American Chopper Live: The Build-Off

We make our network debut!

story by Kevin Duke, Photograph by Kevin Duke, Created Dec. 22, 2011
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Did you see Motorcycle.com’s network TV debut in the “American Chopper Live: The Build-Off” show broadcast December 6 on the Discovery Channel? Many of you probably did, as the competition between Orange County Chopper’s Paul Teutul Senior, son Paul Junior of Paul Junior Designs and the notorious Jesse James of West Coast Choppers fame and tabloid infamy was the most-viewed show on TV among men that night!

Nearly 5 million total viewers saw the show we publicized in this blog post the day before the live event, highlighting that I was invited to represent Motorcycle.com as a guest critic on the builds. In case you missed it, the show is scheduled to be rebroadcast on December 26, so check your local listings.

The production of the show from the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas was immense. Broadcasting live is much more complicated than a recorded show, requiring a crew of nearly 150 people. Including me!

American Chopper Build-Off

Vegas, Baby!

My work began Sunday evening when I flew to Vegas and was met by a production assistant who took me to the Hard Rock. In the morning I was met by Mike Nichols, the show’s producer, plus the two other guest critics. Keith Ball, a former Easyriders editor and current head of Bikernet.com, was there to represent the hardcore Harley perspective.

American Chopper Build-Off

While Ball is a respected man in the bike world, the third critic, Mark Boone Jr., definitely overshadowed us editors. Boone, as he prefers to be addressed, plays the role of Bobby Munson in the “Sons of Anarchy” series which just wrapped up its fourth season.

Not having seen “S.O.A.” before, Boone was a complete unknown to me. But after spending several hours with him over two days, I was amazed at his star power. “S.O.A.” is the highest-rated show ever on the FX network, and it seemed as if everyone in Vegas knew Boone. Fans would endlessly come up to him to praise his work on the series and to beg for a photo with him. No matter if we were in the middle of a deep lunch conversation or just walking through the casino, the fan onslaught was relentless.

Introductions over, we were led out of the hotel in front of the cameras to get our first look at the wild machines created by the most famous bike builders in the world.

Jesse James

At first glance, James’ bike appears to be an entirely conventional Frisco-style chopper. It’s superbly finished, of course, with almost everything but the Harley-clone engine having been created by Jesse’s hands, yet it appears to be simply a traditional tall-necked chopper with a chrome frame. However, that frame is actually constructed from difficult-to-fabricate stainless steel then polished to a gleaming, chrome-like finish.

A motorcycle frame built from stainless steel is virtually unheard of, and it proved a mighty challenge for James. Stainless is not only tricky to bend into desired shapes because of its high strength, welding it is also problematic. Get it too hot and it will readily melt and deform, and its much-higher-than-carbon-steel thermal expansion often causes stainless welds to suffer fractures.

American Chopper Build-Off

With that in mind, the one-off springer front end is worthy of a closer look. James hammered, heated and forged the exquisite fork out of more stainless, using blacksmith techniques he learned two years earlier while living on a kibbutz in Israel. It’s an impressive piece of work.

American Chopper Build-Off

There is much hand fabrication in James’ build, but to a casual onlooker, it’s just another version of the well-worn chopper theme we’ve become familiar with over the years. It’s the most functional motorcycle in this build-off, but it’s also not entirely functional.

The bike’s ultra-high headstock vaults its triple clamps unusually high, and the foot-long bar risers force the handlebars to reside somewhere near the stratosphere. It would be impossible for me to do a full-lock U-turn on it, but Jesse says his “monkey arms” fit it decent. Still, the neck and fork are so tall that any rider mounted in its super-low seat is forced to look through or around the triple clamps and bar risers to see ahead.
 
“It’s gotta look good and it’s got to be stylish,” said James on the two-hour build show the night before the live event, “And it’s gotta be flawless and beautiful and chrome. But on top of everything else, it’s got to function.”

Paul Junior Designs

If judged solely on eye candy, Junior’s aviation-themed monstrosity is the clear winner. With inspiration from a WW II P-51 Mustang fighter plane, the bling-y bike features an aluminum skin riveted over steel, a single-sided swingarm and fork to mimic a plane’s landing gear, and shiny copper accents set off against the polished bottle-top Indian-derived V-Twin.

American Chopper Build-Off

Visually, Junior’s bike is dominated by its ginormous 30-inch propeller-shaped wheels. Manufactured by Renegade Wheels, the forged aluminum hoops are recessed to house CNC-milled plywood spokes to make them look like wooden propellers. Renegade told me they’d cost about $12,000 if I wanted a set. The wheels are so huge they make the bike look like a caricature. “This bike is so big it’s actually ridiculous,” said PJD’s Vinnie DiMartino during the 2-hour pre-live-show special.

American Chopper Build-Off

Another unique styling element is an exhaust system that’s routed through and out the sides of the faux fuel tank like P-51’s Merlin engine (through short two pipes on each side to match the plane’s V-12 powerplant). This forced the bike’s fuel to be stored in a small tank below the engine, away from the hot exhaust. 

The gigantic scale of the PJD bike makes it unusable by short riders, and the non-padded metal seat pan will make sure you’ll need to pull over before the 1-gallon fuel tank is empty, but at least it has a rear suspension its rivals do without.

 “Unquestionably, it is the best bike we’ve built to date,” said Junior on the pre-show. “The level of craftsmanship that went into this bike, at least by us, has been unmatched. This is the best we’ve ever done as a team, and I’ve never been more happy with the end result.”

Orange County Choppers

Okay, so it’s not technically a bike or a chopper, but it’s definitely the wildest contraption of the bunch. Paul Senior and the crew at OCC built something more likely to be seen in a sci-fi movie, with two rubber-tracked front contacts akin to a cross between a Can-Am Spyder and a tank.

American Chopper Build-Off

It uses a pair of rubber tracks where a Spyder’s front wheels would be, plus a swiveling wheel at the rear. Also taking a step away from the chopper realm is the thing’s power unit – a rack of lithium-ion batteries juicing electric motors. Jim from OCC later tells me it has a 50-mph top speed, but its high-speed handling is quite hairball because of the swiveling rear wheel. Senior says it could go 90 mph if its motor controller was unleashed.

Okay, so it’s neither a motorcycle nor anything practical, but it is a visually stunning machine different from anything we’ve seen before. “I want it to be the biggest mind-blowing f*#ker that everybody’s ever seen and not have a clue what it is,” said Senior during the pre-show. “People are going to have to respect the fact that we built something innovative and cool.”

American Chopper Build-Off

Innovative and cool, yes, but myself and the other two guest critics agreed that OCC stepped way too far out of the chopper box, as we discussed over lunch. We tried to appreciate the creativity in both its design and propulsion, but for us it always stood as an outlier because it’s simply not a motorcycle and is wildly impractical.

Actor (and part-time musician) Boone said Jesse’s bike was definitely the one he’d most like to have, but he concurred with me and biker Ball that it looks rather plain for an “American Chopper” build. And we all disliked its extremely high bar position and the obstructed view forward. As a motorcycle, it’s the clear “rider” of the group, and Jesse’s fabrication skills with stainless steel are to be admired. But as a bike built for “American Chopper,” it comes up a little short.

That leaves the Junior/PJD creation as the most impressive package, at least according to Ball and me. It’s absolutely stunning from tip to tail. The billet suspension pieces are fantastic, its engine looks like a gem, and the aeronautical theme is wonderfully integrated. It gets demerit points for its cartoonish 30-inch wheels, torturous unpadded seat and tiny fuel tank, but we believed it would take the honors when the winner is announced live the next night.

American Chopper Build-Off

Yes, Live Shows Have Rehearsals

Later in the afternoon we checked out the setting for the live show at the HRH’s theater, The Joint, and took part in a rehearsal. We watched from the front row of the room as pre-packaged segments of the show were displayed on large screens onstage. Junior, Senior and James wheeled out their creations and had to endure run-throughs of the show with host Mike Catherwood.

The segment with the critics was scheduled late in the show. It would be led off by a package edited from the morning’s reveal with our comments and critiques. After the still-to-be-edited package segment ended, Catherwood would follow a steadycam up to our location where we’d reveal which machine was our favorite.

Following rehearsal, we were allowed to get onstage to examine the bikes one final time. Junior and Senior made a quick exit, but Jesse hung around beside his bike and was generous with his time. He was surprisingly talkative and gave me his full attention as we chatted.

American Chopper Build-Off

Jesse said he’s now in a more relaxed state of mind after his relocation to Austin, TX, building bikes one at a time for select clientele. His West Coast Chopper line of components continues to be sold but built by outside suppliers to his specs. The tabloid target isn’t just a chopper guy – he told me how much he enjoys blasting around the Texas Hill Country on his Ducati Desmosedici and about his next project, a Gen-2 Hayabusa turbocharged to about 600 horsepower.

“I just became a big-shot and married some Hollywood actress and didn’t talk to anybody anymore,” James told the “American Chopper” cameras. “So I feel bad and I feel obligated to reconnect with all these (motorcycle) people and show them I’m the same fabricator (and) motorcycle guy.”

Midnight Call

I spent much of the evening hanging with Boone, learning that he’s appeared in more than 70 films during his acting career, including “Batman Begins” “Memento” and “Seven,” as well as TV series such as “Seinfeld,” “Law and Order” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” For more on his work, check out this page from IMDB.

Boone says he almost always commutes to work on his Harley Road Glide. In his spare time he enjoys writing and arranging music, often accompanied by his live-in girlfriend, Syd Straw, a female artist with several albums under her belt and a former member of the Golden Palominos.

After a few cocktails, we decided to call it a night. Then, as Monday transitioned to Tuesday, I received a call that instructed me to attend morning reshoots to gather tech details not fully addressed (or spoiled by airport traffic) during Monday’s interviews.

Show Day

It was incredible to me that the show’s producer, Pilgrim Studios, would be reshooting footage for a package that would need to be completed just a few hours later, in time for the live show. But there I was standing in the Hard Rock’s parking lot while spouting off the intricacies of working with stainless steel and how the suspension of Junior’s bike is built to resemble landing gear.

Showtime!

I relaxed prior to the show in my dressing room at The Joint, sipping on a coffee while sending my shirt out to be de-wrinkled. I munched on fresh grapes and wondered why my Motorcycle.com video shoots aren’t nearly as accommodating.

I’ve been on TV a few times before, but the intensity of a live show broadcast before a world audience was a new experience. I felt surprisingly relaxed as show-time grew near, confident that the single compound sentence required from me was well within my talent level.

When I walked in to the theater, I was amazed at the intense level of enthusiasm shown by the packed house. Fans had flown in from around the country to be part of this special TV event. Also in attendance was ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons and Corey from TV’s “Pawn Stars.”

When the show began, nearly all 3000 people in The Joint were standing and cheering, fresh from being pumped up by the show’s announcer. The true level of fervor was displayed when the audience remained standing even during the first two video packages when they weren’t on camera.

American Chopper Build-Off

Several video packages and live interviews later, plus a performance by the band Bush, it was time to see for the first time how Pilgrim cut together our guest critic segment.  It was interesting to see how the producers cut our morning re-shoots into its edited package shown to the live audience. It was cleverly integrated, so viewers would have no idea they were shot on different days.

Our segment was short but sweet, then thrown to host Catherwood who asked us the big question: Which bike do we vote for?

Boone was first, noting that each bike is “beautiful and kind of preposterous in their own way,” chose Jesse’s bike. Ball chose the PJD bike, commenting that Junior “knocked it out of the ballpark.”

Then it was my turn. “Based on creativity and cohesion of design, I gotta give it to Paul Junior.” In point of fact, I stumbled on “creativity” by first saying “creative,” then saved myself from ignominy by spitting out the correct word and the rest of my few words.

American Chopper Build-Off

For “Chopper” fans, perhaps the best part of the show was when Pauls Junior and Senior took the stage to discuss their tumultuous relationship which includes a recently settled lawsuit. From speaking with Junior later that evening, I firmly believe their animosity is very real, not just playing for the cameras. A warm and fuzzy moment occurred when they finally expressed their love for each other and shared a hug onstage.

Then it was time for the big finale when Catherwood announced the result of the online voting. Senior’s futuristic tank thing received the fewest votes, leaving the decision between just Junior and Jesse. The much bigger ovation for Junior was predictive of the result, with Junior seemingly taking an easy win.

American Chopper Build-Off

In total, my time on camera was less than a minute, and several people have asked me later whether I was disappointed with the small amount of exposure. But I knew going into this that my role was surely to be just a diminutive one. After all, “Chopper” fans wouldn’t be tuning in to see what I had to say. Naturally, producers chose the clips of me that were complimentary of the builders’ creations, neglecting to include our criticisms, but that was to be expected.

Being a part of the show was a great opportunity to expose the Motorcycle.com brand to a large audience, and it was a fun and exciting event for me to be a part of. If you haven’t already seen the show, I encourage you to check your local TV listings for rebroadcasts

Now, all that’s left is to take these things out for a shootout, but I’m not gonna hold my breath on that happening anytime soon!

American Chopper Build-Off

Related Reading
Motorcycle.com on “American Chopper”: Senior vs. Junior vs. Jesse James
Jesse James to Appear on American Chopper
American Chopper canceled
American Chopper back with new format
Orange County Choppers Forms New NPO
Paul Teutel Sr. Presents OCC Rocks
The Ride of a Lifetime by Paul Teutul Sr.

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