Posted: October 10th, 2014
Vert’s Not Dead: Talking Half Pipes and Other Transitions With Neal Hendrix
By Kyle Duvall
Vert skating has “died” more times than Count Dracula and Jason Voorhees combined, and Elephant Special Forces member Neal Hendrix has soldiered on as a pro through 3 decades of embalmings and re-animations. Now, even as concrete terrain and old-timer bowl contests are putting transitions at center stage once more, the vert ramp itself seems to be fading into the background. In spite of this, Neal Hendrix’s heart still beats for the rapid fire purity and back-to-back gnarliness of the vertical half pipe. In may ways, he’s the unsung hero of post 80’s vert skating, a man whose probably got as much masonite dust in his bloodstream as hemoglobin.
“I feel like I’m part of the generation that took vert from the backyards to the extreme, and milked that for a couple decades and now it’s in the back yards again. [Vert skating] is what I grew up with. It’s what I’m passionately into.”
For the uninitiated, the difference between vertical half pipe and the vertical walls of a giant bowl may seem academic, but, for Hendrix, padding up for the vert ramp, and gearing up for the bowl are distinct experiences. “I’ve always loved [bowl skating], but I didn’t grow up doing it… I live close the the Combi at the Van’s park, and I skate it, but I’m just not super good at it… Bowls are just so different. The way I skate on a vert ramp, I do a ton of stuff to fakie, and a ton of stuff going backwards. Just to be able to do a feeble fakie super long on a flat wall and then right into another lip trick… just being able to pump back and forth and blast airs… for me, the way I skate, when I skate a pool I feel limited. When I go to the vert ramp, I feel like I’m unlimited.”
Hendrix’s mode of attack has been refined over 20 of the most diverse years in skateboarding, integrating innovations that have come and gone with a style that is best described as intuitive. His flow is natural without being mellow; The combos are precise and impressive but never robotic; Basics from the 80‘s underground years, like footplants and inverts, are pulled with style and amplitude then punctuated by aerials and technical tricks. A solid Neal Hendrix run is like a history of three decades of half pipe skating, but it’s never a museum piece. It’s alive and vital. And for Hendrix, even in his fourth decade, moving forward is still essential.
“Bowl skating is not primarily about progression. There are definitely guys pushing the limits, but it is what it is… It’s healthy to get outside of your comfort zone and scare yourself a little bit. That feeling you get driving home after you’ve done something new, that’s what skateboarding is all about. Vert especially has always been hyper progressive… Pushing yourself is kind of what fuels the fire. I go to sleep at night thinking of new stuff I want to do when I go to the ramp the next day. I get there and reality usually kicks in… But it’s good to have motivation to do new stuff even when you’re an old dude. There’s always something… you want to air a hip you haven’t aired before, do a different line. ”
As a veteran with years of perspective on his craft, Hendrix also has nothing to prove. “I’m at the point where I’m not going to make any radical changes. Skateboarding comes and goes in term of what gets the stamp of approval. Personally, I’ve always done what I like to do. Nowadays there’s nothing I do that I don’t enjoy. I was doing inverts and footplants when everyone thought it was super whack. I still thought it was awesome because I grew up watching Chris Miller doing footplants and Neil Blender doing inverts.”
Now, in 2014, keeping those tricks in the bag seems to be paying dividends. “It’s funny, because when pool skating became more prominent, suddenly, every photo was some guy doing a crail slide or a smith grind… Now, all of the sudden, there are 14-year-old kids watching me skate and saying: ‘holy crap, what’s that footplant trick called?’ That’s really weird for me, that kids think the footplant I did is really cool… Skateboarding is at one of the coolest spots right now. A few years ago, skateboarding had to look a certain way, pro skaters had to look a certain way, you had to come up a certain way, everyone was creating products that had to appeal to the same 14-year-old consumer. All of that just got nuked and now anything goes….”
Indeed, the vibe in 2014 is a far cry from the atmosphere Hendrix emerged into as a new pro 24 years ago.
“When I went pro in 1991, I caught the very end of the 80’s boom.” Hendrix recalls. “The first few contests I entered there were 80 guys competing. By 1992-93 it was just ten guys, but it was still all new to me. Even though everyone was saying ‘skateboarding is dead’, I was still psyched to be a pro skater. I wanted to travel. Guys might have been making more money a couple years before that but I was like: ‘Pffft…I don’t care. This is awesome.’”
Vert may have been “dead” in the first half of the 90’s, but that dormancy bred feverish innovation, with vert skaters like Danny Way and Colin Mckay bringing street tech to vert ramps. Never one to shy away from throwing up nollie flips and giant kickflip indys, Hendrix skating was still never completely defined by technicality, even in the early 90’s. In a way, it’s hard to pin down what kept Hendrix progressing and relevant in the dark years when so many others faded away. Then again, maybe that’s exactly why he maintained his place.
“Compared to guys like Danny and Colin, who were really good street skaters, I wasn’t. I was a vert skater trying to imitate them on vert ramps. It was a weird time. Trends and what trick is cool come and go, but you can’t really change the way you skate. You can be influenced, but you can’t completely change. I was going in kind of a different direction than the street guys, but I still kind of folded that into my skating.”
Decades on, Hendrix seems pretty unfazed by those much maligned big-pants-small-wheels years. “There was a lot of awesome stuff in the 90’s. I joke around that there was something good that came out of all that. I was such a lip trick dude back then, I could do airs but I couldn’t really blast them. After we were all riding super duper small wheels, when wheels eventually got bigger again, suddenly I could go so much higher. Because I had to learn to pump on really small wheels, as soon as the mid 90’s came around, all of the sudden I could do high airs.”
Rolling through the crucible of the vert massacres of 90-93, has had positive consequences in the long run that go way beyond higher aerials. “My generation of vert skaters have had the longest careers of almost anyone. We were blessed with a lot of opportunities. The first X-games, take it for whatever you want, we got to do a lot of cool shit because of it. I had a conversation with Chris Miller and Chris told me, ‘Neal, man, you don’t realize how lucky you and your generation are. I was a pro skater literally for 3 years…then there was no way to make a living off of it… I became a working dude who skated once a month when I could.”
The opportunities that exploded in the mid 90’s still extend to Hendrix today, “I’m probably on the road 200 days a year.” Hendrix explains. “Everyone jokes with me that I just say yes to everything… before they are even done asking I just say ‘yep’.”
Some of that travel has to do with Hendrix spot as brand manager for Woodward skate camps, some has to do with his newfound side gig as a contest commentator, but there’s still a lot of demos. USA, Europe, Africa, wherever you may be, even in the bowl-crazy, street status-quo 2010’s, if you want to put skateboarding in front of a crowd at a festival or other event, the vert half pipe is still the best bang for the buck in terms of getting skating across to the masses.
And those half pipes have changed since the golden age of vert.
“I joke with other vert skaters that we killed vert because we made the ramps so big. We were constantly telling everyone ‘let’s go bigger’. Think about an 8 year old kid going to the YMCA or some other park to learn to skateboard and seeing these monster 14 foot tall vert ramps…” With the average very ramp averaging between 13 and 15 feet tall, the handrail heroes and concrete killers definitely do not have a monopoly on gnarliness. “I love it when pro street skaters, when they’re at Woodward or wherever, get up on a giant, modern vert ramp for the first time and see what it looks like and are like: ‘Holy shit. I can’t do this. That’s so cool.”
On the other hand, for the experienced vert rider those gargantuan transitions have actually allowed a longevity of progression unseen in the days of 11 foot half pipes. “On a 13 1/2 vert ramp you just drop in and do a carving frontside grind and you’re hauling ass.” Hendrix explains. “[Big ramps] are way lower impact. You just have way more transition to land on.”
Higher airs, easier bails. Its clear why a skater like Hendrix is still slugging out on the skatelite when there’s so much concrete terrain around. His latest video part for Elephant and the Ride Channel makes an even stronger argument.
“It’s really cool that Mike [Vallely] has created this team of guys that’s more a collection of unique individuals doing their own thing. For us, Elephant is a very cool conduit… I was hammering away on the vert ramp every day, sort of doing stuff in the shadows. Mike gave me the opportunity for the first time in a few years to do some cool projects. He was just like: ‘Neal, you’ve got some fans out there… we want to show them what you are doing.’ ”
Road warrior. Half-pipe hero, Hendrix seems as driven as ever to keep vert skating, at the very least his vert skating, alive. Still, he’s cognizant of the precarious state of the half-pipe in the 2010’s.
“There’s enough heritage and history to the half-pipe that half pipe vert skating is going to exist, but it’s going to be underground. Nowadays, if you are going to be a pro vert skater you are going to have to be a good pool skater, you are going to have to skate other stuff. Half pipe skating is never again going to be what it was.”
If the half pipe is destined to become an endangered species Hendrix doesn’t seem too broken up about it. He’s focused on moving ahead “I want to do more projects. I want to put a concrete part together, because I’ve never had that before. I may enter a few of these old guy contests, maybe even compete with the younger guys sometime in the future if it’s feasible…”
Even if he starts shredding the concrete with more regularity, it’s still hard to picture Hendrix becoming a full-time bowl bro. Even if there was only one half-pipe left in the world, Neal Hendrix would be one of the guys shredding it.
“I love the opportunities I got to have. I love everything I’ve gotten to do because of skating. I’ve been able to travel the world for 25 years. I’ve got to do so much in my career. I have no regrets.”
Kyle DuVall had been writing about skateboarding almost as long as he has been skateboarding. He blogs at Parkingblockdiaries.blogspot.com