Bobby Haas made a fortune in the leveraged buyout business, became a daredevil aerial photographer for National Geographic, learned to ride a motorcycle and then built a world-class moto museum in the Dallas Design District to show off his rapidly growing collection.
Now the 73-year-old can add filmmaker to his storied résumé.
On Wednesday, his documentary, Leaving Tracks, was released digitally in 100-plus countries and 11 languages on AppleTV, iTunes, Google Play and YouTube.
The feature-length film is part biopic and part tribute to the biker brotherhood. But mostly it’s a road map to navigating the unnerving curves that life throws your way.
The story — written by Haas — is about relationships, not motorcycles.
“There are many humanistic themes in how you deal with fear, how you deal with setbacks, and what is your eventual legacy in life,” Haas said in a recent interview.
The cast includes Haas, Stacey Mayfield, his partner in life and business, and some of the best custom motorcycle builders in the world.
Haas has spent almost a million dollars on the movie and invested his soul into a project that probably won’t make him a dime.
That’s fine by him.
“I never thought this would be a moneymaker,” Haas said. “If it gives life lessons and guideposts to other people, regardless if they even know how to ride a motorcycle, then that’s a worthwhile effort. The point of art is to educate, inspire and entertain, but it’s not to put shekels in your bank account.”
He already has plenty of that.
Haas became a rich guy three decades ago at 41 with his then-business partner, Tom Hicks, by amassing and selling a soft-drink empire that included Dr Pepper, A&W and 7UP. The pair’s take from the deal was in excess of $100 million.
“One of my hardest decisions was reaching the end zone in the field of finance and figuring out whether or not to spike the ball,” said Haas, who is still involved in investments but not actively. “In some ways, it’s a very lonely feeling. You get off of that merry-go-round that’s whizzing around without any destination other than one that is self-centered, and then you look for something that has a more profound level of satisfaction and unconnected to money.”
Like photographing the world and its wildlife from above.
In 2002, Haas became the first photographer to publish a single-photographer, all-aerial book with National Geographic when he dared to take photos while hanging out of a helicopter door. And he managed it despite a fear of heights and the fact that he had to ask where the shutter button was when he bought his first decent camera — a Canon Rebel point-and-shoot from Cooters Village Camera Shop — before going on an African photo safari 26 years ago.
This decade-long deviation yielded a trilogy of best-selling National Geographic coffee-table books of aerial photos taken in Africa, Latin America and the Arctic, and two children’s books.
When Haas bought his first motorcycle eight years ago, he chose a bike with a sidecar, thinking that it would be like training wheels. He discovered that it’s more like driving a car that’s missing its fourth tire.
Haas taught himself to ride after work in the parking lot of Congregation Shearith Israel using traffic cones and an instruction manual. Since then, he’s logged more than 100,000 miles across the U.S. on his three-wheelers, bought or commissioned 232 vintage, classic and modern one-of-a-kind motorcycles and built the Haas Moto Museum & Sculpture Gallery in the Design District to show off his bad boys to the public.
Whatever Haas does, he keeps the pedal to the metal.
Walking in tandem
No one understands this better than Mayfield, who helped Haas design the tiny original motorcycle gallery on Dragon Street and continues to play a major role as director of The Haas, which opened nearby in 2018.
Their relationship turned personal after the museum was built and his 47-year marriage had ended.
Both are fully vested in Leaving Tracks.
“When we agreed to do the film and started this journey, I didn’t know what the storyline would be or how it would all fall in place,” said Mayfield, the film’s co-executive producer. “But I did know that it would be an excellent film, because Bobby doesn’t do anything without that standard of excellence.
“The relationships with the custom builders and their bikes have been the best surprise ever. It’s beautiful the way it all unfolded. The film is so emotionally real. There’s not one bit of actin
g in it.”
The movie is also about their walking in tandem.
“Without Stacey’s influence, input and support, I doubt that there ever would have been a Haas Moto Museum or this film,” said Haas, who calls her his muse.
As Nick Davis, the film’s producer/director, sees it: “Stacey is brilliant. It’s not even fair to say that she exerts tremendous influence on Bobby. You hang up from a long conference call and you think, ‘Huh, we’re really going to do exactly what Stacey wants.’ She might have only said one thing in the whole call, but it was such a good point and something that nobody else had seen, that now we’re off in a new direction that we’re all 100% behind.”
Mayfield, who is 49, dismisses the 24-year gap in their ages.
“It’s like living with Benjamin Button,” she said, referring to the F. Scott Fitzgerald short story where a man is old when he’s born but an infant when he dies. “He doesn’t look 73. He has more energy than I do most days. It’s not just his physical appearance. It’s his creative energy and attitude. It’s everything about him.”
The documentary is narrated by Ultan Guilfoyle, an award-winning filmmaker and co-curator of the Guggenheim Museum’s famous 1998 exhibition, The Art of the Motorcycle.
Guilfoyle calls the collection “the most profound collection of custom bikes in the world.”
Haas, who’s never one to be pinned down about his finances, says he’s spent “a few million dollars” on his custom bikes.
He and Mayfield continue to add to the collection, but the bikes have to pass what they describe as their “singe-your-eyebrow test.”
“It’s our shorthand for whether a motorcycle is just so blisteringly fabulous that we just had to get it,” Haas said.
“We do hold true to that,” Mayfield added.
Haas says he patterns himself after the Renaissance patrons who used their immense wealth to sponsor the likes of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. Only the artists he’s fostering create “masterpieces of rolling art” — some you can ride and some that are strictly dream machines.
As such, Haas is a patron, collaborator, confidante or therapist, depending on the circumstances.
“You are working with great artists, many of whom are literally struggling to eat,” Haas said of the two dozen or so custom builders he’s taken under his wing. “There are no blueprints, no assembly line. It’s part by part. You have many nights where you wonder, ‘Are we wasting our time? Is this going to be a monstrosity or a masterpiece?’
“And there have been many times when the builders have called me and said, ‘I’m really struggling. The engine just isn’t the right way,’ or whatever. You have to talk them off of the artistic ledge.”
Salt flats and dragstrips
In 2019, custom builder Craig Rodsmith learned he had cancer of the larynx during the time that the crew was filming a segment on him. Haas kicked into therapist mode, telling him the bike be damned and that life was all that mattered.
Ironically, the name of the bike they were co-designing was “The Killer,” named for rock ‘n’ roll great Jerry Lee Lewis.
Rodsmith was successfully treated with laser surgery and recovered to complete the cycle.
Last year, Haas and Rodsmith co-designed “Mister Fahrenheit,” a racing cycle with an ultra-sleek passenger sidecar that they hoped would set a world record at the Bonneville Salt Flats of Utah.
Those plans were sidelined by the pandemic.
Haas’s favorite experience during the filming was racing a Harley on those salt flats. “Bonneville is not as smooth as people think, because the salt has worn away over the years and it’s much more pitted,” he said. “But being at Bonneville, probably the most famous racing salt flats in the world, was very heady stuff.”
Mayfield’s least favorite segment was watching Haas learn to race a three-wheeled beast at the Texas Motorplex dragstrip in Ennis. The track is three-quarters of a mile that ends abruptly with a gravel pit that can demolish the bike — and biker — if you overshoot it.
“I was wringing my hands the whole time,” she said. “When COVID hit, I was so relieved that he couldn’t race Mister Fahrenheit — not that I would ever try to stop him. He does what he wants to do. But I was terrified.”
Shortly after the filming was completed, Haas contracted an aggressive case of COVID-19 and was isolated in his Museum Tower condo for 42 days.
“I continued to work on the film during June and July when I was battling COVID, confined to my condo alone with only the company — and the responsibility for — my three four-legged sons Baxter, Murphy and Cooper,” Haas said. “I wasn’t hospitalized, but everyone was worried. I’m 73, I have an underlying heart condition. Fortunately, I not only beat it, but I’m not a long-hauler.”
Embracing the gadfly
Haas considered six directors/producers before his lawyer led him to Nick Davis, an experienced documentary maker and the grandson of Herman Mankiewicz, who co-wrote the legendary film Citizen Kane with Orson Welles.
They immediately hit it off even though Davis knew nothing about motorcycles.
Haas actually considered that a plus. He didn’t want to make a film that would only appeal to gearheads.
“It was clear just from the footage that I’d seen that this would be about people. This is about Bobby and this is about the group of builders that he’s gathered around him,” said the 55-year-old head of Nick Davis Productions in New York. “It’s cool to have motorcycles, and it will appeal to people who like motorcycles, but it will have a much wider appeal because of the humanity running through it.”
Were he and Haas collaborators or was Haas heavy-handed?
“The answer is, ‘Yes,’” Davis said with a hearty laugh. “We were totally collaborators and he was heavy-handed. But it did not hinder me in any way to have someone so intimately involved in the process as he wanted to be.
“There’s this word that Bobby uses — he’s a gadfly. The best thing is he won’t leave you alone. And the worst thing is he won’t leave you alone.”
Why is the film being released in so many countries and so many languages?
Contrary to conventional thinking, North America isn’t the center of the motorcycle universe, Haas said. “England, France, Germany and Italy were the mainstays of moto design, while Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, India, Brazil, Japan and Germany all outrank the United States in households with motorcycles.”
Like Haas, Davis has no idea whether the movie will make money. It could if a major distributor decides to pick it up for worldwide theatrical release.
“People are hungry for stories about inspiration and for stories about people who care about each other,” Davis said. “And there’s a huge segment of the population who loves motorcycles.
“What the intersection of all those groups will be, and how much of an audience this film will find, I really don’t know. But I’m enormously proud of what we’ve created. I’m going in with low expectations. I hope that they are shattered.”
Title: Founder and curator, the Haas Moto Museum & Sculpture Gallery; co-executive producer, Leaving Tracks
Education: Bachelor’s degree in psychology, Yale University, 1969; law degree, Harvard Law School, 1972
Resides: Museum Tower
Personal: Partner in life and business with Stacey Mayfield. He has three adult daughters and four grandchildren.
Title: Director of the Haas Moto Museum & Sculpture Gallery; co-executive producer, Leaving Tracks
Education: Hillcrest High School, 1990; University of Texas at Dallas
Resides: In Lakewood with her son Daniel, 18, and daughter Stella, 14
Haas Moto Museum & Sculpture Gallery
Address: 1201 Oak Lawn Ave., Suite 110, at the northwest corner of Oak Lawn and Market Center Boulevard in the Dallas Design District
Admission: $10, with discounts for seniors and students; free to active-duty military, veterans, first responders and children under 12, who must be accompanied by an adult
Hours: Thursdays through Sundays, 11 a.m.-4 p.m.