Preston Petty Pioneers Electric Motorcycles
Preston Petty is advancing the breed of electric-powered bikes. At 72 years old, with nothing more than a bright moon high in the sky to light his way, it would seem that the last thing Preston Petty should be doing is fast accelerating across a deserted construction yard aboard his custom electric race bike. But then, to know Preston Petty, it would actually make a lot of sense. To be frank, I had never met the man prior to this late-night meeting; however, as a lifelong motorcycle enthusiast, the legend of Preston Petty was one that loomed as large in my mind as any comic book superhero. Simply put, in the pantheon of American off-road motorcycling icons, Preston stands among a dozen or so others whose names are spoken with the utmost reverence and regard.
AS TOLD TO DUSTIN HOFFMAN
Regardless of how old you are, there’s a good chance that at some point in life you’ve seen the movie The Graduate. If not, you may at least have heard reference to perhaps one of the most oft-repeated lines from the movie, when Mr. McGuire takes a young Dustin Hoffman outside by the pool and tells him the one word he needs to know to prepare for the future: “Plastics.” It was during a race in 1969 when a broken aluminum fender on his motorcycle (and the resulting face full of mud) gave Preston the idea making fenders out of plastic. Preston Petty the off-road rider then became Preston Petty the industry. His invention of the plastic fender took the sport by storm, and the entire off-road motorcycle industry was never the same.
The Preston Petty story I learned from the few hours we spent together wove through many popular themes—none of which anyone should ever get tired of hearing. From his gritty tales of back-in-the-day, hard-man exploits racing (and almost dying) in Baja, Mexico, to the many entrepreneurial hurdles he faced in getting his fender business off and running, Preston is not unlike many a World War II veteran who can keep an audience spellbound by talking of challenges and adventures that few could ever realize.
FROM A YOUNG AGE
EBA: What got you interested in motorcycles? Did you come from a motorcycling family?
Preston: Not at all. My dad was a lawyer in West Los Angeles, and he wanted nothing to do with motorcycles, but I remember falling in love with go-karts when I was still in kindergarten, and as I grew older, I fell in love with motorcycles. When Honda came to America in 1959, I wanted to open a shop, but my dad said no way. I think a lot of that had to do with the social stigma that still surrounded motorcycles and the whole Wild One legacy of Marlon Brando. The Catalina Island GP in 1957 was one of my first big races, and I just loved everything about the competition. During the ’60s, I was mostly a weekend warrior, but I raced a lot. I raced the Baja 500 and competed in the International Six Day Enduro.
EBA: And then the fender came along.
Preston: Yes, after that race where I broke the fender, I started looking into the different types of plastics and what it would take to make a fender. From my days working at Rocketdyne, I had plenty of experience working with a CNC, so that helped get me started. There were a lot of hurdles to be sure. I remember even after I’d made a deal for a friend to distribute them, I took an early sample to the quarter car wash, and when I sprayed Gunk on it like I always did when I cleaned my bike, the fender just started melting right there. Back to the drawing board. But by 1970 it finally clicked, and things were going well with it. By the late ’70s, it had become pretty popular, and then in 1980 I sold the company and just went back to work.
EBA: What is it about the motorcycle that keeps you so excited about them?
Preston: If I lived in the BC (before cycles) days, I guess I would’ve been a horse lover, but ever since I rode my first motorcycle, well, that was it. Motorcycles have given me the most spectacular scenes to see and be a part of, and all that comes before you even consider the technical side to them, which also fascinates me. No, as far as I’m concerned, there’s no better way to get over the surface of the earth than on a motorcycle.
THE ZERO HOUR
EBA: How did you move on to an electric bike?
Preston: Well, I was coming back from the local flat-track races one night with an old friend of mine, Greg Powell, who at the time was racing a KTM 450. I mentioned to him that racing an electric bike could be an interesting project, and that was pretty much all it took. The next week we went down to the Hollywood Electrics bike shop and ordered a bike. Once we explained to the guy what we were planning to do with the bike, he told us it would be better to wait for a 2013 model because that bike had some good improvements over the 2012 model. When we got the bike, I have to say that I was really surprised at how fast it was. Greg has been sponsoring me through his Enerlon company, and the thing that is pretty cool about that is that back in 1970, he was my first employee when I started making fenders—how’s that for life circling back?!
EBA: How did the experience go when getting back on a bike?
Preston: Yeah, it had been a while since I’d raced, and I have to say that it didn’t take long to realize how rusty I was. At 72 years old, the body definitely slows down more than the mind. In my brain, the one thing that hadn’t changed was me always asking myself, “How fast can I go?” But now it’s up to the limits of the bike. One thing I liked about the Zero was how small it was. I raced a lot of bikes growing up—from the big Triumphs to the smaller DKWs and Hodakas—and I always liked racing the smaller bikes the most. When I first got on the Zero, I thought back to how fast I used to go at Ascot Raceway, and then I crashed pretty bad on it. I realized that after all these years I would have to change my approach. It wasn’t a matter of how fast I could go; it was more about how fast the motorcycle could go, and I would have to adjust to it. See, back in the ’70s, you could always outride the equipment, but that’s not the case anymore.
EBA: What changes did you make to the bike to make it a racer?
Preston: We haven’t done anything with the motor or the gearing. We called Zero and asked a few questions about programming the motor, but we couldn’t get much information, so the motor is still stock. We lowered the front and rear suspension by about half, ditched the stock wheels and put on some 19-inch Buchanan wheels with Goodyear dirt-track tires, and relocated the handlebars with some Rox Speed risers.
EBA: And how have you found it as a race bike?
Preston: It works good for me, and so far I’ve won about half the races that I’ve entered. The thing has incredible torque, and since our races are pretty short, we only run one battery, which also saves us about 45 pounds. The biggest problem we’ve had is how little inertia there is to the power train, so that when the rear wheel breaks loose, it goes sideways. I’d like to see some kind of auto-traction system to help prevent the rear wheel slipping.
EBA: You’re a guy who spent practically your whole life on bikes with internal combustion engines. What are your thoughts on the future of electric-powered bikes?
Preston: I have enormous confidence in the technology and what it will look like in the next 5 to 10 years. Electricity really is hard to beat as a power source, but it will all come down to battery technology. I think electric bikes make especially good sense for a bike used around town. For sure, it would be good to see the prices come down for them to gain more mass appeal. I’m also interested in what kind of potential that tuning by the rider can have. Things like programming the front- and rear-wheel speed bias and power output could have a real performance impact. To me, the guys that make these things should be less inclined to give the rider what they want them to have and, instead, let the rider figure it out. The fact that an electric bike now has the fastest motorcycle time recorded for the Pikes Peak hill-climb tells you something about their future potential. I bet that 50 years from now no one will ever believe that we relied so heavily on internal combustion motors.
EBA: What comes next?
Preston: Well, Greg and I are going to keep working on the bike to see what we can do to make it a better race bike. The thing has so much torque. You know I love doing wheelies, but they don’t help you when you’re trying to win a race!