Skateboarding And The Art Of “Borrowing”

We usually waited until after ten at night and drove my squeaky old Dodge Ram as quietly as possible down the road. Skeletal frames of houses silhouetted one side of the street. Two other skaters sat shotgun beside me, bouncing on my bad shocks and bald tires. We’d gotten pretty good at it after building half a dozen ramps, able to fill my pickup bed with at least five sheets of plywood and as many two-by-fours in under three minutes. If we were lucky we’d grab a bag of nails, sort of a cherry on top to the whole experience.

Every few months when the old jump ramp (they weren’t renamed “kickers” yet) wore out, we’d repeat the process. After the night mission, the next day would be spent sawing and hammering and spray painting the ramp. Every skater I knew did the same thing. If you cracked open a skate mag, you’d learn that most backyard ramps were built with stolen wood.

Pop ahead a decade and a half: I’m driving down a street and stop for a parade of skaters carrying a portable metal rail and a collection of black plastic jump ramps. I watch, slacked-jawed and dumbfounded. What kind of respectable skaters were these kids? The rail had a King Rails sticker on it, apparently manufactured by Jeff King’s rail company. The ramp was obviously a Ramptech model. Not a stolen splinter in the bunch.

Excuse the sweeping generalization, but it appears that this generation isn’t as inclined to figure out how to build a ramp on their own, and most of their parents don’t have the time or skills to help. Skaters, like everyone else in the U.S., are entering the luxury zone of having somebody else do it for them. In one snap of a generation, skaters have lost the art of stealing wood.

Obstacles’ Own Obstacle

For the first time in skateboarding’s history, skaters are accepted, sort of, and parents appear to be more supportive than ever before, ready to unholster the plastic and swipe a smile on little Johnny’s face by buying a bare-bones skatepark for their driveway. “Parents like that they can just buy them (personal obstacles) and bring them home,” says Aaron Costa, owner of Krudco Skate Shop in Rochester, New York. Kids can skate, and parents can keep an eye on them. Everybody’s happy.

Personal obstacles have been around for a while, but it’s only been in the past couple of years that widespread demand for them has flowered. Ramptech, Ramp Logic, and King Rails are a few of the companies making these products. It’s such a new and unique industry that nobody is sure of how to handle it.

Mike Mapp started Ramptech in 1986. “I had constructed a lot of ramps in many backyards, including the infamous Cedar Crest Country Club,” Mapp says. “Cedar Crest was the largest steel-layered vert ramp on the East Coast at one time.” He had the background to build ramps, but it took skating to metamorphosize into a mixture of Little League and street skating for him to build smaller ramps.

“Everyone needs a place to skate, but some may only have a driveway and can’t put permanent ramps or obstacles up,” Mapp says. Today Ramptech makes the popular Kicker and its sequel, the Kicker 2. Both are plastic, lightweight molded jump ramps.

Jeff King began welding his own rails so he’d have something to skate, and turned it into a company. Today he makes three different types of rails and a jump ramp. “I wanted to make rails so I could do some school demos,” King says, explaining the impetus of his company. At the end of 2000, he hit the local scrap yard and asked a friend to teach him how to weld. He made some rails for friends, and after a few months worked out a deal with a local shop to carry a rail to see how it would sell. Today business is brisk, he says, but King Rails faces the same problem every obstacle manufacturer does–shipping.

“That stuff’s expensive,” Costa says, explaining why he doesn’t carry any branded obstacles. “The shipping kicks you in the ass.” One rdle that hasn’t been cleared successfully yet is how to get the product to the shops, or fulfill Internet orders, at a reasonable price. Most of the rails can cost 40 bucks or more to ship, and the Kicker, which retails for 90 dollars, costs 25 dollars on top of that to ship.

“Customers absolutely want our stuff,” Mapp says. “The hardest part is not the sale of our goods, it’s the distribution of it.” Now based in Virginia, Ramptech worked out a deal with Eastern Skateboard Supply in North Carolina, and the wider distribution seems to help.

“We ship all over the country by UPS,” says Eastern Skateboard Supply Buyer Neil Sload. To make the ramp products more affordable, Eastern had to make custom boxes that squeezed under UPS’ limit for oversized loads. “Any time you have a box that will take up a lot of space in their trucks, you’re going to pay for it,” he says.

Moving Product

Ramp Logic started out by hooking up with some heavy hitters. An all-star team of Tony Hawk, Eric Koston, and Danny Way endorses their products. Copying a page from board companies, Ramp Logic even gave Koston his own model. He has his own ledge, and in ads Hawk skates a rail and Way uses a jump ramp.

Ramp Logic was launched after Owner Jim Robbins and Way discussed the trouble kids have trying to find somewhere to skate, and Robbins realized who he had to target besides the skaters. The personal obstacles “would make the parents feel they had more control over the activity by keeping their kids close to home” and assure that “a huge, unsafe, unmovable eyesore” wouldn’t be built in their yard.

Both Ramp Logic and Ramptech rely heavily on basic skateboarding-sales fundamentals–get a brand name burning in the skate rat’s mind. This is where pros flex their muscles. Willy Santos is all over Ramptech’s Web site, and Ramp Logic claims that their obstacles are “designed by pro skaters.” If you’re some kid who covers his wall with Koston pictures, chances are you’ll want to get his signature ledge, if you’re going to buy one at all. “I think the Koston ledge is so popular,” says Robbins, “because it’s a signature series obstacle and it includes the most features.”

World Industries is coming out with a personal rail (“coated with real paint,” according to their Web site). Along with Zero’s rail, these two companies are entering the personal-obstacle market with a lot of horsepower under the hood. Getting between these two wildly popular companies and the cash register with a similar product is going to be tough. The era of unsponsored personal obstacles may be entering a new marketing zone.

The entrance of traditional hardgoods companies into the personal-obstacle arena may help solve the shipping problem. If enough distributors carry the product and order enough at one time, it will cut costs. And if enough distributors have the product spread out across the country, shops can just drop in to pick them up.

But that brings up another problem–space in shops. With the variety of obstacles available, what’s a shop to do? They take up so much room that if you had ledges, rails, and kickers from different brands, you’d be eating up real estate. That’s something shops don’t get too excited about, especially when they can make as much selling a watch–for example–which takes up a fraction of the space. “The Kicker Two nests upon itself for storage and shipping, and we have display boxes that take up even less space,” says Mapp. “We also have point-of-purchase displays. The Five-0 grind rail can be mounted on a wall vertically as a display, with stock stored elsewhere.”

Mapp insists that to be successful with personal obstacles, the products have to be displayed properly: “To sell any item, it must be visible for the customer to touch and feel, or even skate.”

Ramp Logic tried to lessen the burden by eliminating the storage problem. “We designed these obstacles to break down easily with a skate key and store in an area that doesn’t take up that much store space,” says Robbins. “We realize from working in a retail atmosphere that square footage is a huge issue (and have also) designed in-store displays. If shops don’t have the ability to store our product, customers can order directly through that location via catalog. The retailers would, of course, obtain the same profit margins.”

That’s why these companies all have impressive Web sites. A lot of the skate industry is still trying to figure out what to do with that Internet thing, but personal-obstacle manufacturers had it wired out of the gate. If the shops are hesitant, fine–hardwire the customer straight to the goods. Remember that the average skater grew up glazing his eyes over in front of a computer screen. He considers the Internet a playground instead of a confusing quagmire like a lot of older company owners. “Our Web site (ramptech.com) has also been very key in selling to everyone,” says Mapp.

Snap-Together Skateparks

It used to be a dream to have your own skatepark. Pros like Bob Burnquist, Tony Hawk, Colin McKay, and Danny Way have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars building their own private facilities, and now kids can do the same on a smaller scale. Personal obstacles are a positive addition to the skateboard-product spectrum, and once obstacle companies overcome the distribution problem, you’ll likely see them in driveways as often as you see portable basketball hoops.

But I haven’t lost hope on the youth of today. I walked past a newspaper rack the other day and the headlines blasted out in bold black letters how the average cost of a new house in San Diego had reached a half-million dollars. I wondered, with so many kids skating today, perhaps enough are still “borrowing” building supplies to impact the price of local housing. Traditions die hard, don’t they?that doesn’t take up that much store space,” says Robbins. “We realize from working in a retail atmosphere that square footage is a huge issue (and have also) designed in-store displays. If shops don’t have the ability to store our product, customers can order directly through that location via catalog. The retailers would, of course, obtain the same profit margins.”

That’s why these companies all have impressive Web sites. A lot of the skate industry is still trying to figure out what to do with that Internet thing, but personal-obstacle manufacturers had it wired out of the gate. If the shops are hesitant, fine–hardwire the customer straight to the goods. Remember that the average skater grew up glazing his eyes over in front of a computer screen. He considers the Internet a playground instead of a confusing quagmire like a lot of older company owners. “Our Web site (ramptech.com) has also been very key in selling to everyone,” says Mapp.

Snap-Together Skateparks

It used to be a dream to have your own skatepark. Pros like Bob Burnquist, Tony Hawk, Colin McKay, and Danny Way have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars building their own private facilities, and now kids can do the same on a smaller scale. Personal obstacles are a positive addition to the skateboard-product spectrum, and once obstacle companies overcome the distribution problem, you’ll likely see them in driveways as often as you see portable basketball hoops.

But I haven’t lost hope on the youth of today. I walked past a newspaper rack the other day and the headlines blasted out in bold black letters how the average cost of a new house in San Diego had reached a half-million dollars. I wondered, with so many kids skating today, perhaps enough are still “borrowing” building supplies to impact the price of local housing. Traditions die hard, don’t they?