Discovery Channel cameras were rolling when Roland Sands and Jesse Rooke showed up at Willow Springs for an episode of Biker Build-Off.
I don’t have cable or satellite, or TiVo, or any sort of premium programming that doesn’t arrive by way of DVD or bunny ears. I know that’s weird in this day and age, but I just find the internet that entertaining (and I’d get a lot less work done with the idiot box on). So I have no idea what goes on in a Build or Bust or Biker Build-Off, but what I have read enough to know is that not everything you see on ‘reality TV’ can be believed.
I was out taking pics at the Willow Springs round of the AHRMA Vintage road races April 29-30 (aka the Corsa Moto Classica) when Discovery’s circus rolled into town. A Performance Machine box van arrived, followed swiftly by an FMF box van, several rental minivans full of camera-folk, and PM owner Perry Sands’ huge big-rig motorhome. Instantly the pits went from a sleepy little race (on the same weekend as both the AMA Superbike race at Fontana and the Laughlin River Run) to a total zoo. at least in a 100-foot radius of the transporters.
Freshly minted custom bikes were unloaded from the box vans as a curious mob grew around the perimeter, and annoyed racers revved their motors to get through the crush and to the starting line for the next race.
Out of the PM van came Roland Sands’ latest creation, “No Regrets.” It was stunning, and exactly the sort of custom bike you’d expect an ex-roadracer to build. The frame is a combination of a racing-style perimeter frame and a traditional double-cradle, with some beautiful machined aluminum pieces at all the key mounting points. The geometry is aggressive and gold Ohlins suspension components keep both of the Dunlop slick-shod wheels in touch with the ground at all times. Powering the handmade Superbike is a Kendall Johnson-tuned Harley-Davidson Twin Cam with a slew of go-fast parts on it. But aside from making possibly the fastest air-cooled V-Twin ever, this bike is just plain cool. The paint alone is worth its own magazine article, featuring gold leaf, two-tone mate black and deep red metalflake. The brown anodizing on all of the machined parts really stands out as well.
From the back of the FMF van came Jesse Rooke’s machine. Jesse took the exact opposite approach with his machine. Starting with a KTM 950 Twin (straight out of an Adventure) the Rooke bike had the heart of a modern semi-sportbike, but then went his traditional old-school route for the rest of the bike. The frame is a single-downtube rigid with a nice single radius all the way from the steering head to the rear axle. A Rooke Nana Girder front end with a Progressive 5th Element mountain bike shock connects the laced front wheel to the frame. Rather than ditching the radiator in the pursuit of clean lines (and knowing this contest was to take place in the desert), Jesse mounted the curved unit just in front of the fat rear tire; it matches the lines of the rear wheel perfectly.
When Roland Sands opened up the Precision Machine box van, he unveiled his latest custom creation, the cruiser-sport hybrid “No Regrets.”
Unfortunately, despite that stroke of genius, it is still hard to get a water-cooled powerplant to conform to the clean lines of a custom. Simply put, the KTM suffers from apparatus maximus, with tubes and hoses all over the place. Kudos to Jesse for making it look as cool as it does with some nice handmade pieces, like the crankcase breather box on the left side.
What was up with all this aggressive equipment in contest to be decided on looks? Word came down that this Biker Build-Off was going to be special. For one thing, the builders had only 10 days to complete the bikes. Most importantly, instead of the usual popularity contest, this one was to be decided on the ground with stopwatches and skill. These beautiful handbuilt machines would be road raced, drag raced and flat tracked, with the winner of the best two-out-of-three to be crowned the victor.
Looking at the machines and riders, I was wondering how this could be even remotely close. In one corner, you have what amounts to a hand-made naked Superbike ridden by a former AMA champion, in the other you’ve got a rigid-framed bike with a mountain bike front shock (but with a potent motor) ridden by a former BMX racer. How is this a race? The one hope for Rooke was Sands’ hot-rodded Harley motor melting down in the desert heat.
The first contest to run would be the road race, predictably won by Sands. The two were given a couple laps to warm up and check out the course before a one-lap standing-start race around Willow’s 9-turn 2.5-mile track. Rooke got the better start and led through Turn 1, but after that it was all Sands. Even before they got to Willow’s infamous 130- mph-plus Turn 8, Sands had more than a 10-second lead, then the veteran racer held it wide open while the Rooke slowed for the long right hander. Game Over.
It wasn’t clear what possessed them, but the pair then switched bikes and took another lap. I was convinced that Sands was going to crash. Racers that win championships do not know how to hold back, and sticking a guy like Roland on something with well over 100 hp and no rear suspension at a track like Willow Springs. well, you might as well fill out the hospital admission forms now.
Shockingly (at least to me) he made it back in one piece, and still beat Rooke by a fair margin to boot. He did look like he was about to wet himself though. Meanwhile, the short upward-pointing exhaust on the Sands bike had just about melted Rooke’s shoe.
Powered by a KTM 950 motor, Jesse Rooke’s Build-Off entry eschewed Sands’ aggressive sportiness for a more old-school look. The intriguing front end features a Progressive 5th Element mountain bike shock to take care of front suspension duties.
The next contest up was the drag race. At least here there was a shot at parity: 1) drag bikes don’t need to handle, and 2) the liquid-cooled Twin should rev out better than a motor with pushrods. The drags were to be best two of three tries down the quarter-mile front straight. The first pass had Roland simply walk away from Jesse, due to a better start. It was looking grim for Team Rooke. The next run, while closer, had Sands crossing the stripe first again, though by a much smaller margin.
So, there’s your best two-of-three – game, set and match, right? Wrong. This is where the TV magic happens. After some whispering between producers and the builders, a last run was taken in which Rooke held off Sands by a couple lengths to win one pass. What do you want to bet that one gets shown first or second on TV?
In fact, rumor control has it that the flat track portion of the event (filmed the next day) will be inserted between the two pavement events for the final screen version. Why, you ask? It seems Sands had some sort of ‘mechanical difficulty’ during the flat track which handed the win to Rooke. Hmm, seem a little convenient that the event that looked like a total ass whooping turns into Sands squeaking out a win?
But I digress…
After the drag portion of the event, it was time for the teams to prep for the following day’s flat track. Ever laid back, Rooke did a once-over of his KTM and settled in to take pictures and sign autographs for the fans. Over in Camp PM, they were debating on how to cut the slicks for the most traction. Just then dirt track legend Jay Springsteen happened by and gave Roland some lessons in how to cut knobbies.
At the time (not aware of the editing that would take place later) I was thinking, “That is why this guy’s a champion.” Even after wrapping up the contest, he was still going for the three-event sweep.
The broadcast of the event on the Discovery Channel is scheduled to air in early August.
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