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An Article from the October 2003 JOM: A Hypertext-Enhanced Article
|The author of this article is managing editor of JOM.||
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Feature: The Arts
Practical Engineering in TV's Impractical Engineering Shows: Monster Garage and Junkyard Mega-Wars
Figure 1. Monster Garage star Jesse James.
In the office he’s William Yerazunis,
PhD. On the Junkyard Mega-Wars set, he’s Crash, team captain and self-proclaimed
nerd. Yerazunis, who works
as a research scientist at Mitsubishi
Electric Research Laboratories, is a
regular on the The Learning Channel (TLC)’s Junkyard Mega-Wars, a program
in which two teams compete to
build a vehicle from discarded materials.
This show and others like it have become
a trend in cable: reality TV with sparks
flying, machinery whining, and, on most
days, creativity flourishing.
Television audiences are fickle, so the trend may soon go the way of the battling robots that were a cable phenomenon a few years ago. For now, though, viewers can choose from several programs that feature craftsmanship and competition. Along the way, they might learn a bit about science—Yerazunis said his program offers “stealth science”—pick up an idea or two for a new tattoo, and perhaps come to appreciate the skill that goes into creating projects as ordinary as motorcycles or as odd as scrap-metal submarines.
At the annual meeting of the American
Welding Society (AWS) in April, the
star was not the laser welding equipment
or flashy robotic products. Instead, men
in suits and hardhats, young and old,
lined up at the ESAB Welding and
Cutting Products booth to meet Jesse
James, star of the Discovery Channel’s
Monster Garage and hero of the welding
world. Some brought welding gloves to
be signed, others carried their meeting
programs. No one seemed bothered by the tattoos covering James’ forearms, the
knit cap pulled down over his eyebrows,
or the seemingly gruff demeanor.
“For the most part, people put aside whatever prejudices they might have had,” said Rusty Franklin of the American Welding Society. “They were looking at the skill and the accomplishment. It didn’t matter if he had a zillion tattoos, a whole bunch of earrings, and body piercings; from the perspective of welding and joining metals he does relate to the youth of today.”
Jesse James (distantly related to the wild-west outlaw of the same name) was already legendary among motorcycle enthusiasts when he was discovered by Thom Beers, executive producer of Monster Garage. In 2001, Beers wanted to create a special program about custom motorcycle builders and was looking for a star with the right mix of personality and craftsmanship. When he met James, he stopped looking.
Beers created Motorcycle Mania starring James at work in his California shop, West Coast Choppers, where he shapes metal into one-of-a-kind bikes for a client list that includes athletes and celebrities. The program was an instant success. “The numbers were just huge,” Beers said. “In the first one (which was soon followed by Motorcycle Mania 2) Jesse hand-built a tank from scratch. When that film aired everyone couldn’t stop talking about it. That’s what told me people are fascinated with real craftsmen.” Beers decided to tap that audience with the Monster Garage series (Figure 1). Each week, a group of mechanically inclined people joined James in a garage to convert a conventional vehicle into something new and odd: a sport utility vehicle became a garbage truck; a racecar was changed into a street sweeper (Figure 2). There was a time limit, a budget, and numerous shots of James applying power tools and imagination to the challenge of the week.
The teams were carefully assembled to combine particular abilities. “We usually look for skills associated with each of the builds,” Beers said. “Everybody’s got to have welding skills, everybody’s got to have fabricating skills.” Although college degrees are not necessary for success, problem-solving skills are essential. “Some of the engineering feats are extraordinary,” Beers said.
Again, Beers found a formula with an eager audience and the series in September launched its second season.
“Every week we get three million homes that tune in,” he said. “That’s great for cable.” And, it turns out, great for the welding profession.
The creative shows on cable, especially
Monster Garage and Junkyard
Mega-Wars, have attracted the kind of
attention of which the AWS’s Image of
Welding Committee could only have
dreamed. The committee was formed
several years ago, said Chairman Rusty
Franklin, after a media report that
welding ranked as one of the ten worst
jobs in America.
“There is a perception that welding jobs are not good-paying jobs, they’re not necessarily skilled jobs, they’re dirty,” Franklin said. The committee created television commercials reminding viewers of the value of welding in everyday life, but when cable television programs began to showcase metal crafting, the profession received a publicity boost that was like a gift to the committee. “Those shows portray a very positive image,” Franklin said. “Both those shows demonstrate that even non-welders are fascinated by the skill set of those people and how creative they can be in producing whatever their task is.”
The appeal of shows such as Monster Garage, Franklin believes, comes not with the final product, but with the process of creating it, although, as shown in Figure 3, the end results are eye-catching. As for James himself, “the guy is an incredibly skilled welder,” Franklin said. “He’s driven by his creativity and skill.”
During his appearance at the American Welding Society show, James took time to visit some highly impressed tradeschool students who were participating in a welding competition. “He’s an awesome designer and an amazing fabricator,” said Miles Tilley of Ann Arbor, Michigan. Both James and Franklin believe that schools need to place more emphasis on the kinds of skills James was taught in high school shop classes. Both think his popularity could help lure students back into such classes. “I get a lot of e-mails from shop teachers,” James said. The teachers tell him their classes were half full before Monster Garage went on the air. “Now, their classes are full,” he said. Beers said a nonprofit organization is being planned to benefit high school shop classes, which face budget cuts in many school districts. Tentatively called the Jesse James Fund for Industrial Arts, the organization will auction, on-line, items such as Monster Garage vehicle parts and autographed tools.
Figure 3. A school bus that was transformed into a pontoon boat floats on Monster Garage.
Figure 4. A Junkyard Wars team prepares to compete.
When Monster Garage debuted in 2002, Junkyard Wars already had a solid following dating back to its debut on U.S. television in 1999. The show evolved from a British program called Scrapheap Challenge, in which two teams built an assigned project using materials scavenged from a junkyard. The current Junkyard Mega-Wars program debuted in August. Throughout the program’s evolution, the engineering challenges have been consistently daunting—teams have recycled materials into creations that have flown, hovered, and floated, all under a ten-hour construction deadline (Figure 4). Bill Yerazunis, who started on the show as a competitor and this year is a regular as a team captain, said he is always impressed with the unusual solutions people find to their problems. “Everybody has a spark of genius in them,” he said.
|To show they are clever enough to compete on Junkyard Wars, and now, Junkyard Mega-Wars, teams must submit a video showcasing their skills. A group of acquaintances calling themselves the New England Rubbish Deconstruction Society, or the Nerds, made up of Jeff “DP” Del Papa, a bicycle builder and mechanic, George “Geo” Homsy, a graduate student of biology and robotics, and William “Crash” Yerazunis, an expert on artificial intelligence, applied their high-tech experience to the construction of a low-tech device: the sewing machine. This is the video that won the Nerds an opportunity to engage in Junkward Wars.|
|Click Here to view this video as an .ra file using RealPlayer (~2.2Mb).|
Figure 5. Junkyard Mega-Wars captain Bill “Crash” Yerazunis shares his expertise.
To win a spot on the show, Yerazunis and several mechanically minded acquaintances created a video, as required by TLC, demonstrating their engineering know-how and creativity. In their tape, they assembled a crude supersized sewing machine from garage odds and ends. Each of the team members powered a component of the machine which can be seen in the sidebar). They gave themselves a clever name—the New England Rubbish Deconstruction Society, or Nerds—and won a spot in Junkyard Wars. The team had a successful run, winning their challenge and subsequent semi-final rounds, but losing in the final round. Among the projects the team constructed were a mini-submarine, a steam-powered car, and a dragster.
For the fall 2003 season, Yerazunis
was invited back as one of two captains
who, in a change from Junkyard traditions,
each week choose a team from
selected candidates and compete in a
challenge. Yerazunis is promoted as
the brainy team leader versus a more
brawny opponent, Richard Munsen,
known as Bowser. The captains are
given a construction assignment, such as
a snowmobile or rock-crawling vehicle.
The captains decide what to build and
what types of parts they will need, and
then each meets with Greg Bryant, the
show’s technical advisor. Bryant, who is
an engineer, helps fine-tune the designs.
Next, the captains select a team and
To build his team, Yerazunis looked for specific skills depending on the project. Someone who has built things before was always an asset. All the team members needed to have construction experience—the set was equipped with plasma cutters, oxy-acetylene torches, and metal inert gas and tungsten inert gas welding equipment, along with common hand tools, and everyone was needed to join in and build with them. Someone with knowledge of auto mechanics on a wide variety of vehicles was a bonus, along with a capable welder, but not necessarily of the type who builds buildings or cars. “Almost half of our ace welders are not structural welders, they’re industrial artists who spend 18 to 20 hours in the studio making something that’s beautiful that’s going to last for 50 years,” Yerazunis said (Figure 5).
Ivan McLean, a member of the Big Shots team from an earlier season, was just such an artist. McLean, who works as a metal sculptor, was drawn to the competition and creativity of Junkyard Wars. “I think we all have a common love, this feel for metals,” he said of the show’s participants.
Greg Bryant has experience in making
learning palatable, even fun. The technical
expert on Junkyard Mega-Wars,
who is an engineer, started his career
as a junior-college physics teacher. His
students were less than enthusiastic
about the subject, and Bryant was
determined to relate physics to the
world those students knew.
“Keeping them interested and motivated was the biggest challenge, trying to make physics something real for them in everyday life,” he said. “Like for the young men, trying to explain to them about the latent heat of fusion of ice and relate that to how much ice you bought to cool down a case of beer. If you can get them hooked slightly like that and translate these technical concepts into things they see and use every day, then it becomes much more realistic to them. Even though sometimes it doesn’t seem like they’re learning they actually are understanding the phenomena around them on a daily basis.” Bryant looks at Junkyard Mega-Wars the same way. “Certainly it’s about entertaining people, but just by watching it you will understand more about technical matters than you did had you not watched it, but you won’t even realize it.” He points to an episode in which the teams had to build a hovercraft out of junkyard materials. “People that watched the hovercraft show . . . may not have known you can drive vehicles around on a cushion of air or how a hovercraft worked. It was a very entertaining show but people came away with a clearer understanding of what was required to make a hovercraft work.”
Bryant compares the lessons taught on Junkyard Mega-Wars to those taught in the old Mr. Wizard science program. “Mr. Wizard would do these fascinating experiments that were almost magic—Junkyard Wars is an evolution of that,” he said. “But it also has people trying to make decisions based on things they have, and sometimes, most importantly, things that they don’t and they have to use an ingenious solution to work around the problem.”
Bryant qualifies as a Junkyard Mega-Wars expert based on his experience and education—he was formerly employed for Walt Disney’s “Imagineering” team, which performed engineering for the Walt Disney Company. He still works as a ride compliance engineer for Universal Studios.
Figure 6. Paul Teutul, Jr. demonstrates his skills on American Chopper, a Discovery Channel program about custom-motorcycle-building.
JESSE JAMES BRINGS MANUFACTURING TO THE MAINSTREAM
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