Garage rocks

Jun 3, 2009 at 12:00 am

When the Discovery Channel introduced the gearhead-gone-to-heaven show Monster Garage back in 2004, host Jesse James was as badass as the Frankenmobiles he and his team of elbow-greasers attempted to piece together each season. 

James, the (ex-)pornstar husband and rock 'n' roll bodyguard-turned-West Coast Chopper biz-brain, was largely responsible for the resurgence of chopped and bobbed motorcycles we saw on TV earlier this millennium. For dudes who get their kicks diving into grease and steel, who reek of motor oil and gasoline, and can make anything with wheels and a motor go fast, Jesse James has been their man on TV. 

It turns out James went all Hollywood; he married Sandra Bullock (who's always had a thing for speed), hung with Trump, Dennis Rodman and Joan Rivers on Celebrity Apprentice and even signed on with Spike TV's new daredevil series, Jesse James is a Dead Man. So now we have a fresh, equally tough (and mechanically reputable) host at your service — Detroit city.

If you've not been living under a rock the past few weeks, you heard about the casting call for Monster Garage's Motor City edition. Well, we heard and, for kicks, stopped by one call on a recent Sunday afternoon, as did 30 mostly unemployed, but hopeful, guys. 

"There were about 150 in here on Saturday," says casting director Ryan Hill. "We were expecting several hundred actually." We expected more too but hey, the odds were fairly decent for those who did come out. "They're all hot rodders, customizers and regular shop guys who've worked for Ford and GM half their life," Hill says of the applicants. "These guys are comin' out of their garages, just tryin' to show us what they got."

We don't know if the unemployment line's open on Sundays — guessing it's not — so we figured every gearhead from the Detroit River to Flint would've been here. We expected more noise, more buzz; instead, the mood was sullen and quiet, save for three TVs playing back-to-back MG episodes. (Later, when we leave, 10 people are waiting in a line outside — this despite the open seats, air conditioning and refreshments inside the hotel conference room where the casting took place. Only two of them claim current employment, but they look at each other and laugh. "We're kinda self-employed," one of 'em says. That says everything.) 

Some folks are jovial, but others could care less whether or not they'd be hired for the show — for them, it's just another job they'd be stupid not to apply for. When Pontiac native and custom bike legend Ron Finch shows up, somebody says, "Aw, shit, he don't need no work." Everyone turns around and sees Finch, who's been killing it since the '60s with his beautiful bent-steel choppers. 

"He's the lord of all this shop stuff," someone says. "We thought he'd be running this thing," another chimes in. "Fuck me," chirps a third, rolling up his résumé, pretending to leave. 

For the hopefuls left inside, the shot at cashing in on 15 minutes of fame is far out of frame. Here are a few of their stories:

Ken "Spider" Rick

Age: "About 58 years or so."

Rides: A pickup truck and a Harley-Davidson custom '58 FXD Superglide

Lives: Ferndale

Employment status: Laid off since January '09

Profile: Growing up building cars and racing them on Woodward Avenue back in the day, Spider's a grizzled yet astute machinist, fabricator and welder who not only builds top fuel drag racers but has quite an intimate relationship with Detroit's automotive assembly lines. "Worked on the line? Hell, we built the assembly lines," he says with a smirk. "I'm approaching this interview like every other I been on. I'm like, ‘Hey, I built the friggin' assembly lines, now I'm out of work, so give me a job, man." He has no idea what he wants to "monsterize," but knows that this is a job he can handle. "And Jesse's my kind of guy," Spider says. "We got the bike thing in common big time — I've been out to Sturgis the last six years in a row."

Jason "Jay" Kaier

Age: 25

Rides: 2007 Kawasaki ZX-6R (that's a crotch rocket)

Lives: Dearborn — "Born and raised!"

Employment status: Laid off from Nissan this past December. 

Profile: Jay got bit by the bug watching his dad and uncle build hot rods in the driveway when he was a kid, but his mechanical imagination is way new-school. Jay wants to merge his two-wheel love with green technology and "monsterize" a solar-powered motorcycle. "We've never seen that before," he smiles. And Jay's watched MG since its first episode, which, he hopes, should count for something. "I'm pretty sure it was a lawnmower Mustang." Waiting to be called — with his girlfriend by his side — he's pretty realistic about what this opportunity would mean not just for him but for them. "I don't think I'll get attention from girls if I get on the show. I dunno, even if I do, she won't be jealous, she just wants me to have a job I like," he says. "If this doesn't work out? Well, I still got my side jobs — I'll still send out résumés. You know, it's hard finding work 'round here."

Juan "Beso" Madrigal 

Age: 27

Rides: '63 Chevy Bel Air lowrider 

Lives: Southwest Detroit

Employment status: Roush Performance mechanic and developer of superchargers for Ford Mustangs

Profile: "I'm just a Detroit gearhead, just an all-around mechanic who can make old stuff run," says the laid-back Beso, whose girlfriend's mom saw the TV spot and told him to check it out. "I've been here for three hours, man. What's for lunch?" he laughs. After two stints in Iraq, the Army-tough Mexicantown native knows he's lucky to have a job and he's happy to be back in the Motor City. "Detroit is a great city because we got alleys, man. Not every city has alleys and a lot stuff happens in alleys. Like in the alley behind my house, these guys would always tear down and rebuild cars. That's pretty much how I learned almost everything I know — right there in the alley," the lowrider connoisseur continues. "I'd like to monsterize a tractor and make it a lowrider, but I'd be down for anything they throw at me if I get on." And if he isn't so lucky? "If it happens it happens, if it doesn't it doesn't. That's life, man."

Travis R. Wright is arts and culture editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]