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PETTY

By MATT CUDDY

INTERVIEW WITH A LEGEND

 

THE PLASTIC MAN SPEAKS OUT

 

Preston Petty

 

By Matt Cuddy

 

It’s like sitting with Thomas Edison. It was bench racing with an old friend. It was being taught how an internal combustion engine works by your Grandfather. It was like that, and a lot more. 

 

Preston and I somehow ended up as “friends” on Facebook.  A few months ago, while bench racing with Superhunky, Rick recanted Preston’s somewhat comical story of his pre-production work on what was to become the winningest MX bikes in history, the RH Suzukis. 

 

That evening I had a brainstorm (well, in my case a heavy drizzle) that maybe some of the readers of our website might be interested in the story. After all, anything that has to do with DeCoster, or a works 

Suzuki, is sure to attract attention.  The next day I sent Preston a Facebook message, and we made a date to meet each other for an interview. I could get the real story out to our readers on the pre-production 1967 RH250 Suzuki, right from the person who did it, Preston Petty. 

 

Before meeting with Preston, I read up on his history. I had some preconceived notions about Preston Petty that had him as an entrepreneur of plastic fenders, tool boxes, grips and such. Little did I know that PP had been racing off-road motorcycles since 1954, on about every kind of motorcycle available at the time, and winning! Not only that, but was also the “Ask the Expert” guy in Dirt Bike magazine of the 

early 1970’s.  I was excited, to say the least. 

 

Preston and I made a date to meet up at noon, at his favorite restaurant in Sun Valley, CA. Of course, that morning I was correcting another article about a motorcycle that had me in some sort of time-space warp where time travels three times faster than normal, and I was late. Driving in my usual late-mode (that turns my 3500 lb Chrysler Town & Country into a motorcycle,) I made the 10 miles to the restaurant in about seven minutes, give or take a nanosecord. Once I got to “Big Jim’s” Bar and Grill, I peered inside the relatively empty place, until I saw some people sitting outside on the veranda. 

 

Sure enough, there was Preston Petty in his signature blue shop overalls, with his friend Al, from the early days of computer controlled lathes. We all shook hands, and I asked Al if he was a dirt biker, too. Nope, said Al, just machines and computers.  These early digital processors sported vacuum tubes, and punch cards, that used one of the first computer languages, Fortran, to program the lathes to do simple tasks. That was from the late sixties to early nineteen seventies, when CNC lathes were in their infancy. 

 

How a guy from Santa Monica who loves dirt bikes came up with the systems that run a computer controlled lathe is amazing, and if you think about it, has changed the World with respect to manufacturing anything in need of exact tolerances. Even now he’s in demand, with the last few industries in the San Fernando Valley, that use computer controlled machines, robots. And Preston still finds the time to race dirt bikes at the tender young age of 71.

 

Amazing guy. Preston also did three ISDT’s, and raced everything from flat track on a BSA Gold Star, to slogging through enduros on a Honda 250cc twin. Just the thought of that makes me kind of queasy in the gut department. 

 

We all ordered lunch, and I asked Preston if we could concentrate on the prototype RH Suzuki 250 story, that Petty had a hand in developing. Here’s a snippet of the recorded interview:

 

Me: "It’s a real honor to meet you Preston. We were wondering how you got involved with the first Suzuki motocross bike?"

 

Preston: "I got a call from Walt Axthelm in the summer of 1967, he had too much stuff going on, and was wondering if I could take the Suzuki project off his hands. I couldn’t pass up a deal like that, so I said yes. That next week Walt got the Suzuki over to my combo shop/house, and I started working on it. There was a big open area behind my house that I used for dirt bike testing with jumps, corners, drop offs water crossings, about everything you needed to test a dirt bike.

 

"I signed a contract with Suzuki, and started to race the un-modified RH250 twin port Suzuki with little success at local tracks. Most everybody thought it was a twin pipe CZ painted yellow. The worst beating came at an AMA race for points, at Sedan, Kansas, in the 250 expert class. I proceeded to get blown off the track, and even lapped by the slowest guy there. That Suzuki needed major work to be competitive. 

 

"I said to my contact at Suzuki: First off, the engine in this bike is way out of specs in the power department. I asked Suzuki to give me an engine with more low end and midrange power. Suzuki responded by delivering an engine ported like a road racer. Zero low end, no midrange, with all the power on top. I thought I must have made some error with respect to the language barrier, so I sent an even more finely worded letter to Suzuki, to please review the porting on the last engine they sent me, and provide one with milder porting, maybe even a heavier clutch (the clutch on the prototype RH was mounted on the crankshaft.) 

 

"Again, Suzuki responded. But the third engine was ported even more radically then the last one! I was on my last legs on this project, so I started doing what any devious young lad would do: I started squirreling away parts from the 250, things like engines, top ends, wheels, axles, expansion chambers, ignitions, just about everything that worked OK on the prototype, and stuck all the good parts in a Champion Frame. The stuff that was junk I threw into a big pile outside. It was a lot of stuff. 

 

"With the new bike, I started winning races, and in the fall of 1967 I changed the cylinder configuration from twin exhaust ports, to a single exhaust port, and ported the barrel myself. Got rid of a lot of weight 

with that move, another pipe, with all the stuff that held it on the bike saved me about a good 30 pounds. Once I changed the exhaust port, I had no other choice but to port it myself, tried to get an even spread of power across the rev range. It still hauled ass on top end, but was a lot milder off the bottom, and the middle. Looked good too, not like an old CZ someone had thrown out. 

 

"The Viewfinders Grand Prix was held in Westlake Village, in the summer of ’68.  I got the hole shot and never looked back. That single port RH250 beat everything, and I reported the success to my guy at 

Suzuki at the end of the season. I won a lot of races against some big names, and bikes. Suzuki responded by sending their lead designer to inspect what I had done to the bike, it went something like 

this:

 

Suzuki: “This is not a Suzuki, please understand, we want you to ride and win on a Suzuki machine. What you are riding is not a Suzuki.”

 

Preston: “I told him that all the parts that worked on the prototype were used on the new bike, the gas tank, wheels, axles, motor, airbox and fenders, the only things I had to change were the frame, forks and 

rear shocks. The stuff that didn’t work on the prototype.” That was a real whopper, since I changed about everything on the bike, except the gas tank, and the fenders. Even the seat was off a Greeves. 

 

"The Suzuki guy would have none of that, and demanded I put the prototype back the way it was delivered, and start racing that, or they (Suzuki) would have to make other arrangements. 

Preston: “So I quit, and put the Champion framed bike, and all the rest of the parts in a big crate, and back it all went to Japan.”

 

You have to wonder if the modifications Preston made to the prototype RH Suzuki, somehow, made their way into the works bikes that came out two years later, and dominated everything, under the hands of Joel Robert and Roger DeCoster. 

 

Preston said the Japanese at that time could only design and build a road racer with knobbies, with short suspension travel, and terrifyingly fast motors, like the production 1971 TM400 Cyclone.  A buddy of 

mine had a ’71 orange and black TM400, that one time broke BOTH of my collarbones in the same wreck. After it broke my buddy Rick’s leg, he sold it immediately in Cycle News’ bike ads “Injury forces 

sale.” More like self-preservation forces sale.

 

After the RH story, we bench raced for another hour or so, Petty expounding on modifying 250cc Honda Scramblers with DKW leading link front forks and Curnutt rear shocks, and would win in MX races and hare and hounds on the same bike, just with different gearing. The 250 Scrambler by Honda was a twin cylinder 280 pound motorcycle, with chrome open up pipes. I guess people back then weren’t concerned with starting a sand fire. Goes up just like magnesium I’ve heard. 

 

We got along great, and talking to Preston was like talking to a friend. Not one ounce of pretentiousness or self-aggrandizement came out of Preston. I could have sat in Big Jim’s all night shooting the bull with 

Preston Petty. Of course three Margaritas helped my mood out considerably. 

 

As a memento of our meeting, I gave Mr. Petty one of my reverse engineered headlights, and a can of Blenzall gold. He started to take the headlight apart at our table, but we didn’t have a pair of plyers (I 

always carry a tool that has about everything you’ll even need, because of my wheelchair.) 

 

 

Then I asked if he would like to do a long term test on one of my four stroke motorized bicycles, I can see it now “Tested Preston Petty Tough!” Hope he likes how it runs. And yes, he is a distant relative of 

that other Petty that races cars. It’s in the gene pool, I guess. 

 

As you can probably tell, the interview went great, and I hope I can call Preston Petty my friend. They don’t make ‘em like Preston anymore. 

 

If you read anything on Petty’s early life, you can see he was fascinated by anything on two wheels with a motor. When Preston was attending BYU, he kept his new Triumph Cub out of the cold Utah nights by 

parking it in his room. Once, after reading a hop up article on the mighty Cub, that promised starts on the first kick, Preston modified the Triumph as per the article, and sure enough it started on the first kick. Except he started it in his dorm room, which led the dorm mother to kick the Triumph outside in the cold, much to Preston’s protests. I can fully understand Preston’s feeling on that.

 

Some folks bemoan the loss of our “Greatest Generation,” the fighters of World War Two. Others miss the early kings and queens of rock and roll. For some it’s the baseball players, the sultans of swat. But for me, and others like me, it’s the early days of off road motorcycles, the factories, and the designers. I am so attached to the bikes and the people who pioneered (to me) the greatest motor sport on Earth, it’s almost a sickness. I mean what screwball would covet an empty, dented can of Francisco bean oil, and display it on the living room mantel? Resplendent in its faded glory, like the bikes it lubricated.  

 

I get all choked up when I see someone like Preston, more towards the end then the beginning, and I wonder who will pass on all his knowledge? Who gets to hold the hat of someone like Preston Petty, 

 

after it’s all over? With the recent passing of Gil at Works Performance, Adolph Weil, and so many others whose time is rapidly running out, that leaves a big gaping hole of history and knowledge in our rapidly shrinking sport. Riders who didn’t let little things like handling, reliability or parts availability get in their way, the great ones who modified their motorcycles themselves. From scratch. From an idea. 

 

I’m not one to live in the past, or chide new riders who can’t even change a sparkplug, or lube their own chain, much less machine a new crankshaft. We don’t have to do that anymore, if we don’t want to. To 

tell you the truth, our sport that once accepted about anybody on two wheels, rich, middle class, or poor, educated or not, has canted off on an elitist bend. No more taking a Honda 305 and cutting about everything off it to make it compete. Now you buy a nine thousand dollar dirt bike that lasts about ten hours, and throw it away when it’s worn out, and just buy another one. 

 

Once, all that mattered was that you understood what was at stake, and you gave it your best. Like my Uncle Richard, who after blowing up enough British bikes to start his own junkyard, he bought a new ’68 

Yamaha 125 MX, and promptly blew all the big six fifties into the weeds. I was there, and saw it happen. The Triumph/BSA guys that my Uncle rode with could not believe it. It was no contest, and all my Uncle 

Rich was doing, was trying to keep the damn thing on the pipe. Now all his expertise is gone, and I miss every day without him, because all the crashes, the races, towing broken bikes for miles, all the good and bad times are only left to me now, and I am less for it. And my time is getting shorter every day as well. No one gets out of here alive, I guess.  

 

We have to appreciate the game changers like Preston while they’re still here, not after they’re gone. To me old racers and riders carry with them all the things that made us great. And all you kids out there, with your ten thousand dollar dirt bikes, that you can’t even adjust the valves on, where will you be in fifty years? 

 

What memories will you have? Will you be able to laugh at the time you almost buttoned up the top end on your CRF450 at 4:30 in the morning, and had to finish it inside your buddy’s van, tools everywhere?   

 

And you slept next to your bike all the way to the race, on a 13mm open end wrench because you were exhausted mentally and physically. But when you got there, and unloaded your bike, all the tiredness and fatigue melted away. And you won your class. 

 

I hope so.

 

                                          ***

THE PRESTON PETTY THAT I KNEW

BY RICK SIEMAN

Preston wrote a column in Dirt Bike magazine that was entitled Ask The Expert and it drew a tremendous amount of mail. However, it was always late. I had to call up his plant in Oregon repeatedly to try to get it on time.

Preston had called me earlier to get a bike setup for the Hopetown Grand Prix that was coming up shortly, so I contacted Maico and had them deliver a 440 to me for Preston to use. I called up Preston at his plant and asked him what kind of riding condition he was in. He said he been riding constantly and was ready to go.

Later, I talked to his wife and she said that the only riding he had done in the last two months was to take his trials bike around in his plant by running over lathes and things like that and most the time he was half drunk.

 

I feared for the worst. Preston did show up for the Hopetown Grand Prix and ended up winning the Pro class easily in spite of being in horrible condition. He took lines that no one else even dreamed about and at that point proved to me that he was probably the best rider on the planet at that time.