Having entered world-class competition in his teens, Jack Penton has enjoyed and long and illustrious off-road riding career, parlaying his skill and knowledge of competition into a successful business career in the motorcycle industry where he helped establish the reputation of the Penton brand, headed a successful product development project for Kawasaki, and served with Penton’s successor, KTM, as it emerged into international prominence as a leading producer of sporting motorcycles.
Born on July 16, 1954 in Amherst, Ohio, Jack Penton got his first motorcycle at the age of 10. It was a 50cc Honda Super Cub that had already been assigned to the boneyard when his father, John, mounted it on top of a post as a sign for the Penton Brothers motorcycle dealership. It had been sitting out in the weather for two years when Jack and his older sister, Laura, persuaded their dad to take it down and let them have it. With no help from their elders, Jack and Laura rehabbed the derelict bike and got it running. Then – kids being kids – they proudly painted it purple!
The little Honda was an early example of the resourcefulness Jack Penton would apply throughout a long and successful motorcycling career on his way to membership in the Motorcycle Hall of Fame. Looking back, Jack says today, “Being the son of a famous off-road motorcycle champion brought opportunities, but no easy path to success. It was not like an inheritance. Dad might have set a standard and served as a role model, but when it came to motorcycling, we were pretty much on our own.”
Jack’s reference to “we” includes himself and his older brothers, Tom and Jeff, all of whom became superb riders by chasing their father through the woods. "There was no way we could beat him then, but by the time he turned us loose to ride in real competition, we were more than ready," Jack says.
Jack proved ready at a very early age. By 15 he was already riding American Motorcyclist Association national championship enduros and in 1970 scored second overall in the AMA Enduro National Championship. Because enduros are technically road-going events requiring competitors to be possess a driver’s license, young Penton achieved that runner-up status despite the fact that the AMA disallowed some of his points that were earned while he was under-age. Father John must have been duly impressed, because he decided Jack was ready to represent the Penton brand in world-class competition. So Jack found himself in Spain in the fall of 1970, a 122-pound high school freshman, competing in the International Six Days Trial. He finished the grueling event to earn a Bronze Medal, and then the following year, at the Isle of Man, he became the youngest rider ever to win a Gold Medal at the ISDT.
Throughout his 12-year ISDT career, Penton earned six Golds, three Silvers, and one Bronze. He rode on six U.S. Trophy Teams, two Vase Teams, and four times served as American Team Captain. In 1973, he was overall winner at a Six Day qualifying event in Bathurst, Australia, and at the Isle of Man again in 1975 he was top American and sixth overall in the world in ISDT competition.
Penton’s career on the national scene was equally impressive. Early on he won multiple motocross state championships in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Indiana, and his first AMA National Enduro at the age of 15, the same year he finished second overall in the national series. Before it was all said and done, he earned 27 national titles in enduro competition, international trials qualifiers, and Grand National Cross-Country racing. These included a victory in the desert of Southern California where Eastern riders were not expected to do well, and an overall win at the Corduroy Canadian National Championship Enduro.
Explaining why he finally put away his riding boots in the late 1980s, Jack jokes, “I got tired of washing motorcycles.” But his remark is based on reality, because Penton maintained throughout his entire career the “on your own” philosophy that his father had set for him in 1964.
"I always did all of my own set-up and maintenance," Jack says. "For nearly 20 years of national and world competition, I never had a mechanic. That’s how we were taught to operate in our family, and I think it gave us an advantage because we had intimate understanding of our machines and a higher level of self-confidence."
While he was collecting FIM medals and AMA national championships, Jack Penton was earning his living at Penton Imports, his father’s company. Starting there at 13, he advanced to off-road team coordinator and product developer for Penton motorcycles and Hi-Point racing products. When the Penton motorcycle distributorship was sold to KTM in 1978, Jack stayed on at Hi-Point, then eventually was involved in negotiating the sale of that company to Malcolm Smith Racing Products in 1988. Through his own consulting firm, True Sports Development Company, Penton was hired by Kawasaki Motors USA in 1980 to develop its KDX line of motorcycles and manage the company’s national enduro team.
By then, the name “Jack Penton” had earned such equity that Kawasaki used him for much more than a team manager and product developer. He became a public relations spokesman for the company and was featured in advertising to confirm how serious Kawasaki was about building competitive off-road motorcycles. Eventually, when Kawasaki sought to bring him on full-time at corporate headquarters in California, Jack declined, preferring to stay and keep his family in the Midwest where he and his wife, Gigi, were raising two young sons. Penton represented Malcolm Smith Racing in the Midwest, then in 1995 joined KTM North America in his hometown of Amherst, Ohio, where he has served in dealer service and development, property development, and competition management.
Having clearly established himself as a champion in his own right, in 1999 Jack Penton was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame. He has been listed among the American top 100 off-road riders of all time, he remains in demand as a speaker and special guest at off-road award banquets, and he is currently giving back to the sport by serving as chairman of the Motorcycle Hall of Fame Off-Road Selection Committee.