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E.J. Potter – Michigan Madman

by Paul Crowe - "The Kneeslider" on 5/8/2006

We've mentioned EJ Potter before, known as the Michigan Madman and probably best known as the fellow who made exhibition runs during the '60s at dragstrips all over the U.S. and overseas, on his homebuilt "Widow Maker" Chevy V8 powered motorcycles. We just finished reading his book, "EJ Potter, Michigan Madman," and found those motorcycles were only one part of his unique career.

E.J., like a lot of us, started tinkering with engines pretty early in life. The difference is, he went a lot farther with a much more direct method of doing things. The idea of attaching a lawn mower engine to a bicycle made sense to the 10 year old Potter who also thought it was pretty cool when his mother clocked him at about 60mph by pacing him with the family Buick. He enjoyed the experience so much he developed a lifelong fascination with motorcycles, engines and speed and after retiring from the fastlane he decided to put his experiences down on paper.

The reader will notice right away the book is written in a "stream of consciousness" style. Things often appear without introduction or explanation and it's hard to nail down exactly what happened first, you'll find yourself running backwards and forward in time as EJ grabs whatever detail he needs to illustrate his current point. It fills out the story but every now and then you'll find yourself scratching your head trying to fit the pieces together. If you stick with it, you'll find an interesting and often humorous story of an amazingly capable mechanical problem solver but you'll wonder how he ever survived.

E.J. Potter was from the "eyeball engineering" school of builders. You take metal, a welder, a selection of parts at hand and start building. If you have an engine first, you build something around it. His Chevy V8 motorcycles were a constantly evolving project. His first bike used an old Harley Davidson frame but he quickly progressed into custom frames built just for the purpose. There was an amazing amount of ingenuity involved in the building which was a constant, "find the problem, fix the problem" process. His homebuilt centrifugal clutch didn't work so well which led to a direct drive system and his well known starting procedure where the engine was started while the motorcycle was on the rear stand and at the right tire speed, the stand was kicked out and off he went in a cloud of smoke


RC Engineering's History

RC Engineering, the global leader in electronic fuel injectors for high- performance automotive, motorcycle and marine applications, was started three decades ago by motorcycle racer, Russ Collins. Like many figures in American hot rodding, Russ has a colorful past, but how did someone even the sport of motorcycle racing saw as a bit of a "wild man," end up operating a successful, high-technology business like RC Engineering?


Russ Collins began drag racing motorcycles in the late 1950s. By the mid-60s, he was an authority on high performance motorcycle engines. In 1969, Russ began racing Honda 750s and designed the first, four-into-one motorcycle exhaust header. He started RC Engineering to manufacture that product.

Before the end of the year, he'd set the first ever National Hot Rod Association track record for a Japanese motorcycle and was winning races on RC Engineering-built Hondas at a time when Triumph and Harley-Davidson dominated the sport. Not only was Collins, himself, setting records and winning but so were his customers. Russ Collins became a drag racing legend and RC Engineering became the place to go for high performance parts for Japanese bikes. Its motto was and remains today: "We prove our products in the face of our competitors."

The Revolution in Motorcycle Drag Racing

RC Engineering's reputation for pushing the limits of technology led to the first, successful, blown-injected-on-fuel drag bike. Built in 1971, "The Assassin" weighed a mere 360 pounds and was powered by a 400 horsepower Honda four-cylinder. On The Assassin, Collins set drag race records all over the country. Innovations abounded on that famous bike. It had the first dual- Weber carburetor set-up for a motorcycle and later it was the first motorcycle to use fuel injection and a supercharger together. It was the first Japanese motorcycle to use magneto ignition. It was the first Japanese bike to run on alcohol and nitromethane fuels. By 1973, to beat The Assassin, other racers were forced to use double-engine Nortons, Triumphs and Harley-Davidsons.


Responding to the double-engine "trend", RC Engineering raised the bar another notch. Russ Collins built the "Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe", a thundering, three-engine, nitromethane-burning, Honda. This frightening machine became the first, seven-second motorcycle in drag racing and the first Top Fuel bike with a Japanese engine to hold a NHRA National Record. The "AT&SF," also, became the first motorcycle to win NHRA's coveted "Best Engineered Car" award at the Springnationals in 1973.

Russ Collins' three-motor monster eventually ran a best of 7.80 sec./179.5 mph but, in the end, proved a death-defying ride. In 1976, it was destroyed in a horrendous crash at Akron, Ohio that nearly killed Russ, put him in the hospital for several weeks and kept him in a wheelchair for several more. You can't keep a wild man down, though.


While recuperating from the accident, Collins designed the "Sorcerer", his final Top Fuel bike creation. Built in early-1977 and later billed as the World's Greatest Drag Bike, Sorcerer was powered by a pair of 1000cc. Honda fours. This bike won a second NHRA Best Engineered Award for RC Engineering. Blown, injected and running on 90% nitro, this two-wheeled, twin-engined rocket set a world motorcycle acceleration record for the quarter- mile of 7.30 sec./199.55 mph. That mark stood for 12 years, a truly astonishing feat in a sport where records are broken monthly.

In 1980, Russ Collins passed the 200mph drag bike torch to younger competitors. Two were his own employees, Terry Vance and Byron Hines, who raced a RC Engineering-built ,Top Fuel Suzuki. In addition to several event wins, their bike won the company's third NHRA Best Engineered Award. Those two racers went on to success with their own motorcycle business, Vance&Hines.


Russ Collins' ultimate achievement in the motorcycle world came on July 9, 1999 when he was inducted into the American Motorcycle Heritage Foundation's Motorcycle Hall of Fame. Six committees of experts in all areas of motorcycling started with a list of 500 people. Three rounds of balloting reduced that to 72 inductees for 1999 and Collins was one of them. He joins Steve McQueen, J.C. Agajanian, Willie G. Davidson, Evel Knievel, Don Vesco, Malcom Forbes, Bob Hannah, Roger DeCoster and other motorcycling greats as a Motorcycle Hall of Famer.

Turning his driving and engine tuning talents to dragsters, Russ Collins made a deal in 1984 with piston and rod manufacturer, Bill Miller, to drive the Bill Miller Engineering Top Fuel Dragster in NHRA competition. In the late-'80s and early-'90s, driving this 6000 hp. Arias/Chevrolet-powered top fueler, Collins ran a best of 5.03/287. Russ drove the BME car until 1993 when he retired from competition.





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