Before Knievel was Evel, E.J. Potter was The Michigan Madman

The cover of “Michigan Madman,” E.J. Potter’s 1999 autobiography

If you’re wondering how E.J. Potter got his nickname, “The Michigan Madman,” imagine the courage—and perhaps the slight insanity—required to gamble with your life by pushing a garage-built, V-8-powered motorcycle to its full-throttle limit at the butt-clenching speed of 172 mph. Over and over. For decades.

Certifiable? Nope, says Potter’s longtime friend Clyde Hensley, who owns Potter’s two most famous bikes. Just a mechanical genius who loved to go fast.

When American Pickers Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz heard about Hensley’s historic stash in Canton, Michigan, they were all too happy to make the drive from Iowa, and their experience was featured on this week’s episode on the History Channel.

Growing up in Ithaca, Michigan, Potter loved motorcycles but wasn’t a fan of school. In fact, he was drawing a Harley-Davidson V-twin motorcycle in class one day when he began wondering if he could build a bike with a V-8 engine. He told some friends about his idea and it gave them all a good laugh, which motivated Potter to actually make it happen. The “Bloody Mary” was born.

Years later, after Potter had married, he built his ultimate ride, the 500-horsepower “Widowmaker,” which set three world land speed records and had him traveling to drag strips all over the world.

E.J. Potter’s “Widowmaker”
History Channel
E.J. Potter’s “Widowmaker”

“[Potter] was the first to do this…,” Hensley says. “He was a self-taught mechanical genius.”

The Bloody Mary, originally built in the late 1950s, is powered by a 283-cubic-inch V-8. The Widowmaker, which Potter created in 1961, has a 350-cu-in V-8. Due to mishaps and evolution, Henley’s Blood Mary is #2. And his Widowmaker, according to the description on the side of the bike, is #7. Potter helped Hensley put the Bloody Mary back together again nearly 20 years ago, and Henley bought the Widowmaker from its third owner after Potter died, due to complications of Alzheimer’s disease, in 2012. Potter was 71.

While Potter was known for his daredevil antics on two-wheel bikes, he also went more than 200 mph on a jet-powered three-wheeler, according to his obituary in The New York Times. He later sold the 1200-horsepower trike to Evel Knievel, another motorcycle thrill-seeker who is often compared to The Michigan Madman.

“The difference between me and him,” Potter once said, “was that he got paid to say he was going to do stuff, whether he did it or not. I got paid to actually do stuff.”

In the Times obit, motorsports journalist and photographer Roger Meiners said Potter was definitely unique. “Usually, a guy went for the fastest time on the track, or he tried to win the competition for the highest speed clocked that day. E.J. wasn’t looking to win anything. He just showed up and tried to make people go, ‘Oh, my God!’”

E.J. Potter’s “Bloody Mary”
History Channel
E.J. Potter’s “Bloody Mary”

Potter accomplished that again on American Pickers, which shared video clips of some of his runs, as well as a 1999 television interview in which The Michigan Madman was asked, “Whatever possessed you to start [doing] this in the first place?”

“Basically, it was ignorance,” Potter said. “I didn’t really know what a Chevrolet engine was, except the hot rod magazines were talking about it being the smallest, lightest, most-powerful car engine that had ever been built up to that time, which was about 1958, when I got the idea.”

Wolfe is both amazed and impressed, especially considering Potter built the Bloody Mary at the age of 19. “These were revolutionary, evolutionary times when it came to going fast…,” Wolfe says. “He worked with what he had, and what he didn’t have he went out and found for next to nothing. He did all of this himself. It was his brainchild, his baby.”

Hensley says that on Potter’s very first test run, the teenager was immediately stopped by the local police, who told him they never wanted to see the Bloody Mary on the street again. So Potter took the bike to the drag strip, and soon a star was born.

“E.J. Potter was a moto pioneer in the truest sense,” Wolfe says. “He was doing something that maybe no one had ever done before. All of a sudden he was a local celebrity, and word spread fast and loud that there was a guy [who] was CRAZY—and you had to come and see him ride this bike.”

Grainy video footage from one of E.J. Potter’s runs
History Channel
Grainy video footage from one of E.J. Potter’s runs

Potter would get the rear tire spinning as fast as possible, then kick out the rear stand. The bike would launch forward in a cloud of smoke.

“I had to come off the jack because there is no clutch you can flip,” Potter said in 1999. “[And] the way I was coming off the jack, with the tire spinning so bad, the bike would have to go sideways one way or the other sooner or later… With the big, wide drag slick there was no way whatsoever to control it, so I had to stick with a car tire.”

Fans came to watch him, Potter said, not just to see him go fast but because there was always a possibility he would crash.

“They figured that if I didn’t get killed that time, I was probably going to get killed the next time. So they were happy enough to think that they almost saw me get killed—and that meant next year when I came back to the same drag strip they’d buy another ticket and come out and see if this was my year to stack it up. I managed to disappoint them most of the time; I only crashed really bad about five times.”

One of those times, Hensley said, resulted in a broken pelvis. Five weeks later, The Michigan Madman cut off the cast so he could get back out there.

Potter later built a jet boat, a Dodge Dart with a jet engine, high-powered tractors, and other souped-up custom vehicles, all in the name of speed.

American Pickers’ Frank Fritz and Mike Wolfe discuss “The Michigan Madman” with Clyde Hensley
History Channel
American Pickers’ Frank Fritz and Mike Wolfe discuss “The Michigan Madman” with Clyde Hensley

On American Pickers, Hensley tells Wolfe and Fritz that he would love to see Potter’s motorcycles in a Michigan museum, but so far he hasn’t been able to make a deal, mostly because museums are looking for him to donate everything. When Wolfe says he has friends who own museums and also feels that Potter’s bikes, photos, and memorabilia should be on public display, Hensley offers to sell him everything for $50,000. Wolfe asks if he can think about it.

Then Hensley’s brother, Larry, helps get the Widowmaker started, and when that V-8 turns over, the Pickers are blown away—literally.

“It was insane,” Wolfe says. “I look over at Frank and I was like, ‘That boy needs a new pair of shorts.’”

Wolfe offers $45,000 and promises Hensley that he’ll do everything in his power to put Potter’s bikes on public display. Hensley extends his right hand and the deal is done.

“It’s an honest 500 horsepower,” Hensley says of the Widowmaker. “Some guy got on that thing, rode it full blast, and went 172 mph… What kind of a person [does] that? And would you do it?”

The Michigan Madman did.