Shaun Palmer

Uneasy rider

All the other bad-assed, antisocial-but-too-cynical-to-really-rebel snowboard punks have been mere facsimiles of Shaun Palmer. Palmer not only crossed social boundaries he ritually torched them on the way past. Sometimes he seemed to deliberately set out to do it; sometimes it just came naturally.  Others may have been more intolerable, depraved or despicable, but somehow Palmer WAS the original snowboard sociopath.

Palmer looks like a punk version of Shakespeare’s Puck, one that would get wasted with Jonny Rotten rather than run around the woods chasing fairies. With his shirt off he looks like a Los Angeles gang leader fresh out of jail; all ripped muscles, tattoos and scars. Across his shoulders is a flaming Cadillac logo. Nearly all his tattoos pay homage to his favourite car marque. His hair has been dyed every colour that can come out of a bottle, shaved into a Mohican and buzz-cut. Catch him on a bad day and he even sports the sneer of a feral street kid. If things haven’t gone Palmer’s way, leave him alone. If he’s not on top Palmer can be petulant, aggressive, moody. At thirty-four he still retains the face of a very naughty young boy, but it is reflective; the mind may still be a tight bundle of complexity but the face no longer exhibits the snarl of a cornered dog. Palmer is calmer now but he has been angry pretty much most of his life. He was a very angry white trash kid who tethered his rage and rode it.

“I’ve been a bad boy asshole for a long time”.

His childhood infected him with insecurities; a maelstrom of emotions that could only be calmed by relentlessly winning. He became addicted to proving that Shaun Palmer is NOT a loser. But there’s probably no one that’s harder on Palmer than himself. He hates to feel like he failed, even if no one else thinks he did fail. Palmer sets his own standards.

“Doesn’t mean I’m happy just because I can beat anyone or win anything I fucking want.”

Someone that knows him well, a pro skier, said,

“Shaun is a lovely guy but he’s got a few issues to work out”.

It doesn’t require a black leather couch and a wall full of diplomas to work out where these issues came from. His father left soon after Shaun was born. His relationship with his mother was stormy, and he was brought up mainly by his grandmother. He skipped school and started down the well-trodden path to juvenile delinquency. By his own admission he got into drugs and had minor encounters with the police. Snowboarding might not have tamed him, but it probably saved him. Any demons he managed to silence launched themselves back on the attack after his grandmother died of cancer in 1992. Shaun drunk heavily for a while after that, though he didn’t stop wining.

Palmer wasn’t only the bad boy of snowboarding, for many years he was THE boy. If he entered, he won. Half-pipe or boarder-cross, it really didn’t matter. Hell, it didn’t even matter if it wasn’t a board. Skis, BMX, snowmobiles, mountain bikes, off-road race-cars, motorcross bikes. Palmer’s won with them all.

“The world doesn’t understand what I’ve done. Only the people who know how hard each specific sport is know how good I am, because I’ve competed against them. And won.”

In this age of corporate homogeneity and social conformity, Shaun Palmer is a Renaissance man.  He drives himself to win, at what, doesn’t matter. It’s not that he isn’t enormously talented at all the sports he wins, of course he is, but it’s as if his real skill is in a complete understanding and mastery of speed.

At the age of thirteen he stormed onto the professional snowboarding scene like a pubescent Mongol warrior. His nickname was “mini-shred”, but this slightly patronising tag didn’t stop him going out of his way to humiliate the old hands on the circuit at every opportunity. And even at a young age, Palmer was an efficient opportunist. He played up to the cameras in a way that any teenager would love to have the balls to do. He didn’t smile coyly and gratefully into the lens as other new hopefuls might, conscious of trying to look cute for the sponsors. He gave the cameras something to look at. He gave them angst and attitude. He wouldn’t stand in the cold and play tailor’s dummy for magazine photographers, he would ride flat out towards cameramen then bury them in a wave of powder as he tore up the snow to stop.

He knew that he was good. Even then he knew that he was better than all the rest. He didn’t finish high school; he left to tour as part of the Sims pro team and formed a habit of winning the junior championship.  Success didn’t tame Palmer’s rebellious soul. At the 1988 World Championships he showed his contempt for what he considered a poorly prepared half-pipe by riding straight down the middle, his only trick was to give the judges the finger as he passed.

In 1989, in the final of the World Championships, Palmer went head to head with Craig Kelly. The two were so evenly matched it was like watching a Jake LaMotta, Sugar Ray Robinson title fight; Kelly the artful technician, Palmer the uncompromising victory junky. The lead swung back and fore. Each time one of them entered the pipe the crowd were in for something special. Palmer won; then they did it all over again the following year.

After dominating the pipe, Palmer moved into bordercross, and dominated that as well, winning three X-Games gold medals and the Swatch World Bordercross title. But he wasn’t satisfied.  Snowboarding wasn’t Palmer’s first winter sport; he learnt to ski as a kid, hanging out on the slopes in his home town of Tahoe with fellow rebel, Glen Plake. He switched to snowboards after two seasons, but at the height of his snowboarding success, Shaun decided that he wanted to win at skiing too. He entered the X-Games skier cross in 1999. Everyone thought it was just Palmer fooling around. It wasn’t. He was serious. He got through to the finals but snagged a ski on the start line. While the winner was congratulating himself, Palmer was ferried straight back to the top of the course. He swapped his board for skis and went out and won the bordercross. The following year he had a point to prove, so put in a few days training, came back and won the X-Games Skier Cross gold medal. The same year he took the Gravity Games Skier Cross title as well, with a forty foot lead. Then he quit. He’d made his point.

“I beat the best skiers in the world twice in one year. That was enough. I like to walk away from a sport on top.”

Palmer had made the same point four years earlier. He bought a mountain bike, entered the downhill World Championship and came seventh in his first race. As a complete novice he rode faster than some of the best riders in the world. Two months later he’d won a NORBA US National Championship series race. Only a month after that he came a narrow second in a World Cup Downhill race to the reigning champion, Nicolas Vouilloz. He missed out again to Vouilloz at the World Championships in Australia, but compensated himself by taking the Dual Slalom race. By the end of the World Cup season he was fifth overall and Specialized signed him up for what was the biggest contract the sport had known. Some say Palmer banked $300,000 dollars of Specialized’s money, others say it was closer to a million.  Not bad for a rookie who started the season as a privateer. To cap it off, racing on snow with spiked tyres, he won an X-Games Downhill Mountain bike gold medal in ’97.

“Look, I’m naturally talented in all these sports and I have such a winning determination it’s weird. I still don’t understand it. When I wanna win something, I can win it, I’m mentally stronger than any athlete out there in any sport I do. I wanna win so bad it’s like I gotta prove to the world.”

Gravity or gasoline, to Palmer it’s all good, he doesn’t mind what fuels his speed. He’s a top snowmobile racer and motocross rider but recently he’s been focusing on cars. In 2001 he entered the Pikes Peak International Hill climb, a twelve mile off-road, sprint up one of America’s highest mountains; one hundred and fifty six bends, turns and hairpins, some with six thousand foot near-vertical drops offs. He won his class. The following year he was back. Repeating his initial approach to mountain bike racing, he didn’t have major corporate backing, he financed and built his own car. He took a standard GMC pickup, the street steed for urban bad boys, painted it matt-black, added tined windows, fat tyres, and a 700-break horse, custom engine. Peel off logos on the bonnet bore his name in the gothic font he uses for his snowboard manufacturing company; peel-off because he poured $150,000 into the truck but made sure it was built street legal.  The crypt-black, gangster chariot is faster than most Ferraris and Palmer wanted to be able to drive it on the roads.

Despite the financial investment and the usual Palmer commitment to winning he failed to finish his second attempt at Pikes Peak. He, didn’t fail, the car did. His split-times before he stopped were only seconds off the eventual winner. His snowboarding career may be virtually over; there’s only so much punishment a thirty four year old body can take, but Palmer has set his mind on wining at something new. He wants to be a rally driver.

“I think World Rally drivers are the best drivers, better than the Formula One guys even. It’s amazing what those guys do with a car in those conditions, their spontaneous reactions to all the things that come their way on a stage… I’d be well into doing that.”

To think of Shaun Palmer as just over talented white trash is to miss the man. Take one glance at his tats and dyed hair and he looks like a loser, but that’s one thing he’s always been determined not to be. Maybe that’s why Palmer is calmer now. It’s as if he’s realised that being a bad boy forever would eventually lead to failure.

When he turned his steely determination to succeed on the business world, he won again. Shaun Palmer is a co-founder and partner of Palmer Snowboards, a board and accessory manufacturer that now turns over $15 million per annum.  He’s also been astute when it comes to licensing the Palmer brand. The computer games manufacturer Activision signed him up to lend his name to a snowboarding game, part of a stable of titles with other greats of his gene, Tony Hawk, Mat Hoffman and Shaun Kelly.

Despite his aptitude for level-headed business moves, there are still demons haunting Shaun but he is leaning to live with them rather than bait them with a sharpened stick. The older Palmer is more thoughtful, introspective and philosophical.

“Anger was good for me. My attitude has brought me where I am today. I just want to change it now to make me a happier person. When you are positive and happier life’s better, rather than being an angry fucking dick. I’ve been there before. I could get some beers in me now and start going ape shit, but when you’re sober and thirty four you think a little differently than you did at twenty four. That doesn’t mean I won’t get on a snowboard or motor cross bike or get in a car and hold it wide open. That hasn’t changed.”

Even restless soul need time to relax and reflect. For Palmer nothing chills him out more than the lines, look and ride of his favourite cars.

“Classic-clean-fucking-beautiful-looking-fucking-Cadillac that’s just what I’m into. And a lot of them are bad looking mother fuckers. I’m just into old American Steel. Whatever mood I’m in, I pick those keys up…. Listening to Sinatra in a Sixties Cadillac goin’ round Lake Tahoe on a sunny Sunday. That’s livin’.”

Ski & Board, Winter 2003/04

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