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August 2006
Born to Ride
By Susanne Deitzel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There is perhaps no man-made sound more distinctive than the blistering brrrrooom of a V-Twin engine, followed by the deep, throaty echoes popping in the custom muffler chamber of a Harley-Davidson.

It’s this engine that distinguishes itself from the high-pitched squeal of racer cycles, and most enthusiasts consider the V-Twin the heart and the soul of a true motorcycle.

Enter TCX: the sanctuary of all things V-Twin and chrome, mechanical and magical, passion and performance.

TCX, short for The Cycle Xchange, is a humming custom motorcycle shop off the beaten path in Matthews that is fast becoming one of the most respected names in the industry.

The showroom, service and parts areas are fashioned in a classy set up that breaks the mold of the bike shop stereotype - clean and organized, spacious and glittering. But through the doors behind the TCX counters beats the heart of a lion, hell-bent on perfection, performance and a killer ride.

 

High Octane

TCX is a lot like a pipette full of motorsports recombinant DNA; it was created with a determination to harvest and merge the best genes from motorcycling and NASCAR.

Owners and siblings, Brian and Jeff Clark have an intimate familiarity with both passions. Both have been devoted riders for 15-plus years. Brian developed his business acumen in his father’s (Dale Clark) successful bond business, while also being an integral part of the 1999 Dale Jarrett NASCAR Winston Cup Championship Team. Jeff Clark became one of the most highly respected faces in the fraternal pits of NASCAR as jackman for Davey Allison, Ernie Irvin, Rusty Wallace and Dale Earnhardt Jr. While still working for ‘Junior’ as a gasman on the weekends, Jeff is perhaps better known for his talent as an engine designer/builder and car tuner. If it weren’t for both brothers’ down-to-earth manner of speaking and friendly smiles, you might think there was motor oil running through their veins!

Together with their staff, they have built TCX into a stable of maximum horsepower, high-performance thunder rigs, combining muscle with striking designs to impressive effect. The custom-build motorcycle nest plans on hatching about 15 to 20 custom rides this year to the tune of anywhere from $18,000 to $200,000 or more, apiece. That is twice the shop’s output for last year, its first in full operation, and the sky is the limit from here.

Industry reports indicate that motorcycle sales are at their highest level since 1979 owing to new interest by a wider age group and more women riders, and the broadening appeal of motor scooters and other small, less-expensive two-wheelers. New motorcycle sales were a $9 billion industry in 2005, and the Motorcycle Industry Council reports U.S. motorcycle sales are up for the thirteenth year in a row. Analysts say explosive growth in the custom cycle sector in recent years has contributed to the overall trend.

And that is a pretty good thing – because the brothers probably would have done it anyway!

 

Talking Shop

The Cycle Xchange’s 12,000-square-foot facility appears expansive due to its layout and attention to order and neatness, but Brian Clark says they will soon outgrow their current accommodations and plan to add on to the building within the next year.

Currently TCX’s full-service shop boasts a general tech area, fabrication room, a ‘clean room’ for engine work, a welding room, and the piece de resistance – a $100,000 soundproof ‘Dynoroom’ used to test and tune cycles after their assembly.

Explains Brian Clark, “When you get a new bike, it is strongly suggested that you put at least 500 miles on the engine before you do any serious riding. The Dynoroom simulates the best conditions with regard to temperature and airflow, and the drum that moves the cycle wheel is controlled by an eddy current controlling factors like weight and resistance. It reproduces the effect of the number or riders and terrain conditions, like hills.” The setup is outfitted with sensors that read fuel/air ratios, engine temperature, torque and horsepower, and is ventilated with a fresh air duct, and exhaust ventilation system.

Says Brian, “The Dynoroom has become a huge asset to what goes on here, giving us a set of checks and balances that is both reassuring and rewarding. When a bike goes up on the ramp for a dyno-run, we get to see everything in action.” Since it is a pretty unusual (and pricey) feature for a shop, a lot of bike builders bring their bikes in to seat the cylinders and piston rings, break in the bike, and check out their own handiwork.

Custom design for frame detail and fitting goes on in the fabrication room, where steel skeletons are mocked up with cardboard templates before any metal is tacked on. The engine ‘clean room’ is where intuition meets precision metrology, and the expansive (and impressively clean) shop area corrals the talents of a crew of All-Pro master motorcycle mechanics that have been hand-picked for their keen eye, nimble fingers and obsession with performance.

 

Winner’s Circle

While Brian Clark has had his fair share of glory days under the floodlights of NASCAR tracks, it’s hard not to notice his high regard for his brother Jeff’s contribution to the sport. “Jeff is probably the most famous, ‘infamous’ person at any NASCAR event. He has spent 18 years working with the best in the business, and giving everything he’s got to the people he’s worked with. He’s a master, but a great guy with a lot of humility. As a result, we have a lot of friends who make what we do possible.”

By their own admission, the Clark brothers’ friends would make for a great kegger. Pinky pals include the illustrious roster of pro-racers the duo has worked with, including champions Jarrett, Irvin and Allison, not to mention the top-rated most famous sports figure in the world, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jeff Clark also apprenticed under NASCAR legend and purported “God Of Horsepower” Robert Yates. To be sure, there is a strong brotherhood to these relationships, cemented firmly in place with the championship rings that TCX proudly displays under glass at its front counter.

These major NASCAR influences can be seen on several of the eight lifts in the TCX shop, but the most heralded projects are currently focused on the partners’ trademarked “Burnout Bike” and a Dale Earnhardt Jr. bike custom designed for the Make-A-Wish Foundation auction.

The Burnout Bike was created not only as a work to showcase design and power, but also as a piece of performance art. At major bike rallies all over the country, sporting types retire to a ‘burnout pit’ where two cycles are pitted against each other in a standstill engine blowout, the winner of which is traditionally the bike whose rear tire doesn’t explode.

That is, until the Clark brothers tinkered with it. By outfitting the rear assembly of their Burnout Bike with a custom right swing arm and NASCAR-like lug nuts, rather than doing the walk of shame carting a fallen bike back onto the trailer, the Clarks’ team makes a dramatic pit stop tire change, to the awe of the audience. Now, arguably, TCX is the undeniable winner regardless of the burnout outcome. Featured in NASCAR Illustrated, the TCX Burnout Bike caught the attention of Budweiser, which has since contracted with the Clarks take the bike to legendary Sturgis on its behalf.

The Dale Earnhardt Jr. Make-A-Wish bike is also a wicked exclamation of NASCAR styling and fanaticism. Its rear swing arm and shiny lug nuts also allow for rear tire removal, and it is outfitted with a ‘Nacaduct’ (a cut in on a NASCAR chassis to facilitate premium airflow; on the bike it is more for visual effect and a way to camouflage switches), its oil tank pays blatant homage to the nose of a race car, and its D-ring wheels are cut to resemble a race car. Add to that a splashy orange paint job, fat tires, and the penmanship of Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the rear fender, and you have what could be sold at a market value of upwards of $150,000.

But lest we forget we are talking cycles here, one can’t fail to mention the manic contributions of icons of the motorcycle trade as well. When TCX’s nascent business began by manufacturing custom mufflers, they ran into personalities like Dave Perewitz, Billy Lane, and Matt Hotch, known in motorcycle circles as gods of thunder and style in their own right. Autographed and group photos of all are proudly displayed in the service reception area of TCX, as well as deceased cycle celebrity Indian Larry, paying a fine and firm tribute to the Clark’s heroes and friends.

 

Full Throttle

TCX has been touted in just about every major motorcycle magazine on the market, their products have been featured in the now-ubiquitous Discovery Channel “Biker Build-Off,” the Speed Channel devotes a fair amount of screen time to Jeff Clark and the Dale Jr. Bike, and the relatively fledgling organization has quickly tumbled off the lips of industry heads and enthusiasts alike at national bike rallies. The press is chomping at the bit to get at the Clarks, and they are also gearing up for their own television show on the Speed Channel called “Seven Days,” where Jeff Clark is recorded at venues for, what else? – a seven-day stretch to record and capture the essence of the motorsports scene.

For those familiar with the American Chopper/Orange County Chopper franchise (and at this point, who isn’t?), the similarities between it and TCX are limited to the fact that they are in the same industry, like a clean shop, and that the team equals family. The OCC and offshoots are geared mainly to ‘themed bikes,’ with notoriously outrageous bells and whistles created against a backdrop of frequently emotional storylines, whereas TCX reads the whole story in the bike. No more, no less.

Comments Brian Clark, “Our dedication is not just to the look of the bike, but to the ride-ability and the performance of the ride. A lot of people don’t realize that people  spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on bikes made simply to roll on and off of a trailer ramp and sit in a showroom.”

TCX’s bikes have killer paint jobs, and designs that will knock your boots off, but are FAST and most importantly – safe. “I cannot tell you how often someone purchases an expensive bike from one of the privateer bike builders and walks it into our shop because it won’t stay together. We do a lot of repair, and sometimes complete rebuilding of bikes that simply weren’t made right.”

The Clark brother’s considerable resources have been devoted to the best technology, best tools, and best minds and hands in the business. “When it’s all said and done, the most valuable asset we have is our team. We have the best people in the business, bar none. Under this roof there is a talent, a chemistry, a passion and a groundedness that are simply unsurpassed,” concludes Brian.

While it is hard for many people to fathom anything better than 46 Winston Cup wins, or the connections and fun they have afforded, it seems undeniable that the best is yet to come. The combination of talent, a focus on performance, and an ardor for anything loud, fast and American, will take TCX right on down the highway.

 

 

Susanne Deitzel is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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