography is that more challenging lane patterns will play as intended since the lane itself isn't impacting ball motion.

In addition to all the record winning scores in the 1989 ABC Tournament, there were 47 perfect games, up from nine in 1988 in Jacksonville, Trunk said. 

Trunk said he began to realize they were on to something at the 1989 Masters when Justin Hromek thrilled the hometown fans with consecutive 300s and then a long string to start his next game while moving pairs during qualifying.

“It didn't matter what pair,” Trunk said. “They were playing the same. Justin, having extra hand, benefited from the carrydown hold he had to his left and the grip to his right. His percentage pocket carry was near 100 percent. The common thought was that the great carry was a result of the pindeck area enhancements we did. John and I even bought-in a little.

“What we couldn't explain was the power we were seeing balls hit with. It even made a different sound! We were in the back, 3 feet from the balls hitting pins, and we couldn't believe the power. There was no ‘pit tightening’ changes that could have had anything to do with the 10-in-the-pit power we were seeing balls hit with.”

Brunswick did the install again in 1990 in Reno and met the 40-thousandths rule, but all the lanes had crowns in them and they were “very haphazard,” Trunk said. “Some would have big crowns, some small crowns, some a little depression.”

Scoring paces went back to pre-1989 levels in 1990 and there were just seven perfect games.

Then came another AMF install by Trunk in 1991 in Toledo and “I’m putting my same little bowl back in there” and scores were in the 1989 range again, with 51 perfect games, he said. Back to Brunswick in 1992 in Corpus Christi and there were seven 300s with a pre-1989 scoring pace. Back to AMF HPLs in 1993 in Tulsa and there were 55 perfect games and scores in the range of 1989 and 1991.

(Because I was a PBA Touring Pro 1 in 1987 and 1988, I was ineligible for the ABC Tournament in 1988, 1989 and 1990 — you had to sit out two years back then before becoming eligible again — and I didn’t bowl the ABC Masters those years either. I couldn't have bowled in 1989 anyway as had two of my three wrist operations that year, starting with bone graft reconstruction that Feb. 2.)

During that time, “The only one who knows about this in the world is John Davis — I don’t even tell AMF,” Trunk recalls. “I don’t tell ABC. I don’t tell anybody. This is just theory.”

The only concern was fairness in the form of lane-to-lane consistency, and they had no idea scores would be so much higher, Trunk said.

By 1993, “John and I knew that we were on to something really, really huge,” Trunk said, adding that he knew AMFs ads about HPLs being the difference weren’t true, “but who am I to say?"

“So that’s what started the whole (topography) thing," he added. "We had the best laboratory in the whole world — ninety games per lane, per day for 150 straight days. And I would spot check (lanes during the tournament) to see if there is any change going on. So that’s how I gathered all my data.”

Trunk said there was no depression for the tournament lanes whatsoever in 1989, 1991 and 1993: the lanes were dead flat from about 12-12 with tiny .015-.020 curl-ups outside 12-board.

“We didn't know it then — although this was our gut feeling — but this is perfect scoring shape,” he said. “Where balls are set-down (12-12), they are flat. At the breakpoint, there is a ‘gravity bumper’ outside of 12 — the more you miss right, the more help back toward the pocket you get from gravity.”

They would later determine that any depression in the front of lanes is especially bad because it acts like dry area no matter how much oil there is and causes energy loss that keeps a ball from hitting strong.

The final proof, and what determined that it was topography and not the pindeck changes that was the main reason for the higher scores, came in an overlay install at a regular center after the 1993 tournament.

The first 12 feet of the wood lanes was removed and replaced with Medex, a high density form of MDF (Medium Density Fiberboard). Today, installers use LSL (Laminated Strand Lumber) for the first 22 feet.

“The owner somehow knew of my ABC lore, and lamented that he also wanted to replace kickbacks but couldn't do both the overlay and the kickbacks,” Trunk said. “He said that his was the lowest scoring house in the area — there was no pin-action, bowlers couldn't get the 10 out, there were no wall shots, and certainly no messengers.”

Trunk said the center's wood heads had huge depressions in the first 10 feet that probably were about 70 thousandths, but that front part of the lane wasn't checked according to ABC standards.

Trunk made the center’s heads dead flat, put in his "tiny half-pipe" past 12 feet, but just normal support under the flatgutters and pindecks.

And the center’s scores “went through the roof. You couldn't leave a 10-pin, and there were messengers everywhere — without super-tight kickbacks, super-supported pindecks, and strengthened flatgutters. That is what convinced me that it was not about solid kickbacks and pindeck areas, but about conserving energy in the ball. That is part of the reason that John built the Training Center with adjustable lanes, and why we decided to study the matter more closely.”

Thompson added that a center can go from poor pin carry to good pin carry by doing one of two things; either removing the severe depression in the front part of the lane, so balls retain energy, or moving the shot off the upside slope of the depression to the downside slope of the depression, if those are present on the lanes. 

Ultimately, the ABC hired Trunk, who persuaded the organization to have the rule for new installs for the tournament be 20 thousandths, tighter than the standing rule of 40 thousandths. (A detailed explanation of what that means is in this story.)

For the years Heddon lanes were used — 1997 in Huntsville (the year I won the all-events Eagle), 1999 in Syracuse and 2000 in Albuquerque — Trunk's friend Archie Marlow was the installer and he followed the dish shape Trunk suggested, which led to scores similar to the AMF years, he said.

The AMF years of 2002 in Billings and 2003 in Knoxville were Trunk’s last as installer, and the scores were moderately high, but not the levels of prior Heddon and AMF years because ABC made the lane patterns tougher, Trunk said.

“Because AMF was getting so much better scoring and ABC was very concerned about the politics of the situation, they clamped down on the oil pattern for those tournaments,” Trunk said, adding that it still wasn’t known that lane shape was the real reason for the scoring differential. “They believed the hype in Bowlers Journal. And I didn’t say that wasn’t true. I just said I think we need to have a tighter spec and they agreed.

“Basically the pattern was very similar from year to year no matter whose surface it was on.  And Brunswick started complaining to ABC that they must be putting an easier pattern out on AMF years. They said they weren’t, but back then there was no pickup device and reader. So we’re doing smear tests out there with our fricking fingers. Then the pickup device and reader comes out in 1990-something and you could actually prove it to them.”

What had been guesses about topography by Trunk and Davis had clearly been confirmed by the real-world experience of the ABC Tournament.

And Kegel had begun studying topography’s influences at its Florida facility that features lanes that can be tilted with a mechanical system.

The best evidence is stunning videos here of Pete Weberhere of Norm Duke and here of Rhino Page throwing shots before and after the Kegel lanes were tilted without them knowing the lanes had been tilted.

The PBA Tour stars made virtually identical shots (measured by CATS with data embedded in the videos) on lanes oiled the same, but with maximum legal topography differences in opposite directions. They got lined up on one lane and struck and then rolled essentially the same shot on the other and got huge differences in ball reaction. For the right-handed Weber and Duke the ball appeared to be struggling up a hill on their second shots, with Weber taking three off the right and Duke hitting the 3-6, while the left-handed Page’s ball had the opposite reaction and crossed over.

Weber said afterward in a now famous quote that “I owe a lot of lane men an apology.”

In the months he’s not working for ABC/USBC, Trunk still installs lanes and pinspotters for what is now Qubica AMF and the centers have “absolutely phenomenal” scores with a slight (legal) dish for topography and house shot lane patterns. Years of seeing that was further evidence to back what happened at the national tournament.

After the lane mapper was introduced, Trunk went to Brunswick and explained everything and USBC employee Trunk became their “quality control” for new installations at the Open Championships. (Trunk has nothing to do with the National Bowling Stadium in Reno or South Point Bowling Plaza in Las Vegas since they aren’t new installations for the tournament.)

“I would double-check behind them — everything they put in I was on my hands and knees double-checking because USBC wanted it to be as fair as possible and wanted the lanes to match up,” he said.

The emphasis has been on consistency lane to lane, not on whether they are dishes or crowns, Trunk said. 

USBC has posted the topography charts at the Open Championships page at BOWL.com the past two tournaments, with South Point Plaza featuring mostly slight dishes and the Oncenter in Syracuse mostly slight crowns.

"That’s what the tournament is about: no matter what pair you draw you’ve got the same shape and then you put the pattern on top of the shape,” he said. “That is what is important.”

And when the lane patterns have been conducive to higher scores, there certainly have been, most notably 2009 at the convention center in Las Vegas and 2013 and 2014 at the National Bowling Stadium in Reno. (The Stadium opened in 1995 and is on its third set of lanes, which have been leveled after their installations, which also is the case with South Point Plaza in Las Vegas.)

Trunk emphasized that comparing scores of the current era to scores of the 1980s or 1990s or even 2000s isn’t really logical, since bowling ball and lane machine and lane oil technology has changed dramatically, and the tournament format itself has changed, with all squads now on fresh oil, a huge step forward for equity and one of the best things USBC has ever done.

I’ve made the assertion that the tournament is more fair now than it ever has been, and Trunk agrees: That is an absolutely fair statement, without question. The last 10 years have been the absolute fairest it could ever be, not because they were trying to be unfair before but because now we know so much more about it and we’re able to get the friction side and the gravity side to be fair across the house to every bowler no matter what pair they draw.”

Having lanes that meet a higher standard of topography also is one reason power players don’t dominate the Open Championships the way they do in a lot of bowling: high ball speed and heavier bowling balls lessen the impact of topography, and getting deep inside on the typical lane with heads depressed in the middle means getting extra push in the heads whereas a straighter player setting it down in the depressed head area gets instant hook and loss of rotation even with 100 units of oil in the heads, Trunk said.

While wood lanes had to be resurfaced every year and then every two years, synthetic lanes get millions of balls dropped on their heads over years of use, leading to depressed heads for all but those that were installed with crowns in the heads.

“It plays like the heads are dry” for straight players, Trunk said. “Power players playing deep get extra push. If you’ve got oil, that’s good.  But if you’ve got depression, that’s going to negate the oil. But if you’ve got oil and crown, well that’s like double oil. And if you have dry plus a depression, that’s like double dry. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.”

Which brings us to the potential new USBC lane specification standards I detailed in this story after the 2017 USBC Convention. The new tightened standards, which include measuring in five spots instead of three, are scheduled to go into effect for the 2019-20 season, although they may be modified — there has been significant resistance from proprietors because of the potential costs. 

“Up to this point, no one has taken a measurement inside of 10 feet — the very shortest distance on any USBC inspection was in a window from 10 to 15 feet,” Trunk said. “Now with these new rules, they’re going to be required to take a measurement in that first several feet of the lane and, I’m going to tell you, it’s going to be ugly.”

Trunk said the five measurements will be taken in different spots each year, meaning that “over time they will measure the whole lane and flatten it out to where it’s fair for all styles again.”

That is important because just requiring out-of-spec lanes to be fixed only at the measured spots does nothing to ensure the entire lane is within specifications, and provides no incentive for installers of new lanes to make sure the entire lane is within specs — just the spots that would be checked, Trunk and Thompson said.

“If I’m the installer why would I spend hundreds and hundreds of man hours leveling four levels — the foundation, the top of the I-beam, the LSL’s and the lane,” Trunk said. “It takes me with my men 200 to 300 man hours to do. Let me do none of that and instead wait for USBC to come in and give me a punch list so that the most amount of spots I’d have to fix on each lane is three. That will take me about 30 man hours to fix. … I can make another $10,000 to $15,000 profit if I don’t do all of this stuff and I’ll be just as sanctioned as if I had done it all.” 

Trunk emphasized that while oil patterns can be changed, “gravity is forever,” meaning leveling lanes is vital for competitive equity, and knowing topography is vital for competitors.

“The most important thing that I would do if I was a good bowler is see the map of the topography,” he said. “I know that shape isn’t changing while I’m bowling, so as I make moves I just want to know where it is that I want to stay away from. That’s what our seven color slope graphs were meant to be like: to identify where the sand traps and the lakes are so that you can play accordingly.

“So the first thing I’d do is look at the topography graph and see that I can’t play anywhere but here. Then I’d look at the pattern and I’d pick a ball that allows me to play there. And that’s what is not happening. Everybody’s saying, ‘Oh I’ve got a 35-foot pattern so I’ve got to play out.’ That’s so damn stupid, I can’t even believe it. What if it’s all out of bounds out there?  … It’s either there’s gravity out of bounds out there and I’ve got to play in it, but I cannot leave it under any circumstance, or I’ve got to stay out of the gravity out of bounds and never touch it. There’s my two options if I’m a good bowler. But people are not using topography as a deciding factor in where to play and what ball to use and I think it should be your No. 1 concern.”

A few days prior to USBC announcing the potential new lane specification standards at last year's USBC Convention, I wrote this story suggesting that a 2-tier system of center certification would be the best solution.

The top tier would be “Sport” centers, which would have to meet stringent levels for topography and would be the only centers eligible to hold USBC and State association championships. Adding local association championships would be problematic since many areas might not have a local Sport center, although areas with Sport centers might be required to give those centers preference.

Sport centers would have a natural advantage among high level bowlers who understand topography and theoretically would gain prestige and business from that.

The second tier would be “Standard” or “Recreation” centers that would be certified as meeting all of the traditional parameters such as length and width of lanes, current topography rules, lane pattern rules, pin rules, etc.

Trunk said he privately suggested a tiered approach of gold, silver and bronze certification to ABC about 15 years ago.

“If you’re going to have a State Tournament in your center then your lanes should be flatter,” he said. “If you’re going to host the State Tournament, you’ve got to be gold. If you’re going to host the City Tournament, you’ve got to be silver. Something like that. Then on the outside door of that center, there’ll be a big gold or silver or bronze sticker from USBC. And the bowlers will take it from there. They’ll say. ‘Hey, how come you’re just a bronze center?’

"There are some proprietors who would do it (become gold) in a heartbeat, and there are others who won’t give a damn about it. Fine. I was just saying to USBC, that you shouldn’t be the one that decides. They should decide, but you’re not giving them any choices in the matter. And then pressure from the bowler will make the level of flatness get better over time.”

Thompson said many people have had the same general idea: "In England they came up with a whole plan a guy sent me maybe eight years ago to rate centers. Sweden is talking about it as well. John Davis used to have a saying that you can’t mandate anything to anybody, you can only lead them. And I think in the topography thing, probably just like oil too, the only way you’re going to quote, unquote fix it is to let ego be the driving factor.”

If USBC tries to force all centers to meet on standard, there likely will be centers with few leagues and no serious tournaments that simply won’t certify, and it’s better that they certify at the lowest tier than not at all, Trunk and Thompson said.

(Trunk and his Lane Installations have been providing lane mapping and flattening and have been hired by USBC to level the lanes of the many commercial centers for upcoming USBC short-term events, including 2018 U.S. Open and 2019 USBC Women's Championships host Northrock Lanes in Wichita.)

So does topography mean that synthetic lanes replacing wood lanes that can be sanded flat has been bad for bowling?

“I don’t think it was a bad thing,” Thompson said. “I think it was a good thing in that they are more durable. They don’t change characteristics as fast as a coated wood lane. And therefore, friction wise, they can remain a lot more similar for many more years. Unfortunately, the installation part was I think a bad thing for competitive bowling because there were no specifications for how they were installed.”

“The surface was a great invention and was great for competitive bowling,” Trunk added. “What was horrible is that we stopped the re-flattening.”

Because of the strength of modern bowling balls, older synthetic lanes also see “tracking” the way wood lanes did. That was a huge issue with the first set of lanes at the Stadium and the main reason lefties became so dominant there for a time. The Stadium now is on its third set of lanes.

Synthetics have become much more durable but it’s still an issue, “and you have to figure out how to balance it out with the oil pattern,” Thompson said.

That comes into play at the Stadium and Plaza as it gets into multiple years of the Open Championships (and Women’s to a lesser degree) on the same sets of lanes: The Open Championships daily pace is about triple a normal center, and it’s mostly players using high-tech equipment, whereas a normal center has a lot of low-tech balls being thrown.

Needless to say, that makes it even harder for a lane man to craft something equitable between lefties and righties.

Perfect flatness is not attainable, but the sport can get much closer and thereby be much more equitable, Trunk and Thompson said.

“The closer you are to pure levelness, the more everybody is affected equally,” Thompson said. “And the farther away you stray, the more it’s going to affect a certain type of ball roll in whatever part of the lane it’s in. So it doesn’t become a matter of who bowled best, but it becomes a matter of who matched up — literally!” 

“And nine times out of 10 the average shape that is out there today is going to favor the power player because he’s faster so he gets less gravity influence, he’s conserving more energy because he’s on the correct side of the slope which gets his ball to push instead of spark,” added Trunk. “He doesn’t have to be more talented. He just has to be more powerful. Two equally talented guys — a straight player and a power player — the power player is going to kick his ass if you bowl long enough on a depression.”

Update: I appeared on Phantom Radio to talk about this story on Aug. 1, 2018. Listen to the show here.

Mark Jensen rolls his 12th shot for a perfect game at the 1989 ABC Tournament. Photo courtesy Mark Jensen.
Mark Jensen rolls his 12th shot for a perfect game at the 1989 ABC Tournament. Photo courtesy Mark Jensen.