Power & Performance News goes one-on-one with quite possibly the world’s most famous car builder — Fast N’ Loud‘s Aaron Kaufman.
Fast N’ Loud isn’t just a guy show. And it isn’t just a show for people who like to build cars. No, it’s a quantifiable hit, always among the top drawing shows on the Monday nights it airs, and gaining a cult following.
Gas Monkey Garage owner Richard Rawlings may draw much of the attention with his bombastic style but among car guys (and gals) the real star of the show is car builder Aaron Kaufman. The man known as “The Bearded Wonder” seems more content to let Rawlings grab the spotlight while he concentrates on building cars.
What many fans seem to enjoy about Fast N’ Loud is the absence of silly drama found in lots of car shows that’s obviously manufactured to create a bit of tension. Instead, Fast N’ Loud depends on Kaufman and the rest of his crew at Gas Monkey Garage to come up with truly interesting builds and whether or not Rawlings can make any money off of them. Recently, Power & Performance News had the opportunity to catch up with Kaufman for a few questions. Check out what it’s like behind the scenes at Fast N’ Loud.
PPN: How many cars go through Gas Monkey Garage? Are there many we don’t get to see on the television show?
Kaufman: Last year we ran a customer division. We had a couple of guys and a manager on that side that the customer work, and you really didn’t see those cars. But the reality of our situation is because of our commitments with television it just became a bigger burden than it was worth, so we shut it down.
In a year we build from the ground up anywhere from 20 to 25 cars. Last year we may have built slightly less than 20; 18 or something that. But we banged out 25 the year before and then the year before that. The one thing is as our cars have gotten better our timeframe to gone a little bit farther. We are doing more multi-episode cars so overall, we’re building slightly fewer.
And for every one of those ground-up builds that we do, we usually turn about two and sometimes three of what we call the “B” or “C” story cars. That’s a little bit of TV lingo and basically those are the cars that you see Richard bring in and maybe we’ll put in a gas tank or fix a tie rod and turn it right back around and sell it. So we turn around two or three of those pretty often for every one car that we build from the frame up.
PPN: How many people are actually working on those car?
Kaufman: That’s the thing that a lot of people don’t want to believe. What you see is what you get with the show. We have six guys working on the cars, and I have a parts guy that helps get us the parts. There is no hidden crew hiding behind the scenes that helps us get the cars done.
PPN: What is the time frame on your typical builds? Sometimes it can be had to tell watching TV.
Kaufman: If you see a car that gets bought and sold in one episode, that means we built that car in generally two weeks. There may also be anywhere from a day or two, to a week of drivability testing afterward. And if you see a two-episode car, or a car that we start on in one week and the build carries over to another episode, generally we build those in about four weeks. Then behind the scenes we’ll have about a week of drivability testing and maybe clean up any little issues that pop up.
PPN: That’s an incredibly quick turnaround time. Do you ever wish you had a year or more to really work on and refine a signature build like some of custom shops?
Kaufman: Every day I go to work. I’ll be honest with you, it is something that vexes me every single day. We just don’t have the time to do everything I’d like to do on some of these cars.
But because of the TV show I have learned things I never thought I’d learn how to do. Direct people is one thing, but I’ve also been able to broaden my skill set. My bag of tricks is now enormous compared to what it was when we first started. But because we don’t have a long timeframe with these cars–the television schedule demands that we turn them out pretty quickly–I do not have a lot of time to really fine-tune those skills.
And yes, I do wish all the time that we had a year or more to do a big game-changer build, because I do think that we can hang with some of the biggest names in the industry. We’ve got a great team, but we are really geared to build great driving cars quickly.
But one benefit of our quick turnaround is our learning curve has grown exponentially. If we keep doing this for another four or five years, by that time it will be hard to run into a problem that we have not run across turning out 20 to 25 cars a year. Some shops only produce that in their existence. So we build a lot of cars, and we run into a lot of problems, but because of our schedule we have to find a solution, no ifs ands or butts. So we’ve become very good at finding solutions, learning on the fly, and adapting.
PPN: Fast N’ Loud is incredibly popular, but no show lasts forever. Can Gas Monkey Garage survive without the show?
Kaufman: Yes, the business model for Gas Monkey Garage exists right now to go along with the show. But even if the show goes way, the talent, the skill, and the facility is still here and I would like to believe that we will have the ability to move on and continue to build the cars we are doing now as well as be able to take on the bigger year-long projects.
PPN: Have you continued to race the Falcon you built on the show to compete at the Pikes Peak Hill Climb?
Kaufman: It is the only race car I own, so every time I want to race that is the car I take with me.
I’ve been making continual improvements to the car. Over the winter I converted it to a wishbone suspension and three link rear with coilovers all around. And I took it to the Big Bend Open Road Race–that was my second year running that–but we blew up the transmission and that kept me from competing in that. And then I went back to Pikes Peak.
I learned so much about altitude tuning this year at Pikes Peak, I don’t understand how my car even made it to the top my first year! I never thought I would own a race car. I never thought I would crew chief a race car. So being able to drive one–I’ve got goose bumps now just talking about it–was such a big deal for me. And I’m so late to the racing game coming in in my 30s, I’ve got a lot of ground to make up. But it was such a big deal to me. I don’t have the time or the budget to build another one, so this one keeps changing. I’ve got a supercharger and EFI setup for my car and will just keep trying to improve it.
PPN: Can you tell us about your personal cars?
Kaufman: I have got a 6.0 Power Stroke, that’s my work truck. I’ve got an F150 pickup. It has a long-travel suspension with coilovers and bypasses on it. I’ve got a big nasty motor for it, and that’s a fun truck to drive. It’s also basically a daily driver along with the Power Stroke.
Then I’ve got my race car which people see, and my other personal car is a ’36 Ford three window. I’ve collected everything to build the car, but I just can’t get the time to get started. And I’m terrified that if I start on it, I’m so busy with the show that it may turn into a back-burner project. Then it will just take up space in the shop and it will never be what I want. So at some point I’ll just have to kick it into gear and do it, but right now I feel like I’ve got so many irons in the fire I don’t want to start the project if I don’t feel like I can do it justice.
But for me I think that ’36 Fords are really one of the most beautiful factory cars ever made.
PPN: You’ve had people come and go in the shop, most recently painter and body man KC Mathieu. Is that hard for you given the fast pace of the builds you do?
Kaufman: It is a huge problem, because these cars here aren’t built by one person. It takes a well-rounded crew. It’s really not realistic to think you going to hire the very best fabricator or painter or whatever in the world every single time, but what we do expect is each of our guys to have the best attitude. It’s like we say, “We can teach you the nuts and bolts of it, but one thing we can’t fix is having the wrong attitude.” Right now I do believe we have one of the tightest, best working teams. And on practically every build I ask someone on my crew, or myself, or the entire crew to step outside of our comfort zone and do something new to us. So I tried to drive myself and the entire crew on every one of our builds, and I think so far everyone has really stepped up and helped raise the bar for ourselves and shop.
PPN: What’s it like building cars with a television crew always looking over your shoulder?
Kaufman: It is a unique deal because the TV crew has a different agenda than we have. They need to produce entertainment and create a great television show for us to keep our jobs. And while the main focus of our jobs is building cars, we have to be able to help the TV crew produce an entertaining show.
We’ve been doing this for over three years now. So far we produced over 70 builds, and we are rapidly approaching 100 vehicles that we have built out in the world. So the cars are out there, and people can look at them and be able to determine for themselves the quality of our work and what they think of our cars. So that’s the thing: There is TV land where anything can be whatever we want. The cars can be as elaborate or terrible as we want, but as long as it only shows up on television it is really almost impossible for you to tell. But since our cars are actually out there and people can look at them and drive them, you can’t hide quality or if we’ve taken a short cut to get a build done that just wasn’t shown on TV. So it is important for us as a build crew to make sure that the cars we build really are what we say they are. We only want quality to get out there.
So it is a balancing act. Because when the TV crew wants us to redo things because they want to be able to show it, or stop and explain something, yes, it’s a pain in the rear. But it is something that we all agreed to do. But for me the real important part is to make sure that what we broadcast out on television matches up with what we are doing in reality.