October 1, 2014

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Film to look at life of John Penton, Amherst’s famed off-road motorcycle racer

Growing up on a farm, John Penton knew one thing about his destiny: It would be dirty.

There was the soil, the turned earth of the family farm in rural Amherst, where he was born in 1925.

And then there was the mud, flung from the spinning wheels of one motorcycle or another, on tracks and roads and raceways around the world.

“My dad died in his mid-30s and my mother had to raise the seven of us on this farm,” Penton, 87, said. “And I surely decided I wasn’t going to be a farmer.”

What followed next is legend.

The small-town farmer’s boy and his go-devil machines traveled continents, sweeping trophies at bike races at home and abroad.

John Penton goes flat-out during a special test at ISDT in West Germany in 1969. (Photo courtesy of the Penton family and Ed Youngblood.)

And before the dust settled, Penton’s curiosity, vision and drive — both figurative and physical — to ride and conquer on an iron pony changed an entire industry and revolutionized the sport of off-road motorcycling.

Now a full-length documentary of Penton’s achievements will bring his story to an even wider audience.

“The John Penton Story” will begin filming this spring with many interviews and footage to be shot in Lorain County, said producer/director Todd Huffman of Pipeline Digital Media.

The film will detail how Penton’s passion for off-road motorcycles led to the creation of the Penton brand of bikes, which had a tremendous effect on the sport, Huffman said. The film was inspired by “John Penton and the Off-Road Revolution,” a book by motorcycle writer Ed Youngblood, which details Penton’s transformation from small-town boy to motorcycle mogul.

“Here’s an American motor pioneer who decided to take on the worldwide industrial complex to make something better, to be more competitive, and offer a better experience for the consumer,” Hoffman said from California. “He’s kind of a rebel, kind of a renegade.”

The film will be narrated by four-time Grammy-winner Lyle Lovett, who got his first Penton at 13.

“I talked the owner of the Cycle Shack (a Penton dealer) in Houston, Texas, into letting me work there. I got my first job at 14, so I tell you I was just as happy as a clam,” Lovett said in a phone interview. “I was in awe of John Penton as a person and as a motorcyclist from those days. He was just an innovator. Modern off-road motorcycling would not be what it is today without him.”

ABOVE RIGHT: John Penton John Penton holds the Alligator Enduro trophy in 1961. (Photo courtesy of the Penton family and Ed Youngblood.)

Penton first met his match tooling around the Amherst farm on an ancient Harley-Davidson that his father had stored in the barn. Penton’s older brother, Ike, got it started but eventually all the Penton sons took an interest, said Jack Penton, John’s son.

Their mother kept their passion in perspective, he said.

“At that point in time, boys went off to war, so motorcycles weren’t that frightening,” Jack Penton said.

John Penton got serious about racing bikes when he returned from serving in the U.S. Navy and the Merchant Marines in World War II. He started racing in the late 1940s and around the same time he and his four brothers were expanding the “little machine shop” his dad had on the farm to supplement the farm income.

“I added a little chicken coop next to it, and I thought I’d start selling motorcycles, little British ones,” he said.

The Penton Brothers motorcycle shop was started there on the family farm on North Ridge Road in Amherst in 1950.

“And then after that somebody told me about riding this off-road bike, riding in the woods. I’d take the British bikes and put different tires on it and ride around in the woods,” he said.

By the early 1950s, he was traveling to Michigan for the Jack Pine Enduro, the biggest off-road event east of the Rocky Mountains, which he didn’t win — at first. His passion for the sport led him to found the Amherst Meadowlarks Motorcycle Club with other enthusiasts in 1954.

Then came 1958. John’s wife, Katherine, died, leaving him with three young sons. The boys’ aunts and uncles cared for them while John sought relief from his grief on the road.

“It was a very difficult time for him,” said his son. “He challenged himself as much to find some relief as to win. He did a lot of things, drove himself very hard.”

That year he won the Ohio State Enduro, the Stone Mountain Enduro in Georgia, the Alligator Enduro in Florida and several others around the Midwest. He then took a solo ride to Mexico, and on his way home, drove nonstop from California to Ohio, according to information from the American Motorcycle Association. He also won the first of his four Jack Pine trophies.

The next year, he broke the world speed record from New York City to Los Angeles, making the trip in a little over 52 hours — a vast majority of that ridden on two-lane highways, Jack said.

In an interview for the documentary, John Penton said he left on a BMW from New York City one June morning in 1959, and “nobody was supposed to know.”

He traveled interstate turnpikes, collecting toll booth signatures or stamps on a sheet of paper with his letterhead to document his journey. He was heading into congested St. Louis when he was surrounded by motorcycles and flashing lights, stopping him. After driving two-lane roads winding through towns across the country, “stopping only for petrol,” John said he thought “that’s it, it’s over.”

Turns out, his New York importer had called ahead to the St. Louis motorcycle club, which included a cop, and they escorted him through the city in record time.

“I think that was quite a physical achievement, I was proud of that cross-country,” he said. “I did it without sleep, and we didn’t have all these funny little pills they’ve got today to stay awake or go to bed.”

In the 1960s, he represented the United States in the International Six Days Trial Enduro, held in Europe and considered the “Olympics” of the sport. He came home with gold medals.

“He was very competitive, his whole life, in business or any endeavor he tried,” his son said.

And all along the way, he was taking note of what kind of bike worked best for the particular challenges of off-road motorcycling. He quickly realized traditional American bikes, like Harley or Triumph, were too big and too unwieldly to perform the nimble-by-comparison jumps and maneuvers of the sport.

“Dad began racing on a Harley but it was too heavy so he switched to a BSA, a British bike, which was lighter — then an NSU, a German bike that was even lighter — and then a BMW, which was the lightest,” Jack Penton said. “He had lots of wins on the BMWs.”

The Penton brothers, all mechanically-minded and skilled machinists, tinkered with the bikes to match the machines with their vision.

“That is all part of becoming a champion — realizing what it would take and working to make it better,” his son said. “He was the spark plug. He was the guy who was the quarterback of the football team, captain of the baseball team, the leader of everything he wanted to do. That has carried on throughout his whole life.”

In 1968, John Penton approached KTM, a moped manufacturer in Austria, with his ideas for a smaller, lighter, sport motorcycle. He soon received one hand-built motorcycle; then the first production run of 10 arrived. Within a week, the family had all of them at motorcycle races.

Then the first full shipment came — a 40-foot container of 105 bikes, Jack Penton recalled. They all went into the barn that now houses the Penton Farm Market on North Ridge Road.

“My dad, he was like ‘Oh geez, here comes the bikes. Let’s throw them in the barn and get to selling them,’ ” Jack Penton said. “He’d travel around to friends, dealerships — he’d been around the country since the early ’50s, he knew everybody — and he’d say, ‘Here you go, here’s five of them, now you’re a dealer.’ ”

Pentons quickly became the bike for off-road racing. There were four sizes of Penton bikes, each named for major races; the 100cc Berkshire was red; the 125cc Six-Day was emerald green; the 175-cc Jackpiner was light blue; and the 250cc Hare Scrambler was also red. The company also made a 125cc silver Mudlark, and the Mint, a 400cc white bike, but neither of them was meant for typical off-roading, Jack Penton said.

The original cost was “about $695 — the equivalent of a Porsche,” Jack Penton said.

That first shipment of bikes came the summer he turned 14. By 16, he was riding Pentons on championship levels. His favorite was the Hare Scrambler.

The Penton race bikes brought in a new generation of riders, younger kids who were able to handle the smaller, lighterweight bikes. Jack Penton’s brothers and cousins learned to race from his legendary father, and local racers were known for their exceptional skill.

“It wasn’t just our family. If you won on a local level, you had to beat not only us but champions from around the state,” Jack Penton said. “If you could win here, you could win nearly anywhere.”

The Pentons spawned a dynasty of champions; John, Jack and another son, Tom, were inducted into the American Motorcycle Association Hall of Fame and all three have gold medals from the International Six Days Enduro.

Another son, Jeff, and a nephew, Dane Leimbach, also hold several titles for championship racing.

Leimbach, who died in 2011, was the son of Pat Leimbach, the noted speaker and author who wrote The Country Wife column for The Chronicle-Telegram. Pat, who died earlier this week, was John Penton’s sister.

Huffman, who produces and directs “The Motorcross Files” for Speed TV, traveled to Amherst in 2007 to record interviews with John Penton, his son Jack Penton, and Leimbach. Hoffman said his crew will be back in Amherst at the beginning of March.

The film is expected to go into post-production by fall, and completed by June 2014.

Hoffman said he expects there will be three premieres, in Hollywood, Texas and Amherst. He said he is working with a major theater chain to secure limited showings and with local motorcycle dealers and bike shops nationwide to sponsor showings.

The Pentons long ago sold the rights to the Penton name to KTM, which now is the second-largest producer of motorcycles in the world behind Japan. John Penton also created the Hi-Point line of off-road motorcycle boots, accessories and trailers; that was sold in 1988.

A friend of Lovett’s in Texas ordered a Hi-Point trailer years ago and was waiting for its delivery when it rolled up — with John Penton behind the wheel.

“He’s there at home, waiting for the trailer, and he looked out and there he was. John Penton drove it down himself from Ohio. He got out and thanked him for buying the trailer and pulled off,” Lovett said Friday. “What a great example of how to be as a person, how to live a sense of personal dedication and action in life.”

The local dealership was sold in the 1980s. Original Penton bikes, manufactured from 1968 to 1977, are now considered highly collectible, Jack Penton said.

John Penton’s influence was key to bringing the sport of motocross to America.

“I’m really proud of how we developed that motorcycle, the power, the suspension-to-weight ratio for the motocross. You’ve seen those riders fly through the air in motocross? Originally I started the development of that,” John Penton said.

Jack Penton said his dad still “wakes up with a mission.”

Married for 53 years to second wife, Donna, with whom he had another son and three step-children, he starts every day with a two-mile walk and still maintains a small farm just a few hundred yards down the road from his childhood home.

He spoke of his glory days from the old machine shop on the family farm, which now houses Penton Racing Products, an electrical company that caters to — of course — motorcycles. It’s run by his step-daughter, Barbara.

“She’s one of my sweeties, she’s a sharp one,” he said. “Me, I’m just an old farmer.”

Documentary getting Kickstarter help

The documentary about John Penton’s remarkable career as a motorcycle racer, designer and innovator will be funded through Kickstarter, an Internet campaign that raises money through “crowd-funding.”

The project — which allows donors to pledge money and receive benefits in exchange — surpassed its funding goal of $150,000 as of Friday, said Todd Huffman, who will oversee the production. About $153,000 was pledged.

“This project is such a niche thing,” said Huffman. “It’s not something Hollywood or big sponsors would fund.”

Based on the amount pledged, donors can receive DVDs, signed posters, movie credits, premiere tickets and more. Top donors can be given personal tours of Penton landmark sites, with Jack Penton as their guide.

Huffman said the project will cost a minimum of $275,000; a Kickstarter campaign for $75,000 was raised last summer. However, that estimate is only for production, not post-production costs and more is needed, he said.

“Every little bit helps, and the entire community can be part of it for as little as $1,” he said.

To donate or find out more, go to www.kickstarter.com and type in “John Penton.”

Contact Rini Jeffers at 329-7155 or ctnews@chroniclet.com.