As most people who the biggest name in motorcycle stunt events is and they will likely say Evel Knievel. Yet there were others that toured the country doing outrageous things with motorcycles that caught quite a bit of press at the time. One of these is E.J. Potter, also known as “The Michigan Madman” and here is his story.
Elon Jack Potter was born in Ithaca, Mich., on April 24, 1941, one of four children of Howard and Sheila Potter, who owned a small farm and a honeybee business. “EJ” was from a young age and grew up tinkering with engines and farm equipment. As he grew into his teens, tinkering with farm equipment segued into building motorcycles and racing them at both drag strips around central Michigan well before he was old enough to drive.
The story as told to us by Portland Chrysler was that his first outrageous act was to mount a V-8 engine sideways on an old Harley-Davidson motorcycle. As far as anyone knew, no one had ever done anything quite this crazy before. Though many technical problems would emerge -things like extreme vibration and the tendency for the front wheel to become airborne at high speed- Potter hit 130 MPH the first time he drove the bike at his local drag strip. The year was 1960.
“Usually, a guy went for the fastest time on the track, or he tried to win the competition for the highest speed clocked that day,” said Roger Meiners, a popular motor sports journalist of the day. “E. J. wasn’t looking to win anything. He just liked to show up and make people say, Oh, my God!”
Potter toured the drag-race circuit around the US for 13 years, beginning soon after he graduated from Ithaca High School. Local drag-racing promoters just loved what he brought to weekly drag races. He asked for payment of just one dollar per mile for every mile above 100 MPH he could take his V-8 bike. Soon he was asking for much more. “On a given night, he would make three passes at $150 a run,” a local promotor said. “He only did three because that’s how many he could make on a set of tires before they blew out.”
Although he eventually reached speeds of close to 170 MPH with his V-8 powered motorcycle, he still wanted to go faster. This desire led directly to his most outrageous vehicle; a motorcycle with a military-surplus rocket engine on it. This three wheel vehicle was dubbed “The Widow Maker” and it caught a great deal of attention during its day.
Potter was seriously injured twice. In 1966, he broke his pelvis in a crash of his V-8 bike in an exhibition in England, and in 1971, when he sustained injuries after he was forced to leap from the Widow Maker at 120 MPH when a parachute failed to open. Potter was always an advocate of motorcycle helmets and wore them faithfully long before they were required by law.
In an interview in the 1980s, Potter was asked to compare himself with Knievel, his more famous counterpart. “The difference between me and him,” Potter said, “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.”