E.J. Potter aka The ‘Michigan Madman’ of Drag Racing
Story by Lee Sheridan
Photo of Rocket Trike: Courtesy of Potter family
Elon Jack Potter was born in Ithaca, Michigan, on April 24th, 1941, one of four children of Howard and Sheila Potter, who owned a small farm and a honeybee business. E. J. Potter, a k a the Michigan Madman, was a legend on the American drag strip, who earned his nickname riding 170 plus miles per hour on a motorcycle he fitted with a Chevy V-8 which he named ‘Widow Maker’, and who later went nearly 200 m.p.h. on a three-wheel bike powered by a jet engine. Over the years, Potter built a series of continuously evolving ‘Widow Maker’ Chevy powered drag bikes. My research validates that there were actually 7 in all.
Potter was a farm boy, who was completely enthralled with motors and driven with a passion of making them go fast. He grew up tinkering with tractor engines, building motorcycles and racing them at both organized and informal drag strips around central Michigan well before he was old enough for a driver’s license. When he was just 16 years old, he had a vision to mount a V-8 car engine sideways on the frame of a chain-driven Harley-Davidson motorcycle. To anyone’s knowledge, this had never been done before. Although many mechanical problems would arise such as extreme vibration, irregular steering and a tendency for the front wheel to become airborne, it was later realized by Potter that his youth and ignorance were the instrumental assets that led to the success of this project. It took three years for Potter to build his two-wheeled vision, but the result of this mechanical insanity created both a motorsports career and a lasting identity as the “Michigan Madman.” Of the seven Chevy V-8 powered motorcycles constructed by Potter beginning in 1960, the first three were named Bloody Mary… the last four were named Widow Maker, in acknowledgement of his marital status change. His first effort, Bloody Mary 1, was driven by a carburetor-fed 283-cu.in. V-8, mounted transversely in the frame. Several attempts to rig a clutch assembly from a Harley-Davidson drum brake were unsuccessful and although he tried to reinforce its strength, it was just not capable of managing the 500+bhp Chevrolet V-8, so Potter worked around this by building a direct chain drive.
There was nothing Potter wouldn’t or couldn’t do to go faster. His need for speed was so severe that his decision to entirely remove the bikes clutch was based upon the fact that he was losing too much power due to it slipping. His maiden voyage on the V-8 motorcycle took place at a local strip in 1960, reaching 130 m.p.h. “Ignorance is a powerful tool if applied at the right time, even, usually, surpassing knowledge,” he wrote with cynical self-mockery in a memoir he published in 1999 called “Michigan Madman,”
“Local drag-racing promoters began paying him a dollar for every mile above 100 M.P.H. he could take his V-8 bike,” said Clyde Hensley, an old friend and collector of some of Potter’s famous motorbikes. “Soon he was earning considerably more.Top of Form On a given night, he would make three passes at $150 a run, He only did three because that’s how many he could make on a set of tires before they blew out.”
Potter toured drag-strip exhibitions in the U.S. throughout the 60’s and 70’s when many of the racers built their own vehicles and had a serious reputation for taking risks of insanity on the tracks. The Michigan Madman’s early career was often compared to that of legendary, American daredevil, stunt performer, Evel Knievel. Like Knievel, Potter made a niche for himself in motorcycle racing. “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 motor sports journalist and photographer. “E. J. wasn’t looking to win anything. He just showed up and tried to make people say, Oh, my God!”
As the 60s drew near to the end of another decade, the same combination of knowledge and useful ignorance prudently assisted him to complete another visualization, the construction of a trike powered by a Fairchild J-44 Jet engine purchased from United States military surplus. This attempt at a Jet powered trike designed to run on the drag strip was another validation of his “Madman” monogram. The weekend of its debut at Lakeland, Florida back in 1972 was short of successful. Unfortunately, the trike crashed, but luckily EJ Potter lived to race another day on one of his many wild creations. Shortly after the trike project he became captivated with the Allison V12 engines, used in WWII fighter aircraft, and which he used in everything from Dodge Dart drag cars to the tractors he entered in pulling competitions after retiring from racing. This fact testified that the Madman’s fabricating expertise was not limited to extreme bikes. Each time EJ sparked up the welder, two things were apparent, his creation would be like none other and it would push the forces of speed beyond to its limits.
Riding these vehicles required a certain equanimity and focus. “The acceleration was quite apparent and the vibrations, bumps and engine noises would stop registering,” he said in an interview. “It got kind of mental.”
During the course of his career, Potter was seriously injured twice. In 1966 he broke his pelvis when he crashed his V-8 bike during an exhibition in England, and in 1971, he sustained numerous fractures when jumping from the Widow Maker at 120 M.P.H. due to a malfunction with the parachute preventing it from opening. Although Potter deservingly earned the reputation and name of Michigan Madman; he did take one safety precaution quite seriously, and that was wearing a helmet any and every time he raced one of his bikes. Ironically, his advocacy for wearing a helmet took place long before they were required by law.
In 1973 the Guinness Book of World Records bestowed upon EJ Potter’s V-8 Drag bike the coveted title of “World’s Fastest Motorcycle”, finally sanctioning what many in America already knew when they branded him the “Michigan Madman“. This same year, Potter retired from drag racing and funneled his overload of adrenaline into competitive tractor pulling.
During an interview in the 1980s, E.J. was asked to compare himself with Knievel, his more famous equivalent. “The difference between me and him,” he 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.” To complete and officially acknowledge Potter’s legacy, he was inducted into the Michigan Motor Sports Hall of Fame in 1992.
E.J. Potter ’The Michigan Madman’ passed away on April 30th in Ithaca, Michigan due to complications from Alzheimer’s disease. He was 71 years old. In his memoir, Potter thanked his parents for allowing him to be himself — a risk taker.
To view photos and other articles, order DVD’s and a copy of E.J. Potter’s memoir log on to themichiganmadman.com