Quick Stats: Steve Darnell, Discovery’s “Vegas Rat Rods”
Daily Driver: 1957 Chevy 210 (Steve’s rating: 10 on a scale of 1 to 10)
Other cars: See below
Favorite road trip: Vegas to Pomona
Car he learned to drive in: Old Ford and Chevy truck
First car bought: 1973 Datsun
A 1928 Dodge from his late grandfather started it all for Steve Darnell of Vegas Rat Rods.
“He was a World War II vet, he was a bad-ass, and he was the nicest guy on the planet. I rebuilt the car and I called it ‘The Destroyer’ because he was on a destroyer battleship and he did nine battles and he lived through two or three typhoons. I feel like such a wuss compared to what he went through as a young man at 22 years old.”
Inspired by his grandfather, Darnell dedicated the rat rod to him. “He was a pretty amazing guy, there’s a lot about him here at WelderUp and my life,” he says.
Even though Darnell has built many cars since then, the Destroyer remains WelderUp’s mascot. “It sits in my showroom and we have a lot of people who come to Vegas and … want to see that car,” he says.
This rat rod, a perfect 10 in Darnell’s eyes, epitomizes the world of fabricators and welders who want to channel their creativity into something automotive. Darnell says he’s built fantasy cars for professionals including doctors who drive Porsches during the day, but these rat rods induce a different effect.
“They jump in the front seat of this thing, and it just changes their whole way. They want to go out and do burnouts and piss people off a little bit, be somebody different for a minute,” he says. “And a lot of these are people going back in time of like, ‘Dude, my grandpa had one like that.’ We’re building out now an inspiration for all these kids and their dads. They’re all out building cars in their garages because of this TV show. I hear it every day, ‘You’ve inspired me and my kid to build a rat rod.’ We’re bringing families together, they’re out in the garage and they’re building stuff and it goes from something that looks like you’re a bad-ass to where it’s actually a family thing.”
Besides the WelderUp mascot car, Darnell has a few other favorites in his garage of about 30 cars, such as his 1957 Chevy 210.
1957 Chevy 210
“What I like about it, is it’s drivable, it’s got a fuel injected motor in it. It’s turbocharged, it makes about 740 horses, it’s no joke,” Darnell says. “What I like about it is I can pull up next to somebody and they’re in their brand-new Camaro and Mustang and I [can smoke them]. That’s what makes it fun. It’s a sleeper.”
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1968 Dodge Charger
“I love it. It’s got a diesel engine in it, which doesn’t belong in the car, two superchargers, two turbos on it, sticking right through the hood, and the car is just insane,” he says about the Charger, which was built for a music video.
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1930 Ford Model A sedan
This Ford is like WelderUp’s own Trevi Fountain, drawing fans in for what it stands for, and a place they can toss coins for good wishes.
“My general manager, his little boy had cancer and I decided to do it right in the middle of our filming season the year before this one. We stopped the shop and I said, ‘I want to build a car about cancer.’ I built a car that literally looks like it has cancer in the front of the car and it just goes through the car, it’ll come out to being brand new,” Darnell says.
That’s a car Darnell had to set aside in its own area. “We’re like a family, so when you have a little boy who barely can talk, already dealing with this, it was a lot to go through as I built the car,” he says.
On a scale of 10, Darnell rates it off the charts with a 20, commenting on how each one motivates him in a different way.
“Every time I build one, I have to go into that place and live it. They’re all different to me. The motivation for most of my builds are something positive, even if it’s creepy.”
He says he’s built scary cars and over-the-top crazy fast cars, but this one is in a whole different place of its own because it’s dealing with a disease that kills people every day.
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Missed an episodes of #vegasratrods don't worry head over to the #DiscoveryGO !!!! #vegasratrods #cancersucks #welderup #vegas
“It was really weird to do it because I was like, ‘Oh man, I hope people don’t get offended by me building this car,’ but people love it and they walk in my showroom and they throw money in the car. It’s really cool,” he says.
Darnell wanted to do something positive with the money people throw in the car, so they’re putting it in a college account for Preston, the boy who inspired this car.
Although Darnell isn’t quite sure why people began to and continue to throw coins, he surmises that perhaps many have lost loved ones to cancer or have gone through it themselves.
“I’ve had women come in here that have had breast cancer and they’re like, ‘The car is exactly what I felt like. I can’t believe how spot on you are.’ I just figured this is how cancer feels; I haven’t been through it personally yet myself,” he says. “But I think a lot of people, they come in, they feel bad or someone’s died and they want to give help to somebody, and the good thing is that they know it’s going to something good.”
Car he learned to drive in
As a kid, Darnell would drive an old Ford truck on his uncle’s cattle ranch in eastern Montana.
“I’d have to feed cows with the truck or a tractor and that was when I was 7 years old because a lot of times back in them old days, you’d sit in the front seat and drive while the other guys sat out the back. So somebody had to steer and drive the truck. That’s when I learned how to drive a stick. You’d have learn how to let the clutch down easy because if not, you could throw a load of hay off and everybody off the back of the truck,” he says, laughing.
When visiting his grandfather in southern Utah, Darnell also drove the old Chevy truck that was there. “He’d put me on his lap and I’d drive his old truck around all the time with him,” Darnell says.
And in Vegas with his dad, Darnell grew up in steelyards. “I’d come here and work for my dad. I learned how to drive a forklift when I was really little,” he says. “I knew how to operate equipment. My dad had me on a forklift moving steel around or I was riding with him. As I got older I started running all kinds of different equipment. Being around all that is really what got it happening. Between the steel industry and out on the ranch and learning all that stuff, it’s good for you when you get older.”
First car bought
The story of how Darnell bought his first car started with a bicycle he bought for $80. “I sold my pedal bicycle that I paid for mowing lawns, a Redline bicycle. I fixed it up, I sold it for $300. I took my $300 and I went over and I bought a 1973 Datsun right out of a guy’s backyard,” he says. “I didn’t have a driver’s license; I was 13 or 14.”
When he tried to start the car, it had problems, so he started it in gear because the clutch didn’t work. “Then I’d ride my bicycle to the junkyard and get parts in Billings, and the old man used to give me parts; he knew I was broke. We’re still friends today,” he says. “I’m friends with him and his family all these years later. It’s been 35 years.”
Darnell got enough parts to get the Datsun running and drove that every day during his first year of high school, without a driver’s license. “Then I got a job so I could really make money. I was mowing lawns and fixing dirt bikes, people would bring motorcycles, I’d fix them in their garage, and I was building bicycles and selling them to people.”
The manual Datsun wasn’t easy to drive without air or power steering, but it meant the world to Darnell.
“The feel of the freedom of knowing that you just went and took your hard-earned money and bought your own vehicle—that day was one of the most satisfying days of my life,” he says, exuberantly.
For Darnell, the Datsun was about the independence of being a young man. “Nowadays, kids don’t even get their driver’s license until they’re 20. We were driving before our driver’s license, we were so excited to drive,” he says. “I couldn’t wait to get behind the wheel of something and turn that radio on and just live and be free. I think that adrenaline rush, now I don’t know how many cars I have, and I’ve been through hundreds of cars, but that Datsun was one of the first ones. It was cool. I wish I could find that one actually.”
Darnell also had a 1970 Chevrolet Blazer during his teenager years. “That was probably the coolest thing when I was in high school that I drove,” he says. “I had a lot of different cars and trucks even when I was younger; I was buying and selling go karts. Since I was a little kid I had dirt bikes.”
It was a struggle to maintain his cars back then in high school. “I went to work when I was 16 years old so I could afford to drive my cars, and before that I shoveled walks and mowed lawns and did side jobs and whatever I could do,” he says.
Although Darnell lived in Montana during his teenager years, every summer he’d go work for his dad in Las Vegas. “I had an old Camaro here and we used to cruise the Strip and Fremont Street and chase girls and have a good time back in the late ’80s,” he says. “I had four different cars before I graduated high school because I was buying them, selling them, fixing them up, selling them.”
Darnell first got the bug for working on cars back in high school, inspired also by stories his parents would tell him of a glorious past with their cars in old Vegas. “My mom and dad in the ’60s were cruising Fremont Street in their ’56 Chevy,” he recalls. “All those stories stayed in my head and I thought it was so cool, so I’ve always been into cars because of that.”
Favorite road trip
One of Darnell’s favorite road trips was driving up to his grandfather’s place in Utah. “I knew that once I got there I could drive his truck and drive the tractor and shoot the guns. So that was always a thrill too when I was younger,” he says.
But today, Darnell’s favorite road trip is from Vegas to Pomona, California. “Some of my favorite highways is the 210, getting ready to get off on Fruit Street so I can go to Pomona for the swap meet,” he says, with a laugh. “Coming down the highway, knowing that I’m getting closer to the Pomona Swap Meet is always a thrill, because I can’t wait to get there.”
Darnell loves the swap meet so much, he tries to go every five weeks when he can. “It’s a blast. For me in my world and what I do, I find stuff and … build something out of it. So it’s fun to go there and find the parts and pieces that I need to be able to create these creatures that I build, but at the same moment it’s like a family reunion. Everybody’s barbecuing in the parking lot, they sleep in their cars right on the grounds, it’s crazy,” he says, laughing.
Now that he stars in his own show, some people are surprised when he camps out like they do. “People trip out because they can’t believe that I’m sleeping out there on the parking lot. I’m like, ‘I’m just hanging out with you guys, man,’” he says, laughing. “But it’s fun, it’s a good time. That’s where I came from, my dad took me there in the late ’70s, so I’ve been there since ’78 or ’79.”
Vegas Rat Rods on Discovery, Tuesdays at 9 p.m.
Darnell’s 1928 diesel rat rod started it all because it went viral before that was even an everyday term. “It was the first rat rod with a twin-turbo six-cylinder diesel engine in it,” he says. “I did this big, big, huge burnout in this parking lot of this church. The church was having a car show and they said, ‘You can do a burnout.’ It went to YouTube and it went viral, a couple million views right away, and that’s when people didn’t really know a whole lot about YouTube.”
He was approached by production companies and they tried to build cars out of ranch finds—they’d go to a ranch and dig around old stuff from years of farming and build a rat rod, Darnell says.
Although a production company in Canada produced the show and it ran on Discovery, Darnell says the current season feels new because it’s now a Discovery Studios production here in the States.
“My exec at Discovery, Kyle Wheeler, had seen value in this show and he’s like, ‘Look, I want you to come to L.A., we need to sit down and talk about this show and see about putting it back on American ground.’ I said, ‘I’ll be there.’ Kyle, he’s a miracle worker, and he’s a straight-up dude and we made it happen, and we did Season Four, which is the best season I’ve ever done.”
His kids now appear on the show, too. “My two boys have been around me since they were little, so they know how to weld,” he says
It’s easy to see why Darnell has helped make the show a hit among his fans, always speaking with genuine conviction and unfiltered passion.
“We’ve got my ex-brother-in-law Justin, a great fabricator, very intelligent. He’s great this year on the show. We’ve got Merlin, my newer mechanic who is very intelligent. Of course my goofy cousin Dave is on the show. And Travis, my artist that helps me with design on paint,” he says. “We’ve been a lot freer, they let us produce the show this year.”
Being able to produce has made a big difference for Darnell, as well. “The pick sites where we go find this stuff, it’s like a mixture of American Pickers and building cars, in a way. I get to down out and find an old sign that has history and I get to tell about it. It’s just so much cooler.”
They also got to film at his favorite swap. “That was what was so cool about our production this year; we got to go to Pomona and I got to go show them how I do it,” he says.
They built a car this season that was haunted. “The guy I got it from, this creepy dude that I know from frickin’ Pomona, his name is Joe, he’s an awesome dude. [A ’55 Chevy we built this year] is called the Haunted Rod, because the car is haunted, but it’s like that Christine feel, like the movie,” he says.
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The Haunted Rod!!!!! #welderup #vegasratrods #sema #55 #chevy
With his success, Darnell makes sure to cater to fans who come to Vegas wanting to make a stopover at WelderUp. On an average day, WelderUp might have up to 150 people. “This morning I did a private tour with 22 people and I take them through the showroom, I explain who I am, I show them some of the cars, I answer any of their questions, and they love it,” he says. “They leave here loving that they came and that they met me and they know that I’m real. Not a lot of these celebrities will take the time to come out and be with the people.”
He says if it wasn’t for these people watching TV, he wouldn’t be where he is today. “I feel like I have to contribute to that and set aside time for the people that really want to know about me and really want to know about what’s going on at WelderUp and Vegas Rat Rods—‘Do we build the cars that fast?’ and ‘Does Discovery tell you what to build and what not to build?’ They just have so many questions,” he says. “They think it’s a big fake thing behind the scenes because TV has got so much drama over the past years that the more real it is, the more they like it.”
Darnell doesn’t have time for drama, he says. “I’m building a car in here with my guys. I’m not an actor, I’m not a host, I am the guy designing and doing all the detailed fabrication, going on the picks, doing everything for the show,” he says. “I’m in here on my hands and knees welding right alongside the rest of these guys in here. And they love that. They love the fact that it’s real and that we’re at the same level. But when you’re a baller, when you’re so far up there, people can’t relate with someone who flew in on their helicopter. And that’s what I like, they feel at home when they come in my shop, they hug me like they’ve known me.”
Darnell is excited about this season and the story behind its production move to Los Angeles. “I’m excited about the help I’ve got this year from everybody, the show runner that I have this year [is] working hard, he wants the best show on TV, so that inspires me and makes me go, ‘OK, now I have something to fight for because we’re working together here,’” he says.
Darnell hopes the show continues to inspire viewers at home to build their own rat rod creatures. “Dads want to go out and build a car, and moms are taking stuff out of the kitchen going, ‘Hey, can we put this in the car, too?’” he says.
See Vegas Rat Rods right here.
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