An Interview with Dallas Custom Bike Builder, Rick Fairless
The creator of the Allstate Motorcycle Sweepstakes Grand Prize talks about the motorcycle industry, customizing, and doing whatever it takes.
Allstate has sponsored a custom bike giveaway for the past four years. Each year a new custom bike is built by a legendary custom builder (Arlen Ness created the 2013 and 2012 bikes), and riders enter a sweepstakes for the chance to win the bike. For 2014, Rick Fairless of Dallas Strokers fame was given the nod to take a Victory 8-Ball from stock to custom. This year, Allstate and Fairless planned a twist, with the winner receiving the custom Victory plus a VIP trip for two to Fairless’ shop at Strokers Dallas for a paint consultation with Fairless. Next, the winning bike will be sprayed with the paint scheme that Fairless and the winner developed.
At Daytona Bike Week last month, Allstate and Fairless unveiled the 2014 Victory 8-Ball custom that will be the grand prize. We took the opportunity to talk with Fairless about motorcycles, the sweepstakes and the state of custom bike building.
Motorcycle.com: Is this your first year with the Allstate sweepstakes?
Fairless: This is my third year involved with Allstate. The reason I like Allstate so much is that they’re not just here to sell insurance. They are here to help the motorcycle industry and help motorcycle safety. One of the things we did a couple of years ago and last year was called the “One Campaign.” They did studies and came up with some of the most dangerous intersections in the country. Next, they met with those cities, and they put up watch for motorcycles signs at these intersections. They didn’t have to do that. They did that because they’re giving back to the industry.
MO: How did they select you to build this year’s custom bike?
Fairless: They called the top 800 builders in the world, and I was the only guy left. I’ve worked with them in the past, and I pride myself on being easy to work with. I answer my own emails. If somebody calls up to my business, there’s a good chance that I’m gonna answer the phone. When they asked me, I knew that I had big shoes to fill because Arlen [Ness] has done it the last couple of years. He’s the godfather of custom motorcycles. So, I met with Allstate, and I talked about what we would do and how we would do it. Once we agreed upon a direction and put me on the path, I took care of it. Allstate insures a very diverse group of riders, so I had to have something that kind of had mass appeal. Still, I wanted to have an edge to it. I wanted it to have a mean streak in it. We took the Victory Vegas 8-Ball, and we put a little meanness in it. We slapped it around a little bit and made it get mean. It’s great.
MO: What was the process?
Fairless: We agreed what we were gonna do and kinda how we’re gonna do it. Basically, they give you the guidelines. They don’t want you to paint something crazy on there, and you don’t want to have it something that will offend people on there. You know, cool but something that will appeal to a mass group of riders. This bike, I think, appeals to a lot of younger people. When I say younger, I mean, 30, 35, 40.
Don’t leave anything untouched. If you’re gonna do a custom bike, put your hands on everything.
MO: Where do you see the status of the custom building world? Has it recovered from the economic hit of 2008?
Fairless: It’s coming back. When people are afraid that they’re gonna lose their jobs, they’re not spending any money. If you look at, in the motorcycle industry, we sell toys. We sell the parts and the clothing and different things to support those toys. We work on toys. If you’re afraid you’re gonna lose your job, then you’re not buying any toys.
MO: Or you’re selling your toys.
Fairless: That’s exactly right, your toys are sitting. So, we’ve weathered the storm, and it’s coming back. Things like this [promotional event] help when you have Allstate and they’re displaying four or five cool motorcycles out there. It gets people excited. People can go to allstatemotorcyclesweepstakes.com, and they can win this thing. The cool thing is – and Allstate came up with this idea – when we talked about how maybe we don’t do something really crazy with paint, but we still want to do something special. What we came up with is that, whoever wins it, Allstate will fly two people down to Strokers Dallas. We’ve got motorcycles, a motorcycle shop, a bar and grill, a tattoo parlor, a custom parts company on 2.5 acres with 1000 people and live music every weekend. The winners can come down and hang out for a couple of days. We can design a paint job together, and Allstatte will pay for it. Pretty impressive.
MO: It sounds like you have quite an organization almost like Disneyland for bikers.
Fairless: It is. It’s like this every weekend, you know. I employ 50-some people. The cool thing is that, at Strokers Dallas, I don’t care if you’re on a Harley or a Victory or a Honda Gold Wing or you’ve got your Ford Pinto. I don’t care if you’re Ross Perot, who is one of my customers. He said when people are visiting him from outside of town, when he’s showing Dallas, he brings them to my place on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. It doesn’t matter if you’re Ross Perot or an unemployed welder, everybody’s treated the same. Everybody is treated with the same respect. So, it’s just a fun place to hang out.
MO: Where do you see the customizing business going in the future? Do you think the economic downturn has changed the industry?
Fairless: The downturn has cleaned out a lot of the guys that are just chasing a buck. A lot of those guys are gone. Now, they’re gonna come back! They’re coming! As the industry gets better, here comes those guys again. That’s OK. That’s just the way the world works, but it’s made a lot of the guys that are like me, that are in the business for the long run, it’s made us stronger. Will it ever get to where it was ten years ago? Not in our lifetime. Maybe in the next, but not in ours.
Anybody that’s riding a Harley now, unless you started riding when you were 40, you probably already had a Yamaha or a Honda or something like that.
MO: Do you see any up-and-comers that you really like, that you think are going places?
Fairless: I see a lot of guys doing baggers. They’re cool baggers, but they’re not doing it the way that Arlen Ness did it, the way that I did it and the way that Dave Perewitz did it. They’re building these $50-$100,000 baggers, and it’s like, “OK, you got that bagger done? Oh, we need a motor in there. Yank that motor out of that Road King over there!” They’re building these crazy bikes, and they’re taking stock motors – with no esthetics to them whatsoever – and bolting them in there. So, I wrote an article in Dealer News and said, ”Polish it, paint it, stroke it, and cut a few fins off the bottom.” Remember when we used to cut a few fins off the bottom to make the engine look taller? Do something to it to put your hands on it, to do something.
There’s a lot of really good artists out there, a lot of really good guys, but they’re young and they want the short cut. They want to do it now. They want to do a custom bike in a month. Unless it’s on TV…When people see the Orange County Choppers building a bike in three days, that’s “TV time.” It ain’t real time. When we did the Biker Build-Offs in ten days, that’s TV time. Yes, there’s a lot of very talented young people out there that are coming up. I just wish they’d kinda look back to the past and see how we did it and how some of us are still doing it. Don’t leave anything untouched. If you’re gonna do a custom bike, put your hands on everything.
MO: It seems like custom bikes are still predominantly Harleys. What role do you see for other manufacturers?
Fairless: They’re coming on strong. People want a choice. Hey, you’ve got a nice Harley with a lot of chrome? Stand in line with the other 20,000 people over there. Hey, what is that over there? That’s a Victory. OK, you don’t see that all the time. That’s why I chose a Victory for this project. It’s something different from the Harley that everybody else does.
That’s why one of my companies, RF Custom Parts, focuses on making parts for Victorys. Do we make parts for Harley? Yeah, we do. So does this guy and that guy and everybody’s brother. For Victory, it’s a small knit family group of people that are doing it. The guys that are making Harley parts? They’re all mad at each other: “Oh, he stole that. I did that in 1990!”
With Victory, it’s not like that. People are working together and looking at cool stuff. I’ve got some of other guy’s Victory parts on my website. My parts are on his. It’s a cool deal. Is Harley the 8000 lb. gorilla? Absolutely, they are the big boys in town.
Hey, you’ve got a nice Harley with a lot of chrome? Stand in line with the other 20,000 people over there.
MO: Do you see this being exclusively American motorcycles or do the Japanese manufacturers stand a chance?
Fairless: The Japanese guys, they’re not stupid. They’re doing some cool things, too. I haven’t really messed with the Japanese bikes in years, but I grew up riding Hondas and Yamahas and all that stuff. We all did. Anybody that’s riding a Harley now, unless you started riding when you were 40, you probably already had a Yamaha or a Honda or something like that. I was just out there looking at a guy’s Gold Wing. He’s so proud of it, and he’s showing me these custom pieces that he put on there. It’s wonderful. He said, “I don’t know if you want to look at it. It’s a Honda.” And I said, “I love Hondas. I love all motorcycles.”
MO: What do you think that the Japanese or European manufacturers should do if they want to step into the custom world a little bit more?
Fairless: I think they should hire guys like me – not necessarily me – but guys like me that can take their bikes and do some cool things, like what I’m concentrating with on Victory. I know that some of the guys in the industry are doing cool stuff. Roland Sands is doing things with some of them. They’re on the right track. It’s not like a car. You buy a new car, and you just drive it or you put wheels on it. With a motorcycle, you want it to be different from everybody else’s. So, you change your wheels, you change the exhaust, you change your mirrors, you make it breathe better, you drop it, you do all these cool things to it so that it looks different from than all the other guys in town.
MO: How did you get started in the motorcycle industry?
Fairless: I got started from just loving motorcycles since I was little. I had a dirt bike, and I worked my way up. I just always was infatuated with motorcycles. Me and my brother both. I worked for Glidden Paint Company for 20 years, and I rose up the ranks from working in the warehouse at minimum wage to the number one sales rep in the country. I was making a lot of money. But it wasn’t what made me happy. We were a small paint company, and then Glidden came in and bought us out. Then it was big, corporate BS. They paid me a lot of money, and they treated me real well. But it didn’t excite me anymore.
There were Easyrider Stores opening around the country. They were starting this franchise thing. Every month I’d look in the magazine, and I’d see “Coming Soon.” I’d say, “I wish somebody would open a store in Dallas. Why can’t somebody open an Easyrider Store in Dallas? The Harley shops, they didn’t carry any cool parts. They just carried Harley parts. Why can’t they open a store in Dallas where I can see these cool parts from Arlen Ness and Pat Kennedy and Ron Finch?”
And then it was bang, “Why can’t that guy be me? I’ve got a little dough.“ My wife said, ”You’ve got a wife and three kids and you’ve been here 20 years and you make good money. Are you going to throw that all away?” I wanted to be able to say I tried, to be able to talk to my buddies and say that I’d made a phone call and talked to them. So, I made a couple of phone calls, and roadblock after roadblock after roadblock cropped up. I went over them or under them or through them or around them. I just kept going.
If a dumbass like me can be successful, anybody can. You just gotta want it bad enough.
Did you know that I’m actually a motivational speaker, too? I have actually lectured at TCU, twice. I’ve lectured at DePaul University, twice, talking to people about being an entrepreneur and owning your own business. The first thing you got to do is you’ve got to want it. Everybody’s got something they want to do. Now, how bad do you want it? That’s what separates people. Are you willing to change your lifestyle, are you willing to do what it takes, to put the work in to do it? Arlen Ness did, I did, Matt Hotch did. Then there are the guys that just come and go, and it doesn’t matter what industry you’re in. If you just work your ass off and you just stay focused on something and you make that your life mission, you can do it.
The way I always end up my lectures in front of the college kids is: if a dumbass like me can be successful, anybody can. You just gotta want it bad enough. If you want it bad enough, you can figure it out.