Suicide Machine Co.: On Blood and Brotherhood.
Words Chris Nelson Images Tanner Yeager, Patrick Evans, Heather Young
Suicide Machine Co. in Long Beach, California, is known for creating beautiful performance motorcycles out of Milwaukee slag, and its hometown owners, Aaron and Shaun Guardado, are infamous for smashing up demolition derby cars and trading elbows in the Super Hooligan flat-track series. The shop propagates a death-defying spirit that delights with brooding charm; the Guardado brothers have walked away from so many gut-wrenching crashes that people actually wonder if they can cheat Death itself.
But when one brother crashes, the other sees a flash of a world without his best friend and stops to help his brother up — even if it means losing the race. The name "Suicide Machine Co." is poetic posturing, like a “Beware of The Dog” sign on the fence of a cat owner’s house, and “Fast, Loud, Deathproof” is clever marketing by two brothers bound by unflinching loyalty, who share a beautiful, kind relationship behind the black veil of SMCo.
“By yourself, you're not complete, as much as you think you are," says Shaun. "Having Aaron here really complements my shortcomings.” The 31-year-old Aaron and 34-year-old Shaun are exemplary brothers, both in blood and in business. They speak without a word, split duties to play to their strengths, and together run a well-respected, passion-driven business. While Suicide Machine Co. is often seen as a raucous circus with death-proof ringleaders, few see it for what it really is: a family business three decades in the making.
Aaron and Shaun always looked up to their father, Suicide Machine Co.’s “third partner.” Mr. Guardado prides himself on a tireless work ethic passed down from his father, who earned American citizenship through the Bracero Program and hand-built the Guardado’s first house in nearby Los Alamitos. Aaron and Shaun have worked for their father since grade school when they begrudgingly spent summers cleaning the yard at Systems Maintenance, Mr. Guardado’s industrial truck repair business. “You can look back and see how actions have matured you and grown in you, somehow, to make you who you are now,” Shaun says. Mr. Guardado taught his boys how to work for themselves, and now Suicide Machine Co. lives in an unmarked building behind Systems Maintenance. When Shaun isn’t building bikes, he’s repairing rigs or fabricating truck parts, and Aaron has a desk up front where he handles the finance side of Systems Maintenance.
Mr. Guardado also taught his boys how to wrench. He was a garage tinkerer, and Shaun fondly remembers the Power Wheels Bigfoot that Dad modified to go faster; baby Aaron once ejected from the passenger side as his big brother savaged the neighbor’s flower bed. When Aaron and Shaun were teenagers, Mr. Guardado bought a ’91 Nissan Sentra SE-R so that he and his boys could transform it into a club racer. Aaron says, “We were taught to do things right, and taught that performance is better than looks, and from a young age that pushed us to do things the way we do now.” As often as possible, the Guardado family would caravan 120 miles north to Willow Springs Raceway. While Aaron and Shaun loved automotive racing, they soon became infatuated with the track-prepped motorcycles in the paddock.
Motorcycles weren’t allowed in the Guardado house. Mr. and Mrs. Guardado enjoyed dirt biking in their younger years, but both stopped riding after becoming parents. Aaron and Shaun recall only two artifacts from their parents’ riding days: a photo of their dad in the ‘70s, sitting on a Yamaha RD350, and a yellow Bell Moto-X helmet abandoned on a shelf in the garage.
The more Aaron and Shaun raced their Sentra, the more they saw motorcycles race, and they both wanted to give it a try. Neither would get permission to buy a bike, so when Mr. and Mrs. Guardado left town for a business conference, Shaun bought his first motorcycle: a Buell XB12S Lightning. When Mr. Guardado came home, he was livid, regurgitating all the things his own father said to him when he bought his Suzuki RM125 without permission. “I wanted to protect my sons from hurting themselves," Mr. Guardado says. "But looking back, it was inevitable.” Not long after Shaun bought the Buell, Aaron bought a Ducati 999; Shaun then traded his Buell for a 999 so he could keep up with his brother around Big Willow.
When track days and Ducati repairs became too costly, Aaron and Shaun found new ways to play with motorcycles. Shaun wanted a street bike tailored to his petite frame, so in 2007, he bought a ‘69 BSA Lightning 650 and, in his parents’ garage, chopped the frame, swapped on a springer front end, and finished his first, overly powder-coated custom. He enjoyed the process and people liked the build, so Shaun rented shop space a few towns over and started customizing friends’ bikes under the name Shorty Machine. He stepped it up with his second build: a street-legal, rigid Sportster land speed racer with clip-ons, a seductive silhouette, and a turbocharged V-twin. Aaron graciously did the outreach and promotion he knew his brother wouldn’t, and soon, Shorty Machine moved into a larger shop.
Around the same time, Aaron and Shaun became fascinated by demolition derby. The Guardado family regularly attended monster truck jams and demolition derbies at the Orange County Fairgrounds, and one weekend Shaun asked for the promoter’s number. “It took me two years to get on the driver’s list,” Shaun says, and on the night of their first derby, it took less than two minutes to be eliminated. Aaron and Shaun made friends with seasoned drivers who helped them build better, smarter crashers. They can now build two derby cars in a week, have racked up sponsors like Rockstar Energy Drink and Wienerschnitzel, and finished in second- and third-place last year.
The speedway circuit at the demolition derby fairgrounds is where the brothers first tried flat track. Before the Super Hooligan series existed, the OC Fairgrounds hosted a monthly Harley Night, where anyone could race any model Harley-Davidson. “Things were a bit wilder then," Shaun says. "Looser rules.” The brothers both raced Sportsters, and Shaun became known for his incredible saves and brutal crashes. He’d slide his rigid through entire straightaways, dragging the primary in the dirt, and if he crashed and nothing broke, he’d dive straight back into the racing pack.
Fascination grew around the “death-proof” brothers who rode with abandon and bloody smiles. Aaron says, “I don’t think I’ve been hurt enough to say, ‘I don’t want to do that anymore.’ I don’t give a shit if I’m getting hurt.” He only gives a shit if Shaun is hurt — and vice versa. They’re perfect mates, which is why in 2010 they packed up Shaun’s shop, moved into the building behind Dad’s business, and started working together as Suicide Machine Co.
Aaron spreads the gospel, maintains business relationships, and makes SMCo.-branded apparel, which is wildly successful and carried at Harley-Davidson dealerships across America. Shaun loses himself in whatever’s on his workbench: a wrecked flat track bike, Aaron’s Husqvarna 701 supermoto, or the Buell Blast with a geometric fuel tank and fast-spooling turbocharger. The demolition derby cars sit outside in the truck yard, and a dust-covered Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution V waits forgotten on an alignment rack in the back of the shop. Mr. Guardado stops by often to enjoy what his sons have built for themselves, and Mrs. Guardado is Suicide Machine Co.’s biggest fan.
SMCo. is a family business, just the latest in a long line of brotherly exploits. The shop’s brash persona celebrates the unruliest characteristics of the Guardado brothers, but it overlooks the incredibly rich relationship of the entire Guardado family, and the effortless symbiosis between two brothers who succumb to the same perilous muses. Aaron says, “We’re more than happy to do whatever it is, together.” Aaron and Shaun Guardado have worked side-by-side since childhood, looking out for one another above all else, and they will continue to tease Death for as long as they can ... together.
This article originally appeared in Issue 035 of Iron & Air Magazine.