One of my friends asked, “Did he have his engineer’s rule in his breast pocket?” Yes, he did. And a multicolor Bic pen of a type I haven’t seen since Preston Petty Products was a going concern. After all these years, his curiosity, humor, and innate desire to tweak motorcycles to make them better and faster are all still intact.
If you’ve been flat trackin’ in southern California over the last two or three years, at Perris or Ventura for example, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve noticed an old man racing a Zero electric motorcycle. And you would notice because: a.) he’s 73 years old and b.) he’s got one of the only electric flat track bikes. You’ve especially probably noticed him if he’s beaten you.
Now, if you’re a young racer, and you came up in, say, the ‘90s or later, you might not recognize that old guy’s name. But if you were riding in the ‘70s, you definitely knew who Preston Petty was. At least, you knew the name, because it was molded into the fenders of almost every dirt bike in America.
My friend Chris Van Andel works at Motion Pro – one of the most active sponsors in racing. He told me that Preston had shown up at their 30th Anniversary event with the flat tracker in the back of his van. I confess that my first thought was, “Wow, Preston Petty’s still alive?” Then, it occurred to me that the old man’s electric flat tracker would make for a good column. Finally, I realized that I really knew nothing about him or his business, Preston Petty Products.
A few months ago, I had some business in Los Angeles and arranged to meet Preston for breakfast. He picked the spot; a Mexican themed diner that was the opposite of hip. I met a tall, thin guy in his seventies, who arrived wearing a blue boiler suit with an engineer’s rule poking out of a breast pocket, along with several pens. We sat on the patio outside, so he could smoke. We were served by a buxom waitress dressed like a belly dancer because it was Halloween. He flirted shamelessly.
Preston told me that he grew up in Woodland Hills, an L.A. suburb. By the time he was a teenager, he’d saved enough money to buy a Whizzer. Then, Bud Ekins opened his motorcycle shop in Tarzana, about a mile away. That probably didn’t impress Preston’s dad, who was a devout Mormon. In the Petty household, motorcycles were equated with the Hells Angels and ‘The Wild One’.
Nonetheless, Ekins’ shop became a second home for the kid. Any time Preston ran afoul of his teachers and was sent home, he reported to Ekins’ and was put to work. He bought his first real motorcycle, an Ariel Colt. That was what he rode in his first race.
“I remember thinking, ‘I’m not going to win this thing, but I’m not going to finish last’,” Preston recalled. “Of course, it was so gutless that before long I was dead-ass last. Then I saw a guy way ahead of me. I caught him and passed him and thought, ‘I’m no longer last.’ Then greed set in, I wondered if I could catch the next guy, and I fell trying to do that, so that I did finish last.”
Everyone in Ekins’ circle was fast and versatile; by 1959, Preston was racing a Gold Star on the Ascot half-mile most Saturday nights. He raced mainly flat track into the early ’60s, then jumped to motocross and got hired by American Suzuki.
He studied engineering at Brigham Young University, where according to legend he ran afoul of university officials because he kept a motorcycle in his dorm room. Later, he tried Utah State, but he never finished his engineering degree. Instead, he got a job at Rocketdyne, making parts for Atlas rockets. He went to night school at UCLA, to learn Fortran, an early computer language. He wrote some of the first CNC software.
Nowadays, every barn-find ‘70s dirt bike has a Preston Petty fender (or two). They were sold with an absolutely unconditional one-year guarantee; race it, crash it,.. they were indestructible.
He was racing an enduro, on a Maico, when he had his plastic fender epiphany. “It had a beautiful polished-aluminum fender,” he recalled. “But I washed out the front going down a steep hill, and bent it. I straightened it, but within a few miles it cracked and broke clean off. I was getting dirt in my face the rest of the race.”
Preston built his first fender mold on one of the machines he used to make aerospace parts. He figured that if he managed to sell a couple of thousand fenders, it would be worthwhile.
There were already cheap, vacuum-formed ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) plastic fenders on the market, but they were prone to cracking when subject to vibration. His first prototype was made of polystyrene, which had better fatigue resistance, until he accidentally splashed gasoline on it. It immediately dissolved.
“Trial and error isn’t the fastest way to learn,” he told me, “but it’s thorough.”
He settled on polypropylene, which was both tough and chemical-resistant. But it still wasn’t easy to get his product onto the market. He visited one dealer who looked at a sample fender and gestured to a few similar-looking ABS ones on display. “I’ve already got those, and they’re no good,” said the dealer.
Preston took a hammer to his sample, to prove how tough it was. “Now will you stock mine?” he asked.
“No,” said the dealer.
When Preston asked why not, the dealer said, “Because if I sell one of yours, I’ll never get rid of those.”
He competed in the ISDT in 1969, ’70 and ’71. In 1970 he won the qualifier outright, and John Penton wanted him to ride in the Trophy team, on a Husqvarna that he’d supply. Perhaps foolishly, Preston was loyal to his own sponsor, and rode in a club team on a Puch. Dave Ekins (Bud’s brother) was on his team. The bikes broke.
He was about to abandon the fender business, but took several samples to Europe. Rather than lug them back home, he left them with Eric Cheney, a famed builder of motocross frames. Cheney called him up a few months later, raving about how good they were.
That encouraged him. In ’72, he set up a factory in Oregon because electricity was cheaper there. By then, he’d worked out a system whereby, when they got a new batch of polypropylene from their supplier, they’d mold a few fenders and freeze them, then hit ’em with hammers. If they shattered, they’d add a little thermoplastic rubber to the mix.
That made them indestructible. And the U.S. motocross and trail bike market was booming. Remember the 2000-fender sales target? He sold 2000 a day. Along with skid plates, number plates, grips, headlights… If it was made of plastic, and on a dirt bike, it had Preston’s name on it.
“I thought I had a year or two at the most, before the manufacturers caught on,” he told me. “But it took them almost ten years.”
I asked him how much money he made in that heyday, and while he may not have been intentionally evasive, he was vague. He allowed that he bought an airplane. Then, he bought a better airplane that he flew around the world, visiting distributors from Italy to Australia.
But eventually, the manufacturers did catch on, I guess. For most of the ‘80s, he owned a Radio Shack franchise in Arizona, and he wrote a bunch of custom code for customers using primitive Tandy TRS-80 personal computers.
During that time, he had little to do with motorcycles. “Once, in around ’94, I rode down to Cancun with John Penton,” he told me. “But it was just fooling around.”
Preston’s conversations are littered with famous names from the rise of motocross in the U.S., like Edison Dye. If he just says ‘Roger’ he means Roger DeCoster, if he just says ‘Joel’, he means Joel Robert.
Today, he lives in a motor home that a friend gave him. It’s permanently parked in another friend’s crane yard. He likes it there. Everyone who works on the cranes goes home in the evening, and Preston has free range of the welding and machine shop for his own projects.
He’s kind of come full circle. Way back when he had the fender business, he had a friend who asked Preston to employ his kid, in much the same way that Bud Ekins had employed Preston. That kid – his name is Greg Powell – grew up and founded a successful Los Angeles HVAC company called Enerlon.
A few years ago, Greg bought a Zero electric motocross bike and asked Preston to modify it for flat track. He lowered it, and set it up with 19-inch wheels, and then his friend said, “OK, we need to find someone to ride it.”
“One day I was shaving, and I looked in the mirror and saw this old guy,” Preston told me. “I thought, I’ll get him to ride it.”
The thing is, he’s won a bunch of races on it, and his head’s full of plans to make it even faster. He pulled out his iPhone and showed me an app that allowed him to tweak the regen and power curve, and he’s planning on writing his own motor controller software.
“The thing is, if I win, people think the bike’s giving me an advantage. I don’t want them to make rules against it!” he told me. “Guys complain that they can’t hear me coming up behind them when I pass them. I thought, that’s funny, because it seems to make a loud screaming sound at the end of the straightaway. But then, I realized that was just me screaming inside my helmet.”
With that, we paid for our breakfast and I went off in search of the next story.