Next Monday night in Cleveland, the long awaited off-road documentary film Penton: The John Penton Story will make its world debut. It’s been a labor of love and a lesson in how to get things done in today’s wired world for filmmaker Todd Huffman. Best known for his outstanding Motocross Files documentary series, Huffman tackled the iconic Penton story with little budget and a lot of determination. With some industry sponsors, as well as 562 donations from Kickstarter, Huffman finally made the two-hour-plus film about one of the most influential men in the history of motorcycling. Aside from the Cleveland screening—near Penton’s hometown of Amherst, Ohio—there will be another screening in Hollywood on June 17, and the film will be available for purchase on June 20. Find out more at www.pentonmovie.com.
Racer X: Todd, a lot of our readers will recognize you from your work with The Motocross Files, of course, the Marty Moates film, the Bob Hannah Saddleback piece.... But what got you interested in doing an off-road feature on an icon like John Penton?
Todd Huffman: I guess I should first give thanks to you guys at Racer X for getting Ed Youngblood to write an article about John Penton in the first place! Ed soon realized he had enough material and a book was needed, so he wrote John Penton and the Off-Road Revolution. It was that book that I read on an airplane to the Indy Trade Show a few years ago that I said, Man, this is a cool story.
Through Hi-Point race gear, Hi-Point tires, Hi-Point trailers, and of course Penton and KTM, Mr. Penton has touched many, many people over the last five decades. In a nutshell, tell us the John Penton’s story.
Well, John Penton—and really it’s him and his family—but they started by being farmers in Amherst, Ohio, and discovering a motorcycle that their father had ridden to college, a 1912 Harley-Davidson. His older brothers discovered it and started riding it. They bought more Harleys and then discovered the Jack Pine Enduro. That started the whole off-road craze within the Penton family. John started racing that and realized the big Harleys weren’t the way to go when he was getting beat by BSAs and smaller bikes. So he started looking for ways to build a better mousetrap and started converting these street bikes, like NSUs and BMWs in the late ‘50s. It wasn’t until the ‘60s that he discovered Husqvarna and started riding them. That evolved into wanting an even smaller bike and he found KTM.
Didn’t he go to Europe with an idea in his mind to have one of those lightweight manufacturers build him a better off-road bike?
Yeah, he would have been happy if Husky would have just built a small bike, but they were only interested in building bigger 360s and 400s. So he said, Fine, I’ll do it myself. He met an engineer named Ziegfried Stuhlberger at the Six Days International Trials in 1967 in Poland, which he was traveling [to] with Malcolm Smith. Ziggy worked for KTM, who at the time were only making bicycles and mopeds and small street bikes. Ziggy had made his own kind of private off-road bike, and John said, Wow, if you guys can make that stuff, I’m going to come visit you. And so on the way back from the Six Days, with Malcolm Smith in tow, he stopped at KTM in Mattighofen, Austria. He convinced them to make what I think became the ’68 Penton Six Days bike. They built a prototype, then they built him ten bikes that showed up in March of 1968. Those sold instantly to basically John’s friends and fellow racers, and the containers starting coming after that.
That opened KTM’s eyes to this market, and they in turn got more focused on dirt bikes. John’s bikes here in the States were called Penton—it was just a license deal—but over in Europe they were called KTMs, right?
Yes, they were called KTMs in Europe and a lot of places, but there were also Pentons available. Some people wanted the Penton name on it in other countries. So the same model obviously was sold under the two marks.
From there, what influence did that have on the American off-road market?
Well, one thing, it provided a small-displacement 100 to 125cc motorcycles that new and entry-level riders could ride, so you weren’t riding big 250s and 360s and 400s. And the bikes were ready to race—KTM still uses that slogan today. It wasn’t like converting an enduro bike, one of the Japanese bikes, or something to ride off-road; they were ready to race. They were built by racers, for racers. They were built for the woods, but they soon became popular as motocross bikes. For a lot of people it was kind of their first real race bike. A lot of champions and superstars, guys like Marty Smith and Danny LaPorte and Marty Tripes, all rode Pentons.
Right when that was going on here in America, Penton really kind of exploded on the world stage when, conveniently enough, the Russians started using them, because they didn’t want to use anything else. The Russian-built bikes and the Czech bikes weren’t really good enough, so they started using John Penton’s KTMs basically.
Yes, and we have a funny story in the movie about the Russians switching to KTMs in 1972. Obviously, the highlight was that Gennady Moisseev won the 250cc World Championship in 1974 [and then again in ’77 and ’78], and that was just a huge deal for the folks in Austria and Ohio.
KTM’s success didn’t translate until later on, as far as motocross and supercross go in America, but the brand Penton and KTM have been wildly successful ever since 1968 in the woods.
Obviously, leading up until 1978—that’s when the Penton brand came off the bikes due to economic forces and the strength of the Japanese getting into the off-road business in the early ‘70s—they were the kings of the woods. It was not just John as a rider, who retired from Six Days riding in 1970, but he turned the reins over to his sons and nephews to carry the torch. Really kind of created a dynasty of off-road racing with the second generation of Pentons.
And that dynasty to some extent would include guys like Rod Bush, who was a Penton rider back in the day and went on to become the U.S. president of KTM Motorcycles, and even Dick Burleson, whose son happens to be Jon-Erik Burleson, the current president of KTM North America. I know Dick’s glory days were on Husqvarna but he was still connected to the Pentons.
Yes, and Dick rode a Penton very early in his career before he switched to Husky. At the time, early in that Husky relationship, John Penton was a distributor for Husky. So he was the father to both brands on the East Coast. That’s why for the longest time the Husqvarna and KTM headquarters were in Amherst and Lorain, Ohio. Those were all John’s buildings at first and then he sold them to those companies when they decided they needed to do their own distribution.
Some of the other names that we should throw in in that dynasty, whether it was by blood or by sponsorship, would include the Leimbachs, the Rosso brothers, Jeff Fredette, Billy Uhl, Carl Cranke, and more. And Carl Crank is a great storyteller in the movie. We see him a lot in the movie.
What are some of the other ways John Penton affected the motorcycle industry?
It wasn’t just the Penton motorcycle but wanting to create better stuff for riders, by all brands. John went out and worked with Alpinestars to develop the Hi-Point boots and then found Spectro Oils to create the Hi-Point oil brand, and he helped Franco Acerbis of Acerbis get into the plastic-fender business. We kind of refer to John as the Forrest Gump of dirt bikes.
As I explained to you at one point, High Point Raceway started out because my dad was friends with Mr. Penton and was trying to get some sponsorships, which didn’t quite work—but it’s still High Point Raceway, just spelled differently than Hi-Point tires and Hi-Point boots and Hi-Point racing gear.
Yes, and even as recently as Jeff Stanton and Mike LaRocco, those were guys wearing Hi-Point gear when they turned pro. So he just had this really big impact everywhere in off-road motorcycling.
As far as Mr. Penton goes now, how stoked do you think he’s going to be when he sees this film?
I keep thinking about Monday night, the premiere. I think there’ll be some tears in the theater in Cleveland on Monday night.
Absolutely. The Penton Owners Group is one of the most thriving, full-throttle groups clubs n motorcycling, and I’m sure a lot of those guys are going to be there as well.
Oh yeah, the Penton Owners Group, they’ve been instrumental and obviously waving a flag for us and being big cheerleaders to get the thing going and have been digging up old photos and film and restored bikes to ride in these recreations we shot for the movie. They’ve been a huge part of this from the very beginning, and they’ll be there.
Who all can go? And if they can’t make it to the premier, where and how will the movie be distributed?
The premiere is open to the public. It’s a big theater; it holds a thousand people. I think we’re over halfway there so far. That’s at the Ohio Theater in Cleveland. They can just go to Playhouse Square, the Ohio Theater box office—tickets are available there. They start at $25. That’s Monday, June 9, and then after June 20 we have screenings being set up by passionate fans and motorcycle dealers all over the country. I think they’re pushing maybe a hundred screenings so far that are getting going. They can go to the Gathr Films site—Gathr Films is our distributor, www.gathrfilms.us, and just type in “Penton” and you’ll come to the area to type in your zip code and you’ll find out if there’s a screening near you, even in a nearby state or other city. And if not you can organize your own screening. It’s really easy to do, and that’s how it works. They use social media to organize screenings by passionate fans of the subject matter.
And as far as the completed film, you are the cinematic chronicler or the keeper of the flame for motocross. How do you feel with your first big endeavor into off-road?
I feel the same way I did when I first started talking to Brad Lackey about the very first Motocross File. These are great people with great stories to tell. I know more now than I did before, and I’m anxious to learn more and do some more of this—this stuff and these people.
Congratulations for reaching the finish line. Like anyone on the podium, though, is there anyone you’d like to thank?
First off I think I need to thank the Penton family for allowing us some unfettered access time and time again for interviews and such, and of course the 562 Kickstarter people who helped get the thing funded so we could actually produce it. And of course Lyle Lovett, our narrator. I think having his name involved from the very beginning helped us do what we needed to do to raise the money to get this thing shot so everybody can enjoy it. Lyle was a die-hard moto kid back in his teenage years. It took Mark Blackwell, who actually reached out to Lyle a few years ago. It took him about an hour for him to get back with us and said, “Hey, Lyle’s in! He instantly said yes.” A lot of people don’t know that Lyle raced a Penton when he was 14 years old for Cycle Shack in Houston, Texas, and actually worked in the store for a couple years. Went to the Penton dealer meeting in Amarillo and met John Penton as a kid. He’s associated with this thing. He’s part of it.
Any more people to thank?
I’d like to thank some of the key companies who stepped up to help us: Spectro Oils, KTM, Alpinestars, Acerbis, and then of course the good folks at Matrix, Eddie Cole, Hoyt, and Fox Toyota down in El Paso, Texas.
Did you go visit Eddie Cole and see that badass Penton in his lobby?
I did see that badass Penton! In fact, I was kind of instrumental in getting those kids to restore that thing for Eddie for Christmas a couple years ago, even though Eddie loved to say “I ended up paying for my own Christmas present.” It’s pretty cool. Eddie raced a Penton. He was another one of those guys—started on a Penton.
Anything else you want to add?
We just hope everybody comes out and comes to the premiere or comes to one of the screenings or gets a screening going. It’s really easy to do and doesn’t cost anything, and it’s just a matter of getting word out to all your dirt bike friends. Come see the Penton movie. Also I want to thank you guys, too, the Racer X guys, for providing a platform and photos and inspiration for the book.
It really was Ed Youngblood’s idea way back when we were getting started out. I remember he called the feature in the magazine “A Life Less Ordinary.” I think that sums it up well.
It is. By the way, the movie’s two hours and fifteen minutes. For all the old guys, it’s a bladder-buster!