Custom bike builder Ralph Randolph is all smiles after being one of nine people selected to participate in the inaugural season of CMT's Chopper Challenge.
What would you do if a guy named Bubba showed up at your door with a giant wooden crate followed by a camera crew that invited themselves into your space for the next 30 days? If you're Ralph Randolph of Knockout Motorcycles
, you invite the camera crew in, break the crate open, start sorting through parts, and get crackin'. The goal -
1. To build a bike in thirty days that puts a smile on the face of your high-dollar sponsor, Jim Beam
2. To not make a fool of yourself on national TV
3. To instill the project with the passion of being a former Marine working on a bike that will benefit the charitable military organization, Operation Homefront
Mesa, Arizona-based Knockout Motorcycles is one of a privileged few. Only nine custom bike builders got an invite to participate in the inaugural season of CMT's Chopper Challenge
, a new reality-based show that chronicles a ground-up, theme bike build. Each competitor is given a crate full of parts and is given thirty days to complete a bike for a particular sponsor. CMT claims the show 'combines the allure of the art of custom motorcycle crafting, the intensity of competition, and the unpredictability and impulsiveness of reality.' And after all has been said and done, viewers get to log on and vote for their favorite craftsman.
So just how do you go about building a motorcycle that represents a company with a 213-year history, pays tribute to the American Armed Forces, and is inspired by the No. 7 Jim Beam NASCAR
driven by Robby Gordon? Easy. Build a bike that defies categorization.
"It's a stretched-out, pro street, sportbike twin. You'll just have to see it," Randolph said.
To get the long, low look of Robby Gordon's race car, Randolph started by adding eight inches to the length of the bike, putting a four-inch stretch on the backbone while adding another four to the swingarm. With the wheelbase elongated to drag bike dimensions, Randolph and crew set about mounting the S&S 124 Twin Cam engine to the black tubular frame and mating it to a Baker 6 Speed Torque Box transmission. The left side drive tranny also uses Baker's gigantic clutch and its new closed belt primary that Randolph says has "a cool new design."
Sometimes a little elbow grease is just what the doctor ordered. The 220mm Avon rear tire has a new tread pattern that aims to give the Jim Beam build sharp handling for a one-off custom drag bike.
The exhaust system on the Jim Beam build uses NASCAR- style oval pipes that run underneath the bike. He had to be careful doing this because the motorcycle also has Tricky's air ride suspension front and back, so the bike sits straight on the ground. Besides the air ride system, the front end has a thick inverted telescopic fork with a 23-inch tall black anodized seven spoke wheel cut out by Renegade but designed by Randolph. Avon provided the rubber, and when they got word of the project, they hooked Knockout up with a 220mm rear tire with a claimed new grippy tread pattern. Randolph could have opted for a bigger meat out back, but didn't want to go too big and negate the racing characteristics he worked hard to establish.
Like its Pingel electric shifter. Looking for the shift lever with your left foot? You'll be searching a long time. Shifting is all electric, controlled by push buttons on the handlebar control, another cool drag-style feature of the bike. Wonder how fast you're going? Forget-about-it. Ain't no speedo, either. It does have a big tach taken from one of Robby Gordon's race cars in the center of a compact cockpit that does have a shift light, but that's it as far as gauges are concerned.
As far as ergos go, it's a stretch to the wide bars, and riders are in an aggressive leaning forward, sportbike-style riding position. Luckily there's plenty of tank to lean on, as it is elongated in order to fit the four-inch stretch of the backbone. The Jim Beam bike's sporting disposition also includes a racy front fairing off Yamaha's R1 that not only looks cool but should deflect a bit of windblast away from the rider. Since he was using the fairing off the R1, Randolph went ahead and used the Yamaha's headlights as well.
One of the lovely Jim Beam girls was kind enough to demonstrate the riding position for us.
And while the front end has a sportbike feel to it, the rear reflects a little bit of café racing heritage. It starts with a subframe welded over the tall rear tire that is used as a mount for a single fabricated piece that serves as both rear fender and side fairing. The rear is humped ala a café racer while the side fairing does the job of concealing the battery and wiring.
It also serves as a palette for the paint scheme that's based on Jim Beam's No. 7 NASCAR. Randolph enlisted the skills of AJ's Customs for the wild black flames that streak across the front fairing, fuel tank and on top of the hump. The Jim Beam logo is emblazoned prominently in the center of the white tank and on the side fairing. An Operation Homefront badge on the top of the rear fender and engraved on inserts to the wheel hubs completes the list of custom touches.
"We're excited that Ralph Randolph's chopper creation will continue to raise awareness of Operation Homefront and bring further proceeds to this foundation which supports our troops and their hard-working families," said Rory Finlay, Senior VP and Global Chief Marketing Officer of Jim Beam.
Seventh-generation Jim Beam distiller Fred Noes was on hand to celebrate the motorcycle's unveiling. He was joined by a group of young Marines who seemed to be almost as enamored by the Jim Beam girls in attendance as they were with the bike.
When I talked with Randolph, he was headed to Chicago to discuss the future of the motorcycle with Jim Beam execs. First it will be packed up in a semi-truck with the other bikes from the Chopper Challenge for a trip to Sturgis for everyone to get a first-hand look at. After Sturgis, Randolph and Jim Beam have been throwing around the idea of him flying an L-39 Czech fighter jet bearing the Jim Beam logo to air shows and events where the bike will be on display. Talk about an attention-getting promo. This is possible because Randolph happens to be a captain with US Airways and has flown jet fighters for the United States Marine Corps. You might say he's got a penchant for things with big engines that go fast.
In the end, the Jim Beam bike is going to be auctioned off on eBay, with 100% of the proceeds going to Operation Homefront. Jim Beam has also recently donated $175,000 to the nonprofit organization that 'provides emergency assistance and morale to our troops, to the families they leave behind and to wounded warriors when they return home."
"This bike was built in their honor," Randolph said.
We get by with a little help from our friends - seventh-generation Jim Beam distiller Fred Noes helps slide the rear fairing into place.
You can almost sense the chivalrous devotion to his country and his craft when talking with Randolph. That's why it's no surprise that one of his other recent projects also centers on two of the things he is most passionate about in life. Knockout Motorcycles built another military-themed motorcycle earlier this year, this one in honor of the 50th Anniversary of the Commemorative Air Force. The bike is modeled after the P-51 Mustang, a WWII American fighter plane. Randolph did a bang-up job capturing the essence of the fighter plane in his bike called the Gunfighter, including details like faux exhaust ports fobbed into the tank and propeller-style wheels.
And while Knockout Motorcycles was putting the bike together, Chad Greulach filmed. Greulach has served as director for Gene Simmons Family Jewels
, Gone Country Season II
and was one of the original creators of American Chopper
, giving him a solid foundation for shooting moto-based documentaries. The Warbird-Gunfighter project is the result of Randolph's and Greulach's efforts, an hour and fifteen minute long documentary about the P-51 tribute bike that they are shopping around to different networks.
"It's phenomenal," Randolph said, unbiasedly of course.
But Knockout's plans for the future don't stop there. Randolph said he is in talks with Morton's - The Steakhouse to build a motorcycle for the restaurant chain and for it to go on tour similar to the Jim Beam bike. Seems like he's not shy in front of the cameras, either, because he confided that he's got ideas for a new reality-based TV show that he's working on with an outside party, but he couldn't provide any details at this stage of development.
Now that Knockout Motorcycles has hit prime time. we think Randolph should enlist the services of Kimbo Slice and have him ride into the octagon for his next MMA event aboard a Knockout custom.
Not bad for a small town New Mexico boy who had to pick himself up off the mat and rejoin the custom-building fray when an industry heavyweight tried to knock his block off. Some of you might have known Knockout by its previous nom de plume, Rockem & Sockem Motorcycles. Seems like Mattel wasn't too happy about the name's similarity to its vintage Rockem Sockem Robot game, so they threatened to sue Randolph over trademark infringements. Though motorcyclists certainly won't confuse the two, Mattel was adamant about Randolph changing the name of his business. Regardless of who was right and who was wrong, it was a virtual case of David vs. Goliath, and Randolph didn't have the resources to fight against the toy maker. Thus was born Knockout Motorcycles.
But that one setback has done little to deter Randolph. Now his claim to fame is a 2 share on prime time, as CMT execs claimed Episode 6 (the episode Knockout was featured on) of the Chopper Challenge had 2.3 million viewers. Will this popularity change Knockout Motorcycles? I doubt it.
When asked if he ever thought he'd be on TV one day when he was still busting knuckles trying to get that first bike built, Randolph just laughed.
"No, me and Kenny (wrenching buddy and Knockout's VP, Ken Lucas), we just started it as a hobby. We'd build a bike together, and then ride it until it'd sell. Then we'd build another one, and ride it until it sells. Then they started selling pretty quick, we just finally decided 'Hey, we can do this as good as anybody, let's put our own shop together.' That's really how it was born for us."
And with Ralph and Kenny providing Knockout's one-two punch, the rest, as they say, is history. Now all they need is Kimbo Slice as their PR man riding to his next MMA match on a Knockout custom to know that they have arrived in the bigs. Maybe they'd better find out if Kimbo knows how to ride first.