By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
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.
Rucker moves his girth from the showroom floor to his shop, pivoting on his cane. As he walks, he explains that the top muscle in his left thigh is weak. He's trying to build it up by midsummer so that he can mount one of his bikes and shift gears with his prosthetic leg.
His shop is immaculate. It's as hot as a blast furnace, and a huge fan whirs near the center of the shop, cycling air around his crew, who pound, weld and shape his exotic cycles into their peevish stances. "It's really easy to build one," Rucker says. "It's a real bitch to build two that are just alike. You just can't always get every part the same."
To effectively ramp up production, Rucker must create an assembly process that will allow his exotic designs to be manufactured consistently. For this task, Rucker pulled in Jason Delago some 18 months ago from Wausau, Wisconsin, where he worked as a welder, automotive mechanic and custom bike builder. As shop manager and head bike builder, it's Delago's task to analyze and refine the Rucker manufacturing process to get the "bitch" out of it.
Example: Delago orders raw, disassembled engines from S&S Cycle, a Viola, Wisconsin, manufacturer of motorcycle components. He builds the Rucker engines from scratch, polishing every single part to give the motor a chrome look. But the heat from polishing stretches the metal. So he has to bore the block and refit parts before adding customized fuel injection, ignition and exhaust systems. "That's part of the thing with them," Delago says. "They take a little time to build because they are so intricate and so detailed."
But it's this attention to detail that attracted construction and real estate consultant Ron Cogburn to the Rucker fold. As president of Meridian Consulting Group, Cogburn wanted to offer a radically rakish street sled as a hole-in-one prize at an industry golf tournament in Pinehurst, South Carolina, last year. After putting his head together with Rucker, he came up with the Meridian Marvel: a bright red muscle bike with gas tank designed to look like a Cobra's head. "It's cooler-sounding than a Harley," Cogburn says. "It'll absolutely run away with you." No one shot a hole in one, so now the $70,000 bike sits in Cogburn's garage. He rides the thing once a week.
"It is probably, ergonomically, the most comfortable bike I have ever ridden," he says. "It's kind of like sitting in a La-Z-Boy chair."
Former pro wrestler and film producer Todd Miller had metal profiles of Vargas pin-up girls welded into his bike frame. "Real clean, tasteful pin-up girls," he insists. "I don't have any problems going to church and riding with my friends up at the church."
The frame sits in Rucker's shop, fresh from a spritz of bright blue paint. Miller will call his machine The Blue Hawaiian, named after his wrestling alias. But Miller--who now runs a leisure clothing line designed for those who split their personalities between golfer and biker--added a few other custom touches. "I wanted to blow flames out of the pipes at the touch of a button," he says. So he had Rucker rig the exhaust pipes with an ignition system and flushes them with stuff called Got Flames. Miller will also install a couple of bottles of nitrous oxide for cheek-stretching engine boost.
"The Blue Hawaiian is an extension of my personality and me," Miller says. "I really believe in something that speaks to me individually. That's why I don't ride Harleys."
Resting in one stall along the hot rod side of Rucker's shop is his prize: a 1968 harvest gold Plymouth GTX with Chrysler's famous "hemi" engine, which generates some 425 horsepower. The upholstery is frayed, and the paint is dull and cloudy. Rucker says he picked up the muscle car for $22,000 seven years ago in Missouri. "What's amazing is that it's tripled in value in seven years, and I haven't even touched it," he says. Other stalls hold a 1973 Camaro Z28 and a 1953 Mercury that Rucker is modifying for a client into a chopped-roof hot rod. A 1965 Corvette Stingray is being prepped for painting.
Behind the shop is a small patch of tall brown grass. Here Rucker's cadavers rest peacefully as they await reanimation: A 1956 Chrysler New Yorker, a few Plymouth Satellites, a Dodge Challenger and a 1953 Cadillac ambulance from White Settlement, Texas, round out the decaying herd.
Even more than a passion for bygone American iron, this graveyard testifies to another Rucker trait: methodical resourcefulness. A heap of rusting and disassembled industrial shelving scavenged from various businesses sits in one corner of the yard. As his business grows, Rucker plans to sandblast, paint and erect the shelving for pennies on the dollar. In another corner sits a pile of busted lighted signs he scavenged and plans to have retrofitted with his Rucker Performance moniker. An old padlocked ocean shipping container and a discarded Kroger meat trailer serve as parts storage sheds.
"Dad is one of the most forward-looking men I've ever met in my entire life," says Rucker's daughter Erin, who helps run the business. "He always has a plan five, 10, 15, 25 years down the road...But at the same time, he doesn't always think of what to do today, tomorrow or the next day to get to 15 years down the road."
The son of a Bell Helicopter sheet metal worker, Rucker says he has always been interested in motors. In high school, he worked as an automotive machinist before he got a job as a mechanic at Northeast Lincoln Mercury and, later, Arendale Ford. But he was bitten by the entrepreneurial bug at 21, and he opened Rucker's Speed Shop, a venture that specialized in repairing and customizing hot rods. Later he opened his own filling station and garage.
Rucker hit the entrepreneurial big leagues in 1986 when he started rebuilding diesel engines and transmissions for garbage trucks. He quickly discovered there was huge demand for the rebuilt diesels in the Far East countries of Taiwan, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. During a building boom, developers discovered they could slash their construction costs by attaching backup power generators to Rucker's relatively cheap rebuilt engines. He called his company Tracom, and Rucker drove it from $500,000 in annual revenues in 1989 to some $5 million in 1995, grooming it into one of the world's largest suppliers of rebuilt diesel engines and component parts.
Rucker used his Tracom resources to incubate other companies. In 1997, he launched Texas Environmental Technologies, a firm that conducts engine emissions tests. He also launched Shadow Geometric imaging, a company that used laser copying and computer transference technology to build molds for engine parts no longer available from after-market manufacturers.
But perhaps the most viable company Rucker created was American Ironhorse Motorcycles, an enterprise he says he launched out of frustration. Flush with cash from his Tracom success, Rucker wanted to get himself a Harley-Davidson Fat Boy. But when he strolled into the dealership, he found that all his money could buy was the back end of an 18-month waiting list for a $2,000 price tag. "He had a list as long as his arm of people waiting to get motorcycles, and he was selling them at three or four thousand dollars over MSRP [suggested retail]," says Rucker of the salesman. "And I said, 'Well, I'll build one faster than that.' And he said, 'Well, why don't you go do that?'"
Rucker's motorcycle company didn't take formal shape until a bike builder named Tim Edmondson strolled into his office trolling for a job in sales at Tracom. Rucker couldn't fill his bill, so he asked Edmondson what else he would like to do. Edmondson said he wanted to build motorcycles. Rucker asked him to draft a business plan.
American Ironhorse was launched in 1995 to cash in on the motorcycle craze Harley-Davidson so masterfully exploited as a swelling herd of baby boomers graduated from Japanese crotch rockets to low-slung, V-twin thunder beginning in the early 1980s. With Rucker as chief executive officer and Edmondson as president, the pair slowly built American Ironhorse into what would become a $70 million company churning out more than 2,500 bikes a year, according to Rucker (American Ironhorse no longer releases sales and production figures).
But Rucker abruptly left the company in May 2003, and Edmondson, who could not be reached for comment, left in February 2004. Rucker, who held a 51 percent stake in the company, says he left because his job had become a tedious exercise of messaging suits instead of designing and building motorcycles. "Ironhorse got to the point where I was spending all of my time meeting with investment bankers and attorneys and outside CPAs being prepared for Sarbanes Oxley [the 2002 corporate accounting reform act], and it really pulled me away from the things that I love doing," Rucker says.
Court records suggest a different reason. In late 1998, Tracom went into Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Rucker says the company was strangled by the Asian currency crisis that struck in late 1997. "We just couldn't hang in there," he says. The bankruptcy was converted to Chapter 7 liquidation in January 2002. Among Tracom's assets were 45,000 shares of preferred stock in American Ironhorse, which the company bought back from Tracom for $250,000 in 2004 as part of the bankruptcy settlement. Then in August 2003, American Ironhorse filed a damage suit against Rucker, alleging he was relieved of his CEO duties for misappropriating company funds "by submitting false expense reports, submitting duplicate and triplicate expense reports for the same expense, and maintaining a secret 'off the books' cash account," among other infractions. The suit was quickly settled, and neither side would comment. "He felt like his company was stolen right out from underneath him," says Rucker Performance manager Richie Lamb. "His feelings were hurt toward Ironhorse."
Erin Rucker is an unlikely candidate to run a motorcycle company. Tall and blond, she has grown up around motorcycle culture for most of her life, but she's never ridden one. Last spring, after graduating from Texas Christian University with a degree in English coupled with a minor in women's studies, she had planned to coast through the summer months with a stint at Rucker Performance focusing on public relations while she mulled graduate school. She yearns to be a writer. She stuffs her evenings with reading, writing and writers groups, exposing her prose to the glare of peers. She travels to writing seminars when she gets the chance. She's published some poetry. But her father's accident last August 19 changed all that.
At 23, Erin Rucker found herself directing her father's fledgling motorcycle company, taking the title of operations manager. She strikes a commanding pose in a high-backed chair behind a large wooden desk, where her father used to conduct operations. Behind her, rich wood bookshelves hold volumes by Dean Koontz, Clive Cussler and Anne Rice, forming a literary backdrop to a collection of model hot rods. "We're a big family of readers," she insists. "I always remember being surrounded by motorcycles, but it wasn't something that I was so interested in. It wasn't ever anything like, 'I need to get in there with my wrenches and learn how to do this.'"
Yet she has. She negotiates with suppliers, fires employees and cuts checks. It was under her leadership that Rucker's first production motorcycles were channeled to dealers after she held them to purchase agreements struck on her father's handshake.
"For a while there, I took care of everything," she says. "There were times when I thought this was too much and I'm not cut out for this. It wasn't my dream. It wasn't my vision." But it was her father's, and it suddenly became hers. The vision transference began with a phone call from her father's friend and fellow Sturgis traveler John Kaiser.
"The minute he called in the middle of the day, I knew something was wrong," she says.
Laura Rucker was riding on the back of her husband's Harley, 7,000 feet up on a mountain pass in Delta County near Montrose, Colorado. They had just begun their descent. It was then, as they approached a blind corner, that the Mercury Sable appeared.
Rucker had to make a decision framed in split seconds: lay the bike down to get to the inside of the car, or stand the bike up and hope to clear the Sable on the outside in the car's lane. Rucker opted for the latter. But just as he made his move, the driver suddenly jerked the car back into the proper lane. Rucker hit just inside the right front headlight, tumbling over the Sable's windshield, flying some 30 yards through the air before hitting the ground.
"Going through it, it felt like slow motion, just flying over the motorcycle, over the car," Laura Rucker says. "I was wondering when I was going to land, when it was going to stop, that feeling of 'When am I going to stop falling? Am I going to be alive? Am I going to be dead?' I'm thinking all of these things in my head, then finally landing and just laying there thinking, 'Am I dead?'"
She heard voices. Then it started to rain. She remembers her husband screaming out, asking if she was OK. She couldn't speak. She had scrapes, cracked ribs and knee damage. Bill Rucker says he didn't feel a thing. "I tried to get up," he says. He couldn't. His hip was broken in seven places; his left leg below the knee in six, including a compound fracture. He was put on an ambulance flight to Denver where he was put into a drug-induced coma for two and a half weeks while doctors set bones and installed screws. But his leg succumbed to gangrene, and doctors removed his foot and part of his shin. He was then flown to Baylor hospital where he stayed for almost two months. During that time, he contracted a staph infection in the stump, and more of his leg had to be amputated.
He went home just before Thanksgiving last year after spending weeks in a drug-induced fog. He began a regimen of physical therapy three times a week. In January, he got his prosthetic leg and has since relearned how to walk. Bill Rucker is anxious to straddle a motorcycle again. Laura is not. "I'm scared. I didn't ever want him to get back on another one," she says. "It'll take an awful lot for me to ever try it again. I just have that fear."
Bill Rucker has put the fear behind him, if he ever had it. He even seems to make light of the experience. The helmets they wore that day are mounted on a wall in his shop. "My outlook on life is better than it has been in a long, long time," he insists. He says he has no hard feelings or regrets. He wishes the best for American Ironhorse.
"I want my life to be the same again," he says. He pulls out a black Teflon "swim" joint on which he can install a flipper before attaching it to his leg. He moves the joint back and forth to demonstrate. Rucker got back into the pool for the first time in May, and he plans to continue as a dive instructor. "Sometimes when I'm lying in bed and I'm rubbing my stump, I really wish I still had my foot. But when I look around, I'm alive. Life is so short. It can change in a fleeting blink of an eye."