“Vegas Rat Rods” was Discovery Channel’s reality television series, featuring Steve Darnell and his crew from the Las Vegas-based custom auto shop, WelderUp, as they created some of the baddest Mad Max-style works of art out of old, dilapidated automobiles. The show premiered on 17 April 2014, and its fifth season was said to be scheduled for airing in the summer of 2020, but it didn’t push through. Many are wondering what happened, why it was canceled.
Meet the owner of WelderUp
Steve Darnell hailed from Montana; at the age of seven he learned how to drive a stick at his uncle’s ranch, as the workers would be at the back of a truck along with the hays to feed the cows. When he visited his grandfather in Utah, the old man would bring Steve along and sit him on his lap, letting him drive the truck. His father was said to be an ironworker who later established his own steel company called Economy Steel in Las Vegas.
Jim was a hard sell. https://t.co/eETWAWXh81
— Vegas Rat Rods (@VegasRatRods) July 7, 2017
Every summer, Steve would be at his father’s shop, and it was like being in school, as he learned from him and developed many skills through the years, including operating a forklift and other equipment, as well as fixing anything that was broken.
His first car was a 1973 orange Datsun; he mowed lawns to save enough money to buy a Redline bicycle that only had a frame and a rear wheel for $80. After he restored and customized it, he sold it for $300, and used the money to purchase the Datsun from a guy’s backyard. It had problems so he went to a junkyard whose owner gave him the parts he needed, knowing he was broke. Once it was fixed, he said he drove it every single day during his freshman year in high school, even without a license, and no matter how difficult it was as it had no power steering. He said there was nothing quite like being young and independent, of having the freedom to buy his own vehicle with his hard-earned money.
He made serious money out of fixing motorcycles and dirt bikes, as well as building and selling bicycles and go-karts. It was said that his first client was his wrestling coach in high school, who asked him to build a bike that he would give to his daughter at Christmas. Steve built one and it was said that it was passed down to the daughter’s own kids. Before he graduated from high school, he was buying, fixing and selling cars.
He worked for his father until 2001 or 2002 when he was ready to start his own business which he called WelderUp and offered services from welding farm equipment to manufacturing tractor parts. Before he knew it, he was also building rat rods at night for fun.
“Vegas Rat Rods”
How did it start?
It was six years later when he converted a 1928 Dodge into what he called the D-Rod, a six-cylinder twin turbo-charged diesel rod with over 700 horsepower.
Steve described it as edgy and radical-looking, that when it came out in 2009, it grabbed people’s attention. The church was having a car show in its parking lot and informed him that he could do a burnout, which he did, captured on camera and uploaded onto YouTube. It went viral, accumulated millions of views in no time, and was even featured in Hot Rod Magazine.
Steve and his team later gave the D-Rod a badass makeover, adding more torque and turbo, and then re-named it The Destroyer in honor of his late grandfather, a World War II veteran who served aboard a destroyer, and engaged in nine battles. Back then, not many people understood what Staev was doing, and saw him as a mad scientist who bastardized those classic cars. Fortunately, there were those who appreciated not just hot rods but also rat rods, as the latter might look worn down or rusty in some and downright weird in others depending on the creativity of the makers, but they were made well.
A Canadian production company called Proper Television produced the reality TV series “Vegas Rat Rods,” and it ran for three seasons on Discovery Channel; the fourth season was produced by Discovery Studios. Steve’s vision and imagination went into the creation of one-of-a-kind rat rods with the help of his team: mechanic Merlon Johnson, welder/fabricator Justin Kramer, welder/fabricator/artist Travis Deeter, and artisan Barber Dave. Chase and Kash Darnell are Steve’s sons and they worked alongside the crew as mechanics, welders and fabricators, helping and at the same time mastering skills.
According to Steve, what sets them apart from other reality shows about cars is that they ‘don’t do drama, don’t do fake, and don’t do shiny and pretty.’ The premise of the show was that they search the ‘badlands for old bones and ghosts from the past’ and then breathe new life into them.
Initially, it was only aired on Discovery Channel Canada. but later when it became a hit, it was shown in the US. Steve was hoping that the show would inspire fathers and their kids to build their own rat rods and bond over them.
Vegas Rat Rods Famous Builds
The Joker Mobile
A client named Nick owned a Batmobile, and so he wanted to commission Steve’s team to build a Joker Mobile – it cost $75,000. Steve went in search of the perfect vehicle, and he found it somewhere in the desert near what used to be an 1860 pony express outpost. The owner sold him a 1930-31 Ford Model A Coupe for a couple of hundred dollars, with the trunk lid for free. Although the floor had rotted out, it was still considered a good find, as both doors were still there and the sheet metal on the outside was in good shape.
Steve wanted it to be a badass villain car, something that looked evil. They chopped seven inches off of it, stretched the front axle to make it wider, and installed a big block chevy engine. They also put airbag suspension, roll cage, 44-inch rear tires, and gauges from a World War II aircraft. They then sprayed layers of teal green, pearl lime green, and candy emerald green to make it look nasty; his team finished it in three weeks.
Veteran Bike for Charity
The American Patriot Fest is held annually to pay tribute to troops both past and present as well as to raise funds for military-related charities. One of the organizers came to the WelderUp shop to ask Steve to build something that would represent the veterans, which they could raffle off to raise as much as $30,000.
They didn’t have a budget for it, so Steve said he would provide free labor and would then just ask around town for donations for the parts needed. Steve along with his sons went to Whiskey’s auto distillery as he and the owner used to share a shop for a couple of years with Steve always building something junky and the other guy something shiny. Whiskey donated a 1943 Harley flathead motor. The next place he visited was O School Choppers, with his old buddy, Adam, donating the rest of the bike parts.
Steve’s team assembled it, and had someone put laser engravings on some of the parts including names of vets on dog tags on the fork. He also asked Dave to put etchings on the frame and gas tank, making it look like a knife was used to carve onto it. To give the bike more personality, Steve made notches on top of the cylinder heads to represent the number of days his grandfather served during the war.
He described the bike as something that had a brutal war feel to it, making it seem like it had been through hell and back. After two weeks, it was revealed at the Harley-Davidson in Henderson, Nevada, and they had a big run to generate interest.
The Haunted Rod
Dorinda, a friend of Steve since they were young, came to the shop as she wanted something really creepy for a rat rod; she was into classic cars, ghost towns, and the paranormal. They agreed on an $83,000 price tag, with the car done in four weeks. Steve along with Merlon went as far as Victorville, California to get one that was said to be haunted. According to the owner named Joe, the 1955 Chevy came from the serial killer Charles Manson’s ranch in Death Valley. Anything associated with Charles such as a car that he might have driven was certain to have some ‘bad juju’ going on according to Steve. It was sold for $5,500.
The car door opened then closed on its own as they were leaving the barn, and Steve had a thought that something might have jumped in, not to be left behind. He jokingly said that if it was a bad spirit, then he would just make it his buddy.
His team put in a brand new chassis, airbag suspension, 2015 Cadillac CTS-V motor, and all the modern upgrades such as air condition, power steering, and stereo. They painted it black, making it look like it was burnt, or that it came from hell. However, they encountered a lot of problems putting everything together, and it had computer issues as well. They were unable to finish it on time, but the client was satisfied with the result.
The Rose Rod
The General Manager of the shop named Joe, who was like a brother to Steve, has a two-year-old son who was diagnosed with cancer.
When the WelderUp team learned about it, they converted a 1930 Ford Model A Sedan into a rod that looked like it had cancer at the front, and it spread until it reached the back where the car appeared brand new. The metal roses incorporated on it that were black and seemed lifeless got redder and healthier too. He was hoping that nobody would be offended by the car that his team built. It was just their way of expressing how they felt about what the boy was going through as he battled the disease. They wanted a car that would give hope and inspiration to those in the same situation.
The car was on display in the shop’s showroom and people loved it, even throwing money into it. Steve decided he’d put the money collected to good use by setting up a college fund for Joe’s son.
Interesting facts and rumors
A Batmobile was displayed at the WelderUp showroom.
— Welder Up (@WelderUpVegas) July 19, 2016
It was one of the 30 moulds of the original model made by the famous Hollywood customizer George Harris, whom Steve considered as the one of the forefathers of rat rods. The original Batmobile was a concept car and only one was made. It was sold for a dollar to George who took it back to his shop and transformed the Ford Lincoln Futura into a Batmobile in three weeks with the help of Bill Cushenberry for the 1966-1968 live-action TV show. Those who were familiar with Adam West as Batman would recognize this car.
Kelly Knievel, son of the American daredevil stunt performer Evel Knievel, asked his friend Steve to restore his father’s Formula One Dragster built in 1975, the only one of its kind, for the museum. Evel was known for his successful ramp-to-ramp motorcycle jumps, such as over 19 cars (125 feet) with his Harley-Davidson XR-750 in 1971 but he also used to pop a wheelie with the dragster in shows.
Steve said that Evel was his childhood hero for being the coolest guy out there. Kelly wanted to keep it as original as possible, so Steve and his team only fixed the engine, put in a new camshaft, parachutes, and mags, and then re-did the seat. When it was finished, Steve drove it and the front end popped up just like it did back in the day.
Steve produced the music video of the heavy metal band Five Finger Death Punch, as they did a cover of the 1964 classic “House of the Rising Sun,” by The Animals. It was set in a dystopian future similar to the Mel Gibson movie “Mad Max,” and the WelderUp team provided the vehicles that were used. It was said that even the sets and costume designs were created by the team. Steve had a cameo role as a gambler. The MV was released in 2014 and has amassed around 130 million views.
It was said that “Vegas Rat Rods” had to have a Canadian as one of its cast members, as it was produced by a Canadian company. As such, Grant Schwartz, Twiggy Tallant and Cheyenne Ruether were included in the show at one time or another.
Why was the show canceled?
The first time “Vegas Rat Rods” was rumored to have been canceled was after season three, as there was a delay in the airing of the next season. However, it happened due to a change in the production company handling the show. Discovery Studios produced season four, and Steve said that it was the best that they’d done, as they had become a lot freer.
The last show was aired in the latter part of 2018, and its loyal viewers were wondering why it was canceled. Having low ratings was the usual cause why TV shows were not renewed, but if that was the case, many believed that Discovery wouldn’t be interested in producing its fourth season. However, there were those who countered that the network didn’t foresee that not having one of the fan-favorites, Cheyenne, on the show, affected its ratings. Some thought production was only halted due to the restrictions brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, and that it would soon resume once everything was back to normal. Another theory that fans had was that Steve asked for a higher fee, or that he wanted to venture into other TV projects. With no official explanation, its fans continued to speculate.
Meanwhile, people who were missing the show would be glad to know that Steve was still creating rat rods in a new video series called “WelderUp Make It Run Again.” He was joined by his mechanic Merlon as they scour for old, decommissioned vehicles, and bring them back to life. They repaired and modified the vehicles, and the process was broadcast live through their social media. They also created an auction page, as they let the viewers bid on it. WelderUp has its own YouTube channel with over 160,000 subscribers, and its videos have garnered nearly 14 million views.
The WelderUp offered self-guided tours of the showroom, where some of his rat rods were on display. Steve was also known for giving private tours to groups of people, as he explained about the cars and answered their questions. He was grateful to those who watched the show, and was willing to set aside some time for those who really wanted to know him and what went on at the shop. Those wanting to purchase their merchandise such as sweatshirts, t-shirts, cups, and welder 101 metal kit could also visit their store.
So it would appear that “Vegas Rat Rods” has indeed come to an end, or has it….?