TREMONT -- Almost every day, Carl Pusser can be found at his motorcycle shop, Walkin' Tall Cycles, working on at least six custom motorcycles. He and his crew of mechanics, friends and locals are looking to finish all the bikes and get ready for the 2014 Rat Hard Great American Blue Collar Build Off.
The contest features 12 motorcycle builders and 12 car builders from all across the country. The challenge is to build a motorcycle or car made of pieces and scraps found in trash heaps or junk yards in 30 days. In total, the parts must cost $3,000 or less. Pusser was one of the chosen contestants, and after the 30 days he and his crew have to build the bike, Pusser will ride it more than 300 miles from St. Louis to Lebanon, Tenn.
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"It's one big parade from St. Louis to Tennessee. It'll be fun," the tanned and tattooed Pusser said of the event that will commence in August. "To me, it's not about competing with others, it's about having fun and competing with myself."
Tucked in the side of a hill, about two farm-filled miles northwest of Tremont, Pusser's shop is filled to the brim with motorcycles. Inside, his crew is like a makeshift family: building bikes and sharing pizza from the Casey's in Tremont.
"I'm more into the family thing, not the bad biker thing. I don't like the bad side of biking. I look rough, I look mean, but I'm nice," he said before laughing.
Pusser, an East Peoria native, is the nephew of the famed Buford Pusser, a sheriff in McNairy County, Tenn., whose one-man war on all things illegal became the basis of two Hollywood movies called "Walking Tall." The 1973 original, which his nephew greatly prefers, starred Joe Don Baker. The 2004 version, starring Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, dropped the Pusser name but kept a similar plot.
Pusser funnels his uncle's rugged individualism into his bikes instead of fighting crime. "A lot of the times, I have to lock all the doors and keep to myself to get anything done," he said.
Soon enough, though, Pusser will shed his locked garage solitude and start building his rat bike. When bikers from all around Illinois come to the Peoria Riverfront for the Budweiser Grand Nationals Weekend on Aug. 16, Pusser plans on setting up a miniature shop on the waterfront and building the bike in front of all those in attendance.
"I just want to share the experience with people. It's supposed to be fun and Grand Nationals is right in the middle of the time I'm supposed to be building, so I'm going to talk to everyone as I build it, make it communal," Pusser said. "The ride itself is very much like a community, so it makes sense."
"It's really surreal to see a convoy of bikes and cars going down the road and hundreds of bikes and cars going to gas stations at once," Jerry Ripley, co-owner and co-editor of Ride Hard Magazine, said. His magazine and Rat Rod Magazine are putting on the build-off.
"Carl's going to do great. He says he's got some surprises, and I believe him," Ripley said.
Pusser doesn't fret much about the build off itself. He has to finish all the bikes in his shop before his focus shifts to the contest. Still, Pusser is planning the rat bike in his head. The ideas he's coming up with made him smile, but he's not ready to share them just yet.
"I've seen some interviews of other bikers involved. They've been telling people what they're building and what they're doing. I want to keep the element of surprise," Pusser said. "It's definitely going to turn some heads, it's going to be loud and it's going to be fun."