Grind King’s Donald Cassel keeps improving on a good thing.

Donald Cassel didn’t reinvent the wheel¿but if it needed improving on, you can bet he’d take a crack at it.

Back in 1988, as an avid 28-year-old skateboarder working in construction on the path to becoming a land developer, Cassel decided to manufacture a skate-truck bolt with a recessed Allen-head top, “a grinding kingpin,” as he says. Cassel’d had the idea for some time, and his brother Mike lent him the start-up money and gave him enough space for a podium in his company’s (Bronze Age) booth at the ASR show that year. A bit bored, Cassel found himself walking around the show with a few bolts in hand. After running into VK Sports’ people, who ordered a thousand bolts right off the bat, Cassel realized, “Holy shit¿I guess people are gonna like this thing!” After the show, he had to hand-package the bolts to fill orders¿which continued coming in to the point that he ran out of product. Although Cassel initially envisioned Grind King as a side project, it quickly grew into a legitimate business of its own, eclipsing his plans to become a developer.

The parts were being manufactured to Cassel’s specs by a metal company called Amanet he found in the Yellow Pages. Amanet Owner Bob Barbour became a business mentor to Cassel, and early on told him: “You’re going to be doing this for the next ten years, you know.” At the time, Cassel scoffed, but it’s been over ten years now.

“They Grind King Bolts were expensive to make,” Cassel explains. “I used the best steel alloy I could find. Originally the washer was machined, and the bolt was partly machined and partly cold-headed. Cold-heading is the process of forming something to shape under extreme pressure. I sold the kits for like $12.95, although people warned me I wouldn’t be able to do it. Regular kingpins were selling for less than a couple bucks.” The Grind King bolt ended up selling briskly, convincing Cassel that skaters would indeed shell out cash for a worthwhile idea.

Going Up?

Cassel originally worked out of his home in Venice, California, but his first office space was out of his brother’s Venice skate shop, Circle Skate And Surf¿in an unused elevator. He kept all the parts in the actual elevator shaft, and his “office” was just the little area in front of that¿the desk could barely fit. He outgrew the space within a year. Then Cassel moved into a loft building in back of the skate shop, but due to the booming Grind King business, he outgrew that within a year as well. His next office space was also in the Venice area.

By then he’d begun to make T-shirts and clothes, and somewhere in the mix came his next hardware innovation¿Bridge Bolts, a U-shaped bolt that took the place of two truck screws on the top of the skateboard deck, streamlining the whole deal and reducing the needed number of skate tools to just one. Although skaters eventually complained about the “feel” of the bar of metal on top of the skate deck, Bridge Bolts sold well up to a couple years ago.

Although a clothing line is a logical step in a skate company’s growth, clothing design is hardly the forte of a mostly mechanically inclined guy. But this didn’t faze Cassel¿he went all out with shorts, pants, jackets, ponchos¿yes, ponchos. All bore the unmistakable evidence of Cassel’s influence: the shorts had special pockets that would catch your change if turned upside-down, and they also had an eyeglass holder. The Smuggler’s Poncho with its hidden stash pocket caught the eye of none other than R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, who sported the unique garment on the cover of Automatic For The People. “He called me up,” remembers Cassel. “He just had to have one¿it was pretty cool.”

The clothing line became successful in large part due to the powerful buying trends of the Japanese skate trade. “I was workin’ it or there a little bit,” admits Cassel. “The Japanese tend to take certain things and turn them into a big deal.”

Other aspects of the biz proved to be more treacherous for Cassel¿like maintaining the integrity of his hardware in light of poorly made imitations: “I have to say in this industry, I’ve been plagued by people who copy me.” In one case the makers of an inferior bolt that often broke was sometimes confused with the superior Grind King product, which ultimately hurt the brand name. “I’d get some of their bolts back in the mail, with notes saying, ‘This is a piece of shit!’” Cassel says. “That really bums me out when I went through all the trouble to make the best stuff. There were so many knock-off Bridge Bolts, too, but they didn’t know how to build them right. People built them without knowing the tricks to make them strong.”

Riding The Darkhorse

With the momentum he’d builtvia Grind King, in 1993, Cassel started Haz-Mat snowboards. (Note: In a move similar to what happened to Grind King with skate hardware, Haz-Mat’s Japanese distributor recently started its own snowboard company called “Haz-Mate,” just one more headache for Cassel.) Haz-Mat was very successful the first year, albeit mostly in Japan, experiencing what Cassel calls “exponential growth.” Encouraged, Cassel drew a logical conclusion: “The more product I put out, the more profits come in.” By this time he’d moved into increasingly bigger Venice offices twice. He then started Society Skateboards and Belladonna women’s clothing, and before long he added Underdog Shoes and a partnership with his brother in a company called Von Dutch.

Because it was becoming increasingly confusing for anyone trying to reach one of the companies over the phone¿the receptionist couldn’t just answer “Grind King” anymore, but the whole list was getting rather long to repeat each time¿Cassel put the umbrella name of Darkhorse Distribution over all the companies. He remembers, “I had this big two-story booth at the ASR trade show, and I thought, ‘I’m rollin’ now, I going to the big time!’ It was the dumbest thing ever! I didn’t see the writing on the wall.”

Cassel feels that it was partially greed and partially just the excitement over new ideas that led him to go overboard: “If I’d just stuck with Grind King and Haz-Mat, I might be in a lot better position now. But I had ideas¿I always have ideas. Right now I have ten more ideas for products and companies if someone wanted to put money behind me.

“But I learned the hard way¿more is less. Even if you have 25 good ideas, you can’t do all 25. Think of the guy who has five beautiful, terrific girlfriends he wants to date¿you can’t focus on five girls! You have to pick, and put your attention and devotion to the one or ones you want to nurture. I lost my focus for a while¿unfortunately, I was sacrificing my core products, which are Grind King and Haz-Mat.”

So Cassel cut back the number of companies, but he was already in debt¿marketing and promotion had bitten deep into his profits. Rather than file bankruptcy, Cassel put all those he owed money to on a payment plan. To this day he’s still repaying some of that debt, and Darkhorse is showing a profit once again.

And Cassel would like to address the issue of patents: “I’ve got a patent on the kingpin. Patents are expensive, and they don’t do that much except maybe scare off people initially when you say ‘patent pending.’ When you produce things with subtle innovations, like I have, I’ve learned your money is almost better spent up front on marketing. If the invention is truly revolutionary, that’s a different story¿say if you invented the skateboard truck.”

The whole Darkhorse business mess pointed one thing out to Cassel: He is infinitely more of a hardgoods guy than a softgoods guy. “I’m all about inventions and stuff,” he laughs, “And since I’ve returned my focus to that, my products have been getting better.”

The crowning glory of Grind King achievement is the soon-to-be released GK-6 truck. “It’s gonna be the bomb of all trucks!” enthuses Cassel. “I’ve already got 10,000 on back order, and it hasn’t even hit the floor yet.” The mid-height truck boasts superlight, super-tough construction and a no-slip axle, and was specifically designed to be extremely long-lasting.

Back To The Drawing Board

The Grind King truck hasn’t always been an easy sell.

“I started out with a pretty different-looking truck,” confesses Cassel. “The kingpin, the funky curved baseplate¿it was only mildly successful.”

Within a year, around 1992, Grind King came out with a second truck model. Not realizing that “different” in hardgoods equals “poison” to most skaters, Cassel completely busted out on the new truck: “It was really a wild one! I had all these innovations; I went overboard. It had a floating axle that would slide back and forth, and it had the threads on the inside instead of on the outside. Allen screws went in the end to hold the wheels on, and it had these funky bushings with, like, corrugation. It was either ahead of its time, or out in left field too far!”

Needless to say, the truck bombed; it was just too different. To make things worse, after Cassel had just ordered a bunch of them made, the industry decided more or less unanimously to change its standard hole pattern. He’d also just produced countless numbers of another product called inserts, intended to solve the problem of mounting bolts being worn off by nose-and tailslides. The Grind King truck’s curved baseplates wouldn’t allow for drilling the extra holes now needed. Cassel says, “Basically I had all this product that had become obsolete overnight.”

Fortunately he was able to quickly redesign his baseplate to the new hole pattern, and by the third Grind King truck model, they started selling. Cassel admits: “I went back to a more conventional design. People dug ‘em because they were really light. I think as wild as skaters are portrayed, they’re really conservative in their buying habits. They don’t want to stray too far from the norm.”

This tendency seems only exacerbated by participation on the pro level: “When the guy gets to be really good, they’re real resistant to any type of change because they already are winning! When you say, ‘Here, try this, it’s better,’ they’re likely to say, ‘Nah, I don’t think so.’ It isn’t until after some time has gone by and the product has proven itself that they may try it¿and end up liking it. Then his buddies will try it, ’cause he’s the cool guy and they want to try what the cool guy rides. Next thing you know, it’s a trend.”

Cassel remembers the reaction of one pro when Grind King trucks first came out: “They’re too light!” He tried to assure the skater that light was better. “No,” the pro had said, “I’m used to heavy¿I want heavy.”

It didn’t take too long for lighter trucks to catch on, although Venture Featherlights seemed to get the glory due to more of a “cool” factor. Cassel remembers thinking, “My trucks are lighter than Ventures! Mine are even cooler!”

King Wears The Crown

Fortunately Grind King’s image has grown “cooler” due to the riders who’ve joined up, like Daewon Song, Adam McNatt, and Ronnie Bertino. “The word is finally out,” Cassel sighs, “we’ve got something good.” Oddly enough, though, the biggest jump in sales Grind King ever had was at a time when Grind King had no team riders¿even P.S. Stix’s Paul Schmitt told Cassel the sales spike was a complete anomaly in the skate biz.

“The first ads in TransWorld werejust showing the product, and not any riders at all.” Cassel remembers. “I was doing ads like one that had a picture of a rhino and a picture of a truck, and it’d say ‘Heavyweight. Lightweight.’ O’ve returned my focus to that, my products have been getting better.”

The crowning glory of Grind King achievement is the soon-to-be released GK-6 truck. “It’s gonna be the bomb of all trucks!” enthuses Cassel. “I’ve already got 10,000 on back order, and it hasn’t even hit the floor yet.” The mid-height truck boasts superlight, super-tough construction and a no-slip axle, and was specifically designed to be extremely long-lasting.

Back To The Drawing Board

The Grind King truck hasn’t always been an easy sell.

“I started out with a pretty different-looking truck,” confesses Cassel. “The kingpin, the funky curved baseplate¿it was only mildly successful.”

Within a year, around 1992, Grind King came out with a second truck model. Not realizing that “different” in hardgoods equals “poison” to most skaters, Cassel completely busted out on the new truck: “It was really a wild one! I had all these innovations; I went overboard. It had a floating axle that would slide back and forth, and it had the threads on the inside instead of on the outside. Allen screws went in the end to hold the wheels on, and it had these funky bushings with, like, corrugation. It was either ahead of its time, or out in left field too far!”

Needless to say, the truck bombed; it was just too different. To make things worse, after Cassel had just ordered a bunch of them made, the industry decided more or less unanimously to change its standard hole pattern. He’d also just produced countless numbers of another product called inserts, intended to solve the problem of mounting bolts being worn off by nose-and tailslides. The Grind King truck’s curved baseplates wouldn’t allow for drilling the extra holes now needed. Cassel says, “Basically I had all this product that had become obsolete overnight.”

Fortunately he was able to quickly redesign his baseplate to the new hole pattern, and by the third Grind King truck model, they started selling. Cassel admits: “I went back to a more conventional design. People dug ‘em because they were really light. I think as wild as skaters are portrayed, they’re really conservative in their buying habits. They don’t want to stray too far from the norm.”

This tendency seems only exacerbated by participation on the pro level: “When the guy gets to be really good, they’re real resistant to any type of change because they already are winning! When you say, ‘Here, try this, it’s better,’ they’re likely to say, ‘Nah, I don’t think so.’ It isn’t until after some time has gone by and the product has proven itself that they may try it¿and end up liking it. Then his buddies will try it, ’cause he’s the cool guy and they want to try what the cool guy rides. Next thing you know, it’s a trend.”

Cassel remembers the reaction of one pro when Grind King trucks first came out: “They’re too light!” He tried to assure the skater that light was better. “No,” the pro had said, “I’m used to heavy¿I want heavy.”

It didn’t take too long for lighter trucks to catch on, although Venture Featherlights seemed to get the glory due to more of a “cool” factor. Cassel remembers thinking, “My trucks are lighter than Ventures! Mine are even cooler!”

King Wears The Crown

Fortunately Grind King’s image has grown “cooler” due to the riders who’ve joined up, like Daewon Song, Adam McNatt, and Ronnie Bertino. “The word is finally out,” Cassel sighs, “we’ve got something good.” Oddly enough, though, the biggest jump in sales Grind King ever had was at a time when Grind King had no team riders¿even P.S. Stix’s Paul Schmitt told Cassel the sales spike was a complete anomaly in the skate biz.

“The first ads in TransWorld werejust showing the product, and not any riders at all.” Cassel remembers. “I was doing ads like one that had a picture of a rhino and a picture of a truck, and it’d say ‘Heavyweight. Lightweight.’ Or I’d show a banana peel, and ‘Slips. No Slips.’ with the truck. The images of something versus the truck. Most companies at this time were just showing ads with ‘So and so rides this truck,’ or whatever. I thought I’d get people’s attention just about the product.

“I’d doubted the idea¿I worked with a marketing guy who encouraged me to run with it, but I thought, ‘What does this marketing guy know about the skate industry?’”

Cassel claims his passion is still in the building of the best trucks. He believes that in the long run, the merits of Grind King will win out: “Kids aren’t dumb¿they’ll figure it out. Same with pros who aren’t just in it for the money¿they’re starting to give me respect for making a good truck.”

Evolution Of The Grind King Truck

Donald Cassel has a museum’s worth of Grind King inventions and innovations from the last ten-plus years. His trucks, both the failures and successes, are noted below.

Number 1¿clay model, early 1990: “My first attempt at designing a truck. I wanted to mount the kingpin on the reverse side to allow for smoother grinds.”

Number 2¿design model, June 1990: “My second model was much improved, but I still had it backward.”

Number 3¿prototype, early 1991: “An attempt to accomplish my goal of a reverse-mounted kingpin design. After almost a year of tinkering, I finally¿fortunately¿gave up.”

Number 4¿first commercial model, September 1991: “The first Grind King Truck¿hollow curved baseplate and the original Grind King kingpin. Its axle was guaranteed to slip almost immediately!”

Number 5¿second commercial model, February 1992: “I think the GK2 was a little too far ahead of its time¿floating axle and trick internal threads. And check out the GK ribbed rubbers to give extra pleasure! The nail in the coffin for this truck was when the skate industry changed the mounting hole pattern overnight¿bastards!”

Number 6¿third commercial model, September 1992: “The GK3, my first successful truck, was the lightest out there and had a guaranteed no-slip axle¿accomplished by casting the axle in. The hanger proved to be not quite strong enough for hardcore skaters.”

Number 7¿fourth commercial model, September 1994: “The GK4 was bit more refined¿main change was increasing the strength of the hanger.”

Number 8¿fifth commercial model, 1996: “The GK5 had only minor refinements¿removing the center rib under the baseplate and placing a new logo on the front. The ad campaign that followed its release and colored baseplates really boosted sales.”

Number 9¿sixth commercial model, 1996: “The GK High 5 was added to the line to offer the truck in two heights¿it also became a great seller.”

Number 10¿seventh commercial model, June 1999: “After one and a half years, the GK6 is almost completely reworked¿refinements in every part except the nuts and washers. The all-new GK kingpin and bushings not shown will be ready by its release. Much beefier over the axle to make it the longest-lasting truck, yet lighter than the High 5s.”

.’ Or I’d show a banana peel, and ‘Slips. No Slips.’ with the truck. The images of something versus the truck. Most companies at this time were just showing ads with ‘So and so rides this truck,’ or whatever. I thought I’d get people’s attention just about the product.

“I’d doubted the idea¿I worked with a marketing guy who encouraged me to run with it, but I thought, ‘What does this marketing guy know about the skate industry?’”

Cassel claims his passion is still in the building of the best trucks. He believes that in the long run, the merits of Grind King will win out: “Kids aren’t dumb¿they’ll figure it out. Same with pros who aren’t just in it for the money¿they’re starting to give me respect for making a good truck.”

Evolution Of The Grind King Truck

Donald Cassel has a museum’s worth of Grind King inventions and innovations from the last ten-plus years. His trucks, both the failures and successes, are noted below.

Number 1¿clay model, early 1990: “My first attempt at designing a truck. I wanted to mount the kingpin on the reverse side to allow for smoother grinds.”

Number 2¿design model, June 1990: “My second model was much improved, but I still had it backward.”

Number 3¿prototype, early 1991: “An attempt to accomplish my goal of a reverse-mounted kingpin design. After almost a year of tinkering, I finally¿fortunately¿gave up.”

Number 4¿first commercial model, September 1991: “The first Grind King Truck¿hollow curved baseplate and the original Grind King kingpin. Its axle was guaranteed to slip almost immediately!”

Number 5¿second commercial model, February 1992: “I think the GK2 was a little too far ahead of its time¿floating axle and trick internal threads. And check out the GK ribbed rubbers to give extra pleasure! The nail in the coffin for this truck was when the skate industry changed the mounting hole pattern overnight¿bastards!”

Number 6¿third commercial model, September 1992: “The GK3, my first successful truck, was the lightest out there and had a guaranteed no-slip axle¿accomplished by casting the axle in. The hanger proved to be not quite strong enough for hardcore skaters.”

Number 7¿fourth commercial model, September 1994: “The GK4 was bit more refined¿main change was increasing the strength of the hanger.”

Number 8¿fifth commercial model, 1996: “The GK5 had only minor refinements¿removing the center rib under the baseplate and placing a new logo on the front. The ad campaign that followed its release and colored baseplates really boosted sales.”

Number 9¿sixth commercial model, 1996: “The GK High 5 was added to the line to offer the truck in two heights¿it also became a great seller.”

Number 10¿seventh commercial model, June 1999: “After one and a half years, the GK6 is almost completely reworked¿refinements in every part except the nuts and washers. The all-new GK kingpin and bushings not shown will be ready by its release. Much beefier over the axle to make it the longest-lasting truck, yet lighter than the High 5s.”