Reading our Instagram feed this past weekend, we could not believe our eyes: Master custom bike builder Jesse Rooke had died. Online reports laid out the few but brutal facts: “Early morning Friday, April 5, 2019, the world lost an amazing man, father, son, brother, uncle, and motorcycle legend due to a tragic motorcycle accident off of Carefree Highway.” The celebrated builder was pronounced dead, according to several posts, though no official account has been given and we don’t yet know the details or the circumstances. It’s been a rough month for the custom motorcycle world. In that short time, two renowned builders have been lost, with Arlen Ness passing away of natural causes on March 22.
With his ubiquitous baseball cap, shorts, and skate shoes, you could easily mistake Jesse Rooke for a skater or surfer looking for the next edge to carve, but behind that easy demeanor was a master customizer and designer whose benchwork, welding, and painting skills were a combined force to be reckoned with. Rooke’s distinctive one-offs regularly made the pages of various motorcycle magazines; and the man was prolific, turning around a slick custom build sometimes in mere weeks, whereas most of his competitors would take months.
Handy with a welder and quick with a smile, Rooke quickly became a fixture in the custom building world, mixing with the likes of Roland Sands and Jesse James as the scene expanded in the early 2000s. With genre-bending designs that melded racing elements with chopper-y aesthetics, he made several appearances on Discovery Channel’s Biker Build-Off, with an early episode pitting his KTM-powered boardtracker “Darla” against Roland Sands’ race-bred “No Regrets.” (Sands would win that one). At the time Sands was also puncturing the chopper-heavy custom scene with fresh ideas from the racing scene, and the two innovators, both ex-racers of the same age, had become buddies after Rooke showed up in Sturgis some years earlier with his first build, the groundbreaking, smoothly minimal “Dinah” chopper.
His start was inauspicious enough though. Fighting the effects of a previous accident that left him semi-paralyzed and barely able to walk for more than two years, Rooke decided to channel his energy into custom motorcycles during his recovery, launching Jesse Rooke Customs in Huntington Beach, California. It was there that Rooke quickly developed a reputation for his customizing talent. Jesse Rooke’s embrace of amateur roadracing, motocross, and BMX racing in his early years would go on to inform his unique design style which stirred together equal parts form, function, and simplicity into builds that performed well and looked stunning. Rooke was also an equal-opportunity builder; he’d weld up a custom for everyone from hard-core chopper guys to the heaviest hitters in Hollywood. Brad Pitt supposedly has several Rooke builds in the garage, including “Jaden,” a KTM Super Duke-based café racer. When asked what made his bikes stand out from other customs, Rooke simply replied, “Their appearance tells a story about the rider.” Which may be a big part of why his sleek and boundary-pushing designs had received numerous awards over the years.
In the wake of the crushing news, social media was flooded with an outpouring of grief and condolences.
On Instagram, @RolandSands wrote: “Jesse and I became fast friends…when he showed up to Sturgis with a bike called Dinah that still resonates today… I just want to say thanks for being the man you were and for pushing me and being an inspiration.”
Meanwhile @RideDunlop, a frequent partner on his builds, said: “…he brought his own unique style and flair to motorcycle customization. His ‘Kali-Kruiser’ style stood out in a crowd and was the platform for him to launch multiple innovative designs incorporating anything from V-twin platforms to the KTM LC8.”
Jesse Rooke is survived by his partner Ashley Blair and his daughter Scarlett. We offer them our most sincere condolences.
On the GoFundMe page set up by family members to benefit Ashley Blair and her and Jesse’s daughter Scarlett we’ve just received news of an update: “The funeral will be a private service for family and closest friends. Celebration of Life for Jesse Rooke will be held at Wild Horse West in Peoria, AZ, at 3:30pm on Wednesday, April 17 (8415 W Carefree Hwy, Peoria, AZ 85383)”
Longtime friend of the Rooke family, Terry Rymer (and others) are planning a tribute for Rooke at Sturgis also, though it’s yet to be determined if the tribute will be hosted in 2019 or 2020, due to logistics. Please stay tuned for future updates.