Photos courtesy Bonhams.
In 1957, 16-year old Elon Jack “E.J.” Potter had the crazy, brilliant idea to drop a small-block Chevy V-8 into a motorcycle frame. It took another three years for Potter to build his two-wheeled vision, but the resulting mechanized insanity created both a motorsports career and a lasting identity as the “Michigan Madman.” On January 26, the last V-8 drag bike built by Potter, the 1971 Widowmaker 7, crosses the stage as part of Bonhams Los Vegas Motorcycle Auction.
Of the seven Chevy V-8 powered motorcycles constructed by Potter beginning in 1960, the first three were named Bloody Mary, while the last four were named Widowmaker, in recognition of his change in marital status. His first effort, Bloody Mary 1, was powered by a carburetor-fed 283-cu.in. V-8, mounted transversely in the frame. Attempts to rig a clutch assembly from a Harley-Davidson drum brake proved less than successful, so Potter worked around this by building a direct chain drive.
That made launches interesting, to say the least. With the rear wheel suspended by a stand, Potter would grab a handful of throttle, bringing the engine to roughly 6,000 RPM. Next, he’d rock the bike off the stand, and when the spinning wheel hit pavement, hold on for the ride of his life, smoking the tire the entire length of the drag strip. Rear tires would only last for three runs before replacement was necessary.
In Potter’s early days of performing with the bike, it’s said that he was paid $1 for every mile per hour over 100 MPH achieved on a run. It was land speed record contender Art Arfons who first spotted the potential of Potter’s act, telling the fearless rider that there was indeed a future in this, so long as he kept himself alive. Thanks to Arfons’s connections, Potter ventured out on the exhibition circuit, where his Bloody Mary and Widowmaker cycles never failed to thrill crowds.
The Widowmaker 7 was reportedly certified as “The World’s Fastest Motorcycle” by the Guinness Book of World Records in 1973, and along the way Potter picked up a trio of AHRA records. His fastest pass on number 7 was a run of 8.68 seconds at 172 MPH, though the end result was never as important as the performance. In Potter’s 2012 New York Times obituary, motorsport journalist and photographer Roger Meiners remembered the Michigan Madman’s drag strip antics, saying, “E.J. wasn’t looking to win anything. He just showed up and tried to make people go, ‘Oh, my God!'”
Potter performed from the early 1960s until 1973, when he left motorcycle drag racing to focus on tractor pulling. Widowmaker 7 was built in 1971, using a 350-cu.in. Chevrolet V-8, fitted with modified Hilborn fuel injection, a Crane gear-driven roller cam, roller rockers, Brodix aluminum heads, and forged pistons delivering 12.5:1 compression. As for output, it was said to produce in the neighborhood of 500 horsepower, enough to provide applause and admiration from appreciative audiences in the United States, England, Australia, and Canada.
Potter sold the Widowmaker 7 to Randy Newell in 1974, and in 1979 the bike was purchased by Gary Werner. Werner restored the bike in the 1990s, but loaned it to the Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing in Ocala, Florida, as he found it too unsafe to ride. Instead, he built a modern V-8-powered drag bike named Freedom, and, sadly, was killed testing this in a Florida industrial complex circa 2000. E.J. Potter and two of Werner’s friends were present at the time of the accident, as the group had been helping him test and tune the new motorcycle ahead of its competition debut.
Prior to the accident, Potter had climbed aboard Widowmaker 7 for one last ride at the 1999 Hot Rod Reunion in Bowling Green, Kentucky. If Potter had any second thoughts about piloting the motorcycle at age 58, they certainly weren’t obvious in the video of his pass (a 10.362 second run at 145.96 MPH). His sole complaint was that the traction compound used by the track had made the surface greasy, limiting his speed and preventing a better pass.
In 2007, Werner’s widow sold Widowmaker 7 to Dean Fish, who owned the bike briefly before selling it to Clyde Hensley, the consignor. As the last of Potter’s bikes built and the one certified to a world record by Guinness, the 1971 Widowmaker 7 occupies a unique niche in motorsport history, and Bonhams is predicting a selling price between $65,000 and $85,000 when the motorcycle hits the stage.
The Las Vegas Motorcycle Auction takes place at the Rio Hotel and Casino. For additional information, visit Bonhams.com.