The Early Years of Innova Champion Discs
Table of Contents
The first time I ever saw an original Eagle/Aero was at La Mirada in 1983. Some guy in my casual group was holding one of these things and I thought… ’Awwww, what a cute little pink toy!’ Completely of the mind that it was just another novelty disc.
Then he threw it!
At first I couldn’t believe the angle of his release. I fully expected it to turn over and roll. Instead it only leveled a bit and flew a very long way. My next thought, which was involuntarily spoken aloud, ‘where did you get that thing?’
I bought two Orbitor’s Odyssey Eagles at the La Mirada pro shop. When I got them to the Florida State Championships at the old Rockledge course, the current record was 9 under par. I was the defending champion in 1983 and my first round was 12 under par. I broke the old record by 3 strokes. Jeff Watson (1983 PDGA World Champion) shot the same score with an Aero the next day and won the tourney. I’ve never played a serious round of Disc Golf since without an Innova Champion disc in my bag.1987 PDGA Champion Gregg Hosfeld
This story first appeared several years ago as a series of articles in my ezine, Disc Golf Online. Initial response was overwhelmingly positive and I very much enjoyed writing the piece. Today, disc golf is experiencing the growth we all always hoped it would and I expect there are many newer players who are interested in hearing about the early years.
In researching the story, I was able to steal some of Dave’s attention, but Tim was very generous with his time — as he always was. Time spent with Ske was always a joy — whether interviewing him, being in the same group at a tournament, or leaning on his resources to help me with any hair-brained project that I had going in disc golf. I hope that I’m not too out of place to think I can dedicate this small book to his memory.
Written by Rick Bays (March 2018). Republished with permission. In memory of Tim Selinske (1959-2009)
Part 1 – The Day Everything Changed
Within every industry there are companies that are the vanguard. Companies that push the envelope of technology, they drag the rest of the field along in the vacuum of their wake. Aerospace has such giants as Lockheed Martin, Douglas and Boeing to name a few. The computer industry has too many to try and weed through at this point: Adobe, Intel, Motorola, on and on (don’t argue with me about Microsoft, they are not the vanguard).
At the heart of these companies are interesting individuals. People who are visionary in their thinking, people with crazy ideas, dreams. These people drive their industry with their ideas. More often than not, nobody will listen until success has taken shape. The risk seems too high at first, the idea too crazy. Walt Disney, for example, approached somewhere near 400 different banks before anybody would take seriously his ideas about building an amusement park in the farmland of Orange County, CA. Today, we ALL want stock in his dream.
During the stone age of disc golf, we were all constrained to throwing plastic that was basically a modified version of the “play catch and invent games” beach disc. The disc had remained essentially the same for decades.
Then, one day everything changed.
In the early eighties, Dave Dunipace was no ordinary disc golfer. Among other titles on his résumé are World Disc Golf Champion at the 1980 Santa Cruz World Championships, World Distance Record Holder in 1981, and U.S. Open Disc Golf Champion in 1983. At this time, while leaving his mark on disc golf courses and tournaments everywhere he went, Dunipace was finishing his education at U.S. International University in San Diego, CA. (sidenote: Dave holds a PhD in Psychology, I’ve known Mr. Dunipace for many years and I am CERTAIN that I do not want him probing into my psyche). Aside from his interest in shrinking heads, Dunipace was also a closet inventor. The combination of his interests in disc golf and inventing turned out to have an impact on your life and mine.
Dunipace had this crazy idea that he could build a better flying disc. One that could fly further, more stable, and more accurate — the best of all worlds in disc flight. Dunipace spent much of his free time crafting hand-made prototypes of flying discs. He shaped, he molded, he tinkered and he tested. (As a collector, what I want to know is where are these hand-made prototypes today? hmmm…)
After three years of sculpting and testing hand-made prototypes, he had something that he thought was good. In fact, he knew it was VERY good. So he approached the movers and shakers of retail disc golf at the time looking for financial backing to produce this new hi-tech disc invention. One after one they said “no.” In their defense, I probably would have said “no” too, as I’m sure it looked like a very risky proposition.
Dunipace was stuck with a product he thought could revolutionize the sport he loved, with no way to get to market. No way, that is, until he lamented about the situation to friend Harold Duvall during a round of disc golf (the people at Innova aren’t saying so, but my personal belief is that this was really a side-bet situation… you know: if I win, you have to find $20,000 to finance the building of a disc golf superpower, and if I lose, I’ll buy you a soda and Snickers). Duvall believes the idea is a good one (or loses the side bet, we may never know the truth) and vows to find financing for the project.
Duvall takes the opportunity to call on another friend, Tim Selinske. Selinske is working for Wham-O at the time and planning to leave the company very soon. He is looking for business opportunities and is ripe for the idea of manufacturing and selling golf discs. Tim jumps in with both feet (we are all glad that he didn’t end up selling ice cream with his brother, rest in peace Tim). Dunipace, Selinske, and Duvall spend some time together making phone calls and crunching numbers and come upon the realization that manufacturing golf discs will take a little more start up capital than they have. In steps Charlie Duvall (Harold’s brother), who, as fate would have it, does have some cash available. Now all the pieces are in place: a niche that needs filled in the market, a potentially revolutionary product, marketing and distribution ideas, administration talent, and the cash to put it all into action.
In early 1983, Innova Champion starts business in the plush and luxurious corporate headquarters of the Selinske parents garage in San Marino, CA. (another sidenote: on the underside of Innova Champion discs is an address, this address is the location of the company at the time the mold was machined, not necessarily when that particular disc was molded). In the Spring of 1983, Innova Champion introduced the first sample run of their first golf disc: the Eagle. There were approximately 200 of these first run discs molded. They were in various weights and the plastic is quite stiff. The colors molded were Magenta (hot pink), Orange, Yellow, and Clear (unpigmented). They were all blanks with no hot stamp.
*The first production run of Eagles began coming off the molders shortly following the sample run. The original eagle run was a total of 3,000 discs, all of which were speckled orange. A second run was done shortly after than consisted of 7,000 discs, with varying color options. All 10,000 of the original two run discs were hot stamped with the famous Champion Star that we all love, many of them had the words “patent pending” embossed on the underside, and many had nothing embossed there.*
Part 2 – Player Response
Player response to the Eagle was “phenomenal” according to Selinske. Reviews were unbelievable and sales were brisk. Nothing on the market worked near as well. It was obvious very quickly that if you didn’t throw the Eagle, you were not going to be competitive with your buddies who did. If you were a tournament player, this new disc design could give you a decided advantage over the competition.
Disc guru and legend Jim Palmeri remembers, “I had talked to Tim Selinske on the phone about the new golf disc that he was about to introduce. He said it would fly about 20% further than the Puppy, which was the hot golf disc at the time. I got to try the Aero a short time afterward. I had high expectations, and it matched my expectations exactly. It instantly replaced the Puppy as the hot new golf disc, and wasn’t itself replaced until Innova’s own Aviar hit the scene. The Eagle/Aero disc has to go down in history as the true breakthrough in golf disc design, and the true beginning of golf disc evolution.”
This new design in golf disc revolutionized the sport. In fact, there was a minority outcry within the disc golf community saying that the new disc should be outlawed. The claim was that the disc worked too well and flew too far and the disc would make the disc golf courses of the day obsolete. Our sport often faces similar arguments today with discs flying further every year. In retrospect, the Eagle design probably did make many courses easier to play. Many of these courses were then redesigned and our sport is better for it. Course designers and developers are challenged to make courses appropriate for the equipment. Golf disc evolution marches on and pushes the sport as it goes — and it IS a good thing.
It is a little known fact that the Eagle truthfully was a mistake and is not the disc it was intended to be. The mold was not machined properly to Dunipace’s specifications and thus the disc flew with a slightly understable tendency rather than the stable flight path intended. The Aero is actually the intended result of the original design. In mid-1983, immediately after the Eagle was introduced, the mold used to make the Eagle was re-tooled to the proper specifications and the Aero was born in *June* of that year. The first real golf disc I ever purchased was a purple Aero in the fall of ‘83, and a couple weeks later got my first ace with that disc on hole 12 at the Huntington Beach, CA course. Thanks Dave!
One of the things that has always intrigued me is the sequence of events with Dunipace’s designs. You know.. “When did you come up with this idea, Dave? When did you come up with that…?” Dunipace is a forward-thinking guy, and It turns out that the Eagle/Aero was not alone on the drafting table in those wee early years at Innova Champion. Before even molding the Eagle, in fact, at the same time he designed the Eagle, Dunipace already had the details worked out for several more high-tech discs that we in the general public were not to see until much later. Discs such as the Phenix and the Aviar to name a couple. I wonder what designs are floating around in that cranium today? A shrewd businessman can’t always push the envelope too fast; not when you have a warehouse full of discs to sell.
In early 1984, Innova Champion molds and introduces its third golf disc [Aviar]. Arguments rage over what disc is actually THE best all around golf disc. If you had to play with only one disc, what would it be? Whenever those arguments come up, this disc is always talked about prominently and argued for furiously. The fact that the Aviar is considered this good decades after its introduction is remarkable. It is arguably the truest flying, and most versatile disc you can throw. The public agrees as attested to the numbers sold — it remains the all time best-selling disc in the Innova Champion line. The Aviar is disc golf’s version of a design that does not get improved upon with age. It is a classic that performs its function better than other designs that have come along later, in spite of all the copies from rival disc companies.
There is something that has always bugged me about this company — why the heck do they have two names? Are they Innova? Or is it Champion? According to Selinske, the corporation was originally formed under the name Champion Discs. To the dismay of the owners, they noticed that “Champion” was very common name in the business world. Feeling the need to distinguish themselves from other companies, they filed a DBA and adopted the name “Innova” which was short for “innovative.” After all the dust settled, they decided they really liked both names and have used both in conjunction ever since.
Innova Champion made a tremendous impact on the disc golf scene from the moment they arrived, shaping (literally) the technological evolution of golf discs to follow.
Part 3 – High Tech Becomes Higher Tech
In 1983 and 1984, Innova Champion had quickly climbed to the top of the disc golf world. They had designed, produced, and marketed two discs that revolutionized the sport. Their designs had immediately overtaken the world distance record (1984, Frank Aguilera set a new record at 167.88 meters with an Aero) and won the Disc Golf World Championships.
They had moved out of those plush and luxurious corporate headquarters of the Selinske parental garage and into an office space they shared with another business in Rosemead, CA. They then quickly (3 months) outgrew those accommodations and moved into a warehouse, also in Rosemead.
In late 1984, Innova would start a company trend that continues to this day: modifying and evolving an already successful disc design to become a new design with completely different flight characteristics. Thus, the XD was born, Innova’s fourth golf disc. The XD (originally called the Aviar XD) was built to be an Aviar-type control disc that had a little eXtra Distance in its flight (hence the initials), and is basically designed to be a faster flying Aviar.
Seeing the success in the way the XD performed, Innova began another company trend that also continues to this day: combining parts of one mold with parts of another mold to generate new designs. Personally, I affectionately refer to this as Frankenstein Syndrome. Taking this Frankenstein approach, Innova debuted a couple new discs shortly after the introduction of the XD: the Ace and the Coupe. Those discs did not stay in production long but did serve well for specific purposes (the Ace made an excellent roller for its day and many players were loyal to putting with a Coupe).
By this point, Innova Champion was growing fast. The warehouse in Rosemead could not hold the business, and they moved to Ontario, CA, where they made the down payment on their own building, complete with 4,000 square feet of warehouse space *(the company has since relocated several times to larger buildings and are now active in Ontario as well as Rancho Cucamonga California. Currently, they are looking to expand again. One could make a living just being the commercial real estate agent to these guys).*
The original unbeaded XD had a very distinct lifespan. When brand new it was stable, but after some use and abuse, it became understable. Disc golfers wanted to have the option of throwing either stable or understable discs (hyzer or turnover drives) and most players started carrying XDs in various stages of wear. Realizing that their customers did not relish buying a new XD every month in order to have a stable driver, Innova added a big bead to the bottom of the XD to make it a little more stable and lengthen its durability. And so, a new, more popular disc was born: the Roc (and shortly thereafter, its brother with a slightly more shallow rim: the Hammer).
Now that Innova’s high tech golf disc designs had become diversified, the took a side track. They produced a disc not intended for golf (no, I’m not talking about the Apple, this is not a story about Ultimate). They developed a disc designed for distance throwing. Being a former world record holder, Dunipace had a penchant for distance and already had this particular design inked out in the early days of Innova Champion. In fact, this disc was designed at the same time the Eagle/Aero was. The Phenix came to life and immediately was pretty much the exclusive disc thrown by serious distance competitors, even though rival disc manufacturer Lightning was offering a $1000 bounty to anybody who could set the world record with their plastic.
“I was lucky enough to grow up with Innova Champion in my backyard,” recalls former World Distance Record Holder and PDGA World Champion Sam Ferrans. “I remember Dave bringing out new discs from time to time and testing them at La Mirada. One in particular was the Phenix. It seemed a bit large at the time and the name was kinda funny… but I later ended up naming my dog after it.” Very soon after seeing the big disc with the funny name, Ferrans would find his photo on the cover of Guinness Book of World Records for throwing this disc further than any human had thrown a disc up to that time.
Disc golfers, being the adaptive type, used the Phenix for golf regardless. They found it worked great for hyzer skip drives; if you needed a skip to get near the basket, you could bet this disc would do it.
Back to golf plastic. The Innova arsenal of golf discs was now near complete. Just a couple years beforehand, disc golf was played with a few platters that basically all flew about the same. Now, Innova had invented a whole line of golf discs that flew different from each other and allowed the player to make new shots to conquer their courses. They had putting discs, upshot discs, discs for the all around game, overstable discs, understable discs, and all of varying flight speed. All these discs were designed with one thing in mind: control. They were all intended to fly consistently and allow a player to have control over the flight of the disc.
There was only one thing missing from the line up. A driver. Up to this point, no disc had been designed with just the idea of being strictly a driver. The Eagle/Aero was designed as an all-around use golf disc, the Aviar was designed to be an all-around disc, too. The XD was designed to fly further than the Aviar, but to also be used for putting and upshots. The Roc was also a utility disc. Golfers used these discs for long drives simply because nothing else was available that flew further.
This would soon change. Something was about to come on the scene that would fly dramatically further than XDs or Rocs… enter the Stingray. The Stingray, and its beaded brother the Cobra, immediately pushed the average distance of drives on every golf course in the world. These discs were a little harder to control than their slower cousins, but the extra distance that the low profile and concave bottom edge gave on the drive made it worthwhile. Suddenly, the 400 foot holes that were out of reach for everyone but the longest throwers were reachable for many tournament players — and casual recreational players could learn to throw 300 feet with relatively little practice. The playing field was leveling out due to the new technology.
The Stingray is another classic design that is still in use today, decades after its introduction. While it may have been supplanted as the hot driver on the market, it is still in many players bags who prefer to use it as a roller due to its speed and consistent, predictable rolling path.
Another classic design was looming over the horizon following the Stingray, one that is extremely popular to this day — along with an Aviar, I bet you have one of these in your bag. Innova Champion took a very flat (fast) flight plate, coupled it with a concave bottom edge (even more concave than the Stingray), and added a big bead to the bottom to make the second generation Roc.
The new Roc was fast, overstable, and would take a beating. It became the utility driver and upshot disc of choice for many disc golfers, replacing the Classic Roc in the Innova line (although due to customer requests, the Classic Roc would make a comeback in the years to come). In its subsequent design generations, the Roc is still the go-to disc for upshots and short drives for many golfers. Immediately after the new Roc came out, it was followed by a new Hammer, a similar disc but slightly more shallow rim, and thus, a little less overstable.
The folks at Innova don’t seem to know the meaning of the word “rest.” Because shortly after the successful introduction of the second generation Roc, Dunipace decided he liked the speed and distance players could throw a Roc, but wanted a complimentary disc that was not so overstable, something that would glide straight at the end of its flight. He wanted something that flew like an Aviar, but had the distance of the Roc.
WHAM! Innova debuts the Shark, another disc that gets many votes when people start arguing about which is THE best all around golf disc. This disc flies straight and true for a good distance, with good glide at the end of its flight. It worked exactly as designed. I can still remember Dunipace showing up at La Mirada with these dark mustard colored prototype discs, claiming they would fly like an Aviar, only further. He was right.
At the same time Innova was testing Shark prototypes, they tested prototypes of an ill-fated disc called “The 2500.” It was called the 2500 because that is the number of prototype discs that were molded. I had some of these protos, and actually, they flew pretty nice. They were kind of like a Hammer, but a little toward understable. Innova didn’t see the sense in marketing both the Hammer and this new disc, so the 2500 was scrapped.
With the advent of discs such as the XD, the Classic Roc, the Stingray, the Cobra, the Second Generation Roc, and the Shark, high tech golf discs had become higher tech. Technology was moving fast in the world of disc flight, course records were falling, and things would only get better as Dave introduced the Viper and the Whippet to bring about the extreme age of golf disc technology. But, I don’t really consider those the early years after that and it’s a tale for another time.
* Disclaimer: Sections, words, or paragraphs marked with an asterisk have been updated from the original text. Corrections were made, with permission from the author, based on the first hand experience and input of Harold Duvall (co-founder of Innova Champion Discs).
The original Kindle eBook can be purchased here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07BJMXMC6
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