New reality TV show centers around Las Vegas auto customizer

"Absolutely, I’m a wacko."

Danny Koker isn’t talking about some of the outrageous modifications he’s overseen at his garage, Count’s Kustoms. Or even his years as local B-movie host Count Cool Rider.

He’s referring to his habit of driving around the valley until a car or motorcycle catches his eye, then chasing the drivers through traffic – questionable U-turns, high speeds and all – until they pull over long enough for him to make a cash offer for their rides.

Viewers can see this craziness for themselves beginning Monday on History’s "Counting Cars," which just as easily could have been called "See If This Is the Week Danny Koker Gets Himself Killed."

"I’m always nervous when Danny does this stuff," Count’s Kustoms general manager Kevin Mack says in one episode. "Some day, somebody’s gonna pull out a shotgun."

But while most of Koker’s business – not to mention a good chunk of the series – involves customizing clients’ vehicles, he still loves "flipping" cars and bikes. Which is where the chase scenes come in.

"If it’s already for sale … you’re already too late," Koker says during an interview. "You gotta get there first."

One place Koker, 47, didn’t arrive first, though, was the reality smash "Pawn Stars," despite his having known the show’s Harrison family for years.

He wasn’t their original car and bike expert, but he certainly connected with viewers and, more importantly, producers. Koker’s spinoff – debuting at 10:30 p.m. Monday before settling into its regular 10 p.m. Tuesday slot – has been in development, he says, "almost since the first time we shot a ‘Pawn Stars’ episode here in the shop."

It’s easy to see why.

Count’s Kustoms, 2714 S. Highland Drive, more closely resembles a museum or one of the Fantasy Suites at the Palms than a working garage. And beneath the tattoos and ever-present bandana and sleeveless workshirt that make him look like the WWE’s Undertaker circa 2001, Koker’s an entertaining, gregarious guy.

In addition to Mack, he’s joined on the series by shop manager Scott Jones, as well as detailer Roli, parts picker "Big Ryan" and airbrush artist "Horny" Mike, whose name stems from his obsession with putting 3-D horns on everything in sight.

Koker is the second "Pawn Stars" expert to land a spinoff, following Rick Dale’s "American Restoration." And History is launching it much the same way, with a crossover episode.

In Monday’s sneak preview, Rick Harrison hauls in a beat-up 1968 Mustang Fastback for the team to transform into a replica of Steve McQueen’s iconic car from "Bullitt."

"That was brutal, man. … That car was a basket case," Koker recalls. "It was like we built a Mustang out of a pile of turds."

Koker still seems shellshocked from the sheer volume of work, but he says it ended up being "one of my favorite cars that we’ve done out of this place."

And he’s full of nothing but praise for Harrison.

"Rick’s just been a godsend," Koker says. "This guy has just been in my corner the whole time. He’s been waving my flag. He’s been personally involved with the production company and personally involved with the network. And he really believes in what we’re doing over here."

Koker compares Harrison’s advice on how to simultaneously run a business and a TV show to both a playbook and a cheat sheet.

"And when things get absolutely overwhelming," he admits, "Rick’s the first guy to be, like, ‘Dude, don’t sweat it, man. Just keep doing what you’re doing. Everything’s going to be great.’ And he’s been right. Every step along the way has played out like he said."

The other person who helped prepare Koker for the rigors of reality TV? Count Cool Rider.

Koker’s family owned KFBT-TV, Channel 33 (now KVCW-TV) during the 1990s. But, lacking a newscast, there was no one to represent the station in the community – until they launched "Saturday Fright at the Movies."

Once again, though, Koker wasn’t the first choice. The original host’s alien character didn’t connect with the audience, and he was gone after about a month. Koker then went on the air as a vampire – "but very Vegas-y, so he was an Elvis vampire."

It was during this time that Koker began taking his love of cars and motorcycles more seriously, easing it from a hobby into a business. Those two worlds collided earlier this year when he worked with Cassandra Peterson – better known as Elvira, Mistress of the Dark – on "Counting Cars." ("When you see that episode, you’ll dig it," he promises. "It’s just fun.")

"Saturday Fright at the Movies" ran 10 years, cranking out 40-45 episodes a year, making it "an excellent training ground," Koker says.

Casual viewers may think producing reality TV is as simple as turning on the cameras for a couple of hours, but the grind can be brutal. Especially when your show involves hundreds of hours of work on a project that will get only a few minutes of screen time.

"We’re working around the clock," Koker says. "Certain parts of my company start at 4 a.m., and we don’t lock the doors, technically, till probably midnight or 1 a.m. And this has been daily now for three months. So everybody is a little slaphappy."

Some employees during a recent visit were starting to move like extras on "The Walking Dead," and one was trying to take a nap in the kitchen. Koker, though, can’t thank them enough for their dedication.

"Thank God for my team. My team is just – they’re awesome," he gushes. "Everybody has just rolled up their sleeves and jumped in and said, ‘We’re going to do this.’ "

Now they’re bracing for whatever "this" might become.

"I’m scared," Koker says, laughing. "I’m a little nervous. I mean, we get a tour bus that shows up every day at 3 o’clock. We’ve got people flying in from everywhere. You never know who’s going to walk through the building."

He estimates he has 20 cars lined up waiting to be worked on, shipped by viewers from around the country.

"And the show’s not on the air yet," he marvels. "I’m a guest. I’m an inch worth of a guest on another guy’s show, and the place is already getting insane."

But he’s grateful for every bit of it.

"These are the best problems to have. If these are the problems I’m faced with, thank God for these problems.

"I’ve just been really blessed. I’m a lucky guy," Koker concludes. "Being involved with ‘Pawn Stars’ and getting our own television show is straight up a blessing, man.

"I count my blessings daily."

Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence@review or 702-380-4567.

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