Jen Mucke

America’s King Of Formula 750, Part 2

John Ellis makes his own luck

Nick’s Note: If there’s one thing the automotive industry does better than the motorcycle industry, it’s that it celebrates its legends better. I’m a big fan of shining a spotlight on our sport’s stars and would rather read a tribute than a eulogy. I’ve asked Gregg Bonelli to help shine that light on our racing heroes and here is Part 2 of the John Ellis story in Gregg’s unique prose.

John Ellis gave up racing and retired for his spouse, Ms. Jan, an integral part of a great team effort. She is the loyal support of John’s racing and never fails to watch, unlike some significant others who prefer to hold their breath and let their attention be occupied by something else until it’s over. Jan appreciates and understands, as few do, that the man she loves is a racer and always will be; while he was good enough to give it up to make sure his family would always be provided for, after feeling himself lean into the turns while watching a vintage race that included motorcycles John just knew he had to try this asphalt racing.

The hidden mechanical tension of motorcycle racing exists in vintage racing just as it does in today's modern racing. When people see someone win a race they ask: Is it the bike? Or is it the rider? Manufacturers want their bike to be the fastest, handle the best, stop the quickest, and win races. That enhances their reputation, and while it may not directly translate to sales on the showrooms like it once did, it is still an important factor.

John Ellis
John Ellis on his way to the F750 win at Grattan, Michigan.Jen Mucke

And I admit that the question of “bike or rider” has been in my mind ever since I started racing.

As a low-budget privateer my entire career, I always thought I was made to take risks riders on better machinery didn’t need to take to get the same results. My choice, I know, but still it seemed somehow less fair than I would have liked.

Kenny Roberts used our shop in the Midwest when passing through and would often lay over between races. We looked at his machinery. Some of it was just like ours—some of it was very different. He might have been just as fast on one of our shop bikes and probably was faster than we were in any event. But he doesn’t race now and some of us still do.

John and I still race, and so when he had the chance to buy a set of OW72 factory heads and rods like Kenny had used, lo and behold, they made a difference on the track. With them, John ran at the front. How much of a difference? Well, that’s hard to say, but it’s part of the reason the “can I have a bike like that” heartache goes on unabated over the years.

Ellis vintage roadracing
Bike or rider, in John Ellis’ case, it’s both.Jen Mucke

It reminds me of when I finally got a bike like the one John Long raced for Dirty Distributing. On my own equipment and previous to my new purchase, I had raced against Long and lost badly. Every time we got the bikes pointed straight he would disappear and while I respect his riding ability a great deal, he can’t twist a throttle any better than I can when we’re upright. Riding that same machine myself years later, I had the pleasure of doing to others what he had done to me; I remember thinking to myself how silly it had been for me to believe I was ever going to beat something like it by just trying harder.

It’s bike and rider combined that make the difference. That means when John shows up on a well-prepared race bike, you have a race on your hands even if his previous victories were in the dirt and he had recently decided to try asphalt competition. There were adjustments to be made from dirt to asphalt, putting a learning curve ahead of him, but he had learned the lessons of close competition well enough be able to manage it.

The formula for success, or at least the one he was familiar with, included building the lightest machine possible with the most power one could make. Roadracing was a different critter, however, and success was not immediate. Setup is important and John’s first attempt at vintage racing at Daytona netted him four crashes and a decision to rethink his steering head angle and everything behind it. Now the bike is set up better, and the chassis has just the right amount of torsional stiffness to suit his style. He passed me at Michigan’s Grattan Raceway in an off-camber turn on the outside where I didn’t believe it was possible and went on like I hadn’t even been in his way.

Another Michigan rider, Jeff Hargis, carries the number one plate in 750 Sportsman and is seen chasing John down over the hill at Grattan in the photo; Jeff knows who the man to beat is anytime John lines up on the same grid. That sort of respect from fellow riders is one of the things that sets John apart.

John Ellis, Jeff Hargis and Bob Hurst
“Men make their own luck.” - John Ellis Leads Jeff Hargis and Bob Hurst at Grattan.Jen Mucke

Another F750 class contender, Kenny Cummings said, “I’ve been lucky to spend quality time over the years with John and his lovely wife Ms. Jan up at their cottage in northern Michigan in the summer between our races at GingerMan Raceway and Elkhart Lake’s Road America. Lots of political round table discussions are thrashed out; lots of boat rides; lots of campfires; lots of good times. He’s an old junkyard dawg, but he’s a fast old dawg.”

Some will want to say that John Ellis might be good and have fast machinery, but will add that there must have been a great deal of luck involved over the years. I asked John about that. “Men make their own luck,” he said. “Whether it’s in business or on the racetrack, it’s not luck that makes a man a success.”

More next Tuesday!