By Billy Watkins | The Clarion-Ledger
STURGIS – In 1967, at age 16, Craig Vechorik was given the keys to his first car – a 1958 Rambler that had more miles on it than a road map.
“I hadn’t had it no time before I tore the clutch out of it,” said Vechorik, 60. “My dad told me he couldn’t afford to have it fixed. So he bought me a box of tools, a motor manual, the parts for it and told me to fix it myself.
“I’d always been one of those kids who would take things apart, then try to put them back together. Lawn mowers … anything I could get my hands on. So somehow I was able to put that clutch in the Rambler. After that I guess I knew where my path was headed.”
It has led him from Cape Girardeau, Mo. – where Vechorik graduated from Central High School in 1969 with talk-show host Rush Limbaugh – to Sturgis, a town of 189 people located 15 miles southwest of Starkville.
Vechorik owns Bench Mark Works, a world-renowned business that specializes in restoring and repairing BMW motorcycles built prior to 1970. Vechorik also stocks supplies for BMW bikes dating from the 1930s to 1983.
“Vech has created a real niche for himself,” said Charles Clark of Kickstand, a motorcycle parts and accessories shop in Jackson. “And you really have to know what you’re doing to do what he does. You don’t just come in off the street and do that. You’ve got to be good and knowledgeable, and you’ve got to have a passion for it.
“But a person can do real well in that type business because vintage is expensive.”
Vechorik is also a collector. His latest prize possession is a 1942 BMW R75 motorcycle – complete with sidecar and machine gun – that was used by the Germans in World War II.
“I found it in Fort Worth, Texas,” he said. “It was in a lot of pieces and rattling around in boxes when I bought it. Took me four-and-a-half years to fix it up, but it was well worth it. It’s the first all-terrain vehicle ever made.
“It’s interesting when I take it to a show and a World War II veteran spots it. The reaction is usually the same. ‘Last time I saw one of those, I was a young man.’ ”
Vechorik opened Bench Mark Works about 13 years ago while also working as a repair technician at Mississippi State.
“I was dating my current wife (Elaine) and told her ‘when I retire from here, I’m going to open a bike restoration shop. She told me I should start building the business then so that when I retired, it would be up and running. Before I knew it the restoration business was keeping me as busy as my job at Mississippi State. I was serving two masters. That’s when I decided to call it quits after 20 years and do this full time.”
He located the business in Sturgis when his father-in-law found an 8,000-square-foot building – formerly an apparel factory – “that I could buy for a song.”
“I was ready to run something like this because for years I had restored bikes on weekends and evenings, and I became the technical adviser to the national vintage BMW motorcycle club. They would call me if they had a question. So my name was out there. And thanks to UPS and the Internet it’s not a big deal being in Sturgis and supplying customers in Nome, Alaska, or wherever.”
Vechorik came to Mississippi in 1969 when his father, a marine surveyor, was transferred to Greenville. He attended Mississippi State off and on until earning an anthropology degree in 1978. “But I knew I would starve to death doing that,” he said.
His first job out of high school, as an engine room mechanic on a tugboat for three years, was his best education, he said.
“We went up and down the Mississippi River,” he says. “We’d pick up loads of coal in Ohio and bring them back to a little town just below New Orleans. Then the coal would be shipped to Tampa, Fla. Basically, you could say we kept the lights on in Tampa.
“But that job taught me how to work for a living, how to take a job seriously. And it was tough work.”
But he saved enough money to buy a $3,700 BMW motorcycle at age 24. “I didn’t even test drive it,” he says. “I knew I wanted it as soon as I saw it. It was the prettiest silver and black thing you’ve ever seen. And I still have it.”
He owns several others, which he displays in a museum at his shop. It includes a 1928 BMW R52, a 1936 BMW R12 with a sidecar and a 1952 BMW 25/2.
“If somebody calls us and says they need a No. 6207 ball bearing, I don’t have to go look in a book to know what it is and what it goes on,” he says. “I’ve studied all this through the years, and I think that’s why people keep coming back to us.
“A lot of times, I have to explain we’re not in Sturgis, S.D., where they have the big bike rally every year. But I just take that as an opportunity to tell them about Sturgis and Mississippi and how beautiful it is here. I invite them to ride their bikes down, and I’ve had one after another from up north say ‘Mississippi is nothing like I’ve always heard it was.’ That’s always cool to hear.”