by Conrad Pfifer
Originally printed in the 2010 issue #47 of Still….Keeping Track
“I was sittin’ on this glass bottom boat in the Bahamas and this guy next to me asks ‘where ya from?’ I says Butler, PA. The guy says ‘the only thing I know in Butler PA is that there is a building there with a motorcycle on the roof.’ I said you gotta be kiddin, that’s my place!” The man who put the bike there is Jake Fischer, his place is Fischer’s Competition Cycle.
The motorcycle topped building is a land mark to anyone traveling on State Route 8 about five miles south of Butler PA. From the road the building looks empty. In fact the upstairs is vacant except for a few old (but meticulously restored) motorcycles on an empty floor. It is available for rent if anyone is interested. But for those who know, just pull around back (down the hill) and go through the main door sporting stickers from an era of Basani and Hooker pipes, Buco helmets and High Point boots and you will enter Jake’s place. Jake also known as Crazy Jake Fischer, a Western PA motorcycle icon is a wiry guy with boundless energy and a knack for story telling.
Jake began his motorcycle career as a 14 year old in 1952. He paid $50 for a 1936 Indian Chief from a local police department. He didn’t know anything about motorcycles but worked diligently to get it running. It had no spark. He saw a wire coming out of the engine and figured that is where the spark would originate. He took a cover off and found that the points were loose. He fixed it with a rubber band and a chewing gum foil wrapper. That began Jake’s mechanical motorcycle savvy which would bring several pristine restorations back from the salvage heaps.
Jake became “Crazy” Jake during an enduro in New Jersey. Jake states that he came to spot on the trail that had a very big log laying across the trail with “X” markers stapled all over it. There were also many spectators standing on the log watching the riders go around it. Well Jake decided that a little tree in the way wasn’t going to make him go off course so he started yelling for the spectators to get out of the way he was going over the log! As the fans were scattering they started saying that guy’s crazy, as Jake jumped the log and passed several of the “detour riders”.
His second bike was 1947 Vincent Rapide HRD. He says that he got tired of pushing the Indian so he paid $100 for the Vincent that he calls a “plumber’s nightmare”. Plus being “Crazy” Jake he always had an affinity for riding something more unusual hence the Vincents and Greeves in later years.
He began racing in all venues; drags, scrambles and enduros. Some of his best stories are about racing his nitro enhanced Vincent at the drag strips. Jake’s wife, Ginny worked at a chemical laboratory during his Vincent drag racing days. Jake got to know some of the chemists and they helped him make the fuel for his drag bike. Jake said that they would ask about the bike’s timing, compression ratio, top gearing etc and they would mix the nitromethane. Ginny would bring it home in brown glass jugs for him to use for racing on Sundays. As Jake was telling me this I was thinking… to get from the laboratory to Jake’s house Ginny would have to drive through one of Pittsburgh’s many tunnels. Hmmm, nitromethane, glass bottles, rush hour traffic, 1960’s all steel cars, tunnel? YIKES!!! Remember she has to be a little crazy too!
Jake first met John Penton on the trail during the Little Burr. Jake came across a rider with a broken Husky on the trail. Jake riding a 1967 Greeves Challenger, stopped to ask the rider if he was OK, The rider said “yes” he was OK. As Jake pulled away and noticed a name somewhere on the rider that said PENTON. It was then that Jake realized that the rider was John. Jake said that the Greeves wasn’t a great bike and the swingarm actually broke when he jumped a creek at the finish line!
Jake’s first ride on a Penton was a 1970 125 cc Steel tanker that a customer brought in to his shop for service. Jake took it for a “test ride” at a local Hare Scramble. (Remember he’s crazy!) He came in second to Ron Bohn who incidentally was riding a 125 cc Penton. Jake says that the bike was light and nimble and being an open class rider, he was very impressed with it. Crazy Jake says during that time he was “kickin’ ass” against the Pentons on his open class Husky so much that John Penton asked him to try a then new Mint 400. The Mint 400 did not handle to the liking of Jake, steering and wheelbase, but he said that nothing came close in power and speed. Jake’s words, “the Mint 400 would disintegrate a Husky” speed wise. But he stayed with Husky.
He qualified and was invited to the 1972 Six Days in Czechoslovakia by Husqvarna. He was a fast, open class rider who rode stroked out 400cc bikes but the only ride Husky would give him was a 175 cc with a single piston ring. He said “I didn’t want it, it was like a toy!” But he accepted Husky’s invitation and took the offer to ride the 175. Jake was on Gold when the bike’s single piston ring started to fail and the engine was losing power. He could see the finish line, hear the bikes in the distance and knew that all he had to do was get to the finish. He was near a farm house and asked the farmer if he could help him get his bike to the finish a mile or two away. Somewhere between Jake’s thick Pittsburgh accent and the farmer speaking Czech they finally communicated enough to get the bike loaded on an ox cart. The cart started to move, albeit very slowly towards the finish. Somewhere short of the finish line they came to a stop. Jake could still hear the bikes in the distance and asked the farmer why they had to stop. The farmer said he had to feed the ox! That is why Jake ended up with a Silver instead of a Gold. But getting the Silver was worth the “ox and the cart” story 36 years later.
In 1973 Jake qualified for the ISDT in Dalton, Mass. He was aboard his trusty 400 cc Husky. Jake said it was just about idling through the course. But on the fourth day he hit a Volkswagen car broadside and went over an embankment separating his shoulder. He popped his shoulder back into place and decided to finish the fourth day.
He then thought “Heck, I only had two days left, so I may as well finish.” Finish he did, winning a Gold with a dislocated shoulder.
Jake says that the ISDT was a great experience but he liked the local enduros better. “It was something the whole family could do together. Go out for a weekend and be back home Sunday.”
Fischer Competition Cycle began when Jake became a sub dealer for Triumphs, BSA, Cotton and Greeves. In later years he was a sub dealer for Bohn Cycle Sales in Pittsburgh obtaining Penton and Husky. As dealers went out of business Jake bought their inventories and parts. “I saw that a lot of dealers weren’t dedicated to the brand, they were just selling something that was hot at the time” says Jake. “Those bikes are a part of a sport that I liked.” He knew that people would need parts to rebuild those bikes after the dealers go out of business. Jake’s friends told him that in the 1960’s that they should have bought and stockpiled 1955-1957 Ford Thunderbird parts. In hindsight Jake says that if he bought those parts he would be a millionaire.
One day in 1979 Jack Penton of the Penton Motorcycle family called Jake. KTM was absorbing the Penton brand and Jack wanted to know if Jake was interested in some Penton parts. “Jack said to bring a big truck. I thought Holy cow, I’m going to get 50 dealer’s worth of parts at once! I couldn’t turn it down”, stated the always animated Jake. Included in the inventory were about 300 unlaced rims, both front and rear. Jake stacked the 21” rims over the 18” and they covered his whole floor. One day a guy stopped by looking for junk and Jake said to take all of the rims stacked on his upstairs floor. Readers when you finish crying, imagining what 300 Akront, Radelli and Sun rims looked like driving to the scrap yard. You will be relieved to know that Jake kept some of those rims… so you can put away the Kleenex.
Today Jake’s place is the man cave of motorcycle man caves. Once through the multi stickered door any vintage enthusiast will go into visual overload and the past will flash by their eyes. There are new Penton and Husky steel gas tanks, shifters and levers. 1950’s riding leathers, a show case of memorabilia including FIM medals, enduro watch holders, a Visor Vu helmet visor with the little mirrors on the corners, pictures of friends and motorcycles. Triumph shop manuals, Preston Petty fenders, Husky forks and yes there are some new rims left on the shelf. This is just the front room. In the back there are pistons and sprockets that will fit about any dirt bike from the 60’s and 70’s. If they don’t fit, Jake can find or make you one that will! His work shop area is organized and very well stocked with specialty tools, hones, and spray cans of various paints, lubricants and oils. On the rack today is a 350 Hercules that he is rebuilding. Jake completed a pristine motocross version earlier in the year and is restoring an enduro version to compliment it. Further back in the shop is his ice racing Husky, several skeleton like frames, tanks and wheels from 60’s and 70’s vintage bikes. Complete engines, Husky, Sachs and even Saxonettes, which are “baby” automatic Sachs.
I once asked Jake how the heck he kept track of all the parts he said, “if I don’t know what it is, I’ll make it fit something!”
During the first week of October 2009 I had the pleasure of attending the Leroy Winters ISDT reunion ride which Jake also attended. Each year during the event the Winters family presents an award to those who can be best described as Friends of the Six Days and the Reunion Ride for their contributions to the success of the sport. I happened to be at the same table as Jake when they called his name as recipient of the award. For one of the few times in his life, Jake was speechless. He is truly deserving of the award and appreciates it immensely. In fact I stopped by his shop the Monday after the Reunion and the award already found a place front and center on Jake’s wall.
Why is Jake with POG?? Well first he said that Husky has nothing like POG. No club, no organized rides, get togethers etc. Then he said, no it is really the people, (members) that make POG. They are nice, honest, loyal people and they love to ride. John Penton is still a very approachable, down to earth guy that can sit down and talk to anyone. FYI readers, after all of the motorcycles Jake has ridden and been affiliated with the ONLY sticker on his current car is POG member sticker.
This past fall I was fortunate to be invited to go on a ride with three generations of the Fischer family. Jake, his two sons, John and Jeff and his grandson Jeremy. Paul Danik and myself drove about two hours to the home of Jake’s son, Jeff, in DuBois PA. Jake’s grandson Jeremy was going to accompany us on this ride on his small wheel Yamaha PW 80. It was going to be one of his first real rides with the big guys.
The riding area is in the central mountains of PA. Acres of fire trails and woods riding steep gas pipeline cuts and lots of rocks. It was a beautiful fall day, sun was out, warm, temperature was perfect for riding. Jake was on his daughter in-law’s XR 200 Honda, a very mild bike for him. The rest of us were on varied machines of different eras and displacements.
Jake was taking up the rear just watching everyone knowing that he could blow past any of us at anytime but he seemed to be enjoying being a spectator for once. He was watching his grandson concentrating on the trail, trying to keep up speed and not complain at all.
At one part of the ride Jeff, an ISDE vet, took us down what was to Paul and I a very rocky, steep mountain side. Paul and I were on vintage Pentons, Jeff and John on new KTM’s. We all got to the bottom of the mountain safely and went, "whew that was bumpy!" Jeremy stayed right with us on his small wheel scoot. While resting at the bottom, Jeff said we could not going any further because it was a State Forest and that we had to turn around and go back up the mountain. As I was thinking how embarrassed I was going to be falling 10 times going up the mountain, Jeff said "give me and Jeremy a head start, we’ll see you at the top." Well, see them at the top we did. Nobody fell, no one crashed and Jake was grinning like a kid that just brought home a new Penton. He was watching his grandson become a hillclimber and an accomplished trail rider.
POG is about family and people and on that day the Fischer family was the poster family for POG. The young, the old, CMF’s, ISDT and KTM’s and most of all friendship and family.
So anytime you are on the road between Butler and Pittsburgh PA stop by the “vacant” building with the old CZ motorcycle on the roof. Jake’s hours nowadays are usually Sundays but not too early because he will still be at the local flea market looking for socks for a $1 a bundle or a cash register from the 1940’s. But don’t come too late because he may be golfing or fishing. Yes even 40 years later it is still hard to keep up with Crazy Jake.
Paul Danik remembers Jake
Back in the day when you rode a local motorcycle event in the Pittsburgh area you might as well have been at a national event with the likes of Ron Bohn, Mike Rosso, the Lojack brothers, Bob Augustine and Jake Fischer usually in attendance. Some folks might have thought having these guys to contend with would be a bad thing, but the truth was it was a great way to become a better rider as you could see first hand just how fast these motorcycles could go in the hands of a capable rider.
If all the stories that circulated about Jake Fischer were true he would have had to ride day and night to accomplish all the shenanigans that were credited to him. Old Augie had known Jake for many years and helped me to get to know him during my early days on two wheels. Jake had a series of trails that he could ride from his home just north of Pittsburgh and the stories of his rides on those trails with a close knit group of friends were legendary. I remember the first time I rode some of those trails with a couple of riding buddies from the area. Many times during the ride we would stop and the stories of how Crazy Jake had jumped this creek or climbed that hill would be told, every one of the feats told would require some awesome riding and they would attribute his riding to “craziness”. But the reality was, it was more skill, desire and confidence than anything else.
When I started to ride ISDT Qualifiers Jake took notice and invited me to join him for a little Sunday trail ride from his house. When I showed up there were three other riders there and shortly there after the five of us were on the trail with Jake out front. Jake knew the trails like the back of his hand and he would always be just out of sight and all I could see was the dust hanging in the air as his big Husky ripped through the woods at a blistering pace. Every once in awhile you could spot Jake parked up ahead checking on his chasers, but just as you spotted him and he knew everyone was still coming the big stroked Husky would be gone in an blink of an eye.
As the day wore on the other three riders came up with reasons they had to take the roads back to Jake’s place, it was now just Jake on his big Husky and me on my 125 Penton. Jake always kept an eye out to make sure I was still coming but he really pushed me to expand my comfort zone of not only speed but also in going over obstacles. Jake just loved going over really big logs, or pretty much anything else lying in the woods. The log didn’t even need to be in the way, nope, Jake would go off the trail and into the woods to jump a log and make sure I took his path. As Jake explained to me later, “ when a gang of riders are waiting to go down an impossible hill one at a time, or go around a supposedly impassable obstacle, the easy way you can pass them all at one time is if you make your own way”. When we finally made our way back to Jake’s place I was totally exhausted, Jake walked into the house and brought out a bottle of his home made wine and I really don’t remember anything from that point on. I will say that the bottoms of the down tubes under the engine on my Pentons from that day on were pretty much smashed flat when I was done with a bike.
During the Six-Days in Massachusetts I would have dinner with Jake and his wife Ginny each evening and listen to Jake’s advice on what to expect and how to mentally approach the next day as I had never ridden a Six- Day event before. During the event Jake separated his shoulder and the picture of Rolf Tibblin helping Jake get his shoulder back into place along the trail is legendary, as is the fact that Crazy Jake soldiered on to a Gold medal. I was at the Motorcycle Hall of Fame induction ceremony a couple of years ago when Rolf Tibblin was inducted into the Hall of Fame. After the induction ceremony I congratulated Rolf on his honor and mentioned Jake and the fact that he lived not far from me. Rolf’s eyes instantly lit up when he heard Jake’s name and his comment was “ Jake is one tough guy”. This coming from the Iron Man of Moto-Cross is quite a tribute.
After many years of knowing Crazy Jake I would like to tell everyone that he has a heart of gold, a mind like a computer and a love of the sport like few others I have known. But Jake has worked for years to create his alter ego and who would I be to shatter that image.