“My parents used to get mad at me when I was a kid,” recalled Travis Feist of Dakota Kustomz. “As soon as they gave me any new toy, especially a bicycle, the first thing I’d do was take it apart, figure out how it worked, and then put it back together again along with my own improvements.”
What a four year old considers to be improvements aren’t always necessarily so, but Travis’ love for customization wouldn’t end with his Huffys. He grew up with a wrench in hand, always tinkering with whatever machinery he could find around his family’s farm.
“My big moment of awakening came in eighth grade,” Travis continued. “I wanted my own hot rod more than anything in the world, but didn’t have much money for one. A friend and I went to the local junkyard, and there buried in the back was the most beautiful ‘65 Impala Super Sport I’d ever seen. I told the owner that I had a driver’s license, and he just kind of laughed at my enthusiasm. He told me that if I could find wheels for it, he’d let drag it home for $200. I was never more excited in my life.”
Despite his parents’ protests, that old Impala became a fixture in their yard as Travis spent the next three years putting everything he had into it. He rebuilt its motor, transmission, and differential during shop class (where he racked up so many hours that he wound up teaching it by junior year), and landscaped the local body shop owner’s yard in exchange for a paint job. Although Travis eventually had to sell that Impala, his experience restoring it would never let him drive a stock vehicle ever again.
After high school, Travis and his brother moved from the boonies to Bismarck. They worked together there at a Ford dealership, where Travis’ shop chops earned him a place as their sole accessory installer. He realized that he would better customize vehicles on his own, and in 1999 opened the first iteration of Dakota Kustomz.
The universe soon worked in one of its characteristically mysterious ways for Travis. Demand for car customization and mods exploded when The Fast and the Furious came out in 2001, and Travis’ skills were suddenly in such high demand that he could practice his craft well beyond full-time. That craze would take Travis through until the era of reality television motorcycle shows, when West Coast Choppers and their ilk created a surge in demand for pieced out bikes.
“The custom bike phase was huge,” explained Travis. “I made some real works of art during it. I did a bike for the UND Fighting Sioux, another one for Budweiser, and even one that won the People’s Choice Award at a local Easyriders Magazine event. That earned me a spot at their annual Las Vegas show, where I was up against the biggest names in the custom bike business. I placed 15th out of 100, but seeing that I’m just a farm boy with no college education who has worked hard for everything I’ve ever had…well, I can’t put into words what it means to have gotten that kind of recognition.”
In 2010, the custom bike market crashed thanks to declining interest and an overabundance of cheap knock-offs. That collapse hurt a lot of small custom shops across the country badly, including Travis’. He had to shelf his ambition for a while as he worked as a construction foreman to make ends meet.
That hiatus might have slowed Travis down, but it couldn’t stop his dream. He took a side job at his brother’s used powersports shop working on ATVs, UTVs, and snowmobiles, and before long Bismarck turned its attention back to his award winning work. In 2016 he sprang back into action and started Dakota Kustomz anew, ready to work on hot rods and custom vehicles and bikes once again. Within six months of reopening Travis was living his dream once more.
“Everyday you have to set a goal,” said Travis. “Something to shoot for. Something to achieve. That’s what I try to do. I may be 41 years old now, and not getting any younger, but I want to build an empire right here from Bismarck. People need to see that you don’t have to be from the coast or a big city to have vision. With the team I’m building up, and the great bikes and hot rods people in town are bringing us, I think I’ve got as good of a chance as anyone of doing that.”
For more information on Travis’ work and vision, visit dakotakustomz.com.
By David Scheller