The asphalt at the Famoso drag strip was hot, the bike licked with red and orange flames when Jesse James stepped up to the starting line and threw a leg over the 1,000-horsepower, nitro-powered dragster. A flicker of green light, a twist of the grip and James was off -- a one-man Cacklefest on a mission to beat the clock.
Seconds later, at a top speed of 161 miles per hour, James hadn't just reached the end of the quarter-mile track. He'd also won the respect of the seasoned racers who trained him and sighs of relief from the production crew that was capturing it all on camera for his new Spike TV show, "Jesse James Is a Dead Man."
James had, yet again, defied the program title, just as he'd done a day earlier, when he caught himself on fire, and a couple months prior, when he rode shotgun in an F-16D fighter plane, subjecting his 210-pound frame to 9 Gs.
James, who turned 40 last month, insists he isn't experiencing a midlife crisis and doesn't have a death wish. The Long Beach motorcycle builder with a hard-knock upbringing who came out of nowhere seven years ago to star in the rip-it-apart-and-rebuild-it TV show "Monster Garage" and later married Hollywood star Sandra Bullock sees himself as just "a regular working-class dude, you know. . . . Really. Honestly."
Identified as an "entrepreneur" and "TV star" on NBC's most recent "The Celebrity Apprentice," which Joan Rivers eventually won, the father of three is owner of West Coast Choppers in Long Beach -- a sprawling set of brick buildings that's as much an industrial complex as it is a garage. The five buildings are staffed with 50 employees who run the workwear line he sells through 1,500 Wal-Mart stores, the eco-friendly Cisco Burger diner he operates next door, his Pay Up Sucker! video production company and, of course, West Coast Choppers -- the custom bike shop that caters to a star-studded clientele of actors, athletes, rock stars and anyone else who can afford his $80,000-to-$300,000 machines and from which all his other businesses began.
A distant relative of the 19th century outlaw, James hasn't just continued his namesake's rebel tradition, he's also built it into the most famous name in modern motorcycling. But you wouldn't know it from looking at him. A renaissance man in rockabilly attire, he wears a version of the same thing almost daily: Dickie's work pants, custom Vans slip-ons and one of the plain white T-shirts he buys at three for $10 from the Compton indoor swap meet.
It's an outfit he was wearing on a recent weekday morning, when he was enjoying a rare moment of near solitude doing what he likes to do best: working by himself, moving from lathe to grinder to drill, finessing a piece of metal in his shop.
"When am I happiest besides when I'm going really fast or smashing [things]? Setting stuff on fire. This," he said with a piece of pipe in his hand, standing midway between a pinstriped Snap-On Tools cabinet and his welder.
The piece of pipe was for a bumper extension on his pickup. The next day James was headed to El Mirage to flog his Honda XR650 on the dry lakebed -- practice for an upcoming motocross race for his Spike TV show. In the previous two weeks, James had put 1,000 miles on the bike and traveled back and forth to the desert so often that he'd blown up the transmission on one truck, which is why he was working to extend the bumper on his backup.
But the fittings for the gate extension were a little off. By how much?
"Two-thousandths of an inch," he smiled.
Job well done
Anyone who's seen the artistry and craftsmanship of a West Coast Chopper knows James is a perfectionist. From the arc and weld of his bikes' frames to their paint and elegant, edgy profiles, James' machines are well-honed rolling sculptures. A working-class aesthete, James brings that same sense of quality to everything he does -- whether it's devising a trans-fat-free menu for his solar-powered burger joint, sourcing high-quality fabrics for his American-made clothing line or, as he's been doing for the last few months, practicing stunts for TV.
Though James says he doesn't "get along too good" with his dad, it was his father who taught him the value of an honest day's work and the pride of a job well done as the two worked side by side at an antique auction furniture business in the '70s. It was his grandmother, with whom he used to sell Limoge glass at the Rose Bowl, who taught him the value of "customer service and being nice to people."
In person, James is indeed nice -- with a twist. In fact, he's exactly like he appears on TV. A quick wit who's liberal in his use of expletives, his manner is methodical, his words blunt though soft-spoken. Considering the number and breadth of his projects -- and the barrage of requests they generate -- he's remarkably calm and focused.
When an underling asks how to handle a Polish motorcycle dealer asking to be a West Coast Choppers annex, James suggests he just build the owner a bike.