We just lost a good one, E.J Potter, the Michigan Madman, is gone. We’ve written about his Chevy powered drag bikes several times on The Kneeslider and a few years ago reviewed his book, Michigan Madman, but yesterday, when I wrote about his Super Slot Car, I had no idea, that just two days before on April 30th, E.J. had passed away.
EJ was a wonderful example of the hands on “doer” spirit. When an idea entered his mind, it wasn’t long before EJ entered his shop and set to work building it. He became a doer from necessity. He didn’t have much money, but learned how to weld when he was young and found you could make do with very little if you knew how to repair things and keep them running, but he also learned you could make almost anything that could be imagined.
When the small block Chevy V8 began to get popular and all of the car magazines were writing about how small, light and powerful it was for a car, EJ naturally thought it would be a perfect way to get horrendous power in a motorcycle. As he says:
Ignorance is a powerful tool if applied at the right time, even usually surpassing knowledge. Lots of times a guy will jump into a project without knowing how far he is into something way over his head until it’s almost too late to back off. This is a situation that I frequently wake up to in the middle of another adventure.
The first Chevy powered motorcycle EJ built was a wonder, the frame was heavily
butchered modified Harley, square tube engine mounts, a Whizzer gas tank and a starter drive in the end of the crankshaft. A totally inadequate clutch was connected to a number 50 roller drive chain rated at 24 horsepower. Well, you have to start somewhere and it was a start.
They tried various combinations of parts and eventually got to the point where it would run down the street, something the local police warned him had better not happen again. Someone suggested they take it to the drag strip and after convincing the promoter, yes, they really did have a Chevy drag bike, they were off. Art Arfons was there that weekend with his Allison powered “Green Monster,” which impressed everyone, but when EJ was supposed to run, he gave it some throttle and twisted the sprocket right off. As EJ looked at his bike in the pits a fellow came up and told him if he worked the bugs out, he might be able to make some money with it. EJ didn’t realize it until his friends told him later, that fellow was Art Arfons, which improved EJ’s mood and gave him some confidence. The promoter came over and told EJ if he came back, he would pay him $1 for every mph over 100 he could manage. Imagine, making money with his Chevy bike! Thus began EJ Potter’s “accidental career” in drag racing.
One of the most memorable features of EJ’s drag bikes was the launch. After trying all sorts of clutch setups and continually meeting with failure, they ditched the clutch altogether. Now, raising the rear wheel on the stand, they would fire up the engine, spin up the tire to about 100 mph and one of the crew would push him off the stand. EJ said, “Major leap of technology here.”
Though his drag bike years went on for some time and are what many remember him for, EJ liked engines of all sorts. He built a trike with Fairchild J-44 jet engine, interesting in its own right, but the story got REALLY interesting when EJ discovered the design feature that enabled you to start the engine with compressed air at 3000 psi instead of with an electric starter motor. Since EJ had lots of military surplus parts lying around, he rigged up some ball shaped high pressure tanks and connected an old refrigerator compressor to his lathe to spin the thing up. Pressure was building up really slow so he let it run and came back some time later only to find the 3000 psi meter pegged! In a panic, he shut off the compressor and stood there wondering how much pressure was actually in there. In the now silent room, he heard some weird creaking noises from the direction of the tanks.
I should censor out some stuff so as to not sound like a total dimwit, but the accuracy of the story demands that I have to tell you that I was just really intrigued by this strange noise that was exactly like when you walk on snow that is 10 below zero or so. Like I said, it was a creaking sound.
This has to rate as about the stupidest thing (almost) that I ever did, but I reached down and shook the hose between the two air tanks. Lo and behold I immediately found that the weird noise was the sound of the wire braid inside the hose breaking. I could tell this because as soon as I shook the hose, the rest of the wires broke and the two air tanks immediately took off in separate directions making such a roaring noise that you would need to hear it to believe it. Each tank had a short piece of broken hose attached to it, of course.
Well sir, one tank had a straight fitting on it and the thing made a really good rocket, sorta like when you blow up a balloon and let it go. That bastardly thing smashed into my big drill press and bent the main shaft, then went up through the ceiling and tore around in the attic blowing the insulation all over everything. On the way past, it shot a stick of air at me that blew out my eardrum and shoved me out through the doorway. The other tank had an elbow fitting on it, so it just pretty much stayed in one spot and spun around at such a speed as was really wonderful to see. Naturally, about this time it was beginning to look like those jumper cables and the electric starter would not be so bad after all, really. That was the end of starting jets with air for a while, as you may expect.
EJ also had a fascination with Allison V12 engines, which he proceeded to install in various vehicles. There was a 1957 Plymouth 4 door sedan where the engine was so long EJ had to sit in the back seat. On his first outing, a night run, he found the engine instantly spun the tires and filled the car with smoke, making it impossible to see, so he drove by staying to the right of the headlights of the cars in the return lane, but at the end of the run, the engine backfired, the fireball was so bright in the darkness, he now could see even less, though the hood was now humped up from the explosion so he couldn’t see anything anyway. He managed to get it stopped and returned the next night.
EJ got into tractor pulling when a fellow asked him if he had any big engines suitable for a pulling tractor. He had no knowledge of the sport and after a quick education began building a tractor with a 2500 hp turbine from a military turboprop. Development pointed to some really precarious issues, so they went back to the tried and true Allison V12s.
EJ’s first tractor was Ugly Tractor, named for the fact that it had no paint except for what was still on the military surplus Allison. He went to the Indy Super Pull, the most prestigious competition in the country, with a simple and, compared to the other competitors, cheap tractor, not to mention, looking a bit ratty. Everyone else had a dragster engine with a clutch, EJ had an Allison and a torque converter. Long story short, to everyone’s surprise and chagrin, EJ beat them all and the next year, did it again.
EJ then came across a really rare Allison engine, an experimental W24 designed for bombers. It was a 24 cylinder engine which was really 2 V12s side by side, with the two crankshafts geared together. It became the engine for, “Double Ugly” now sporting about 4000 horsepower and, it too, became another winner.
EJ’s adventures were many, his projects amazing and though his many brushes with disaster might make you think he was flying by the seat of his pants, he had a hard won knowledge of how things actually work, knowledge that led people from all over the world to call him up and ask for his advice and expertise. Not bad for a self taught builder and mechanic and something to think about for all of those guys just starting out. When a fellow with a P-51 Mustang hired EJ to figure out what was wrong with his engine, he wondered where all of his timing tools were and EJ produced a protractor from his pocket. As he said, “It ain’t whatcha got, it’s what you do with it.”
E.J. Potter was a builder, a mechanic, a doer and quite a showman, too, willing to build things to see if they work, willing to solve the problems, willing to give it a try, no matter how improbable the odds. We could use a few more guys like that right now.
Rest in Peace, E.J.
Link: E J Potter obituary