By Alan Scherstuhl
By Amy Nicholson
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By CAROLINA DEL BUSTO
By AMY NICHOLSON
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Lyle Lovett may be known as a Grammy Award-winning musician, actor and one hell of a dapper Texas gent. But there's a side of the Stetson-loving Lovett that many fans may be unaware of: his lifelong affair with motorcycles, which he began riding as a Texas adolescent in the late 1960s.
So, when Todd Huffman, a Fullerton-based film and TV producer, approached Lovett to narrate his independently produced film, PENTON: The John Penton Story, about legendary motorcycle rider, designer and distributor John Penton, Lovett leaped at the chance.
"I didn't know about Lyle's history with motorcycles until a random guy from Texas contacted me after hearing about the project and said I should hit him up," says Huffman, 51, who used social media's crowdsourcing mechanics to help finance and distribute his film, which screens July 10 in Irvine. "So I contacted a mutual friend, Mark Blackwell, the first U.S. motocross champion, and within an hour, Mark called me back and said, 'Lyle's in.' He was honored to be the voice of John's story."
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Turns out, Lovett rode a Penton bike, and his first job, at age 14, was at Cycle Shack, the first Penton dealership in Houston.
Huffman's company, Pipeline Digital Media, produces films, TV shows and commercials, usually with a motocross or BMX theme. But Huffman hopes Lovett's involvement (as narrator and on the soundtrack) in the Penton biopic spurs interest in audiences outside the motocross and motorcycle industries. Enthusiasts are already well-aware of the life and legacy of Penton, who was pivotal in popularizing a sport that Orange County played a key role in building.
Penton, now 89, won a slew of endurance-racing trophies in the 1950s and '60s. In 1959, he set a world record by crossing the continental U.S. from New York to Los Angeles on a BMW R69S with an oversized gas tank in 52 hours and 11 minutes. Those accomplishments would have been enough to earn him the American Motorcycle Association Hall of Fame induction he enjoyed in 1998. But it was in his role as a designer and distributor, which began in the late 1960s, that he made his biggest mark. Indeed, Penton helped popularize an extreme sport decades before the concept was ingrained into popular culture.
While the film doesn't mention Orange County specifically, many of the legendary riders interviewed, including Bob "Hurricane" Hannah, cut their teeth on the off-road tracks that were abundant here in the 1970s—places such as Escape Country in Trabuco Canyon and Saddleback Park in Irvine. Many enthusiasts' first exposure to the sport came through riding bikes sold by Penton, the first American distributor of purpose-built, off-road motorcycles with smaller displacement engines.
"It was great timing," says Huffman. "Penton started offering these smaller bikes, which were made in Europe by KTM but designed in large part by him, at the same time that motocross was really taking off across the country, particularly in places like Orange County. Before him, the bikes were far bigger and bulkier. But now someone could enter the sport with the smaller bikes, and the experienced riders knew they were the best things out there."
Huffman, who grew up racing BMX in Northern California, moved to Orange County to market and produce sporting events before transitioning into film production. He'd long known of Penton's influence, but it wasn't until he read Ed Youngblood's book John Penton and the Off-Road Motorcycle Revolution that he was compelled to make a movie about the American motorcycle pioneer.
Huffman financed the film through Kickstarter and hooked up with Gathr films, which uses social media to set up screenings around the country. There are currently 36 such events scheduled, and Huffman believes there will be several hundred by the end of the year.
And while Lovett, who wrote one of his signature songs, "The Road to Ensenada," after a serious motorcycle accident in Baja, California, may be better known for his music, he says there's a strong connection between the creative side and the dust and grime of off-road racing.
"Absolutely there's a connection," he said at the film's premiere a couple of weeks ago at Hollywood's Egyptian Theater. "When you are riding or writing music, everything is up to you. They are both very solitary activities. And you're constantly confronted with having to make choices, some that might work out and others that might not. And at some point, you just have to trust yourself and deal with the consequences and get through them. Just like life."
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