By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
"We left Fort Worth on Friday at 5 a.m. headed for Sturgis, South Dakota. Our destination for our first night is Clayton, New Mexico...We were very fortunate, for the weather was kind to us...While we were gassing up in Amarillo, John had his first alien encounter of the trip. Velma (not her real name) came up to him at the pump and wanted to know if we were headed out and where we were going. Ate at DQ for lunch; stayed at the Days Inn in Clayton."--Laura Rucker's Motorcycle Diary, August 6, 2004
Bill Rucker says he constantly runs into aliens. Strange people. Creepy people. People with missing teeth and misshapen features. "You see Men in Black?" he asks. "We meet those kinds of people everywhere we go." This time was no different. Yet, in the end, it was to be very different.
Every August for the last nine years or so, motorcycle builder Rucker has straddled American iron and made his way from Fort Worth to Sturgis, South Dakota, the biker Mecca in the Black Hills. Hundreds of thousands of bikers converge to ogle exotic choppers, street vendors hawking leather and tattoos, bike racing and mud wrestling. Sturgis Bike Week is one of the largest motorcycle events in the world. When Rucker, 48, mounted his Harley and gently leaned his 6-foot-4, 300-plus-pound frame through 1,100 miles of macadam ribbon to South Dakota last summer, he was at the peak of his street-sled game. Months earlier, his non-compete clause expired with American Ironhorse Motorcycles, the Fort Worth bike builder he founded with designer Tim Edmondson. Though his departure as CEO at Ironhorse in the spring of 2003 was both sudden and murky, he says the unspecified proceeds from his cashed-out interest left him with millions.
But he couldn't keep his imposing presence still. In March 2004, the day that clause petered out, he launched Rucker Performance in an old American Motors Corp. dealership on Belknap Street in Fort Worth. Here, Rucker plans to build 60 exotic cycles his first year and slowly creep up production, pounding out kinks along the way. They go by the names of Gauntlet, Predator, Copperhead and Assassin. They look like they were gestated in the Bat Cave.
And they dangle fat price tags. Rucker's V-Twin (the two-cylinder engine style that gives Harley-Davidson its throaty, wet slap rattle) monsters start at about $35,000 and can reach up to six figures if you get promiscuous with the customization. One half of the old AMC service shop is devoted to motorcycle fabrication. The other is consigned to hot rods. Rucker has created a gear-head's wet dream.
But it all went horribly wrong on August 19, 2004. Rucker, with wife Laura hugging the back of his Harley and his friend John Kaiser riding next to him, was dawdling along at 35 mph at 7,000 feet through the Rocky Mountains. They were freshly juiced from Sturgis, reveling in the biker adulation that surrounded the new Rucker Performance cycles. Then from a blind curve, a Mercury Sable appeared, drifting into Rucker's lane. And just like that, as his company was clearing the birth canal, it was given up for dead.
Bill Rucker dances a jig to set his stump into his prosthetic leg. He rocks back and forth, pivoting on a cane as he waits for the telltale click; the green light signaling it's OK to walk. After a couple of minutes, there's a dull snap. "Did you hear it?" he asks.
Typically, Rucker posts himself in a wheelchair in the Spartan glassed-in office just off what was once the American Motors sales floor. Sometimes a crew huddles around him as he adjusts production schedules. The mostly barren sales floor holds a hot-rodded silver 1955 Chevy in one corner, while a restored 1990 Harley-Davidson Fat Boy tacks down another. A huge saltwater aquarium burbles just beyond the Harley's rear tire. Rucker, an avid scuba diver and dive instructor at Texas Wesleyan University for the last 15 years, says he pulls the same rush from diving as he does from cycling.
Hunched in the center of the sales floor, like a prehistoric velociraptor restored by some NASA engineer with Hells Angel blood pumping through his tattooed veins, is the Assassin. It's jet black. The headlamp stares like a beady eye. Just aft, a pair of massive air intakes leans forward, poised to suck. These flared nostrils breathe life into a 124-cubic-inch, fuel-injected S&S engine that flexes with more than 140 horsepower.
"The Assassin is a clean sheet of paper bike," Rucker boasts. "It's a bike we built with no components off of previous models that we've built." The NASA simile is not far off. Parts of the motorcycle's body--chin spoiler, fenders, seat and front pieces--are formed from Kevlar carbon fiber. The complex curves of the gas tank, shapes almost impossible to achieve with metal stamping, are created by pressure-forming sheets of aluminum--a process utilized by NASA. To execute this design, Rucker linked with Superform USA, a California company that builds thermal plastic graphite composite landing-gear doors for the F117A stealth fighter and bodies for super cars such as the Le Mans-inspired Ford GT and the Aston Martin Vanquish.