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[Weekly Q&A]

Danny ‘The Count’ Koker on reality show fame and a ride ‘so pimpy, it’s disgusting’

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One-time vampire Elvis and current reality TV star Danny “The Count” Koker sits in a restored hearse.
Photo: Beverly Poppe

If you’ve ever wondered what happens to a guy who travels with his family in a Christian singing group as a child, grows up to host a local Saturday night horror program as a vampire Elvis (using an Eastern European accent learned from his immigrant grandparents), and turns his lifelong love of cars and motorcycles into a successful business, then you might tune into History Channel’s Counting Cars (Tuesdays, 10 p.m.), which starts filming its second season this fall.

There you will find the 6-foot-2, long-haired biker Danny “The Count” Koker, whose extensive knowledge of cars and motorcycles matches his unbridled passion for them.

The show follows Koker—a Pawn Stars regular—and his posse at Count’s Kustoms on South Highland Drive as they search for clunkers to transform into slick, stylized muscle machines with massive engines and vintage integrity—doing so with such dedication that anyone with a pulse is likely to marvel at the outcomes, whether or not they have motor oil in their veins.

But this isn’t just a show about flipping cars and building bikes. It gives a glimpse into the business and the lives of characters who love their toys, like Koker and his bestie, Kevin, who drive the streets of Las Vegas, convincing owners of sleek hot rods to pull over (sometimes chasing them) for a closer look. It nearly always results in Koker offering cash to the drivers, who often aren’t ready to let go of their babies. When it comes to purchasing clunkers, there’s plenty of razzing between the guys at the shop over whether or not a legitimate investment has been made.

But there are also touching stories that come with the job. In one episode, Tom Urbanski, paralyzed from the waist down after being shot outside a Las Vegas nightclub where he worked, tells Koker and his crew that he wants to ride a motorcycle again. Just when you’re thinking there’s no motorcycle to accommodate Urbanski and his wheelchair, these guys make it happen, building a motorcycle that Urbanski operates from the sidecar while his wife rides on the saddle.

If there’s anyone who empathizes with the need to feel the wind in his hair, it’s Koker. He’s spent his life on motorcycles, and he and his team are hell-bent on making dreams come true, whether it’s seeing a paralyzed man back on a bike or turning a clunker of a ’68 Mustang Fastback into an exact replica of Steve McQueen’s ride in Bullitt for Rick Harrison of Pawn Stars.

There are some people who couldn’t care less about cars, yet they’re infatuated with your show. What’s the secret? I feel like the show talks to everyone. I’m addicted to the weekend how-to shows, but that audience is really narrow—just for geeks like me who like to watch someone take something apart and put it back together. Our show gives you the cars, the bikes and shows you the business. And you get a certain amount of lifestyle.

Are you surprised that viewers find it entertaining? They told us, “People are laughing. They think you’re so funny.” I said, “Really?” That’s just us every day. I find it fortunate that people find it entertaining. One of my favorite things about the show is that they keep it real for us. What we’re doing to the cars and bikes is real. The business aspect is real. We’re fun and goofy and having a good time and taking care of business.

The show also has some touching moments, like the Urbanski episode. Absolutely. I thought this was a show about cars. I had no idea aspects of this show were going to turn into human interest. We’re getting so many letters. Tom used to ride a [Harley-Davidson] Heritage Softail all the time. He really wanted to get out in the wind. I get it. It’s so good for your soul, clears your head, gives you time to think or to not think. Tom can now get back in the wind and ride. All by himself.

Much of the show has you and the guys haggling about cars and whether you can flip ’em. What is the deal with you and cars? I truly am one of those nutcases about cars and bikes. I’ve been that way all my life. It’s never stopped for me. I lose track of the financial side. It’s the eternal conflict with my creative side and finances. Scott [the money guy] and Kevin really have this struggle in real life with me.

You seem like a tight-knit group. I’ve collected great bikes and cars, but I’ve also collected some great people. I’ve got a strong group of guys. They’re here because of the talent they can bring to the business, and the shop has been growing and growing, and all of a sudden the television show happens.

Your mom lives in Las Vegas. Does she watch the show? Oh, yeah. Mom’s way cool. She’s another person who just loves cars. She watches all the time. Gives me her opinion.

Does her opinion still matter? Absolutely. It’s the one that counts. I love my mom. Mom and I talk every day.

A 1935 Chevy Master Coupe featured on History Channel's <em>Counting Cars</em>

A 1935 Chevy Master Coupe featured on History Channel's Counting Cars

You were also pretty close with your dad. My dad and I were best friends and business partners. He was the one person who taught me so much about business and about life. He was the rock star of the family. I’m just trying to fill his shoes. When I lost Dad I kinda lost my mind. I went crazy. I had to get busy. I opened the tattoo shop, started a band. All by design to occupy my brain—if I sit idle, I’ll go to bad places in my brain.

Talk about traveling with the Christian group Rex Humbard Singers as child. I traveled the entire world and back with my Uncle Rex and my family. The Humbard family and Koker family just meshed as one. There was a bond created there that was truly amazing.

What kind of music did you sing? All gospel music. My father was very well versed in black gospel and Southern gospel. That’s what I grew up on.

Are people surprised by that? Nobody can believe that. And I’m still the same guy. I’m a Christian guy. I say my prayers nightly and firmly believe in the man upstairs. I’m very blessed. Like everybody else, I have my bad days. That’s what we have the Lord for.

You’re in a band, Zito 77, which started after an open mic night at your bar, Count’s Vamp’d. After four or five songs, we looked at each other and said, “Are you guys smelling what I’m smelling?” When we started it was decent; over the course of the year my voice came back. I hadn’t sung in about 20 years.

Going into the show’s second season, business must be good. Absolutely. I feel blessed. About two years ago, the Pawn Stars guys asked if I’d start doing stuff for them. I jumped on it. The economy tanked, and I’ve seen good guys fold up shop. What I build here are toys. Toys don’t do well in a bad economy. I thank God for it every day. My market is now larger than the 2 million people in the Las Vegas Valley. It’s the entire nation and other parts of the world.

Do people recognize you now when you pull them over to look at their cars? They now know. It’s not so scary. Nine times out of 10 they recognize my cars, but I’ve done that for years.

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Often you try to buy the car on the spot, but they’re attached to it. Can you relate? Absolutely. Yesterday was a tough one for me. I rarely sell my personal stuff, but a couple from Dallas came here and fell in love with one of my cars, so I sold it. For the past 24 hours I’ve been verklempt.

Hanging your head? Absolutely. I feel like I put a piece of me in it. But you feel good when you know it’s going to a good home.

You rarely, if ever, sell your cars. What was their trick? They wanted it worse than me.

The Count and his cars

His car collection Koker owns more than 50 restored cars and motorcycles; many are on display at Count’s Kustoms. Fans of the show stop in for tours of the showroom floor.

The car that began it all A 1966 Mustang GT that his father drove piqued his interest—white with blue stripes. Koker still drives the car today. “My father bought it when I was 9. That started the whole thing. He bought it from a gentleman in Cleveland who kept it in a carpeted, heated garage. I’d go in there and look under the hood.”

Favorite car “It’s hard for me. I don’t know. I love so many different cars for so many different reasons. I’m a huge Shelby fan, the Mustangs from the ’60s.”

On driving his collection “I’ll bust ’em out on a regular basis. This weekend I’m going to bust out my superfly Cadillac Eldorado with Dunham Coach work. It was in several blaxploitation moves, sold to a pimp in New York; now I got it for myself. It’s so pimpy, it’s disgusting. This is the only the third one I’ve seen.”

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Kristen Peterson

Kristen Peterson joined the Las Vegas Sun in 1998 as a general assignment reporter. In 2003, she turned her focus ...

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