STREET OUTLAWS: Justin “Big Chief” Shearer Tells All
The sting of losing his first race to a Chevy Beretta launched Justin “Big Chief” Shearer into a life-long pursuit.
“I don’t even think it was a GT; it was just a Beretta and this kid wore me out. I vowed right then and there that I would have a car that a Beretta couldn’t outrun. And that’s how it all started,” he says.
These days, Shearer is a central character on the Discovery Channel’s surprise hit Street Outlaws show that follows a band of street racers climbing “The List” of Oklahoma’s fastest street cars. Alongside his buddy and business partner Shawn “Murder Nova” Ellington, Shearer orchestrates a cast with names like Doc, Farm Truck, Daddy Dave, Varley and Kamikaze, juggling egos and trash talk like a ringside wrestling promoter.
The cars are cool, too, including the likes of Shearer’s own twin-turbo’d ’69 GTO, Ellington’s obviously murdered-out ’69 Nova, the off-the-beaten-path ’96 Sonoma pick-up of Daddy Dave, and the fan-favorite ’70 Chevy pick-up of Farm Truck and sidekick AZN that surprisingly enough looks like a clapped-out farm truck, complete with an old dog that rides shotgun for most races.
What’s more, the show exposes at least a form of drag racing to a much wider audience than traditional race coverage could even dream of reaching. According to a Discovery Channel press release, the second-season finale in August delivered an average of 2.57 million viewers to claim the number-one spot among men aged 18 to 54 and was the third-most-watched show with no exclusions that Monday night, following only USA’s WWE Entertainment and NBC’s American Ninja Warrior.
For all its success, though, Street Outlaws also comes under frequent fire from more traditional drag racers who say the show glorifies dangerous street racing and frequently appears staged, far from the “street outlaw” image it claims to portray. Obviously aware, if somewhat surprised, of the show’s success and the flack it attracts, Shearer says critics have got it all wrong.
“I understand where they’re coming from, but in my opinion, we’re glorifying heads-up racing on a budget and instead of putting on the smallest tires we can find and then gluing them to the race track and talking about how cool we are, we’re just finding the shittiest road we can find and putting the biggest tire on and then talking about how cool we are,” he says, laughing.
“But I know there are guys out there going, ‘I do it (drag racing) the legal way and I do it the right way and the professional way and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, and here are these f**king idiot rednecks from Oklahoma who are street racing with slower cars than professional drag racers have and they are getting all the attention.’ You know what I mean? So how could they like it? I mean, I wouldn’t like it. I’d be like who the f**k are those guys? F**k those guys!”
As the lightning rod for a show that’s a lightning rod itself—and a very, very popular one at that—“Chief” agreed to speak with DRAG ILLUSTRATED recently about what the show means and what he and his street outlaw friends are really trying to accomplish.
What got you interested in cars and racing in the first place?
When I was growing up, our parents drove cool cars and they got passed down. When I was in high school, dude, there was nothing but rear-wheel drive, muscle everywhere, whether it was Fox-body Mustangs, F-body Camaros, LT-1 cars, or older Monte Carlo G bodies. Whatever it was, it was rear-wheel drive and it was a V8 and that’s way we did it. But high-school kids now, how can they want a cool car when they’re parents drive a f**king Tahoe?
And then after our generation, which I’m 33, after I graduated high school, then you have the whole gas boom crap and everything happened. So then everybody’s getting their parents’ hand-me-down cars and instead of getting Monte Carlos and Regals and Mustangs, cool cars, they’re getting Toyotas and Honda Accords.
But at least they still worked on them. People hated the Fast and Furious thing, but at least those kids modified their cars. They gave a shit enough to go out and do something with their car and nowadays it’s not like that. Now you go to the high school—drive by Putnam City High School, my old school—and right now you’ll see nothing but four-doors, just horrible SUVs everywhere and all they’re doing is putting stereo systems in them and then they just drive them back and forth to their f**king snow cone job. Nobody’s working at auto parts stores anymore and doing that shit, so we’re trying to bring that shit back.
I’m so glad to hear you say that because I think that’s what drag racing or car culture is missing right now; someone’s got to make it cool to have a badass car again. Somebody, like Street Outlaws or whatever, it’s good to see something happening in this day and age that’s making it fashionable to have a badass car again. The reach this show has is pretty unbelievable. You’ve got to feel good about your contribution as far as what the show is doing for the high performance industry, right?
We are; we’re still shocked. We had no idea. The whole thing, literally the whole damn thing, we had no idea. We didn’t know where it would go or how it would get there.
When I started the Web site (for The List) in, what was it? ’02 or ’03? I can’t remember. But it was 60 people. It was just our buddies and we thought that we were the baddest street racers in the world and once we were to the point where we could afford a trailer, we started driving around to figure it out. And every city has that group of guys who knows how to set up a ’78 Malibu, where you pack the tires on the street; put a set of V6 springs and an air bag in the right rear and that bitch will rock.
Then before you know it, we got Kyle from 1320 Video, we thought that was the craziest thing ever. He’s driving from Omaha, Nebraska, to Oklahoma City just to film us racing. I still don’t understand that. We just didn’t get it and then before you know it, those videos turned pretty popular on the Internet and then we had our own videos that were pretty popular, too.
But really the big thing was just the group of guys around here, we’ve all raced together for so long and we’re so goddamn competitive that before you know it, we’re at 25-hundred horsepower on the street and we’re looking back, going how the f**k did that happen?! And so when the show came out, we really—our producers, everyone thought this was going to be a one season, eight episodes and done deal. They were like, no one is going to watch it but we’re going to try and reap everything we can. So the first season, we just kicked as much ass as we could and did all the cool stuff we could think of. And then next thing you know, they’re like, ‘Hey, you guys aren’t that bad.’ And then they’re saying maybe we’ll do another season.
They’re like, ‘Oh my God, you guys are actually pretty good!’ And then before you know it, they’re telling us we’re number one on Discovery Channel.
And we’re like, what? I don’t get that. So it’s insane for us; we had no idea. And the high-performance industry has been so awesome. They are great. Thank God for kids who go to school for marketing because those guys are the only reasons that we’re still being able to race and afford it.
It’s cool to see that Street Outlaws has become a legitimate marketing medium for race companies. It’s part of those people’s advertising budget now.
Yeah, it’s great, we love it and it’s allowing us to race on a much more affordable level. But at the same time, nobody’s just giving us anything. So when this show gets cut, our cars are going to be f**king roll bars again. Everyone thinks that we’re super sponsored and everything’s free and all this other stuff, but I mean, honestly, I paid for almost everything on my car. The only thing that I think anybody has actually given me is stickers and t-shirts and banners. Everything else is pretty much paid for—and if I didn’t pay for it, then I’m paying for it one way or another.
Understand that even these giant companies, what I would consider a giant company would be like MSD or Racepak, manufacturing companies, those are huge companies to us and even they can’t afford a 30-second commercial during our show. That’s just crazy to me to even think that. So anything that we can do to support those guys, we’ve been running their shit for years, and it keeps us fast, so we’ll keep running everybody’s stuff because we like it, not just because they’re good to us.
The one thing I enjoy about the show compared to the NHRA and other racing organizations that do TV production, is the Discovery Channel seems to let you guys’ personalities be more of the show than the racing. I think that’s where a lot of other sanctions and NHRA miss the boat because they don’t invest enough time in letting people get to know the guys who drive these cars. Are you surprised at how central the characters are in the show? It’s not all about how to install parts and it’s not all racing; it’s a lot of human interest stuff.
It’s because we’re poor. Seriously. I don’t know the guys that run Top Fuel dragsters. Honestly, I don’t know what they act like, but I can imagine that some of those guys are f**king awesome but you’ll never know it because they’re scared to death to say it because whoever their giant sponsor is may not want to hear. It’s all about energy drinks and God and everything else, and that’s great if the owner of your car is a religious man, but dammit, you are making racing the most boring thing I’ve ever been a part of!
I’ve said this before and I’m not necessarily friends with the guy; I don’t even necessarily know the guy; but if “Stevie Fast” (Jackson) was to get a job driving one of those f**king cars, he could almost by his self bring drag racing back on national television. Because a guy like him is what they need. They need somebody, when he gets in front of the camera he doesn’t need to worry about what he’s saying. The damn sponsor name is already all down the side of the car; it’s on the helmet, it’s tattooed on the driver’s forehead; so why do you need to talk about it all the time? When Stevie Fast gets on the mic, he’ll tell you he’s there to break you and take all your money and all your parts and leave the place abandoned. And that’s what needs to happen. These guys need to talk about what a struggle it was to get to the starting line. We don’t even know. Were they barely able to make it up there? We should know everything that happened in order to make it to the starting line, how the car would hardly run, but they still went out and kicked John Force’s ass. If that’s what happened, how cool would it be to know that?
I believe the reason Street Outlaws is so popular is because people have fallen in love with the characters on the show. You guys don’t do that much racing; you do a lot more of talking shit and running your mouths and letting everybody get to know you. So everybody feels like they’re in the inner circle with you or whatever. So I don’t understand, especially when you look at the ratings and how badly you guys beat the NHRA’s programming on ESPN, you’d think they’d learn something.
Man, they won’t. The people that make decisions there are already rich. That’s the problem. And you get us who aren’t rich and we’re barely making it. Literally, I’m begging for money every chance I can get from everybody that I can trying to work on as many cars as we can and get everything we can in order to buy tires for the next race. And that’s where drag racing came from. Back in the day, you knew who they were because they worked their f**king asses off—and they told you about it. They weren’t afraid to tell you about it. They had attitude and they had ego and they were cocky because they had to be. They had something to prove. Now, all these drivers, the only thing they have to prove is that NAPA is better than O’Reilly’s or whatever because that’s who’s paying their bills right now. And I get it, I get why they’re like that, but dammit man, they’re killing drag racing by doing that.
So, do you think that’s the fault of the individual drivers or of NHRA’s and ESPN’s way of telling their stories?
Let me put it this way, nowadays you show my four-year-old son a picture of Jeff Gordon and he’ll tell you that’s Jeff Gordon, but you show him a picture of John Force and he has no clue who the dude is. But you show him a picture of a Castrol Funny Car and he knows that’s John Force. So that should tell you all you need to know; the fans are not associating with who these drivers are; they just know who the sponsor is.
And that’s the sucky part about it, man. Because if you take away all the bullshit, if you can see through all of it, these guys are still rebuilding these things in between rounds and they’re getting oil everywhere and they’re cussing and they’re throwing parts around and they’re dragging these cars to the starting line. Some of them, they don’t even know if they’re going to start. That still goes on. We just don’t know about it usually because they can’t act like that. They have to act like every time they’re 100-percent confident in their team and their sponsor and they got all the money in the world and oh, yeah, no, we got it together, we only had 75 minutes and we changed everything and it’s going to work. It’s fine. No problem. Instead of ‘I don’t know what the f**k this thing is going to do!’ They can’t do that because they’re afraid their sponsor will go, ‘What the hell is going on? This guy is trying to make me look like an idiot.’
Shifting gears here, are you at all surprised at how guys like Mike Murillo are coming out to run in no-prep races now? I’m sure it’s cool to see, but what are your thoughts on where no-prep races fit into the street racing scene?
Okay, everybody knows that a no-prep race is exactly the same as a street race (laughs). It’s a lot like paintball; you know what I mean? It’s fun to do and it’s kind of like war—but it ain’t war.
We do the no-prep races just because they’re a good time and you get to meet a lot of your fans and people and we can try and make a little bit of rent money here and there. So that’s why we do it, but we also started doing it because track racers would talk shit—and when I say track racers, I don’t mean everybody racing at a race track—because I go to the race track all the time. I love the race track. But I mean it’s for when you get an Outlaw guy who runs 4.50s or 4.40s and thinks that’s so fast so he just keeps running his mouth, but he won’t bring it out to the street because he’s got too much to lose he says, or he’s got a CDL license or for whatever reason they don’t want to get caught street racing, so that’s why we started doing this thing where you just don’t prep the track.
We started a thing called King of the Concrete, where we’d start from the other end of the track. We figured that would be as close as we can get to a street—and it was—but the couple of track racers got scared and really couldn’t get down through there straight, so now we don’t get to do that no more at our track. But there are other tracks that are doing it now. It’s f**king awesome! I like it.
The other cool part about these no-prep races is they’re bringing old-school, back-half, big-tire, old Outlaw 10.5 cars out of the woodwork because nobody had anything to do with them and they didn’t want to go bracket racing and they can’t afford to go Pro Mod drag radial racing, so they can slap a set of big fat sexy tires on the back of it and put it on a no-prep somewhere and it’s heads up.
How much friction really exists between so-called track racers and what you guys do? Will you be street racing forever?
I don’t see a time in my life when I’ll ever stop street racing. I’m not looking forward to stopping street racing or nothing like that, but we’ve always done other things with our cars. It’s just nobody gave a shit. We’ve always 10.5 raced and we’ve always tried the small tire thing and we’ve done some Outlaw 10.5 stuff here and there and back-half races and whatnot. We’ve always done that and we love those and we’ll continue to do those as well. It’s just we’re not … we’re not the best at it.
So our thing is the street and now all of a sudden you got all these track guys and these, we’ll call them class racers, who want to try and jump on this deal for whatever reason they have. I’m not really sure what all their reasoning is, and we’re naïve. We just think that everybody wants to hang out because we’re all buddies and a lot of these guys are our heroes of drag racing that we’ve just followed forever, so when they want to hang out, we’re like, dude, this is cool. But then you never really know why they’re there. And so you just kind of wonder.
So we don’t ever go calling out class racers to the streets. We don’t give a shit. Keep your stuff there. Until you start saying you’re faster on the street, we don’t care. But for some reason, the class racers, they think we’re idiots, man. They really do. They think that if they tried this that they would be the best at it and it’s funny to watch them try, man. It really is. We sit back and laugh our asses off at guys because they think that everything we do is retarded because it doesn’t work at the race track.
How active is the street racing scene down there in Oklahoma City? Is it pretty much what we see on the show or is there a lot more to it?
Well, we still race probably one to two nights a week on a normal basis with good weather off the show. A couple of our guys actively race off the show for big money on a regular basis, just because a lot of us are still really street. And some of the show is kind of, well, they don’t allow us to do certain things that we get our kicks at because the show has its outline of what they have talked about and what they want to accomplish for the next eight weeks. You kind of have an outline.
And then if someone comes up from Dallas and he wants to bet five grand against anybody up here and he’s in Oklahoma City talking shit, it’s kind of like, ‘Hey, we’re going to go take care of this real quick and we’ll be right back.’ But it doesn’t always fall into their game plan, so it’s just hard for them to introduce.
They basically have four stories for each episode. You’ve got an A, B, C and a D story. So the A story might be Murder Nova versus Doc or whatever, and then the B story is going to be somebody down at the bottom of the list like Varley trying to get back on the list, and then you got a C and a D story, which is like Farm Truck and AZN goofing off and then the D story is like a prank or whatever, right? Well, they’re following those stories. They can’t just shut all that off and go, okay America, here’s this guy from Texas and he’s crazy and he has a wicked-fast Nova and he brought $5,000 up here to race these guys and there’s no back story. We don’t know why he’s here, all we know is that he’s here and they’re hauling ass and we’ve got to follow them. When you look at it that way it doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense.
But things happen so fast sometimes in the street racing deal that you have to jump on it because if you don’t then he’s in your back yard and talking shit. But yeah, the show, sometimes they go, ‘Uh, well, uh, I got to get like, I got to talk to somebody and get approval for overtime and travel and how are we going to do this?’ And we just say sorry, we’ll be back later, see you tomorrow. There’s a lot of that that goes on that they get really mad about, to be honest.
But that’s like living the dream, right? That’s it, right there.
Yeah, and that’s what I tell the show all the time when they get mad. They’re like, you can’t do this stuff, what are you guys, stupid? And we’re like, yeah, how the f**k you think we got this show? You found the realest street racers there are and so now you got to deal with it. Good luck with this.
When we go out of town it’s very rare that we actually find other real street racers. Ninety percent of the time, the real street racers in everybody’s town or hometown, they aren’t that fast because they never found a group that stuck together and hated each other so much that they spent every dime they had on their car. So when you go out of town you’ll find a town that most of the guys are going to be 8.50 cars. That’s the fastest cars they have. So when we show up, those 8.50 guys call all their buddies that have faster cars that they help at the race track or whatever, so it’s very rare that we actually get to race real street racers.
When we go out of town we always like to show up a day or two early and we’ll go find the spot. We’ll unload and make some test hits or try and find a race the night before. That’s just how f**king stupid we are. Well, we go to all these towns and we never run across anybody. We’re the only ones out there. But when we went to Louisiana, dude, we drove all day, got there Friday night, was late as hell because we all had to work Friday. So we show up, we don’t even go to a hotel. We just drive straight to the spot. It’s just me and my wife in the truck and my crew guys and Shawn and his wife in his truck and we’ve got our cars on our trailers and then Kamikaze’s El Camino. We go straight to the spot and there were 4,000 people there! Every car that we were racing the next day was out.
When we showed up down there, the people there couldn’t f**king believe it. They were like. what are y’all doing here? And I was like, well, we’re going to make some hits and try to race. We’re going to race and make some money. And they’re like, well, where’s the show? And we’re like, uh, I don’t know. We don’t know. We don’t care. And they were like, but what if y’all go to jail? And we’re like, well, we didn’t worry about it when we went to jail before. What do you mean if we go to jail?
So that’s when you know you’ve come across a town that really does street races, when you get there and those bastards are already out there. And that’s when it’s cool for us and you can tell it in the show. Our most popular episodes are real street races, as far as ratings go and as far as our demeanor and our attitudes and everything. It’s always when we’re racing real street racers and it’s for real money and it means something to us. Usually, if it’s on a real road, too, that people actually street race on, that’s when we get our hard on out there.
This article was published in Issue No. 92 of DRAG ILLUSTRATED in October 2014.