Lester Kasai Interview
By Larry Balma
Another product of the So Cal skatepark boom of the late ’70s, Lester Kasai went on to become one of the top vert skaters of the ’80s. With an aptitude for amplitude, Lester could always be counted on to blast sky-high airs above the pools and vert ramps of America, weather permitting. After putting in a stint riding for brands like Sims, Lester joined forces with Tracker in 1986 to form the House of Kasai, a very successful endeavor that flourished until vert skating got buried by handrail kids in the early ’90s. Never one to throw in the towel, Lester continues to slay the latest skatepark pools on a reissue of his classic first Tracker deck.—GSD
Where did you grow up? When did you get your first set of Trackers?
I grew up in Anaheim, California. I actually bought some of my own Tracker Fultracks when I started skating in 1977. So, I rode Tracker Trucks as an amateur. I tried some of the other trucks, and then you guys hooked me up, probably during the ASPO contest series in 1979-’80. The big thing for me back then was those events. That’s where it all began. And I stayed loyal to Tracker all of that time because I loved the trucks.
Why was Tracker so important to the history of skateboarding?
As a young teen learning about skateboarding, I looked at all of the magazines we had back then, and I remember the Tracker ads, and the guys who were on the team. Back then, one of my favorite teams that I would watch and read about in the magazines was the Bones Brigade, with their bright florescent boards, Cubic wheels and Tracker magnesium trucks. For me, it was kind of magical the way Tracker advertised all of their hardware. It was just so cool. The Copers, Lappers and the whole thing were like a system. It was the Tracker System, and they were all packaged so beautifully, the way everything went together. I was like a little kid in the candy store.
You mentioned the Copers and Lappers. In the late ’80s, they went out of style, and we got stuck with tons of them. Why did that happen?
I’m not really sure about that. Maybe it’s because skateboarding turned toward street skating? I don’t think a lot of people were using Copers on the streets.
I thought it became uncool because you were cheating.
Oh, I see. I guess you could look at it like that.
When I talked to Tony Hawk and Kevin Staab about that, when we interviewed them, they said what happened is all of a sudden there were more ramps to skate than pools, and on pools, there was chipped-up coping and grout joints, but ramps had PVC and steel coping, so you would grind too fast with the Copers.
Oh, yeah, plastic on plastic (laughs). Maybe that’s one of the reasons why it turned out that way. I couldn’t tell you, because I obviously don’t use Copers anymore. I actually like the feel of metal and I love to skate pool coping more than anything. I like the way it feels with metal on the pool coping.
And what they said about the Lappers is they started mounting their front trucks further back, even though it shortened their wheelbase, so they had more nose to bring the board back in from the coping, so they didn’t really need the Lapper to help anymore.
Yeah, Lappers made things so much easier. It was almost like a fad. It was so cool at one point to have those things. I remember when my cousin Terrance and I were young and couldn’t really afford Copers, we’d take the handles off of shopping carts, cut them up and use them as Copers. We’d just snap them on our trucks (laughs).
That’s a good idea. Even when we were prototyping Copers, I never thought of that. Did you have a favorite Tracker Truck?
Like I said, I really did love those Tracker magnesiums. There was just something about them. Are there any full sets anywhere? Do you have any you saved and kept in mint condition?
I actually have some. Do you need some more? They’re not done yet, but I’m actually working on some, because I have old stock from back in the day. Do you remember when the guy got burned grinding them? That’s when the production stopped. But, I have a couple of barrels of parts and I’ve been working on them a little bit at a time.
I just want to know if there are any in mint condition that survived.
I don’t know if I’ve got any in mint condition. We actually took pictures of one used set like the ones on your board there.
Wow! There was something special about those trucks. I loved those things. When I think of Tracker, I think of those yellow magnesium trucks with the Copers, rings, and the sticker on there. I still love the wing sticker with the star, the red white and blue. You could put the opposite ones together and make wings. I always put that on the skateboard. Those kinds of things are very special in my heart—Tracker magnesiums and those stickers.
Did you save any boards?
I’ve got a lot of boards, a lot of stickers. I pretty much kept all of my stuff. I threw away some stuff, but I have all kinds of Skat’n News newspapers from the ASPO contests, and I look through those. I have all of my old magazines. My prized possession is my Neil Blender coffee break fiberglass bottom deck. I have all of my Tracker boards and everything. It’s all wrapped up, and I’m going to keep them forever, I guess.
Let’s talk more in-depth about your skateboards. You were skating for Sims.
Tom Sims called me up at my home. I don’t know how he got my number. I was an amateur, and he asked if I wanted to skate for him. I was so stoked to be part of the Sims team, with the Sims jerseys, the urethane gloves, skating with Brad Bowman and all of those guys. I got to go to the Sims factory in Santa Barbara. It was amazing. Then Sims got licensed out to Brad Dorfman and Vision. So, yeah, I was part of Sims. It was a good time; it was fun, and pretty successful. Then it was time for me to leave. I was really tight with you and Tracker, and I remember we did that ad with my board with the question mark on it. Once again, that was your idea. You had such great ideas. That was the beginning. I was a free agent at that time, and I remember people like Santa Cruz, Tony Alva and Christian Hosoi were calling me up—you know, all of these other companies who wanted to work with me. But, I had such faith and loyalty to Tracker, and we came up with that whole concept—you and your ideas—and we went with it. That was a great time, a very successful time for both of us, and it was a lot of fun.
Do you remember the first prototype Tracker Lester deck?
What? I don’t remember that.
We had a Del Mar contest coming up, and you didn’t want to ride your old board, so we just sprayed-painted that one on a Thursday night. Regardless of what you were doing brand-wise, that was the board you rode in the contest.
Yeah, and we also did one with the question mark ad. You and I were still stewing on what we were going to do. Basically, back then you were my support system, and I think we figured it out.
We had a lot of fun when you got together with Adrian.
Yep, we wanted to keep things very fun and fresh, so Adrian climbed onboard, and I think we created something very special. I still hear from a lot of people to this day, I’ll meet them in some other country, and they’ll say, “I was a member of the House of Kasai. It was so cool, we got these newsletters and stickers.” Once again, it was another one of your ideas, and it worked really well.
Do you remember around 1987-’88 when Tony Hawk talked with you and Adrian? He wanted to start a new company backed by Tracker? But, when we were all hyped up to do it, you told me how much work it was to manage a company, and you really just wanted to skate.
That was another reason why I could go skate: you and everybody else from Tracker supported me and focused on the business stuff, so it worked out good. I was still a young kid, too, and I had all of these people pulling at me, and I didn’t know who to trust. All I wanted to do was skate. You took care of me, and I appreciate that to this day, just to let you know.
Cool. So, yeah, we had a run there. We made a lot of skateboards, and we did the Marbles wheels.
Those were cool. I remember working with Jim Gray on those. Actually, some guy told me he still has a set of Marbles, loves them, and actually skates them. So, I still hear people saying they have Marbles or the Lester boards. It’s pretty cool to know it’s been this long and people still have a set rolling around somewhere.
Tell us about Frankie goes to fakie.
Wow, Frankie goes to fakie (laughs). Okay, that’s one of the tricks that I came up with and named. It was a cross bone air to fakie. That’s all it was (laughs). Back then, we just came up with all of these tricks and tried to get people to do them, or like them. And no matter what the trick was, we always tried to name it something interesting, or name it after some kind of trend that was going on then. So, Frankie goes to fakie was a take-off on that band called Frankie Goes to Hollywood.
What is the Bennihana? How and when did you invent it?
I’m not sure what year that was, maybe 1983-’84? That was a fakie Ollie tail grab taking off your back foot. It actually won the Dale Smith award at a Del Mar contest. I think nobody made up any new tricks at that contest, so he gave it to me. That was obviously named after Bennihana, the restaurant that Tony Hawk and I would always go to. We loved it so much. Again, we were just having fun with tricks, having fun with names. That’s what it was like back then. The Bennihana actually became a very popular trick with street skaters.
Which other tricks did you invent?
The sock hop, which is an alley-oop fastplant body jar. I don’t think anybody does that. I named it, once again, because the first thing I saw when I made the trick was my sock, so I called it the sock hop, like the dance. It’s another funny name for a trick. There were other various tricks that I made up, some switch stuff, like the reverse switch invert. Back then, we were just experimenting. I never did anything that was really spectacular. Oh, I helped Tony Hawk name the Madonna. That was definitely Tony’s trick, but I helped him name it. Madonna was really popular back then and that trick really took off.
What’s your secret to launching bio airs?
Growing up watching skaters like David Andrecht, who was one of my favorites. He was one of the guys who started breaking the barrier of going high. I remember watching and thinking, “Wow, that’s just so amazing. I can’t believe how high he’s going!” It looked so fun. I just wanted to do airs. I wanted to go as high as I could possibly go, because it was so exhilarating. So, I always tried to go as high as I could, and tried to build some momentum wherever I could. I prefer doing airs more than a lot of other tricks.
We ran that one ad in which you went so high you flew off the page.
Oh, yeah, that was really good. You came up with that, right?
That was actually super cool. I still have that at home. You put part of it in the front of the magazine and the other part in the back. So, when you got to the back, you’d be like, “Oh, okay.” That was super clever. You had a lot of little clever ideas like that.
Tell us about the time Grant Brittain wrapped you up in a tarp and a rope during a photo shoot for your Pro Spotlight in TransWorld.
We did that interview, and Grant’s always very creative and artistic, so he said, “I want to wrap you up so we can just see your eyes. It’ll look really cool.”
It was kind of ninja-like.
Yeah, he just wanted to do it because I have Asian eyes. He wanted to have the eyes in there and make it look kind of mysterious. A lot of cool stuff went down back then. Even how we did my first Tracker deck graphics. I remember you and I going to the library and looking up Japanese images when we were trying to come up with a design. That was super cool and fun. We did a lot of creative and cool things back then.
How about the trip to Japan?
That was very fun, for me being of Japanese heritage. That was my first time to Japan, and it was so different, interesting and eye opening—especially seeing all of the castles and how people would welcome us and be super friendly. Grant Brittian, Pierre Andre and I had such a good time out there. That was very special.
Do you recall any other memorable times with Tracker?
What I really remember was having such care and support from Tracker, from Peggy and Ridge. I was a young kid growing up in this industry, this environment of skateboarding, and these people took care of me like family. They taught me, they cared for me, they supported me—that’s what I remember. All of that care and love, that’s what I remember the most—going to a contest and just having that. That’s the fondest memory I have of Tracker.
Cool. My wife Louise spent three years going through all of our old skateboard collections, organizing and taking pictures of it so we know which box to go find it in. She also scanned all kinds of ads and photos that we can use for the Tracker book. GSD has been Photoshopping them, and Lance Smith is our photo editor. He’s been taking photos when I do interviews. GSD had him take studio shots of the trucks so they would be all be shown at the same angle, because all of our old truck photos were different.
You know, I heard about the book, and I’ve been waiting for you to do something like that. I think its super cool, I really do.
It’s a huge project, but it’s really neat getting to be able to spend time with you guys.
Everybody is reminiscing and thinking about it, and you can hear a different perspective since we’re older now, right? Yeah, I can’t wait to see it. I would love to see all of the stuff that you guys kept, the photos you’ve taken—especially all of the people who used to ride for Tracker. Everybody rode for Tracker, right? Some of my fondest photos were of John Gibson doing frontside Ollies for Tracker ads, or Steve Caballero, Neil Blender—those guys have always been my favorite skaters.
I hadn’t seen Neil for a long time. He came up, and we interviewed him. He’s going to help on photo captions. Neil and Garry are two guys in their own world who can come together on something like that. It will be fun. There’s not a lot of color in the stories that I’m writing about how Tracker got started, and the various trucks, but the skaters are mixed all the way through the thing, and, the color will come from your guys’ interviews. GSD will edit some down your interview and put it in, because we’ve got a House of Kasai section in the book.
I want to talk to Adrian, too.
I thing talking to Adrian will be very good. Adrian has such a great perspective and he’s probably got one of the best memories out of all of us, seriously. You’ll see when you interview him. We really had a good time together. What we did in the past was always fun. We were always joking around.
Have you skated that new park in Oceanside?
Yes, I have. It’s pretty fun. I also just went to that one in Carlsbad. That’s really good, too, but I’m waiting for the Huntington Beach park to open up. It’s so close to my house, and it’s supposed to have a really big bowl. I’m excited for that one.