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Kelly’s Heroes

Inside Burton's snowboard R&D facility

All photos by Rick Levinson – this article first appeared in the Whitelines 100, September 2013

Craig Kelly did more than most to drag snowboarding from its early days as a fluorescent, adolescent novelty into the worldwide phenomenon it is today. He was the sport’s first superstar, becoming the first to hit the million dollar mark; his style was a game-changer, considered even by the likes of Terje Haakonsen and Nicolas Müller to be the greatest ever; and he was the first to do the unthinkable and turn his back on the lucrative contest circuit to pursue freeriding.

At so many times in his career, he led and the sport did its best to catch up. Then in 2003, while training to be a mountain guide in Canada, he and six others were killed in an avalanche. After a long career of firsts, Craig had also become the sport’s first high-profile casualty.

“Craig’s probably fits the fantasy of your average snowboarder’s dad more than that of the rider themselves”

Today, just over a decade since his passing, Burton Snowboards are remembering him with their new research & development facility, ‘Craig’s’. It’s an appropriate tribute, considering that his move from Sims to the Vermont outfit in 1989 not only saw his own career enter the stratosphere, but also set Burton on the path to becoming the world‘s biggest snowboard brand.

When Craig got the documentary treatment in 2007’s Let It Ride, Transworld founding editor Kevin Kinnear recalled the significance of the switch: “All of a sudden Burton…. started developing better equipment, because of Craig’s feedback. That’s when the whole balance of power shifted”.

The evolution of the Performer. Photo: Rick Levinson

The facility that bears his name is located in Burlington, Vermont, next door to Burton’s worldwide headquarters. Lance, my tour guide for the day, leads us in, stopping only to point out the avalanche barrier that looms over the entrance; the first of many nods to Craig.

The entrance to Craig’s. Photo: Rick Levinson

Inside is a giant, impressively-stocked workshop with enough space to swing a snowcat. It’s something that probably fits the fantasy of your average snowboarder’s dad more than that of the rider themselves. Stacks of wood are piled high on shelves while dogs come and go as they please, at times outnumbering the staff. Were it not for the boards on the wall and stickers on the machines, and perhaps the old Stowe gondola handing overhead, they could be making anything.

And actually here, ‘making anything’ is the idea. While they’ve dipped their toe in manufacturing production boards – company founder Jake Burton Carpenter’s first ‘pro model’ was made here last summer in a run of 100, with 600 units of the Moonshine and Speakeasy to follow this year – the primary purpose of Craig’s remains R&D. Up to a dozen hand-crafted prototype boards can be constructed in a day, depending on what’s being worked on at the time.

Photo: Rick Levinson

“It’s easy to see how Craig’s input helped Burton become the world’s biggest snowboard brand. It’s even easier to see why they’d choose to build a facility like this in his honour”

“Anyone in the building can come by with an idea” says Chris Cunningham, Business Director for boots and bindings and 12-year veteran of Burton. “We’ll also look at surfing, for sure, and when summer comes we skate the ramps out back. All of a sudden we’ll have some new ideas from that“.

The renowned global team is encouraged to contribute, and it’s not uncommon to have Jeremy Jones or Danny Davis dropping by with their requests. As Chris explains; “Sometimes team will trump everything, and the answer to why we’re doing something will just be ‘well, Danny wanted it that way….’ Kelly Clark, for example, wants the fastest possible base, ever. A lot of our high-end boards have die-cut bases, and she’ll be like ‘I can feel a seam!’ so we’ll make her a special model with the same graphic but a printed base”.

Photo: Rick Levinson

There’s presumably a bean-counter somewhere, checking on the spend, but he or she isn’t making their presence felt. “We’re all snowboarders”, says Chris. “and sometimes we’ll just say ‘Fuck it, let’s do it this way’. You can go to Jake and say ‘Hey, we really want to do this. It makes absolutely no business sense but it’d be really cool‘. And he can still look at it from a snowboarder’s perspective and say ‘That’s right, we should be doing this. Go for it!’ A lot of the managers get it; even when it may not make sense right now on paper, they’re happy to roll the dice.”

It’s difficult to imagine a better setup for this kind of suck-it-and-see approach. First off, there’s the equipment, which ranges from the traditional (planer for sanding down the tip and tail, jigsaw and bandsaw for shaping) right up to a state-of-the-art 3D printer. With this, it’s possible to ’grow’ virtually any shape you can think of with layers of plastic, each 1/5000th of an inch thick. While the results aren’t shop-floor ready, they’re strong enough to gauge whether or not an idea is worth pursuing.

“We haven’t even scratched the surface yet, but we’re experimenting. I’m hopeful that we’ll come across the way where we say ‘Holy shit, that changes everything’.”

Then there’s the location, which allows for practical testing to begin straight away. Vermont has more ski resorts per capita than any other state, many of them a short drive from Burlington. It’s a mere 45 minutes to Stowe, with the likes of Stratton, Killington and Jay Peak not much further. Be it a highback or a goggle frame, it can go from concept to on-slope tests within 24 hours.

Finally, there’s the staff, ranging from award-winning engineers to board-builder extraordinaire ‘Thunder’. “He’s personally built so many of the boards used to win contests that he should have his own gold medal”, says Lance, while Thunder busies himself with the construction of a Parkitect 154.

The board is built like a sandwich, layers of wood and fibreglass bonded together with epoxy resin. While the process seems casual, steps have been taken to ensure that any favourable results can be precisely replicated. After the materials have been arranged in one of several moulds (there are at least 600 on site) the board goes to the press, where the camber profile will be applied. The final stop is the ‘Infinite Ride’ machine, where the board is broken in with an even bend.

The Infinite Ride machine. Photo: Rick Levinson

After a few finishing touches it’ll most likely be heading to one of Burton’s 700-strong worldwide team of testers, ranging from über-pros to average Joes. That is, unless it heads next door to the quality control guys, who‘ll strength-test it the only true way; by seeing what it takes to break it.

This is only the beginning, and it looks like the folk at Craig’s will enjoy many happy years of marrying the scientific method with ‘throw it all at the wall, see what sticks’. As the facility continues to expand (the 10,000 square footage isn’t all accounted for yet) one of the immediate plans is to increase the focus on soft goods and outerwear. Things are already underway, and the gear used by the U.S. Olympic team at Sochi in 2014 will all come from here.

“There’s presumably a bean-counter somewhere, checking on the spend, but he or she isn’t making their presence felt. “We’re all snowboarders”, says Chris. “and sometimes we’ll just say ‘Fuck it, let’s do it this way’”

In the longer term, Craig’s won’t just be about dreaming up new things to build, but also new ways to build them. Chris notes that the basic method for snowboard construction hasn’t changed drastically in over 20 years, and feels that this place has the potential to re-write the manual.

“We’re looking to find ways of making boards that are completely different to what has come before. That’s our ongoing project, and we haven’t even scratched the surface yet, but we’re experimenting. I’m hopeful that we’ll come across the way where we say ‘Holy shit, that changes everything’.”

Among the Farm's memorabilia are these classic shots of Burton boards over the decades. Photo: Rick Levinson

The tour’s last port of call is The Barn, a museum of all things Burton modelled after the company‘s first office. Thanks to the ongoing efforts of curator Todd Kolhman, the collection boasts everything from early prototypes to one-off curios.

Somehow the small red tricycle ridden by Jussi Oksanen in a 2005 advertising campaign has ended up here, as has one of the few Uninc dinner jackets produced for the team in their heyday. Behind glass are handwritten notes and sales pitches from the company‘s earliest days, and even the letter Jake wrote to Craig inviting him to join the team.

A rare Burton Backhill. Photo: Rick Levinson

Then there are the boards. As well as a Performer, a Cruiser and a rare Backhill (one of which recently sold online for $20,000), Craig’s first Burton pro model is here, mounted on the wall.

The difference between the Mystery Air and the previous year’s monoski-esque Safari is staggering. It’s easy to see how Craig’s input helped Burton become the world’s biggest snowboard brand. It’s even easier to see why they’d choose to build a facility like this in his honour. It would have been great to see what he would have made of it, and what he might have made in it.

Craig’s is located at 152 Industrial Parkway, Burlington, Vermont, 05401. Tours run by appointment, Monday to Friday at either 1pm or 3pm. Book your tour at burton.com

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