The Craziest Plan That Worked: How Richard Rawlings Hustled His Way Into the TV Show 'Fast N' Loud,' Then Used It to Build a Multimillion-Dollar Brand
Richard Rawlings jangles when he walks.
The 49-year-old reality TV star and global branding impresario is giving me a tour of the Gas Monkey facility, an automotive playground spread across three buildings in an industrial area of northwest Dallas. It’s home to his car shop, which is also the setting of the hit flip-this-hot-rod series he hosts on Discovery, Fast N’ Loud. And, of course, it contains a world-class collection of automobiles.
Rawlings, with his steel-gray pompadour, red flannel over black V-neck and jeans and pointed goatee, looks like the devil on the shoulder of every dad at a youth soccer complex. And as he shows me around, the gold and silver bracelets on both wrists make themselves known. He stops at each car, because they all have a story, and that’s part of what he loves about cars. He shows me a low-slung, rust-covered 1952 Chevrolet Fleetline, the first car his garage built; and a hunter-green 1968 Shelby Mustang, riding high on off-road tires, meant to look like the Mustang that appeared in the 1999 remake of The Thomas Crown Affair. “I’ve turned down an exorbitant amount of money for that car,” Rawlings says.
Still, even amid this bounty of classic steel, rubber and glass, Rawlings’ mind wanders toward a car he doesn’t own: a Lamborghini Miura he tracked down several years ago. A man in Florida has owned it since the early 1970s. Rawlings has tried to buy it four times, but the man always says no. Not that that stops Rawlings from calling. He’ll check in on Christmas holidays “because everybody would be home,” he says. Usually the day before Christmas Eve, sometimes the afternoon before Christmas. This will go on, one presumes, forever.
“I think I’ll end up with the car,” he says. “I’m just gonna have to catch him on the right day.”
It’s an interesting side to see, because Richard Rawlings, if nothing else, is not a man known for patience. In the six years since Fast N’ Loud first aired, he’s turned Gas Monkey -- once just the name of his auto garage -- into a multimillion-dollar brand that has had its tail around pretty much everything: four restaurants and a 2,000-seat concert venue; Gas Monkey apparel and home goods and accessories; a cinnamon tequila and an energy drink; a Texas lottery game; Gas Monkey Hot Wheels cars; and partnerships with Dodge, Miller Lite, Dickies and more. He now employs more than 600 people, and even though he says he went broke two times on the wrong moves -- “I could’ve gone to Harvard twice, the money I lost on cars” -- it hasn’t scared him.
“That’s been the secret to Gas Monkey: Move fast,” he says. “I opened the first restaurant within a year and a half. Most people wait five years. I always move quickly, and in today’s market, no matter what you’re in, you can recover from a mistake faster than you can recover from not doing. Whether it’s getting into the liquor business or the energy drink business, or getting into bars and restaurants, just move quick. If you feel like it’s going to work, do it. If it doesn’t, get out as quick as you can.”
Rawlings moves fast because he’s always known where he was going. Some people jump from success to success, feeling it out, arranging one atop the other. For Rawlings, it was all one straight line. He came up with the concept of his brand before he even had a garage, or a show. He built Gas Monkey Garage to get on TV, and then he got on TV to get to everywhere else. It took eight years to convince Discovery that he was right. But he finally caught them on the right day.
“The guy, he knew how to use the show to get what he wanted to do,” says Craig Coffman, Discovery’s senior vice president of production and development. “He has been able to do that stronger than anybody I’ve known at Discovery.”
Of course, strategy is nothing without hustle. And Rawlings has that in abundance.
“He’s probably the most aggressive entrepreneur I’ve ever worked with,” Coffman continues. “Seriously, the guy never stops. He’s got a hundred ideas every second. I’m sitting in his office and I look up past him and there’s a billboard above the highway a mile away with his face on it. The guy’s placed the name of his company on the roof of his building so planes can see it. He’s a marketing maniac. It’s been a blur of entrepreneurial activity since I met him.”
And no one has yet seen what he can really do.
The main product Rawlings has been selling since Fast N’ Loud’s first episode, when Gas Monkey rebuilt a Ford Model A, is Richard Rawlings. The idea of Richard Rawlings: a “whoo”-ing Tyler Durden in a tight black T-shirt for middle-aged, middle-American dads to aspire to be.
And that idea of Richard Rawlings is a muscle-car version of his father, Raymond.
When Richard was growing up in Fort Worth, Tex., Raymond Rawlings always had a car or a motorcycle lying around. “It wasn’t the nicest or the best, but it was his,” the younger Rawlings says. Ray wasn’t much of a mechanic, more of a detailer and a tinkerer. On weekends, the guys in the neighborhood would come over, mess around with whatever car Ray had at the time and drink beer in the garage.
One of those guys who came around also taught Rawlings a lesson about negotiating that he still carries with him: “I was around 13. He said, ‘Son, you could buy a $10,000 car all day long for five grand if you have it in your pocket. Always carry cash.’ ”
All this made an impression on Rawlings. He started buying and selling and trading cars before he could legally drive them, getting advice from an old-timer in the neighborhood on the technical side. (Like his father, he’s never been much of a mechanic.)
After high school, Rawlings worked as a suburban police officer, a firefighter and a Miller Lite delivery truck driver, but the entrepreneurial bug stayed with him. He started a company called Promo Wipes, which printed ads and logos on deluxe paper towels for car washes, when he was just out of high school. That didn’t last, and Rawlings stumbled into a job selling printing and advertising.
He’d never sold anything but cars, but he gave it a shot and found he was good at it. He knew how to talk to people, and that was most of the gig. But he also innately understood branding. “Building brands and helping people figure out their identity -- as far as a business identity and everything -- was kind of my niche,” he says. He tried to buy the company, but the owner wouldn’t sell, so he went out on his own with the help of a $100,000 small-business loan and opened a shop, Lincoln Press, in Dallas in 1999. By 2004, the company had done well enough that Rawlings was able to offer a new Lamborghini Gallardo as an incentive to the first client to spend $1 million.
Rawlings had always felt that there was something out there he was meant to do, something bigger. Lincoln Press wasn’t it. So he got out. The success and eventual sale of the company gave him “a little bit of pocket change to start a new business.” And he had a wild idea. Something that would combine his childhood passion with his knack for branding.
His older sister, Daphne, worked for him at Lincoln Press. When he told her his plan -- sell the printing business so he could create a reality series centered on a hot-rod shop that didn’t exist yet -- “I kind of thought he was crazy,” she says. It wouldn’t be the last time. “He’s an idea guy,” Daphne says. “And he’s a genius at that. Some of the ideas are so far out there, they’re unimaginable, and yet he just draws you in and then they’re imaginable.”
Daphne had seen only the first page of her brother’s business plan. She might have staged an intervention if he had shown her the rest. TV, she’d have learned, wasn’t the end goal. It was the beginning. Developing “a worldwide, renowned brand in the automotive-motorcycle-lifestyle genre that was as cool to Grandma and the grandkids as it was to Mom and Dad” -- that was the end goal. TV was just the means to spread the message as widely and quickly as possible.
That was the opportunity he saw when he watched the automotive shows that were on the air at the time. There was too much testosterone and not enough fun. These people, Rawlings believed, were leaving money on the table by shrinking the potential audience before they even opened their toolboxes.
“I mean, I’m still a tattooed, goateed guy,” Rawlings says, “but I’ve got a poodle and a wife and kids. The bravado toughness of kicking a box and cussing or what have you, wanting to fight, I don’t think that plays anywhere in my world.”
His vision was inspired by his father’s weekends as a shadetree mechanic. Rawlings would simply take that, soup it up, and sell it. “I based everything on the brand on What could my dad have done when I was 10 or 15 years old?” Rawlings says. “He was barbecuing in the backyard and drinking Coors and cleaning his Mustang. That’s the ideology of Gas Monkey. And that’s kind of what I do on every decision we make.”
Because he needed a business before they could sell a show about a business, Rawlings hired Aaron Kaufman, a Fort Worth mechanic who had previously worked on some cars for him, and in 2004 the pair opened Gas Monkey Garage in a tiny 1,200-square-foot shop without running water or heat and air. For the next two years, they traveled around the country, sometimes for months at a time, hitting car shows, swap meets, trade events, rallies, and anything else they could think of to get the Gas Monkey name out there.
All the while, like he does with the Lamborghini owner in Florida, Rawlings pestered Discovery. He had studied the credits of all the automotive shows on the air, seeing what production companies they used, their management and agencies, and assembled his dream team out of that. He paid to film four sizzle reels showing off his wares. He kept getting close, almost there. This went on for eight years. He compares the experience to the board game Chutes and Ladders: A bunch of new hires would come in at Discovery and he’d have to start all over, again and again. He jokes that they eventually gave him a show just to shut him up.
While he did that, Rawlings needed cash, so he and his wife bought Home Care Providers of Texas -- a home-healthcare company, of all things. He needed something more stable bringing money in, and he saw this was a good business he could get his arms around, so he jumped on it.
“I wasn’t giving up,” he says. “I was still making my calls. I still wanted the show. But it was like, Golly. I needed to just get my mind focused and cleared. It turned out to be a good deal, because I was able to triple the size of that company in the few months. I was just trying to let my head clear.”
When Fast N’ Loud debuted in 2012, the Gas Monkey team was still squeezed into the tiny shop. But Rawlings knew that wouldn’t last for long. With the pressure of getting the show on the air gone, everything was about to get bigger -- and fast. This was the part he had been waiting for. He had sold Gas Monkey. Now it was time to sell himself.
On the floor of Gas Monkey’s headquarters, there is a thick white line, more than a foot wide, separating the offices from the shop. No matter what is happening, once he crosses that line, Rawlings knows he has to be camera-ready. They film every day. That’s why he had it painted there.
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Of course, it might be easier for him than most people. He swears there isn’t any difference between how he is on camera and off. When he does speaking appearances, he always asks the first question: “Is the Richard I see on TV going to be the same Richard I see today?” Then he cracks open a beer and tells them, “Damn sure is.”
But it’s not quite true, actually. There are two Richards. No one who has seen the guy throwing up devil horns on Fast N’ Loud would expect him to be the head of a home-healthcare company -- easily the least likely part of his rock ’n’ roll portfolio. But his time spent running Home Care Providers of Texas served a valuable purpose. When the Gas Monkey brand began to take off, Rawlings was ready. He’d already figured out his management style, and he knew how to handle a large workforce in a rapidly expanding business.
“I’m not an authoritarian leader,” he says. “If I believe in you enough to hire you, and I’ve looked at your credentials, and you say you’re gonna do X, then you’re either gonna do it or not. I don’t need to micromanage you. It’ll be real evident real quick if you can or can’t.”
This is critical, because as Gas Monkey grows, Rawlings is forced to delegate more and more. “I just keep pushing things onto plates,” he says. “And there’s a lot of plates out there spinning. It’s the one thing a lot of people don’t get: They hold on too tight.”
Besides, he says, it’s more important to him to be the owner than the boss. In his businesses, Rawlings takes on the same role he has on the show. He has the idea, he makes the deal and then he trusts his team to do the work. That gives him control and keeps his brand from becoming diluted -- the fate of many celebrity-driven brands.
“You get an amount of success and celebrity and your door starts getting knocked on: Hey, I wanna make cellphone cases with your name on it. Or all these different things. I learned that on the big items -- the restaurants, the tequila, the energy drink, the apparel and things like that -- most of the time I’m a majority owner. It’s 90 percent of my money, usually. Other than the large-scale branding and licensing deals, like the shirts and hats at Walmart and Kohl’s, I own those companies and I am backing them. So the authenticity of Gas Monkey and Richard comes through.”
Not every idea clicks, though. He thought he could replicate Gas Monkey Garage with a show called Misfit Garage, which features a couple of his former mechanics and their Fired Up garage. He wanted a competing brand. He wanted to own both Coke and Pepsi. “And it just didn’t work.” The Fired Up apparel line he tried to launch failed. If people were going to spend $20 on one show’s T-shirt, he learned, it was going to be on Gas Monkey Garage.
Even when it comes to cars, he can’t flip everything. Rawlings says he’s made as much as $300,000 on a car. But in late 2017, he sold $800,000 worth of cars at a loss of about 30 percent. He didn’t believe a market would develop for them. “It turned out to be pretty smart,” he says, “because that guy hasn’t been able to sell one of ’em.”
Sometimes he says he can tell before he walks out of the gate that a car that just arrived on a trailer is not the one he needs. He’ll decide then and there to get rid of it. Like he says: Move fast.
Asking Richard Rawlings how many cars he owns is a question whose answer varies depending on the hour. At the moment, he says, there are 40, maybe 50 at his compound. “But I’m in the business,” he says. “They’re all for sale. I only have about four or five I wouldn’t sell. The rest of them are just inventory I get to play with.”
He’s sitting behind the wheel of a Dodge Charger Hellcat in the parking lot. It’s a bodybuilder in a three-piece suit, a four-door sedan with a top speed of 204 mph and Rawlings is grinning at the prospect of letting loose the 707 barely reined-in horses under the hood. “Should I give it to ’em?” he asks, making the 6.2-liter V-8 growl.
Rawlings is taking us to lunch at his Gas Monkey Bar N’ Grill, a couple of miles of highway away and a short walk from Gas Monkey Live, the 2,000-capacity concert venue where Mötley Crüe and Jane’s Addiction have played.
He decides he should, in fact, give it to ’em and jams on the accelerator. The Hellcat shimmies back and forth across the cement lot and almost rams a wrought-iron gate before it comes shuddering to a stop. It’s a preview. The short drive to the restaurant promises to be both fast and loud.
It’s neither. We get stuck behind a convoy of four lumbering trucks from a nearby asphalt plant. The interstate becomes a carpool line at an elementary school, the speedometer barely nudging above 30 the entire way. We might as well be in my beat-up Honda Element.
Rawlings comes to Gas Monkey Bar N’ Grill two or three times a week for lunch, if for no other reason than to be seen. Sure enough, not long after we sit down at a table near the bar, an older woman comes up and asks if she could trouble him for a photo. He leaps to his feet. He always does. He’s missed flights before, he says, because “those are the people who put steak on the table.”
Over the course of an hour and a plate of sliced steak, Rawlings talks about the future. His production company has more shows in the works, with the goal of having something new with his name attached to it on Discovery every week of the year. He wants to take Fast N’ Loud to more countries -- which has as much to do with extending and solidifying the reach of the brand as it does keeping the show fresh, to him and to the audience. He mentions at least one product -- the Gas Monkey Grill -- that I wouldn’t be surprised to see in stores, in a box with flames licking at the corners, coming for George Foreman’s crown. He talks about opening a car museum in the Gas Monkey complex. He talks about the restaurants -- some Gas Monkey Bar N’ Grills, some Richard Rawlings’ Garages -- in Texas, Key West and one going into the Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut. He talks about his plans to open a location in Vegas -- where he says all his constituencies overlap.
“Being shown in 80-plus countries and translated into 17 languages has garnered us such a wide group of people that recognize our brand,” he says. “[Vegas] will be a full-on destination every day of the week for whoever happens to be there.”
Rawlings makes these grand pronouncements about all his business interests. He wants to be the Simon Cowell or Ryan Seacrest of the automotive-lifestyle genre. “My goal is not to have the brand I have now,” Rawlings says. “I’d like to have a billion-dollar brand before I’m done. And it’s actually feasibly possible. You can put all the fluff value on stuff -- like what is your tequila’s possible worth if you sold it? What is your energy drink? Well, forget all the possibilities. I look at it like: What did we do last year? If you add all the entities, we’re probably a $60, $65 million brand right now -- of actual sales, not value. So what are we really worth? And that number gets to be pretty interesting pretty quick.”
He tips the waitress with a $100 bill, and we get back in the Hellcat, headed back to the shop for an afternoon of pickup shots for the show. The highway didn’t work out before, so Rawlings doesn’t bother with it this time. He just takes a winding route past the asphalt plant. He’s going slow, but he’s thinking fast.