Scroll through the slide show above to get a look behind the scenes of Fast N' Loud filming at Dallas' Gas Monkey Garage.
Maybe it’s unfair to compare a real person to a fictional character, though cult heroes are by definition at least partly fiction. Richard Rawlings’ life doesn’t seem much like a soap opera these days. If anything, he’s fond of repeating that he’s a regular dude.
He might like beer, hamburgers and hot rods, but Rawlings is anything but regular. His hit reality show, Discovery Channel’s Fast N’ Loud, has shaped the popular idea of the tough-negotiating, empire-building Texas businessman as much as anything since J.R. Ewing and Dallas.
“From the beginning, it was always supposed to be more than just the garage,” he says from behind his desk at Gas Monkey Garage on the west side of Interstate 35 near Royal Lane. “The merchandise, the TV show, the concert venue and restaurant, the whole brand was always part of the plan.”
Rawlings, who built his nest egg with a printing and advertising company, eschews ten-gallon hats and black gold for a signature beard and heavy silver skull rings. He’s thinner and taller than he appears on TV and more circumspect between scenes than fans might expect. He grew up in a home with a father who worked three jobs, and perhaps it’s primarily for that reason he takes his work so seriously.
“We kind of shot ourselves in the foot,” he says, nodding to the Discovery Channel cameras visible through a window in his office that overlooks the garage. “We said we could do a full episode — find the car, build it, complete it and shoot it — in two weeks.”
That schedule means Rawlings and his “monkeys” are continuously driving toward imposing deadlines. In theory, they break from filming twice per year, over the winter holidays and during the summer. In reality, actual reality, Rawlings said he hasn’t had a vacation in four years.
“Every morning, I get up and I do what needs to be done because I like knowing it provides jobs for them,” he said, pointing to the mechanics. “It provides a life for their families. Some people would be scared by that. Not me. I love that responsibility.”
"From the beginning, it was always supposed to be more than just the garage. ... The whole brand was always part of the plan."
Rawlings also loves the concept he devised to fund his recently launched Gas Monkey Foundation, inspired by his father’s recent Alzheimer’s diagnosis. The fund supports established initiatives that focus on those affected by the disease.
Spinning the traditional idea of charitable car donation, Rawlings partnered with clearing house companies to eliminate overhead costs that can eat up the majority of funds donated.
“Vehicle donation programs have existed forever, but the typical model loses a lot. There had to be a place to store them, people who could only go out so far regionally to pick them up,” he says. “Everything I do in business moves toward eliminating brick and mortar. Call us up and anywhere in the contiguous United States, we’ll get your vehicle and take care of it.”
Rawlings said that means a heftier percentage can go toward the charities, rather than the operation. He expects his foundation to raise upward of $20 million in 2015.
This type of innovation characterizes his technologically savvy forward thinking. It’s clear he thrives on competition and relishes building businesses and watching them succeed.
With Gas Monkey Garage. Rawling structured the company so that he handles its business and marketing, whereas his mechanical virtuoso, Aaron Kaufman, performs the artistry. He remembered Kaufman, and his impeccable work, from the days when Rawlings would frequent a garage where Kaufman worked. The talent was so memorable, Rawlings knew he’d found a gem waiting for a chance to shine.
“Most people can’t make it work that long,” Rawlings says. “Egos get involved. I can’t do what he does back there. I know that. I’m good at my thing. So is he. That’s how it works.”
Rawlings is more than “good” at his thing. Fast N’ Loud‘s fifth season finale just aired, and the show has spun off Misfit Garage, as well as a third in production and a fourth that was just greenlighted. The top-rated cornerstone show airs around the world, and Rawlings says the garage has become a “vacation destination.” At any given time, gift shop workers overhear many accents and languages as customers mill about among T-shirts, stuffed monkeys and branded shop towels.
But Rawlings sees this more as an homage to Dallas than a cultural revolution. When asked if he thinks Gas Monkey has transformed the city’s identity, he says instead it seemed like a fitting location from the start.
“You’ve got the Cowboys, ‘who shot J.R.,’ everything is bigger and best here,” he says. “So I feel like I’m paying what’s due to Dallas by giving it a little more limelight.”
While on the face of it he might not seem like a modern day J.R. Ewing, Rawlings — who coincidentally did take a bullet during an attempted carjacking in his younger days — provides a funny and interesting character, who backs up “reality TV” shenanigans with real-world knowledge.
“You see the hair and the clothes, I look flamboyant,” he said, running a hand through his beard, and flicking a heavy leather bracelet on his wrist. “But I’m not the guy with the lake house and the boat. I don’t own a home, or a plane. Really, all I want in life is beer in the fridge and a hot rod.”
Maybe he is a regular dude, if regular dudes can still pull themselves to the top with spiked bootstraps.
Fast N' Loud airs Mondays at 9 p.m. on the Discovery Channel. The new season begins March 23.