SI Vault
John Garrity
November 15, 1982
Glenn Allison was sure that he'd bowled the first official 900 series, but the American Bowling Congress said uh-uh, the lanes weren't legit
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November 15, 1982

Thrice Perfect, Once Scorned

Glenn Allison was sure that he'd bowled the first official 900 series, but the American Bowling Congress said uh-uh, the lanes weren't legit

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Board 20 is dead center on a 39-board lane of the sort found at La Habra 300 Bowl. To get to the heart of the lane-dressing controversy, it makes sense to start in the middle of a bowling lane. The full length of a typical modern lane is coated with a tough, nonflammable, urethane finish, topped for the first 40 or so feet from the foul line with a polish called "oil." This lane dressing was introduced out of necessity in the 1960s, when urethane replaced lacquer finishes on lanes: Bowling proprietors found the new surfaces so "dry" that ball friction damaged the lanes and affected the bowlers' shots. The answer was a thin film of oil applied daily to the first 40 feet of the lane.

On an oiled lane, conditions referred to as "ice" and "rug" prevail. A bowling ball skids and spins on the oil until it hits the rug, the unoiled final 20 feet to the head pin, where friction suddenly converts the ball's erratic action to roll, hook or curve. Every ball thrown picks up oil from the dressed area and carries it downlane; hence the term "track" for the relatively dry path that is worn through the oil in a few hours of bowling. For the average righthanded bowler, the track is in the area from the seventh to the 14th board, counting from the right edge.

"Most houses run their oil from the foul lines to about 45 feet," explains Rogers, "but I disagree with that. I think you must get the ball into a hook pattern earlier to make better scores. I feel that 30 feet of oil is all you need. It gets you into a roll earlier so the ball has more momentum when it hits the pins."

Rogers points out the track on Lane 13, a relatively dull-looking path through the gleaming oil. "A 'crown' is legal," he says. "You're allowed a 2-to-1 ratio—two times the amount of oil in the middle as on the outside of a lane—because the bowlers play basically in the middle and wear it down faster. But the night in question, the ABC says there wasn't enough oil from, say, the seventh or eighth board to the edge. That's the amazing thing. They say there wasn't enough oil outside the eighth board."

He kneels down. "Any time you get a dry condition through here [he points at Boards 1 through 8 on the right edge of the lane] and a heavy oil condition over here [he points at the track] you're creating what they call a wall. The ball doesn't want to go over, so it rides the oil till it hits the drier boards, where it'll turn in hard, which will tend to make it hit the pocket. That's the whole thing their case is built on—the amount of oil from the outside to the inside. They're saying it was too dry here and too oily there."

The wall condition isn't always accidental, and bowling proprietors are often accused of lane doctoring to boost scores. Oil is applied to a bowling lane by a knee-high, box-shaped robot that rolls from foul line to pin deck, cleaning, buffing and spewing polish automatically. The depth of the oil at any board can be controlled by adjusting the machine.

"Sure," Rogers says with a shrug, "I know how to set up a lane outside if I want to set it up. I can make it as easy or as tough as I want to. But to make a true wall condition, you usually need to go 40 feet or so with oil. You run a heavy strip right down the middle. I don't do that." He shakes his head. "I just don't know how they got their readings."

Rogers contends that at the first inspection the spring-loaded "lane analyzer" gauge was mishandled or misread by the ABC's field representatives; that they tested an insufficient number of boards; and that later tests conducted by the ABC resulted in readings that were inconsistent with the first ones. "I get hot about it," he says, looking pained. "We had a 299 here about a month and a half earlier, and the ABC okayed it. We had a 300 here last Saturday and they okayed that.

"I tell you, the La Habra lanes that night were legal."

Rogers admits that his claims carry no more weight than any other interested observer's. Taking his own measurements after Allison's 900 would have constituted "tampering," and tests conducted days after the event are considered invalid because of changes in temperature and humidity and the inevitable deterioration of the oil condition.

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