‘Vegas Rat Rods’ celebrates inner beauty

The valley already is home to “Counting Cars” and “American Restoration,” reality shows that take old things and make them look nice and shiny.

“Vegas Rat Rods” (10 p.m. May 19, Discovery Channel) is nearly the complete opposite of that.

Las Vegas native Steve Darnell and his team at Welder Up pick through junkyards and swap meets to turn old cars into “Mad Max”-meets-“Frankenstein” works of art.

“Since the ’90s, I think people have just lost the reality of what vehicles are, and they just take ’em and turn them into, like, Tammy Faye Bakkers,” Darnell says. “They’re just so fake that they’re not even like a cool hot rod anymore.”

Plenty of people will spend upwards of $100,000 restoring a hot rod only to be left with something they’re scared to take out of their garage, lest it get scratched or end up on the wrong end of a bird’s digestive tract. Darnell and his crew, made up of family and friends he’s known for 30 years, make their beautiful monstrosities for less than a third of that.

“I think the shiny paint is just kind of boring anymore,” Darnell says. “I think you (should) just take the natural patina of something that’s 80 years old and leave it and build everything around that brand new.”

At Welder Up, it’s all about adding character, whether that means using prison-style electric chairs as seats or mason jars as taillights. And the inevitable door dings that will come from everyday use just complement that aesthetic.

“They’re just creative. They’re artistic,” Darnell says. “They’re put together in a way that you can just have fun with it and just enjoy building a hot rod.”

The Welder Up team, whose members include a Dave and a Barber Dave, as well as a female apprentice named Twiggy, had just 115 days to build eight cars for this first season.

Darnell says he had been approached by various production companies going back to 2008, but each potential series ultimately fell through. Now, though, there’s “Vegas Rat Rods.” Even if Darnell isn’t crazy about the name.

“The word ‘rat rod’ is such a disgrace,” he says. “People just immediately think, ‘What a pile of (excrement).’ ”

He prefers the term “fab rod,” because of the amount of fabrication each build entails.

“They’ve got good brakes. They’ve got good steering. They’ve got brand new wheels and tires. … They’re really deceiving looking,” Darnell says.

“One of my cars makes almost a thousand horsepower, and it looks like it don’t even move. And it will blow your doors off and scare the (excrement) out of you and make you want to go home and pee your pants. That’s how aggressive and scary it is.”

Much like his creations, which are loud and rough around the edges, Darnell is no shrinking violet.

“I’m so sick and tired of seeing the Priuses and the Bimmers and the frickin’ Porsches and this and that,” he declares.

“It’s fun, but if I’m driving down the Strip in my ’28 Dodge with a diesel motor hanging out the top of it, and there’s a Lamborghini sittin’ right next to me, no one even looks at the Lamborghini.”

Contact Christopher Lawrence at or 702-380-4567.

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