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Backmarker: Mike "Fass Mikey" Vils

Thursday, February 21, 2013
Last fall, when I met up with the riders on the Cannonball cross-country rally up in Sturgis, I spent an evening in the well-equipped workshop at Competition Distributing, where about a dozen bikes were in various states of disassembly and an equal number of riders faced the prospect of reassembling them with varying degrees of dread (not to mention sleep deprivation.)

One guy whose 1929 Harley-Davidson JD was fully assembled and freshly cleaned, and who seemed positively cheerful, was Mike “Fass Mikey” Vils.

He introduced himself, and as we shook hands I had one of those where-have-I-heard-that-name-before moments. Vils is the sergeant-at-arms for the legendary Trailblazers MC, but that wasn’t it. Then, he mentioned that he used to run a paint shop, and that his wife, Irma, had been the head of the racing department for Yamaha in the U.S. back in the ‘60s.

At that point, it hit me. There was a good stretch in the ‘60s and ‘70s when Mike painted almost every factory race bike in the U.S. Remember Kenny Roberts’ yellow, black, and white Yamaha with the ‘chain block’ pattern? That was Mike Vils.

Yamaha, Suzuki, Kawasaki; what did they call that awful green color?” Mike wondered, adding, “I painted for everyone except Harley-Davidson. I was the only person that Bell trusted enough, that they’d release a bare shell to.”

He told me that the inspiration for Kenny Roberts’ famous paint scheme (Mike called it a ‘strobe stripe’) came from a photo he had hanging in his shop, taken at the old Ascot Speedway. As the photographer had panned along with some race bike and fired his flash, it lit up the fence in the background with a similar pattern. There were probably other forms of inspiration, too. Back then, he painted and did fiberglass work without bothering to wear any mask or respirator, which, after all, would have cramped his style. “I’d just go into the shop with a bottle of wine and spend all night painting.”

I was reminded that in the ‘60s and ‘70s - when the U.S. motorcycle scene was far more vibrant than it is now - people like Mike moved freely between the chopper, drag, road race, and even off-road communities. Mike got his start building choppers, but was also a Yamaha-sponsored trials rider. Those are all separate ghettos now.

Mike built his first high-profile chopper (a Triumph called ‘The Brute’) in 1966; it won accolades at a bunch of bike shows. “I was building bikes in my garage,” he told me. “In the old days we didn’t have all the catalogs, so I had to make everything.”

Mike met Ed ‘Big Daddy’ Roth at a car show, at a time when Roth was getting more interested in the bike scene. Roth hired him, and tagged him with the nickname Fass Mikey.

Vils’ dad was a cop, which was a bit of a sore point with Roth, who called them ‘pigs’. And although Mike was a relatively straight arrow back then, for a while he didn’t look it. “I thought if you were going to build choppers, you had to look a certain way,” Mike recalled. “But one day Ed Roth looked at me and said, ‘Image in action.’ I was just a kid, 19 years old, and I thought, 'What does that mean?' After a while, I realized that what he was saying was, if you weren’t living up to the action, don’t adopt the image.”

Eventually, Mike figured it was time to get a real job. “I got a job in the parts department at Yamaha. One of the test riders there asked me to paint a helmet for him, and the next year they asked me if I could paint the factory race bikes,” he told me. “That was 44 years ago. I know, because that’s where I met Irma. She ran the racing department.”

“They took all the stuff to Daytona. They had Kenny Roberts, Gene Romero, Don Castro, and I think Keith Mashburn might have been racing for them,” Mike recalled. “Everybody loved the paint, and asked ‘Who painted that?’”

He married Irma, but the parts department was just a brief flirtation with a normal job. He opened a paint shop in Signal Hill, near the Long Beach harbor. When he wasn’t painting, he raced flat track, speedway, and in the desert, in addition to riding trials.

He painted all of Russ Collins’ famous drag bikes, including the triple-engined ‘Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe’ and the twin-engined ‘Sorcerer.’ Those were slow compared to one of his other gigs, which was painting missile launchers for the U.S. government. But even the missile launchers were probably not as dangerous as the TZ 750-engined dirt trackers that Ray Abrams built for Kenny Roberts. Mike painted them, too.

“Ray was Kenny Roberts’ secret weapon,” Mike told me. “Roberts, Gene Romero, Bob Hannah; all those guys are on my speed dial. I’m not dropping names, but we were all young together. My wife made out their checks.”

“I was a different person then, and I enjoyed being the crazy painter,” he told me. “One year, when Gary Nixon was riding for Suzuki, they went to a wind tunnel with some aerospace expert, and came out with a fairing that looked like it had two huge breasts protruding from the front, about where the bottom of the radiator was. I painted them up, complete with pink nipples.”

As he was trolling through his memories, Mike recalled the date he started the paint shop by remembering the date he got married. He remembered the year he got out of the painting business, and into a more ‘responsible’ construction job, by recalling that his oldest daughter is now 29.

Nowadays, Mike does the occasional custom paint job and spends most of his time restoring pre-WWII motorcycles. He’s run both Cannonballs on his own bikes, the first time on a 1913 Excelsior, and last year on that Harley, so you know he stands by (or should I say sits on?) his work. He’s already planning to ride the next Cannonball, too. I don’t think it’s even been announced yet, but the thought is that it will run every second year.

“I describe what I do these days is, I make purpose-built motorcycles,” Mike told me. “If you want a motorcycle to win the Catalina Grand Prix, I’ll build you one. If you want a motorcycle to win the Cannonball, I’ll build one of those.” If you have an assignment like that, you can reach Fass Mike at (562) 756 5013.
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The Photographer and Her Coach
Kassie is about to make the transition from the parking lot to the streets around her house. Im more relaxed and smiling on the bike  she told me.
I wanted to get a shot of Mike in his shop for this story, but since I’m out in Kansas City and he’s in Long Beach, that presented a problem. So, I put up a Facebook post, asking if any of my friends in the L.A. area were willing to go grab a quick portrait of Mike, in situ, at Fass Mikey’s Motor Shop.

A friend in Norway(!) messaged me to say that he had a friend in SoCal, a new biker, who would take on my assignment. He made a virtual introduction to Kassie Graves who, with her friend Stephanie Adams, dropped by Mike’s shop.

Kassie, while we were trading emails, mentioned that she’d just bought a ‘little Sportster’ and was getting one-on-one motorcycle coaching. That piqued my curiosity, and I set up a conference call with Kassie and Les Brown, who runs a business called Motorcycle Coaching 101.

Kassie told me that she’d started out riding pillion on her husband’s bike, and loved the feeling so much that she wanted a bike of her own. She went dirt riding--which is usually a great way to get introduced to motorcycles in a relatively safe environment--and immediately fell and tore her ACL.

Ouch. Some introduction to riding. Undaunted, she registered for her local MSF course, which is another good idea. But in the parking-lot phase of that training, she had another little off, and that really shattered her confidence.

“I’m not the most physically coordinated person,” she told me. I sympathized; neither am I.

She may not be coordinated, but she’s certainly determined. She did a Google search for a motorcycle coach, and found Les - a guy doing a job that I didn’t really even know existed, at least not in the U.S.

Les told me that 70% of his clients are women. He comes to them, and if they’re still in the ‘parking lot’ phase of training, he finds a spot nearby where he can work on things like basic clutch skills. Once they’re ready to get out on quiet roads, he outfits them with a helmet radio and coaches them that way.

Most students, like Kassie, have already come through the MSF program. Many are intimidated by the transition to a full-sized bike, from light and user-friendly MSF loaner bikes. They typically need only a handful of sessions to get comfortable enough to strike out on their own. He recommends that they do about one one-hour session a week, and assigns homework and practice.

Of course, I’m familiar with the idea of racers getting coaching. Keith Code’s made a career of it; schools like American Supercamp are a sort of racer’s boot camp. And my friend Karolyn Bachelor helped develop Zoom Zoom Track Days’ ‘RoadRider 2.0’ program, which helps post-MSF riders transition into sport riding. But the vast majority of new riders approach motorcycling as a hobby, not a sport. They aren’t going to take that kind of training, no matter how good an idea it is.

Talking to Kassie really took me back. I rode bicycles, then mopeds, then got a 100cc trail bike, and on and on. It was such a seamless transition that it’s easy for me to forget how intimidating a motorcycle can be the first time you get on one.

During the pre-’08 decade of booming motorcycle sales, virtually all manufacturers focused on the biggest, fastest (and presumably most profitable) models. New riders were blithely told they could start with a 600 Supersport model, and move up to literbike in a couple of years. That advice was almost criminally shortsighted.

Over the last few years, the U.S. motorcycle industry has finally realized that we need to sell affordable, approachable small bikes to novice riders if we’re to rebuild sales and bring younger riders along. The popularity of bikes like Kawasaki’s Ninja 250 and Honda’s new CBR250 are good signs. (Kassie’s 883cc Sportster is over triple the displacement of those bikes, but with its low seat height and unthreatening power delivery, it’s a decent choice, too.)

Bikes like that are a step in the right direction, but the industry as a whole needs to make it as easy as possible for people like Kassie to go from wannabes to riders. Riding coaches can, obviously, play a role.

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