This story may sound like a train wreck…and it is. People go flying, trains go flying, Victory bikes get chopperized. And it all takes place in historic Danbury, Virginia. All aboard! Motorcycle.com's Twilight Zone travel bureau has got your reservation. Don’t worry about luggage.
Danbury’s roots go back to 1728, during a survey of the area considered a bit of paradise. Settlers poured in, and by act of the Virginia State Legislature on November 23, 1793, the village was officially named Danville. Not after some guy named Dan, but a reference to a Biblical land of milk and honey. It also became a popular “rally” spot for veterans of The Revolutionary War who gathered their once a year to catch fish and swap old war stories.
Danville hit it big soon thereafter when it became “The World’s Best Tobacco Market” for bright leaf tobacco. All over the country people were puffing Virginia tobacco. During the Civil War it became a Confederate military center and a fairly terrible prison camp for Union soldiers, many of whom are still there in the Danville National Cemetery. Danville holds the semi-distinction as the Last Capital of the Confederacy at least for a few days and thereafter as the location of the largest single-unit textile mill in the world. The textile boom and the town’s economy would last some 200 years before fate would intervene once again.
All this is the setting for both the most famous wreck in American rail history, and a bit later a shop called Old 97 Choppers and its owner Rocket Rogers. The metal really hit the pedal on September 27, 1903 when the Southern Railway’s brand new express mail train was trying to make up for lost time. Called Old 97, the then state-of-the-art train was running at full throttle when it tried to negotiate a towering train trestle. Gravity and centrifugal force thought otherwise, and the locomotive and several cars plunged off the trestle, tumbling into a ravine below.
Several fatalities and injuries resulted and it was big news around the country chronicled by many newspaper stories, and as a result became immortalized in song by no less than Johnny Cash. Today you can find a marker located on U.S. 58 between Locust Lane and North Main Street at the train crash site. Not too far away on S. Boston Road and Highway 58 E, you’ll find a bike shop bearing the name of Old 97 Choppers named after that incident.
Roger Purgason, the shop’s honcho, chose the name because he wanted to turn that bit of history into a major victory for his hometown. “We set about building motorcycles that would bring some positive attention to Danville after our economy felt the effect of all five of our textile mills being sold and shipped overseas,” explains Roger. You could also say Roger had several victories including the fact that he counts 15 of the original first serialized run of Victory motorcycles in his personal collection.
Roger’s also known as Rocket Man, and Rocket Rogers. Seems back in the day, racing motocross he attempted to clear three jumps at one time to overtake the race leader, something no one had previously done before. Roger launched his bike clearing all three hurdles and the competition in one throw. Well, almost. Just at the finish line his back tire caught the berm and he went flying head over heels into the grandstand breaking several of his bones. “But I did win the race,” says Roger. “The local announcer labeled me the Rocket Man and it stuck.”
He’s also built some stout Harley drag racing engines that established records and cemented Roger’s rep for being a motor magician. While the shop also focuses on Harleys, it’s become a focal point for show-stopping custom Victorys.
Back in 1989 when the first Victorys appeared he was impressed by the effort that went into their engine designs and visited the factory in Minnesota and ended up adding his input. Now Rocket Rogers has gone on to build his own brand of Old 97 production custom bikes offering a choice of engines including S&S, Buell or Victory powerplants all within the range of $15-20,000.
One of his bike he calls “Moonshiner” thanks to a “special feature” that allows the rear license plate to flip out of sight. “When I was a kid living in the hills there was a respectable line of business that my grandparents ascribed to. I often went along on the delivery runs. We had a hotrod car that also had a disappearing license place in case the Revenuers were giving chase. So I thought I’d add that feature to this bike.”
Several more features include Old 97’s special “pro street” swingarm, a design Roger came up with to go with the 250 rear tire. He also modified the steering stem to accept a 41 mm front end with three degrees more rake to get some kick-out styling. Speaking of kicking, the bike was painted by Roger’s brother, Kicking Kenneth Purgason. Roger’s son and wife are also part of the Old 97 team. They take pride that all their parts are made in America. So if you’ve got a taste for a bike along the lines of Moonshine, just give Roger a call. And if you drop by Danville to check out the Old 97 train museum, ask him for a sip of that peach brandy in the refrigerator, something to get your motor running on a cold day.
Several other Old 97 Choppers customs illustrate Rocket Rogers inclination to march to a different drummer. That would include his Spider Biker that started with a stock bike and then was transformed by their 250 Rear Wide Tire Kit featuring 60- spoke wheels, custom exhaust, ’50s-style solo seat, Accutronix forward controls and those 18-inch ape-hangers reaching for the sky.
The blue and yellow Wrangler Bike was built in memory of Dale Earnhardt Sr. and is based on a 2000 Victory Sport Cruiser beefed up with a fuel-injected S&S 106 Stroker Kit, J&E 13.5:1 pistons, Andrews cam, Hi Flow Heads, all of which was squeezed in a 33-degree raked R Man Custom Design frame (no downtubes). Other components include a 5-speed belt drive, SuperTrapp 2-into-1 exhaust, 300-series rear Avon, Brembo brakes and a custom solo seat stitched in Wrangler jean upholstery.
And then there’s the red and black Old 97 Chopper theme bike, sort of the center piece for the shop and bearing the designation “U.S. Mail.” The bike, a 3-year project with locomotive-inspired body panels, is built around a 2000 Victory and powered by a fuel-injected 1507cc (92 inches) engine set in a dome-tubed custom hard-tail frame. Old 97 Choppers calls those handlebars Rail Road Crossing and the footpegs Rail Road Spikes & Horse Shoes, all in keeping with the bike’s theme. There’s a 21-inch wheel up front, a 250mm Avon big doughnut on the rear and of course custom paint and mural work commemorating the historic Old 97 train.
In addition to complete custom bikes, Rocket Rogers’ Old 97 Choppers offers a wide spectrum of products many geared toward customizing the Victory motorcycle, including S&S stroker kits, a wide variety of engine dress-up accessories, exhaust systems, wire and billet wheels, seats, pulleys, mirrors, windshields, handlebars, even full custom-painted body part collections, apparel and luggage. There’s also a Vegas Moonshiner 250 Wide Tire Kit that will convert 2003-05 Vegas, Kingpin and 8 Ball models. The do-it-yourself package runs $3995. For the earlier V92C and Sport Cruiser Victory they also sell a 250 Wide Tire Kit.
At the moment Rocket Rogers is selling off his collection of rare Victorys including 14 of the first 1500 bikes manufactured. More info at Rocket Rogers Motorcycles or call 434-792-3132.