In the early 2000s, when Danny Way was experimenting with state of the art Mega Ramps and jumping out of helicopters into humungous half pipes, a guy in the backwoods of Oregon hatched a 100% DIY, zero budget plan to match skateboarding’s growing level of extremeness.
Hopefully you’ve seen the video of Caz Helmstetter dropping in on the roof of his barn and launching 15 feet into a janky ramp of plywood stacked on top of an old truck. If not, it’s right above. It’s skateboarding at its finest. Proving that with the right ingenuity and recklessness, anyone can become a hero, at least for a few seconds.
Sadly, not many younger skaters know of Caz, who was then pro for Vans and Natural Koncept, and the story behind his barnyard park. For every sponsored skateboarder who claims to skate purely for fun, Caz is a rare breed to embody that approach fully. He just wanted to have a good goddamn time, and we don’t want his history to be forgotten. Hopefully he can inspire you to jump off a roof too.
Tell me about the skate barn you used to own and skate.
In 1999 I ended up turning pro for Vans and winning one of their contests. So my friends and I pooled as much money as we could and we were able to buy a little farm in Oregon, which was totally bonkers. I bought the 20-acre ranch with some barns as a 19 year-old kid. We ended up building skate ramps inside the barns to the extent that Thrasher was coming over to film, and they listed my barn as one of the best places that you can’t skate because we eventually had gotten kicked out by the county. We had an 18-foot long swimming pool, it was huge.
What inspired all the hijinx (shooting guns, off roading) that you guys put in your videos?
At the time skating was rail tricks, bam, bam, rail trick after rail trick. I would find myself zoning out sometimes. We said let’s not do handrail banger after handrail banger—mainly because I don’t have ’em—and let’s throw in all that fun stuff because that’s what we really do. The whole video, going on the roofs, putting the deer in inappropriate positions on people’s businesses, was the ultimate skate tour with the ultimate skate tour guys. It was the best time of my life.
You definitely seemed like a gun enthusiast. Do you still own any of those guns?
Oh yeah. I went to the gun show with my friend Icky Jim and was presented with an AR that he had bought me. He was an old army vet. He was like, “You’re gonna keep this the rest of your life, this is gonna protect your family. This is how many rounds of ammo you’re gonna have…”
Being on a farm struggling all by myself and having my influence from Icky Jim, he showed me that these are some of the necessities of life. If I am gonna be on a farm with 20 acres all by myself, you gotta make sure you take care of yourself. I support guns, I’m not a gun nut but I like ‘em. I still have ’em, still clean ‘em, I still use ‘em. There’s a time and place for everything, you know?
“We had just slaughtered some cattle, so we had a steak cookout and invited all my friends over.”
How else did Icky help you?
One day he comes up and shows me what looks like a turd. He goes, “Have you ever seen these?” and I said, “Yeah, I clean these up every day.”
What he was showing me was an owl huck [a chunk of food that the owl cannot digest and regurgitates]. Owls eat rats and mice but what they can’t digest they huck up. Icky Jim would take ’em, disinfect them, and sell them to schools for dissection projects.
When this guy finds out I’ve been sweeping up thousands of these and throwing them in the garbage, he wet his pants. We went out to my barn, he picked up probably 1,500 of them. He was getting almost $2 apiece. He made a boatload of money, and we end up being best friends. He helped me work on my farm when I needed roof maintained or major construction, he was always there.
Didn’t you used to grow psychedelic mushrooms on your farm too?
Yeah, Icky Jim knew that cow shit grew what we called Liberty Caps. He gathered all these dried up mushrooms. And what did we do? Well, we had just slaughtered some cattle, so we had a steak cookout and invited all my friends over. Little did they know we chopped up the mushrooms and put them all over the steak. Lost some friends that day but we had a hell of a time [laughs].
Before the barn, you were skating Burnside a lot in the ’90s, right? Would you consider yourself a local at the time?
I don’t know if you’d claim you were a local. You’d never walk around like, “I’m a Burnside local.” You’d get the wrong reputation. You just kind of end up getting that label.
I got there in 1995, and I swear I sat on that back wall just watching for two months thinking, what the hell is going on? It was the intimidation station over there at Burnside. There’s a crew there, so you just had to be respectful when you’re there and know what time it is. There is a time and place for everything.
Do you have any wild stories from Burnside?
I’ve seen some stuff there that’s pretty scary and life-changing. Some dead bodies, to fights, to other things. We were skating one night and there was a guy on the quarter pipe, and we were asking him to move, and he wouldn’t move. Then one of our boards accidentally hit him, and my friend went over like, “Dude we’re so sorry,” but he had a needle in his arm and he was dead. And then, you know, someone grabbed him and threw him in the bowl. Bad stuff.
Back then it was gnarlier than it is now. I’ve seen guns, and I’ve had guns pulled on me. It’s not like you can just show up and skate, you gotta make sure you have your wits about you.
You said the county eventually shut down your skate barn?
Yeah, the fire department came in and red-tagged me one day. They didn’t give me a lot of explanation except that I needed sprinklers under every single ramp. It was an additional cost of like $40,000. We didn’t have that kind of money. I just wanted to have a skatepark, a camp if you will, out in the country where you could also ride BMX and motocross or whatever.
The county didn’t like my idea, so we went to a county hearing and they denied me for my home business permit. They said, “I didn’t fit the character of the community, and nor did my business.” That was kind of hurtful.
What led to the infamous ghetto roof ramp?
So we would go to the local pub and when we’d come in they’d change it to the ESPN. We were sitting there, and Andy Mac was on the television saying, “You cannot practice for the long jump, you just have to come to California.” They had just built the first long jump ever—Big Air as they call it now.
So we all look at each other like, “Bullshit! We can make a long jump.” So we came up with the ghetto barn gap, which was nothing like the million-dollar ramps they had in California, but we made it, we had a lot of fun. We all fell and got hurt, but it got me enough attention to be invited to the real long jump in California on live television.
“So we all look at each other like, ‘Bullshit! We can make a long jump.'”
What was it like skating a real big air ramp in California?
When you get to the top of that thing, that’s scary stuff, I don’t care who you are. It looks higher from the top than the ground, and it was swaying in the wind. We did it for The Simpsons. It was “Bart’s Extreme Extravaganza,” so it was on Fox.
Tony Hawk, Lance Mountain, Mike Vallely, and all the big names were there. I was able to go up and land a few big airs—kickflip grabs alongside those guys—so it meant a lot. I ended up injured. We didn’t quite know the speed/ramp angle back then so we were crashing and adjusting. When Mike V. said he wouldn’t do it, I knew it was big time.
How’d you get hurt?
We were on live television, and as I was rolling in they told me to stop. I was already four wheels in and I was looking down the six-foot roll in saying, “What do I do?” So halfway down I knee slide out, but they don’t have pads in the middle at this point, it’s just asphalt. So I knee slid off the ramp, onto the asphalt.
Then a month later, The Simpsons did a couch gag where Homer flies off a ramp. I got a lot of calls that day claiming it was to do with my crash [laughs].
I heard a story about an interview you did with Transworld where you talked shit about them in their own magazine? Why did you do that?
Yeah, I was at a Vans competition, to win the world championship of amateur skateboarding. This photographer got underneath me when I launched off the vert ramp for what was supposed to be my winning run, which kinda ruined my competition. I was like, “Who the fuck are you?” He said, “I’m from Slap Magazine. I want to do an interview with you.” I was like, “Alright, I’m just gonna diss on Transworld the whole time in the interview.” But then it turned out that the guy lied and was really from Transworld.
So I had an interview in Transworld Skateboarding, dissing Transworld Skateboarding. After that, the photographer was telling me that I ruined my career as a skateboarder, and I’m a nobody.
That ended up fueling my fire. Chris Nieratko and I did an interview later and he hit all the hot topics. Transworld was a huge, thick magazine that nobody read, and they were giving me a hard time. So we gave Transworld a hard time back in the Big Brother interview.
I was a Big Brother die-hard. So I traveled with Big Brother and did whatever I could for them because of how much fun they were, which was clear in the interview.
Do you keep up with anything current in skating?
I’m always gonna be a Natural Koncept fan. My kid rides an NK board and wears an NK shirt. I’m still loyal, and it’s crazy they’re still plugging along. That team gave me some great life experiences. What’s hard is that I put so much time and effort toward skateboarding, and now I need to put time and effort toward managing a family and working a 40-hour work week that doesn’t have anything to do with skateboarding. It’s a damn shame, but it’s hard to keep in touch with what’s coming out.
At your career peak how much were you getting paid?
At my peak, I was getting paid by Vans and Natural Koncept skateboards. I was working at Timberline ski area and bringing in maybe $2500-$3000 per month. But getting bonuses for going to competition and doing well, or getting ads! So more money for those things!
You’re still skating, are you still kind of in search of that adrenaline rush?
I think you have to be. When you skate when you’re younger, it’s always that, you’re looking for that next thing. I have friends that have transitioned into skydiving, but I’m still looking for it whether it’s a motorcycle or whatever. You’re exactly right.
What do you do for work now? Do you ever look back about how your career could’ve been different?
Now I work for the government maintaining county buildings. It’s kind of boring, comparatively speaking. Looking back I think there were days when I was rubbing elbows with some big wigs and probably should have made friends in higher places, but I was really happy just having fun and enjoying my time. I saw a lot of people that were really hungry to make money, advance, and get to know the right people. I was more than happy to hang out and have a beer with those people, but never really pushed the topic for “help me, help me.”
“We’re not doing this for the dollar, and we’re not doing it to get our name on a wheel or shoes or something.”
Did you see other skaters around you getting burnt out or just giving up?
I think so. The pressure gets to a professional skateboarder. It might not look like it, but we are held to strict guidelines of making sure you’re in a magazine every couple months, making sure you’re producing and having those logos visible. You’re doing positive things for your sponsors and it’s just constant. So I tried to unhook from that pressure and remind myself that we’re doing this for fun. We’re not doing this for the dollar, and we’re not doing it to get our name on a wheel or shoes or something.
If one of your kids told you they wanted to grow up and be a pro skateboarder, what would you say to them?
I’d say go for it! And I can give them the direction that I probably didn’t have. What you need as a pro skateboarder is like a mentor that can tell you what to do, how to act, what interviews to do, what interviews not to do, and my mentor was Icky Jim! That was the guy I went to and he was like, “Let’s shoot guns and drink beers!” and I was like, “Okay cool!” So that was kind of the mindset. But yeah, direction. Maybe it would have helped me out a little bit, but I wasn’t one to shy away, and I don’t want my kids to shy away from anything.