Carl Cranke

by Alan Buehner

In my conversation with Penton owners for the past several years, most people would ask about John Penton during the conversation. For some strange reason, during many conversations I would have with West Coast Penton owners the name Carl Cranke would be the first name asked about. During some of the monthly meetings, I had heard about Carl and what a talented rider he was, but I never expected him to have the following that he does. I met Carl for the first time in April at the AMA Vintage Days event at Sears Point where “Penton” was the feature marque and he took time off, away from his family to join us at the event. The following is a little background on Carl and some of the stories that he shared with us.

Carl Cranke was born in Lake Charles, Louisiana and raised in northern California. He was a quiet kind of kid while growing up but that all changed when he discovered motorcycles.

My first bike.

“While I was going to high school in 1964 there was a motorcycle shop along the way to and from school. It was Orangevale Motorcycle Shop that sold Suzuki, Triumph, Greeves and Maico motorcycles. In order to hang around the shop and get to know more about these wonderful machines I offered my services to help out in doing anything. The owner,  Marion Pyle, gave me the job of cleaning the cosmoline off of the new bikes. This was coated on the bikes to protect them from the elements during shipment. No one at the shop enjoyed this chore but I eagerly jumped in to do it. It was a messy job that required using a solvent to remove all that sticky goo from the bikes, but it got me into the back part of the shop where I could see all of that things  that go on with fixing, repairing, and building bikes.”

“After a few  months  they  put together a specially tuned 50cc Suzuki for me to ride at  3 Star Raceway,  the local dirt track which was a 1/10 mile oval flat track. In those days, the novice riders were lined up on the front line. As riders would show their skills by winning races, they were moved back to the next row behind the novices. The more you won, the further back you were placed for a starting position with the best riders on the back row.”

“So there I was at my first race on my very own race bike and I never told any of the guys at the bike shop that I never even rode a motorcycle before.

“At the next race I was put on the second row because of my win at the last race. This meant that I would have to pass the riders on the front row and I told Bob Taylor that I did not know how to pass and I asked him what I should do. He took me out onto the track with my bike and placed it on the outside berm. “This is where you ride your bike. Keep it wide open until you pass everyone” he told me. So, that is what I did. I put the bike on the outside cushion and rode it all the way around the track. I had a couple of tight squeezes when I passed some riders who were also riding the outside edge and I somehow managed to get between them and the fence.”

“I always rode the cushion and I did it with the throttle wide open. My bike was so fast that I won every race for the rest of the season. The more races I went to however, I did notice that the bike was becoming a little harder to control if I would let up on the throttle and I would have to make sure that it was kept wide open to prevent that small bike from bogging down. I found out later that  Bob was gradually upping the gear ratio on the bike for each race I went to. This is how I learned how to race dirt tracks”

Carl, you won many dirt track races, what brand of bikes did you ride.

“I was riding Suzukis, Triumph, Bultaco, & Jawa. My favorite bike was a  special Triumph Cub short tracker.I liked Bultaco for TT and scrambles.”

Where did you do your short track racing?

“I raced all over northern California and southern California. In my pro novice year, 1968, I was the HiPoint novice shorttracker in the nation.”

You competed in desert races. What brand and sizes of bikes did you ride and which was your favorite brand and size?

My first desert race I rode a 73cc Sachs. I loved to ride Pentons later on in my career. It was great to win overall on a 125cc bike.”

You then moved into riding MX. What brand and size of bikes did you ride and which was your favorite brand and size?

I rode motocross because I could ride three classes (125, 250, open). That was 9 20 minute motos in one day! At first I rode a DKW 125 (before Penton). In the 250 class, CZ was my favorite! In the open class I rode either a 360/380 CZ or sometimes a 400 Husky. That was a trick switching sides shifting as you rode 9 motos.”

It was Carl’s early experience with Bob Taylor, a mechanic at Orangevale Motorcycle Center, that he learned not only how to ride but how to repair motorcycles and make them go faster. Bob taught him the tricks of how to port the cylinders of motors. Carl was always known for never leaving home without his grinder. He was the master at taming the KTM 250 motors to make them more powerful and controllable.

The Penton experience

“In 1971 the West Coast Distributor was after  me to ride a Bultaco at the local tracks. I did not like Bultacos and I turned him down. I had my eye on riding a Penton. I went to the local  dealership and asked them to sponsor me with  one of the new Pentons to race at the local MX tracks. They turned me down because they were sponsoring another rider. I was upset with being turned down and decided that I would have to prove myself by beating their Penton rider. I took advantage of the Bultaco dealer by accepting his offer to ride the Bultaco. I raced it once at the next MX race  and won. I went back to the Penton dealer  and they gave me a Penton  to ride. That was the last time I ever rode a Bultaco.”

“In early 1972  I read about the I.S.D.T. events and had a desire to compete in it. Fred Moxley of Penton West contacted John Penton about my desire to ride the qualifiers for the upcoming ISDT event and what a talented rider I was. John had doubts about me because I was one of those California riders. John knew California riders could ride in the desert but that they did not have the skills to ride the woods, water, and mud of the Enduros in the east. Fred persisted and John agreed to meet me  and check out my riding skills. When I met John for the first time, John knew that he was wasting his time and I became known as that long haired hippie from California.”

“I was given a new 175cc Puch by John to ride in the last 2 day qualifier of the season in southern Ohio. It was a nasty event with lots of mud holes. Out of  200 starters, only very few  riders finished the course. I was one of them and I came in 2nd. Only two gold medals were awarded. Carl Bergen on a 250 Husky came in first and I on my 175 Puch. John was impressed (since he knew that there was no way I could finish the event let alone win, riding that bike) and he gave me a place on the 1972 Trophy Team. That  Puch was a piece of junk. Before I rode it in the event, I pulled the motor apart and ported it out to obtain all the power I could out of it.”

Carl qualified and went to his first I.S.D.T. event in Spindleruv Mlyn, Czechoslovakia where he won a Gold medal riding the 125cc class.

Carl shared a story about his experience at the Isle of Man, England  event held in 1975 during which he was riding a Penton in the 350cc class.

“1975 was the last year where on the sixth day the special test was a road race run on the city streets and riders rode their bikes equipped with knobby tires. All of the following Six Day events had their special test run on a natural terrain course and run as a MX race.”

“Jack Penton rode the special test first. I asked him how the course was. He said that it was OK and that I should have no problem taking the corners because the knobby tires would slide around the turns just like dirt track racing.”

“I grabbed the lead in my race. At the first turn I set the bike up and gassed it to slide around the turn. The bike kept sliding and I wound up going up and over the curb. Behind me were two CZ riders on their Jawas. As I jumped the curb, I remember them riding by, you know their riding style, sitting straight up even in the turns, riding side by side. As they negotiated the turn, They turned their heads to watch me hit the curb, then turn their heads back to continue on their way. When I saw them the way that they looked at me, I could sense what they were thinking (typical American rider, careless and rash with no sense of consistency). This embarrassment motivated me to turn this road race into a flat track and catch up to these guys. I pored it on and soon caught up with them at another turn in the course. They were riding side by side when I went around them on the outside, tucked in, sideways, Freddie Nix style.“

Carl was the only American rider to win that special test. He took home a Gold medal

On July 8, 2000 Carl Crank was inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame Museum in Pickerington, Ohio.

Carl Cranke and the Penton 250 that he borrowed to ride around the Mid-Ohio track as one of John Penton’s honor guard.


Related Tech Tips

CARL CRANK PORTING SPECS for 100 and 125cc Sachs Cylinders




Wikipedia article on Carl