It's not a stretch to call John Penton a living legend. From the motorcycle dealership he started with his brothers on the Amherst family farm after World War II, he became known as a championship endurance and motocross racer, rode a BMW R69S from New York to LA in 52 hours and 11 minutes and stamped the Penton name onto an internationally recognized brand of bikes.
Now, the life of the 88-year-old American Motorcyclist Association Motorcycle Hall of Fame inductee hits the big screen with Penton: The John Penton Story premiering June 9 at the Ohio Theatre in Playhouse Square, in advance of a tentative June 20 nationwide release through Gathr Films, a crowdsourcing site that allows users to request film screenings in their area.
California director and former BMX racer Todd Huffman interviewed more than 100 people, including Penton and his son, Jack, also a Motorcycle Hall of Famer, for the documentary narrated by Grammy Award-winner Lyle Lovett. "It's not just a motorcycle movie," Huffman says. "It's a story of a family." From the farm where he rode his first Harley, Penton talks with us about the film and his career.
Q. Did you ever envision anything like this movie happening?
A. Absolutely not. I was interested in riding and developing motorcycles and competing. And the more that I got into [the movie], and the more Todd interviewed and the more stuff he kept collecting, I finally said, "How are you going to get all this in 90 minutes?" He got a hold of people I've long forgotten.
Q. Do you have a favorite course or memory in your racing career?
A. The 500-mile National Off-Road Enduro called the JackPine in Northern Michigan. It probably became my favorite, because I won it. It was the longest and most difficult of all the competitions at that time, because of the length and the terrain across the rivers and through sand.
Q. The film is also a tale about your family life, which has had some terrible moments. You lost your father and your first wife young, and your nephew was killed in a car wreck near your dealership. How tough was it to revisit that?
A. It was difficult. I just had to keep on going, just like when I was riding across the country. You have your glory times and disappointing times. I've had probably 90 percent — well, 80 percent — of the glory times and 20 percent of the disappointing times. And those glory years, I had my family with me, even when we were overseas. It's what I value the most.