(Editor’s note: We ran this piece on EJ Potter back in 2009 – We’re running it again today!) - EJ Potter ranks near the very top of our personal hero list. He is a true American original. Educated on the farm as a thoughtful, empirical thinker, Potter built some of the most legendary vehicles to ever grace a drag strip. The most famous are his jackstand-launched, small-block-Chevy-powered, Harley-framed motorcycles.
“The acceleration would be real noticeable and the vibrations, bumps, and engine noises would stop registering. It got kinda mental. It would feel like I was doing something that was not supposed to be even possible because from the time I drew that first picture in school of the Chevy and two wheels, nobody I ever talked to about it ever thought it was possible, and more to the point, nobody thought I could do it. So here I am going real fast, real smooth, all by myself approaching a place that no one else could, at that time, get to.” – Excerpt from Michigan Madman by EJ Potter
EJ Potter isn’t dead. Let’s get that out of the way real quick. You probably have a pal who’s a real guru on drag racing history and he’ll recount a half dozen stories of how ol’ EJ bought the farm. They are all bunk. He nearly checked out a couple times, sure, but his ticket was never fully punched.
The concept for his iconic machine was born during high school. Potter got the idea stuck in his head that a small-block Chevy engine looked like a Harley motor from the end, only longer. Finally following through with that reasoning, in 1960 he used a Harley frame as the base of the first bike. That bike would evolve into his drag strip act and ticket to international notoriety began. Potter first built a centrifugal clutch using Harley-Davidson brake parts and a sprocket from a combine that was on his father’s farm. After a couple of failures, Potter had the machine set up where it would run about 115 mph in the quarter mile. Then the idea that would become his signature came, “It developed that one night, while drinking about one beer and feeling really philosophical in my drunken haze, I came to realize that the clutch had to go in favor of a direct drive system,” Potter remembers in his book.
The system is brilliant in its simplicity. He put the bike on a stand, engaged the clutch with the tire off of the ground, run it to the redline, and dropped it off of the stand. Aside from fishtailing and roiling the tire down the entire strip, Potter was now making about 140 mph at the top end, all with a motor that was basically stock. It was immediately obvious that he was onto something, “I could tell that there was something afoot here, and I gradually started to think of making a living like this someday,” Potter said.
By the end of his career, when the bike was running nearly 190 mph in the quarter mile with alky-injected, 450-horsepower small-block Chevy motors, Potter’s math suggested that the tire was spinning 223 mph when he nudged himself off of the jack stand. There are not words in the English language to sum up how completely and utterly nuts that is when you think about the fact that these were ancient bias-ply car tires, not drag slicks, or modern racing rubber.
EJ spent 13 years of his life making a living by riding his series of Widow Maker bikes at strips across the country. “The big NHRA tracks would never have me in so I spent most of my time at small strips and outlaw tracks,” Potter said.
He found a willing audience in Jim Tice, the maverick owner of the AHRA. The sanctioning body was known for its innovative nature and willingness to take risks, like booking an unknown kid from Michigan with a V8-powered motorcycle into to its 1965 Winter Championships race at Bee Line Dragway in Arizona. It was on that weekend in 1965 that Hot Rod staff photographer Eric Rickman caught the bike on film and those photos began to make the rounds in a non-internet world.
“Tice told me the story later on that after I made my first run, his insurance guy came storming into the tower asking him if he had completely lost his mind. I thought that was kinda nice,” Potter said.
EJ on On Evel Knevil, “I did one show that Evel Knevil was at. The difference between me and him was that he got paid to say he was going to do stuff, whether he did it or not. I got paid to actually do stuff.”
The Widow Maker would earn Potter a cult hero status rarely found in any genre of racing, let alone exhibition performances. He took his act worldwide, with a disastrous performance in England that ended with Potter balled up against the retaining wall. “That crash in England was a complete human error deal,” Potter explained. “I had made runs for four weekends and had no problems until the end of the last day of the trip.”
It’s always the last run that bites you in the ass. Potter had failed to tighten the right side of the rear axle, putting lots of strain on the chain adjuster, breaking it, and allowing the tire to move in any direction it chose to, the bike basically started to steer itself. The wreck put Potter in an English hospital. The upside to the story is that the bike, which had arrived in England in a shipping container as a motorcycle, was far cheaper to ship back labeled as “assorted motorcycle parts.”
Despite the injuries sustained in that crash and a handful of others, Potter never missed an appearance. Once he was so badly burned he had to wear gloves soaked in alcohol to keep an infection from setting into his hands. He drove his truck with the bike in the back to his next booking in that condition, with his wife mopping up the ooze from the wounds as they went down the road.
His 1973 trip to Australia was far more productive. Potter zinged off an 8.68-second lap that got him into the Guinness Book of World Records. As he writes in his book, “The (drag strip) surface was made out of asphalt with clam shells mixed in it,” he said. “I mean to tell you it was a real attention getter to look at those million little knives all ready for me to fall off and slide on them.” There had to be an easier way to make a living, and frankly, Potter had tried.
Turning back the clock to the mid-1960s, Potter’s bike was making him enough money that he could let his mind wander a little. He built stuff like a 1957 Plymouth stuffed full of an Allison airplane engine that ran nearly 150 mph in a period of time before Funny Cars existed. One could argue that EJ had the first one. He refined that idea after the Allison backfired through its supercharger and the car essentially became an oven. Potter suffered burns on his hands and arms while trying to get the car to a halt. His solution to the fire problem was to buy a brand new Dodge Dart station wagon, put another Allison (hooked to a tug boat clutch and a 1-ton truck rearend) in that and enclose the entire engine in a steel coffin to prevent the fire from escaping and burning him again. “The Dart was very tough to control and it didn’t take too long for me to scrap that project,” Potter said. “I did have a whole season running the Plymouth, the Southern tracks really liked that car, although guys like Ronnie Sox hated it. To see a big old Plymouth running as fast as I did didn’t do much for those guys.”
An ill-fated experiment with a turbine-powered trike resulted in Potter being temporarily paralyzed. He had an innovative electric “slot car,” which was a four-wheel-drive subcompact powered by four 200hp aircraft starer motors and two cables running the length of the strip. “No one was really interested in the electric car deal,” Potter explained. That car ran in the 10s.
EJ on knowledge: “Ignorance is a powerful tool if applied at the right time, even usually surpassing knowledge.”
Potter’s V8-powered motorcycle represents to us (and we assume lots of you) the pinnacle expression of what an unlimited drag racing vehicle should be. It is so far beyond minimalist that it defies description. Despite its Neanderthal launch method, the bike is a masterpiece of evolution. To see one of the early iterations from 1965 and the last model, it’s clear that he refined and improved his design with each succeeding bike.
EJ on Bonneville: “I inquired about running the bike at Bonneville because I loved the place from helping Arfons out back in the 1970′s. They told me that they would not let it run. They said that the bike was ‘over powered’. I’ve never heard of an over powered racer before.”
During our conversation with EJ, we were completely floored when he mentioned, rather casually in fact, that he plans to build another bike with an all-aluminum small-block. The man is 67 years old and he plans to ride the thing. “I’m not sure where I’ll ride it or if I’ll find anyone who will let me, but I want to build another Chevy bike,” Potter said. “Maybe I’ll be able to run it at a nostalgia event somewhere or something.” EJ Potter is a lot of things, but crazy isn’t one of them. He’s led one hell of a life and it ain’t over yet. Stay tuned people, the Michigan Madman is looking to ride again.
EJ Potter’s book “Michigan Madman” is available from EJ himself. Give him a call at 1-877-A-Madman to score a copy.