Anybody who knows Danny Kass has a favorite Danny Kass story. Here’s one: After one of the sickest halfpipe seasons ever (he won golds at four Grand Prix, Winter X and the U.S. Open), the 19-year-old rolled into the 2001 SnowSports Industries of America convention in Las Vegas last spring to show his famous face. Made sense -- everyone in the snowboard industry has a piece of the kid: Gnu, Quiksilver, Dragon and Vans. The event should have been a snowboard marketer’s wet dream. Enter Danny’s messy reality. “I had my brother’s ID,” he says by way of explanation.
“Every booth had a keg, and I started drinking at 11 a.m.” By 3 o’clock he was in cuffs and kicked to the curb -- just another troublemaker who narrowly escaped arrest for underage drinking. That one of the industry’s biggest names was booted from the very event he was supposed to star in says a lot about Danny’s relationship with professional snowboarding.
Since the sport was embraced by mass culture a decade ago, snowboarding has slid down a very slippery slope of cool (see: Out Cold, Mountain Dew ads and your dad on a board). Cool, at least in the slick Madison Avenue sense, is not what Danny aspires to be. As leader of the Grenade Gloves posse, Kass fronts an army of scruffy East Coast riders who are all about kicking back, living five to a room and messing with The Man for kicks. Think of it like this: If modern snowboarding is the manufactured rebellion of Blink-182, then Danny is the Misfits. Loud. Snotty. Independent. As one insider puts it, “Danny Kass is bringing snowboarding back to the dirtbags.”
To understand Danny Kass, you have to understand northern New Jersey and Kass’ local mountain, known back in the day as Vernon Valley/Great Gorge. Despite its upscale new name -- Mountain Creek Ski Resort -- it is still infamous for the busloads of suburban yahoos who stream in each weekend. Think Joey Buttafuoco on skis. “It was full of goons,” Danny recalls, fondly. “People breaking ski poles over each other’s backs. You know, the good stuff.” This was Danny’s training ground.
At 12, Danny joined his 16-year-old brother, Matt, on the slopes, boarding every day after school. A year later, he won the Amateur Nationals -- and then and there decided that snowboarding was his future. His junior year he enrolled at the Okemo Mountain School, a ski academy in Ludlow, Vt. His riding progressed, but studying never became part of his routine, and he was kicked out before his senior year.
So Danny looked again to his brother. In the fall of 2000, he moved in with Matt, who’d become a semipro in Mammoth Lakes, Calif. After years of riding East Coast ice, Danny flourished in the Western pow. He also found himself in the middle of Snowboarder Hollywood. “There were so many huge people here, it was crazy,” he says. “People like Kevin Jones were just hiking around.”
The riders were pulling sick new tricks and pushing one another to insane limits, but he quickly found the scene too squeaky-clean. Kass missed the anarchy of Jersey. “No one was riding for fun,” he says. “Mostly they were riding for sponsors.” Jones agrees: “If you can do a couple of tricks in the pipe, all of a sudden you’re expected to be all professional and corporate. That’s not what snowboarding is about, and Danny gets that.”
Danny’s answer to this corporate creep -- well, Danny and Matt’s answer -- was to start a company of their own, Grenade Gloves, and to recruit a group of talented East Coast miscreants like Kyle Clancy, Scotty Arnold and Charlie Morace to ride with them. “When they got here, no one noticed Danny and his Grenade guys,” says U.S. Snowboard rider Tommy Czeschin. “But pretty quickly they were like, ‘Who are these guys and what are they doing?’ People were paying attention.”
The town of June Lakes sits 20 miles north of Mammoth Lakes, a straight shot up Route 395. Here, a world away from the resort vibe, you’ll find Grenade Gloves HQ inside a former gas station. The garage holds a just-completed skateboarding miniramp that competes for space with boxes of Grenade gloves, T-shirts and hats. A deafening bell -- an artifact from the previous tenants -- rings every few minutes. “We could turn it off,” says Danny, “but we dig the randomness.”
Today, Danny rolls up in his green 2000 Chevy 2500 Silverado pickup, the spoils of last year’s Grand Prix wins. “Everyone’s waiting for me to wreck it,” he says-with good reason. In a recent two-week span, Danny plowed an ATV into a car after a dramatic 60-foot wheelie. Then he drove the Grenade van -- the brand-new, unregistered Grenade van -- to the slopes so he could freeride. Too lazy to get it at the end of the day, he left the van on Forest Service land for three days. Tickets and legal wrangling ensued. “Friends call me Crash Kass,” he says, smiling, as the bell shrieks to life.
With his skater shag, baggy jeans and oversized sweatshirt swimming on his skinny 5'6" frame, Danny could be the skate rat throwing ollies on the park bench next to you. Brother Matt is a taller, cleaned-up version of Danny. “The Mammoth cops follow me around,” says Danny. “Fortunately, they think Matt and I are the same person.” In a way, Danny and Matt are different sides of the same coin. Danny takes care of the headlines while 23-year-old Matt plays business partner, best friend and chatty press agent for his little bro. Yeah, Danny sometimes rankles under big brother’s watchful eye -- “I like sleeping late, but every morning Matt was over, like, ‘Wake up dude! How ya doing?’ I had to put a stop to it” -- but he knows that without Matt, his life wouldn’t be half as fun. Or as well orchestrated.
Take Grenade Gloves. A year ago, Grenade was little more than an abstraction. But in an inspired guerrilla marketing campaign the brothers cooked up, the Grenade logo became ubiquitous on the circuit. They spray-painted it on everything from chair towers to a clueless cameraman at the Winter X Games. The name recognition was stunning -- especially considering the company didn’t sell a single glove until last November. In recent months they’ve opened a retail store in the garage, complete with a tuning room in back for team riders. And remember that Vegas trade show Danny got booted from? Well, Kass will be back this year -- as an exhibitor.
But business takes only part of Danny’s focus. His eye is on the upcoming Grand Prix comp scheduled for January. If he wins one more event, he automatically qualifies for Salt Lake. A good thing, since he is already the halfpipe favorite. “I’m trying to stay healthy and as strong as I can.” As he says this, the skateboard he’s riding flies out from underneath him and dumps his bony butt on the concrete floor. Then the bell erupts.
Danny’s runs are so much like that jarringly abrupt bell, so unpredictable, so huge they border on reckless. “Last year at the Breckenridge Grand Prix, Danny beat Todd Richards on his last run,” says Pat Bridges, an editor at Snowboarder Magazine. “Richards was like, ‘The kid only did four hits on the pipe!’ Richards had to do five just to keep up.” This superhuman ability to ride on the edge of chaos caught the attention of U.S. Snowboarding coach Peter Foley. “He has an amazing awareness of where he is in the air,” gushes Foley. “His upside-down 1080 is totally sick and his air to fakie is higher than anyone’s.” Riders, even U.S. Snowboard riders, are in awe -- and a little jealous -- of Kass’ raw skill. “He rides like he’s not even trying,” says Czeschin, who’s competing with Kass for a spot on the Olympic team. “Everything seems so easy for him.”
That’s no illusion. Kass doesn’t train, at least in any conventional sense. “For me, training is riding in the winter and skateboarding in the summer,” says Danny. Foley’s not worried about coaching Kass when he wins his seemingly inevitable place on the Salt Lake Olympic team. “If you’re self-motivated like Danny and have his level of talent,” Foley says, “it’s a hundred times better than having a coach on your ass.”
Matt attributes Danny’s success to attitude rather than technique. “There’s an element of fun when he rides,” Matt says. “He doesn’t rehearse his runs. He just throws the tricks he’s feeling right then. Some big-time pros have been doing the same run for years. They play it safe. It’s boring. And bad for snowboarding.”
Danny’s balls-out style hasn’t gone unnoticed by snowboarding’s founding fathers, either. Last spring he flew to Norway for the invitation-only Arctic Challenge, an event set up by Norse snowboard god Terje Haakonsen. “He called me, and I thought it was one of my friends messing with me,” Danny says. “It was crazy. I got to hang out with Terje and Daniel Franck.” Kass placed third behind 15-year-old phenom Shaun White and Terje. Was he disappointed? “No way,” Kass says. “It was by far the most fun contest I’ve been to. All the rules were left up to the riders.” And what was best was that the event didn’t count for his official record, since it was outside the purview of sanctioning bodies. He could ride the way he wanted: outside of the lines.
Not that Danny has a problem making the system work for him. Fellow Grenade rider Kyle Clancy learned that last year when Danny won his first Grand Prix. Kyle sat the kid down, wanted to make sure Danny understood what the Big Time meant. “I was like, ‘Dude, you’re about to blow up. Are you sure you’re ready to be on a Wheaties box?’ But Danny knew exactly what he was doing. He had it all planned -- the Olympics, the attention. He just wanted to be famous on his terms. And now he is.”
That’s the thing about Danny Kass: Behind the stoner cadence and beer-soaked tales is a sharp guy. After banking close to $200K last year, Danny’s only splurge was the Mammoth condo he bought last summer -- where he is now celebrity-in-residence and landlord. He may be drawn to mayhem, but he’s also a teenager clocking a serious paycheck and planning for his future.
Three hundred sunny days a year. That’s what drew Kass and the horde of pros to Mammoth Lakes. Today is not one of those days. A storm is dumping all over the Eastern Sierras. Danny and his roommates have been rocking 007:Agent Under Fire on the PlayStation 2 all day, watching the powder pile up. Issues of Maxim lie on the coffee table and boxes of comped gear litter the floor. “The best schwag I got was when someone sent me a case of beer in the mail,” he says, not looking up from the TV. As a testament to Danny’s zest for life, a “loud party” summons from the Mammoth Police flies proudly on the fridge.
His four roommates -- Jersey kids except for a guy named Max, who calls the couch home -- all ride. “It’s cool because I’ve known them for so long,” Kass says. “It’s good to hang with people outside of the industry. These guys don’t let anything go to my head.” In return, Danny’s loyalty to his East Coast friends is legendary, and the schwag often ends up in his pals’ closets. “I admire his rebelliousness and his screw-you attitude because deep down, he is a nice guy,” says Foley. “If he were a jerk, he wouldn’t be so cool.”
Which brings us to another Danny Kass story. At a comp last year, a young fan wanted Danny to sign his coat. So Danny drew something that the kid might have thought was cool, but that the kid’s father found totally obscene. The dad called the U.S. Snowboarding team, which was sponsoring the event. Danny was shocked. He actually thought his drawing was something the kid would treasure. To make up for it, Danny Kass, hellion from Jersey, not only bought the kid a new jacket, he also sent him the jacket he wore when he won the X Games last year.
Think of it as a little schwag from a punk kid in a sport that was never supposed to be cool in the first place.
This article appears in the January 21 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
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