Meet Chris Duke, "Automotive Improvement" Expert

Chris Duke Motorz TV

Chris Duke is creator, executive producer and host of Motorz TV, a show focused on automotive improvement. Duke is not a certified mechanic, has never worked in a shop. He’s tech-obsessed and entirely self-taught. He’s a hobbyist who makes a point to include every complicated wrinkle of the modification process in his show, so others may learn as he has. Duke’s eagerness to learn and share his knowledge — along with his approachable nature, and great persistence — has earned him airtime in more than 100-million homes, in addition to being available online on sites like YouTube and on-demand services like Roku. We caught up with Duke to learn exactly how he got there.

How’d you get your start?

My background is in tech. Coming out of high school, I worked at Microsoft for three years. The whole time I was working in tech, I was interested in cars, particularly in car audio systems. I had a 1987 Honda Civic, and didn’t do much to its appearance or performance, but I modified the sound system pretty heavily. There were amps all over the place, and it was a hatchback, so the entire back half was filled with a custom subwoofer enclosure that I built myself. I was just having fun with it.

What kind of music were you blasting in the car, and do you have any hearing issues?

[Laughs] Pop music, rap music.
At one time, when I was dating my wife. She got into my car, and we had the system on. She looked over to me and she goes, “My hair is moving!” and I said, “Yeah, the subwoofer is behind your head, and it’s vibrating the whole car.”
Chris Duke Motorz Openbay
It was fun and fun to experiment with new equipment. While working at Microsoft, I paid the rent for my condo, and the utilities, and saved a bit of money, and then put the rest of my paycheck into my car. It had the latest Alpine head unit, amps, a 10-disc CD changer, an equalizer, enhancer, subwoofer, mid-range tweeters, and so on. All my sound equipment far exceeded the value of the car. You don’t see much of that these days.

And now you’re based in San Diego?

After I left Microsoft, I moved down to San Diego. The southern-California lifestyle at the time was – and largely still is – all about lifted trucks, and lifted Ford F150s, and I really wanted one.
I was still working in tech, and had started some news websites about the software industry; they catered to very niche audiences, like programmers, and people working on databases, and the sites had built up a decent audience. Not even a year down the road, another company bought my business.
With the money from the sale, we upgraded our home; I bought my mother-in-law a Honda Civic, and bought myself a brand-new F150, so I could modify it. Buying two cars in one day – in cash – was a lot of fun!
At the time, I just wanted to build up a truck and have fun. I wasn’t thinking about documenting any of the F150 mods. But I was used to taking something highly technical, and simplifying it to a point that everyone could understand it; that’s what I’d been doing at Microsoft. So I started documenting online what I was doing to my truck.
That turned into a website of articles, which then turned into a network of automotive articles, including other niches, and it eventually grew to include about 10-12 websites – it was a huge network. I became an editor of a newsstand magazine based on one of those sites, and I covered car shows, and how-to information, modifying trucks, you name it.
Another big change was making the jump from being behind the camera, just shooting and producing, to being in front of it. We were about to do article on how to install an exhaust kit on my second F150, and said, “Why not just shoot this on video and see what happens – let’s play ‘car show’ here.” And that became the first episode of Truckblog TV, which would then become Motorz. I was super awkward on camera, and have left the episode online anyhow, to remember how it all began. I shopped that video around, and received a lot of encouragement, so that turned into the next episode, and next episode. We’re now coming up on episode 90.
The next leap was: how to get Motorz on TV? I didn’t know anyone in the film or entertainment industry. Two seasons into the show, I was invited to attend SEMA show, to film live, right next to the Ford booth. We had a crew with 5-6 people. Talk about nerves in hosting the show, with a crew and venue like that! Someone walked up to our booth and said, “I love what you’re doing. Are you on TV yet?” and that’s how it happened. It took a couple of months to finalize details, and the distribution was under a million TV households. I think that network recommended me to another one, so it grew via word of mouth. Now, our combined total reach is up over 100 million homes. It all happened via persistence.
Every week, I make a point to learn something new, and make a point to talk to more people. You’re never gonna get anywhere if you just wait for everything to come to you. I’d gone straight from high school to working at Microsoft, and working in software development, and made a point to go and learn everything on my own. It’s like a game to me; I figure “I know nothing about this, but I’m gonna sit down and make it work.” It takes long hours and it’s a lot of work.

Given you’re self-taught, has that earned you a great deal of respect, or has that ever been an obstacle for you?

It kinda makes me real. It makes me look like who I really am: I’m the guy next door who wants to help you work on your car.
There are lots of car shows that come off a little condescending, and the hosts are know-it-alls. If there’s a subject I don’t know much about, I’m not afraid to bring someone else on the show as a guest, and say, “Here’s Bob, and he’s gonna teach me and he’s gonna teach you” how to do new things. It keeps the show real.
Also, there are other how-to shows out there that skip all the hard stuff, and show the finished product after the commercial breaks. Because I really want to learn how to do things, it seemed futile to watch those car shows. I had to learn everything myself, I wanted a true step-by-step explanation for viewers, so they can learn from our show.
 Chris Duke Openbay quote

What are some of the most popular topics?

It’s the really cool stuff. If I do an episode on general maintenance, like how to change your oil, I won’t get nearly the views as when we’re installing a supercharger. We’ve had several Mustangs on the show, and have produced a lot of content because of that. We did a piece on installing an air suspension – something really cool that a lot of people wouldn’t think to do on a Mustang, and showed them that it was a viable modification for that car.
We did a five-episode series on how to rebuild an engine. To date, those have been our most successful five episodes. The more technical, and the more helpful and crazy, the more people are interested. The YouTube viewers are especially eager to see me on the ground wrenching, and installing stuff.
Also, the popularity has a lot to do with the type of vehicle we’re working on. An old Honda Civic won’t get nearly as many views as a Jeep Wrangler. That’s a hot car; lots of people are into them right now. We did a show about how to lift a Jeep, and that did way better than a piece about lifting a Silverado.

Given your initial reluctance to go on camera, how do you feel about it now? Any advice to would-be automotive DIY YouTubers?

I’m used to it now, I guess. It’s fun. I feel like I’m in my element. Until this last summer, I had a full-time job, in addition to the show. So it was fun to have this other career that I’d pickup on the weekends. On Saturday mornings, I’d put on my Motorz shirt, to go shoot the show, and I felt like Superman, changing characters. It was really fun. I have to embrace it, and admit I really like doing it. Seeing the results and feedback from viewers has been just great.
For others trying out DIY videos on YouTube, I’d say if you lose confidence, look no further than the reviews to confirm that you’re entertaining people, and that your work is helpful. If the first episode is no good, throw it out, and rework it, maybe script a bit more, or memorize some lines. It’s not always easy, and that’s why I’ve left our first episode online: because it doesn’t matter! I look at that episode now and it’s really fun to see what the studio used to look like, and what I looked like, and at the end of that video, it’s still educational, and it served its purpose.
Just do it! It’s a total Nike slogan, but it’s true. Just do it, and keep doing it. At some point, it’ll get less awkward. Over time, your situation could change into something you never thought that could be.

At a recent Auto Care Association Meeting, one committee wondered how to get the next generation into modifying their vehicles. What do you think is the best entry point for automotive improvement?

Definitely not electronics, or sound system. There’s a lot that goes into wiring up a car’s sound system; it has to be done really well.
I’d recommend starting with an air intake kit. The job can be done within an hour or two, with basic set of hand tools (hopefully from Craftsman!) and there’s lots of info online about how to do it.
Installing an air intake kit is pretty straightforward, and a screwdriver is all you need. You take out the stock air-box, and put in a new one. The main benefit is better sound. They’ll say you get an extra 5-6 horsepower, but you don’t. The reason is you’re making the front end of the vehicle breathe better, but not the back end.
In order to make the whole system breathe better, you’d need to complement the air intake kit (in front) with a cat-back exhaust kit. They call it a “cat back” system, because it replaces everything from the catalytic converter back, including a bigger-diameter pipe.
Once you open up front end and back end a little bit, you get a better, throatier sound, and it may seem a little snappier, because it sounds faster. You may get improvement in performance, but it’s pretty negligible; you won’t get a blast of performance. Doing the air intake and the cat-back exhaust is a great way to get your feet wet with fairly basic mods, and the parts aren’t that expensive, at about $400-500 each.

You’re clearly all car, all the time. Beyond cars, what are your hobbies?

That I have time for, in addition to spending time with my family?
My hobbies technology-focused, because I’m still a geek at heart. I love computers, software and mobile. I’m Apple person, so our family has all the latest Apple devices.
I’m into home automation – every night I tell Siri, “Goodnight,” and she closes garage door if it’s been left open. It can do that from anywhere in the world, or I’ll ask if it’s open or closed, thanks to a hack through the Craftsmen garage-door opener. Also, when I say, “Goodnight,” it will pause music on my computer, lock the computer, and turn off the lights in my office. I could have the whole home automated, so it’s been fun experimenting with that. I appreciate the connected-car aspect, too, having the car integrated with smartphones, and doing more with the vehicle.

Anyone in the automotive industry you admire and want to shout out?

Stacey David – GearZ. He started out as host of Trucks!, which was the first show I took to, when I wanted to know more about modifying vehicles. I love his approach to builds, and he presents in a fun, approachable way. He has his own production, and is in his 10th season. He’s stuck to it over the years, and he believes in good quality DIY programming for the masses.

What sets Chris Duke & Motorz apart in the DIY automotive world?

There aren’t that many DIY shows on TV anymore. The biggest difference between myself and some other automotive DIY hosts is that I’m not a mechanic by trade. I count ASE-certified mechanics, and people going to voc-tech school among my viewers, and they say they’re learning from it, but I’m not a mechanic. It’s not my trade, and I’ve never worked in a shop. I’m a hobbyist, more like Tim Allen, in “Tool Time”.
The DNA throughout Motorz’ history has been “Automotive Improvement.” I can show you how to take care of the vehicle, but I typically won’t take something that’s broken and show you how to fix it. My niche is focused on improving your vehicle, not fixing it. If you get a new vehicle, like a 2015 F150, I’ll show you how to add aftermarket accessories to improve performance, handling, appearance, and more. I’m more focused on how to modify your ride, rather than how to fix your ride.
Chris Duke Openbay Self-Taught

Anything else to add?

If your readers were to have one main takeaway, it should be that if you want to do something, but there’s no manual, you can still figure it out. It’s like parenting – parents have no guide on how to raise a kid, but they do it, and learn as they go.
Watch videos, talk to people, and read books, and consider the learning process fun, and like a game. It’s highly rewarding when it’s all said and done.
I was able to build a TV show when I didn’t know how. But I did it, and figured it out. Go your own way, and don’t feel you need to follow a particular template in order to be successful. I didn’t make any money for the longest time. And what I did make, I put it right back into the business. It’s been a great ride.
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