Len von Speedcult, né Len Puch, is a metal fabricator and artist, a musician, and also a bit of a mixologist. "Let's go make some cocktails!" he exclaims, rubbing his hands together, eyes wide with infectious glee. We are at the von Speedcult compound, about 15 minutes west of the Detroit airport, located off of a dirt road.
"This is where Sasquatch lives," Len tells me as we traipse through the pitch-black backyard to the Speedcult studio
I don't spot any Sasquatch or flying saucers, but this is where the Speedcult team lives and works. The core team is Tina Casey (Len's best friend of 25 years), Tim Casey (Tina's husband), Paul Hengy, Bryan Fox and Len, who is the creative force of the operation. The main house is where Tina, Tim and Len live; the huge studio (think more like a warehouse/garage) where they do all their screen-printing and metal work is out back, right next to the rollercoaster.
The "Roaster Coaster" is part of the Speedcult "Abusement Park;" think of it as the carny classic Zipper on a U-shaped track straight up in the air, in which you are locked in a cage then thrust into a free-fall that makes the cage spin… and spin… and spin… backwards and forwards and forwards and back… until it runs out of inertia. (They tell me no one has puked on it but I'm not sure I believe them.) Oh, it also shoots flames and there are two go-go cages.
Speedcult is a custom metalworking cult shop that caters to hot rod culture. That can mean custom hot rod grills with flames and skulls, sure, but it also means any number of other different household objects -- hula girl and tiki god paper towel holders, liquor cages with devil girls, metal signs that announce "In Rust We Trust" and "Beware of Zombie" -- pretty much anything that appeals to the rockabilly hot rod car culture to trick out your home or garage in goth, tiki, sci-fi, horror cult and monster movie aesthetic metal arts (like devil girls in pin-up poses, skulls and flames). Hot rod culture embraces a loud, hard, and fast lifestyle -- loud music, fast cars, booze and sex -- and that's the Speedcult audience.
Len started working with metal back in high school, when he took a machine shop class with a teacher who motivated and inspired him. He not only learned how to make things, he also learned that he really likes to make things.
And that's what he has done with his life from that moment on: he has made things. First he made music, in bands with names like Country Bob & the Bloodfarmers
and Snake-Out. His punk-gore-psychobilly-trash rock outfits in the early ‘80s constructed the template for what Detroit garage would become (i.e., DETROIT GARAGE). Your modern-day 20-something hipster might look back fondly on the "old days" of Detroit garage, glorifying the "originators" of the scene widely accepted to be the Gories. Well, Len produced their first album on his Wanghead with Lips
label, and it was recorded in a barn. Len is more than just a staple of the local garage scene; he is an unsung hero.
As he learned that once a band gets their meager cut of the door they really don't make much money, he learned how to screen-print and started making T-shirts to sell for a little extra cash. He also builds his own screen-printing machines where all the Speedcult merch is made.
Then Len, ever the fun-loving thrill-seeker, starting racing cars at the racetrack in Flat Rock. As he became more immersed in hot rod culture, he started making customized metal art pieces for himself and his hot-rodding friends. People kept asking him for more and in 1999 Speedcult was officially born.
And so, they make things. Like rollercoasters. And jet cars. And old Chevy trucks that look like scary metal monsters. And human-powered dragsters. And vortex tunnels. (Why? Because why not!) In 2003 they took the Roaster Coaster to Burning Man
, an annual arts festival and pop-up city that brings tens of thousands of people to the middle of Nevada's Black Rock Desert for a week of "community, art, self-expression and self-reliance." It is well-known in the worldwide arts scene as the kind of place where anything goes. Anything. The "burning" part is a strong element of the festival, so the Roaster Coaster fit right in and Speedcult started getting some serious attention.
Serious enough to eventually attract the attention of the National Geographic Channel's Mad Scientists
, a show that focuses on backyard inventors and their weird, wacky inventions. The production team was in talks with Len for some time before finally filming their episode which aired for the first time on October 5; I'm here tonight to watch the episode with the group and play the continuity flaw drinking game (drink each time Len's hat changes colors from black to green and back to black; also drink every time someone says "Correct"). Len is in the kitchen mixing up a vodka-grapefruit-St. Germain concoction (turns out Len is quite the St. Germain
fan). Tina shouts, "It's on!" from the living room and we rush over.
The show, which takes the creations of these backyard inventors and super-sizes them, focuses on their attempt to transform their human-powered backyard dragster into a 26-foot lawn dart that will shoot you out at 3-4 Gs (with speed up to 50mph) just to snap you back like a slingshot.
The show gives viewers an inside look into the world of Speedcult, and in particular inside Len's head. This is the guy who started Detroit Santarchy
, the annual Christmas pub crawl of misfit toys and "naughty" listers, just because he thought it would be fun (the event now attracts over 1,000 people). Len's endearing, childlike enthusiasm comes through clearly on the show -- he is regularly described in media as "one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet" and this is a truth as absolute as gravity.
Speedcult is what happened to the boy who never wanted to grow up. "I just want to make cool things and have fun," Len says with a smile that makes his eyes twinkle. He is a tattooed post-punk Peter Pan, but not in a juvenile, stunted adolescence kind of way -- in a "I have a successful local business that gets national attention, and also a rollercoaster in my backyard" sort of way. No matter what's next for Len and his Speedcult team you can be damn sure they'll have fun doing it.
Nicole Rupersburg is a freelance writer and popular Metro Detroit food blogger. Read her blog at http://www.eatitdetroit.com