The Life Electric: Preston Petty

Scott Rousseau
by Scott Rousseau

Preston Petty is one of those rare souls that is capable of embracing his own motorcycling heritage while also being a cutting-edge thinker who maintains a fascination with the latest and greatest technology, and that includes Zero electric motorcycles.

“I think Zero has done just an excellent job integrating a variable frequency, three-phase electric motor into a battery-powered motorcycle,” the 74-year-old AMA Motorcycle Hall of Famer opines while trundling his Zero flat-track bike to the starting line for a race at Southern California’s Perris Raceway, a hallowed ground for local motocross and flat track racers. “With the controller, and the way they put it all together, it’s just an excellent package. It’s better than anything else out there. When we started our electric flat-track project, we were wide open, we could buy anyone’s electric motorcycle. We chose Zero because they were already in production, and the bike worked well.”

If there’s an irony to be found in such enthusiasm, it’s that Petty’s praise for his Zero – a 2013 MX model that’s been specially tuned for the rigors of American flat-track competition – comes from a man who has burned a lot of gasoline on the trail to becoming a motorcycling legend.

Petty attained that status by always thinking slightly ahead of the curve. As a young racer in the 1950s and ’60s, Petty was motocross when motocross wasn’t cool – at least not in America. He was also a successful professional flat-track racer and an off-road star, representing the United States in the notoriously difficult International Six Days Enduro, which was known as the International Six Days Trial back in his day. In the 1970s he revolutionized the off-road aftermarket through his perfection of plastics for use as dirtbike fenders. And after selling his business in 1980, he became one of the early technology adopters by working with microcomputers, now known as PCs and Macs, before practically anyone had one in their home – and long before those mysterious devices developed into digital age marvels such as the tablet or smartphone upon which you are most likely reading this.

AMA Hall of Fame member Preston Petty skids his Zero electric motorcycle into a corner during a Southern California Flat Track Association meet at Perris Raceway. Petty, 74, has always favored technology over tradition. He is the first motorcycle racer to adapt an electric bike for use in flat-track racing. Photo by Scott Rousseau

When Petty looks at a Zero, it is evident that he likes what he sees. Electric motorcycles? Preston Petty says heck yes! Such forward thinking springs forth from a mind that was molded, at least initially, by a conservative Mormon father, a lawyer by profession. Motorcycles? They would only be a fad, a phase. Surely, Dad must’ve thought, young Preston would make better use of his time once he grew up and became a man. Perhaps the earliest warning sign that young Preston was a gearhead should have come when witnessing him ride his mother’s vacuum cleaner as a child in the Petty’s Los Angeles home. There were better contrivances, of the two-wheeled variety, and the motor-minded Petty soon latched onto them. He got his first real motorcycle, an Ariel Colt, at the age of 13 in 1954. Just three years later, Petty would lay tire tracks on Perris Raceway’s dirt for the first time. By then he was already an accomplished scrambles and off-road racer.

Petty rode TT Scrambles in 1957 at Perris, the very first year the track opened. Photo from Preston Petty Collection

“My first race here at Perris was in 1957, the year that this place opened,” Petty says as he looks around the timeless venue. “The word ‘motocross’ wasn’t even used back then. It was called a TT Scrambles. Then in 1959, ’60 and ’61 I rode a lot of half miles (flat track) at Ascot. Then I didn’t ride any more half miles for 40-plus years until my sponsor got me back involved in it. I was just helping him because he was interested in flat track, and then one day he asked me if I thought an electric motorcycle could be competitive. I thought that short-track racing would be well-suited for an electric bike. So about two years ago he went and bought a Zero MX model, and we adapted it – lowered the suspension and changed the wheels and tires – for flat-track use. Then after I got done with it, he said. ‘Hey, great. You can be the rider, too.’”

That’s all Petty ever wanted to be when he was younger, and as a 15-year-old kid, he certainly knew who to pester for the right riding advice.

“In 1956, Bud Ekins opened up his first Triumph shop on Ventura Boulevard in Tarzana about two miles from my house,” Petty says. “That place was heaven, man. I went down there all the time. In fact, when Bud was putting up his first sign, I was there to help him out. I’m sure I was a pain in his ass, but he taught me a lot and later sponsored me in the late ’50s.” Armed with the lessons of tales told in Ekins’ shop, Petty spent his youth blazing trails in the Santa Monica mountains aboard that little Colt before eventually succumbing to the lure of racing.

Preston Petty crosses the finish line on his BSA Gold Star at Southern California’s Ascot Park in 1961. Petty led all Novices in 1960 and might have won the track championship if he hadn’t elected to go on a long vacation in Europe with his father. Photo by Dan Mahony

“The Colt was basically a 200cc version of the BSA C15,” Petty recalls. “It was an air-cooled, pushrod, two-valve Single, and it was gutless. The Zero makes way more power than a Colt ever could! Later, I got an NSU 125, which was a German-built two-stroke, in 1957, and I rode the Catalina Grand Prix with that in 1957 and ’58.”

Petty excelled in American off-road racing, but he was really fond of European-style motocross.

“In 1960 I got to go over to Europe to race one of Dave Bickers’ Greeves, and I loved it,” Petty says. “I thought it was great, but it was a championship that the U.S. had no part of. I thought we needed to be part of that world, but motocross pretty much floundered here until 1966 when (250cc World Motocross Champion) Torsten Hallman came over here and blew everybody away, and then in ’67 Edison Dye brought over the Husqvarnas. That got motocross going.”

Preston Petty became a top Southern California motorcycle racer by honing his skills while trail riding in the Santa Monica Mountains near his home. Photo from Preston Petty Collection

But well before motocross exploded in America, Petty shipped off to Utah’s Brigham Young University in search of a better education and – at least his father hoped – a clean break from his motorcycle addiction. Much to Dad’s chagrin, Petty’s earliest college lessons were applied in the field of backstreet economics.

“My dad had bought me a Volvo to get around, and when I got to school I met a guy who had a Buick Roadmaster, and he was willing to trade me his Roadmaster plus $500 cash for my Volvo,” Petty recalls. “I told my dad what I did, since it was basically his car, and he told me I could keep that 500 bucks for school expenses. Well, the first school expense I could think of was a motorcycle. So I went up to Wayne Moulton’s Triumph dealership in Salt Lake City and bought a Tiger Cub.”

Petty snuck his new pride and joy into his dorm room to keep it out of the elements, but he soon learned that Tiger Cubs and dorm rooms don’t mix so well when one night, after adjusting the Triumph’s timing, he leaped on the Cub’s kickstarter and it fired-up on the first kick. The roar from the Cub’s tailpipe brought the dorm mother running and hastened the Cub’s return to the cold environment of the BYU parking lot. Already feeling like a square peg in a round hole anyway, Petty says that incident was the last straw. He loaded up his belongings, strapped his motorcycle to the Roadmaster’s bumper and left BYU for Los Angeles.

Clad in his blue coveralls, Preston Petty can easily be spotted whenever he attends a motorcycle racer, although he is rarely heard. With little more than a whine from his Zero’s electric motor, he is often able to swoop past his competition before they even know he is behind them. Photo by Scott Rousseau

As the sun begins to set against the coastal mountains, Petty gives his Zero flat-tracker the once-over in preparation for racing on a warm night at Perris Raceway. He is clad in his familiar blue mechanic’s coveralls, which double as his racing uniform, but in reality he has very little in the way of tuning adjustments to make at the track. The machine’s direct drive means there is no transmission, which equates to fewer moving parts and less maintenance. It’s almost too simple. No need to check the gas tank because there isn’t one. All Petty has to do is flip a switch and roll on the throttle, and the Zero will silently come to life and begin rolling through the pits toward the staging area. Rather than rev his engine to clear a path through the pedestrians in front of him, a simple “excuse me” suffices.

“When we first started this project, we had no idea how long it would even run on a battery charge, whether it would last us five minutes out at the racetrack or all day,” Petty says. “At first we thought that the battery life would be very short, so we brought it out to the track with gasoline generator and a charger and both 2.8 Kilowatt-hour lithium-ion batteries (Petty’s MX model, the precursor to the current FX platform, utilizes two swappable 2.8kWh battery packs and can operate with just a single battery installed -TS). It worked so well that I was able to remove one of the batteries and just run it on the other one. That way I save 45 pounds and can still ride the whole night. Smaller and lighter is always desirable in racing.”

Petty’s Zero is capable of carrying two 2.8 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery packs to power the motor, but the battery packs store so much energy that he only needs to carry one to “fuel” his machine at short-track races. Jettisoning the other, which he keeps handy as a backup just in case, shaves precious pounds from his racebike. Photo by Scott Rousseau

When it comes to electric motorcycles, desirability is ever-increasing. Charged by the success of Zero and other companies, electric-powered motorcycles have even begun to excel in the ultra-competitive world of motorcycle racing. By way of example, 2013 Pike’s Peak International Hillclimb Motorcycle Champion Carlin Dunne beat all of his gasoline-powered competition on an electric road racer. For several years there has been an electric-powered race class at the legendary Isle of Man TT, where modern electrics average 100+ mph over the 37.7-mile mountain course.

The electric segment is gaining more and more followers despite the fact that new ideas and out-of-the-box thinking can often be a hard sell. Petty knows that as well as anyone. For while electricity didn’t make Preston Petty a household name in the motorcycle industry, his revolutionary plastic products did.

“In 1969, I went up to the Cal-Poly Enduro, and I was riding along and dropped down into a rain rut when the dirt just grabbed the front fender and bent it all up,” Petty recalls. “I bent it back straight, but within a few miles it just broke off, and I had to ride the rest of the enduro with mud in my face. I thought, ‘There has to be a better way to make a fender than that.’ So I remember looking around for better fender material, and a painter friend of mine had this plastic paint bucket that you could beat on with a baseball bat or a hammer, and it wouldn’t break. So we knew the plastic was there, but it was just a matter of finding a way to mold the fenders. So I bought an injection mold and started learning about plastics.”

Thus, Preston Petty Products was born. Success was not immediate, however, as Petty went through a lot of trial and error to perfect the right formula for his new fenders.

Petty pioneered the use of unbreakable plastic fenders in off-road motorcycling, and he turned Preston Petty Products into an aftermarket empire before selling the company in 1980. Photo by Scott Rousseau

“When I went to a plastic place and told the guy that I needed a plastic that was really tough,” he remembers. “The guy said, ‘Okay. We should make them out of high-impact polystyrene.’ I said, ‘Sure. Poly anything. Polly wants a cracker – I don’t know the difference.’ He made one, and I rode with it on my DKW, and it held up just fine. Then I went down to the quarter car wash to wash the bike, and I put Gunk all over it like I always did. So then I went and put my quarter in the machine, and when I turned around the front fender was laying on top of the tire. The Gunk had just dissolved it same as when you put gasoline in a Styrofoam cup. We went through a number of plastics before we got the right one. By the summer of 1970, we had selected polypropylene because it had good low-temperature impact resistance and good memory so it would go back to its original shape after an impact.”

By that time, Petty had begun competing in the International Six Days Trial events in Europe, and he was extremely competitive at his ISDT debut, where he rode a DKW to a silver medal in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, West Germany in 1969. Subsequent ISDTs in Spain (1970) and while riding for Team USA in Great Britain (1971) ended with disappointing DNFs.

Petty regularly battles with a pack of competitors on gasoline-powered motorcycles at Perris Raceway, and he often wins. Photo by Janice Blunt

“I was on our Vase team in 1971, and my sponsor, Ted Lapadakis, had put me on a Puch,” Petty recounts. “The only one of us on a Puch to last all six days was Billy Uhl, and that was because he wasn’t considered an important enough rider for Puch to put their ‘specially hardened gears’ in his transmission. He had regular production gears.”

Worse yet, Petty had brought over a load of his new plastic fenders but failed to generate any interest in them among the Europeans — or so he thought. It wasn’t until a few months later that British specialty motorcycle manufacturer Eric Cheney called Petty and asked for another load of the fenders. The Europeans were amazed at the durability of the product, and Petty was soon inundated with orders. To fill the demand, he moved to Oregon, set up a factory and proceeded to ramp up production to a zenith of 2000 fenders per day.

By 1980, the Preston Petty brand was one of the best-known in the off-road aftermarket segment, and Petty decided that he was ready to retire, so he sold his plastic business on an installment basis. It should have resulted in a happy ending to a fantastic career, but life isn’t always so kind. The deal fell through, and Petty lost millions when the buyer went bankrupt. It led to some tough times, but today Petty says there’s no use in crying over it.

Although it has brought him a fair share of ups and downs during his amazing career, motorcycling has always brought a smile to Petty’s face. Photo by Scott Rousseau

“I made a number of mistakes, let’s leave it at that,” Petty says, and then adds, “When you get screwed, you’ve got to have two people involved, the screw-er and the screw-ee. If either one of those is missing, then you didn’t get screwed.”

Rather than try to rebuild his empire, Petty elected instead to worm in the emerging field of micro-computers, which would go on to become as common a household product as televisions and washing machines.

“As early as 1977, I was working with a guy who was going to machine some of my No-Dives (fork torque arms devices) who told me, ‘Hey, I’ve got this friend at work who is in a computer club, and he is working on making his own computer and needs a case made for it. He doesn’t have any money. All he can do is give you stock in his business. You should come over to his garage and look at it.’ So I did, and the guy’s case design looked ugly to me, so I passed on it. The guy’s name was Steve Jobs, and the company was Apple. Of course, that didn’t mean anything back then.”

Today, whenever Petty works on one of his personal computers or tinkers with his Zero motorcycle, he can’t help but be amazed at just how far technology has come in the world.

“I’ve always thought of myself as being a forward-thinking guy, and I’m amazed,” Petty says. “Look at the power and capability of a cell phone,” Petty says. “It’s overwhelming. I remember back in the middle 1960s we were trying to stuff a computer numerically controlled (CNC) machining program into a Honeywell computer, and we had to get the whole thing to work within a tiny 12k memory capacity. We thought, ‘God, if we just had 16k it would be so much easier.’ One of the guys we were working with said. ‘Listen, one of these days you won’t have to worry about that. You’ll have 128k!’ I said, ‘whoah!’ Bill Gates used to say that nobody would ever need more than 640k!” [laughs]

Plastics. Computers. Electric motorcycles. All represent technological advancements of the kind that excite Petty and make him feel just as alive today as he was when he was a youngster, riding that little Ariel Colt in the Santa Monica mountains. So it’s no wonder that he has become fond of his Zero. He’s just as amazed with it as he is with other emerging technologies that might stimulate a forward-thinking individual such as he is.

“This is the MX model, which they don’t make any more, but they do have another version called the FX, which is the dual-sport version of the MX,” Petty says of his racebike. “They also have the DS, which is a completely different chassis, for their streetbike models. But you could take an FX and turn it into one of these with no problem. The real plus side of these is the electricity and the instant torque that it has.”

Petty’s Zero flat-tracker is based on the company’s discontinued MX model, although it has much in common with the company’s current FX dual-sport machine, which makes even more power than the MX. Petty has made a few minor modifications to the MX chassis to adapt it for flat-track use, but its air-cooled, three-phase AC electric motor is stone stock. Photo by Scott Rousseau

And the 2015 Zero FX boasts a number of improvements over Petty’s discontinued MX model, with an upgraded Z-Force motor that boasts more torque than ever. The compact, sealed, brushless, air-cooled motor produces 44 horsepower and 70 lb.-ft. of torque through a clutchless direct drive – no shifting is required.

The new FX also benefits from Zero’s partnerships with respected OE suppliers such as Showa (suspension) and Pirelli (tires). The FX is also now offered with a Bosch-made anti-lock brake system (ABS) to improve its braking performance in a variety of riding conditions, and the system can be switched on or off to suit rider preference. The FX’s styling, fit and finish have also evolved to give it a sleeker look and improve the rider interface. Zero’s constant refinement of its products continues to generate a buzz for electric motorcycles, even though you can barely hear one when it rides by. That’s something Petty’s competition has told him when he passes them on the track.

“If this was an all-electric motorcycle race out here, you’d actually be able to hear the announcer during the race! [laughs],” Petty says. “I know that for some people the appeal of the internal-combustion engine is the noise and the smell, and there’s a giant world for the internal combustion engine out there, but electric power has a definite place in society, especially in urban transportation.”

But what about their utility? Isn’t the biggest knock against electric motorcycles the fact that they can’t make it as far on one charge as a gasoline engine can between fuel stops? Mentioning the catchphrase “range anxiety” to Petty when talking about current electric motorcycles is likely to elicit a chuckle.

“In urban traffic, where you’re starting and stopping all the time, you actually get better duration than you would on the freeway at 70 mph,” Petty says. “It has a three-phase AC motor, and when you back off, it actually reverses the poles and turns into a generator to put some energy back into that battery. To me, it’s the ideal urban commuting machine. When I go home on mine, I just plug it into a standard wall socket, and when I wake up the next morning, it is fully charged.”

Petty gets ready for a practice session at his good friend John Hateley’s Southern California Ranch. Because his Zero is so quiet, it is the only full-size motorcycle that Hateley will allow on his private test track. No noise means no complaints by the neighbors. Photo by Scott Rousseau

Petty knows that he can’t spin as many laps as the gasoline burners, but he can get in all the laps he needs. A typical night at Perris requires about 25-30 laps for practice, a heat race and the main event. Petty accomplishes that on just one of the Zero’s modular power packs, and his FX has room for two packs. He always carries an extra pack just in case, or for longer, more demanding courses such as half-mile tracks, but he rarely needs to use it. His propulsion system may be different, but Petty says that his bike works as well as any gasoline-powered machine on the track, and he has proven its capabilities via multiple main-event wins in his class.

The reliability and the simplicity of the Zero’s powerplant allows Petty to focus less on tinkering and more on riding technique, although the Zero does feature a switchable regenerative braking feature that he can that he use to his advantage on the track.

“I can adjust the regenerative engine braking to whatever I want,” Petty says. “I can go from practically zero engine braking, like a two-stroke, to more engine braking than your typical four-stroke,” Petty says. “Either way, it accelerates so quickly that I have to be careful with the throttle to get it to hook up on a dirt track.”

Always hailed as a natural talent when he was younger, Petty still rides hard enough to get into trouble occasionally. Now, let’s see, where did I put those darn gloves! Photo by Janice Blunt

Indeed, and Petty reinforced that point as we watched him hone his skills on a very slippery dry decomposed granite backyard practice oval on a friend’s Southern California ranch the week after Perris. It is clear the Zero has way more motor than it needs.

The bottom line is that it works, and Petty said he won’t be surprised to see the technology improve along a similar path to that of internal-combustion engines.

“Electrics use the end electron in a molecular chain and run that through an electric motor, and they already make pretty good power,” Petty says. “How about if some smart physicist says, ‘Hey, let’s not just take that end electron, let’s take all of the electrons in the nucleus and run them through the motor?’ You’d almost have atomic power then, though it would still be electric. I don’t think that will happen in my lifetime, although I’d love to see it. I do think that it won’t be long before we see a battery that’s the size of a pack of cigarettes that can power your car or your house all year.

“Let me put it this way,” Petty adds. “For Elon Musk [of Tesla automobiles fame] to put billions of dollars into a battery manufacturing plant north of Reno, Nevada, over the next two years, that tells me he knows something.”

Petty says it will take time for the mainstream to gain awareness and the acceptance of electric motorcycles, but they will come around just like Petty’s father did long ago when he conceded that maybe his son’s motorcycling efforts weren’t such a bad thing after all.

“In the summer of 1960, Dad and I took our only long trip together, a month-long journey through Europe,” Petty recalls. “We bought a Volkswagen to drive around over there, and we stopped by the NSU factory in Neckarsulm, Germany, Dad got to know the export manager there, and he got to see the enormity of it all. He wouldn’t say much about it. We finished up in London, and I told him that I wanted to go to the Greeves factory, so we went there, and I got to meet Dave Bickers and race one of his motorcycles in a race that weekend. When we got back, I finally asked him what he thought of it all. All he would say is, ‘It’s impressive.’”

Looking at Preston Petty’s life accomplishments, one can’t help but say the same. Making an electric motorcycle competitive in flat-track racing is just one more highlight to add to the list. It fuels his motivation, and he is more than willing to share his enthusiasm for his project with anyone. In fact, during our time together he answered every question we asked of him, save one: What does a gallon of racing gasoline cost these days?

“I don’t have any idea,” Petty responds with a grin.

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