Archives – Crankin’ It Up with Carl Cranke

Larry Lawrence | November 22, 2017
Carl Cranke in action
Carl Cranke in action on a Penton. (Photo by Lee Sutton)

It was the 1975 International Six Days Trials (ISDT) held that year at the Isle of Man. During the road race special test, Carl Cranke showed his versatility by leading the rest of the competitors, which utilized parts of the famous Isle of Man TT course. Cranke’s 350cc Penton was one of the most powerful bikes in the ISDT that year and he was wringing every last ounce out of it.

Then, entering a turn, his Penton seized and the rear wheel locked. There was a big mound of dirt just before the corner and Cranke just decide to take the jump. Fans watching looked on in amazement. This crazy American was taking this jump, on the road test no less, at an unbelievable rate of speed. Little did they know that Crake was simply holding on for dear life. When he landed the bike caught and came back to life. Two Czech riders had gotten by him during the mishap, and in the closing laps let’s just say Carl was “Cranking it Up” (sorry, bad pun I know) to catch them. He was clocked at 102 miles per hour on the knobby shod Penton! He got by one rider with only famous ISDT rider Zdenek Cespiva still in front on him. Cranke pulled into Cespiva’s draft and took the slingshot to go around him at the finish line when suddenly his Penton seized again and this time locked up solid just as he crossed the line, just inches behind Cespiva.

“It was funny too, because in the newspaper the next morning they had a picture of me at the finish line and there was smoke coming off my rear tire,” Cranke recalls. “I think it was the best finish ever by an American in an ISDT road test.”

Cranke cover

Cranke was a top American motorcycle enduro racer of the 1960s and ’70s. He represented the United States in 10 International Six Day Trials (ISDT) events while competing aboard Penton, KTM and Yamaha motorcycles. He earned seven gold medals and two silver medals in ISDT competition.

Cranke grew up in Northern California, not far from Sacramento, and began racing a 50cc Suzuki in local flat track races with sponsorship from a hometown motorcycle shop when he was 16. As a teen Carl was a flat track regular and then started doing scrambles, in the days before America even had motocross.

Cranke excelled at all types of motorcycle racing he entered, but was especially good at flat track racing. He turned pro when he was 18.

“In 1968 I was the high-point novice short-track racer in the nation,” Cranke says with pride. “I raced against Mert Lawwill and Dick Mann and I actually won a lot of the races as a novice. Bugsy’s (Mann) always been my hero, so when I started racing and got to race against him…well, that was heaven.”

Cranke was well on his way to becoming a full-time professional flat tracker, but there was one glitch – money.

1973 ISDT Team USA
Cranke along with his fellow 1973 ISDT Trophy Team members.

“After my novice year I would have had to move up to a 500cc, a big bike you know,” Cranke says. “It was just too much of an expense for me. My whole thing was I just loved to ride motorcycles, so I started doing hare scrambles and hare and hounds because you got to ride a lot. I won a lot of events doing that and then motocross came around, so I started riding motocross.”

Cranke was up against a lot of talented MX riders in northern California, including a guy by the name of Brad Lackey, a future World Champion. Cranke more than held his own. He won some big motocross events, including Hopetown, one of the premier events in early American motocross.

Perhaps the most important motocross win Cranke had was beating Lars Larsson in the support race at a Trans Am event in Gilroy, California. It was that victory that prompted Penton to sign Cranke as a support rider.

Riding for Penton led to him to being offered the job as West Coast service manager for the company.  Carl had always dreamed of riding the ISDT and in the summer of 1972, he told his boss Fred Moxley about it. Fred told Carl that there was a qualifier coming up in Oregon and he could race one of his salesman’s bikes. Cranke ended up finishing second overall in the ISDT qualifier to leading off-road racer Dick Burleson.

Moxley was pushing to have Cranke be part of Penton’s ISDT team, but John Penton told Moxley, “All the west coast riders can do is ride in the desert.”

“John didn’t realize I was a Northern California guy and we rode mudders, rocks everything.”

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Penton invited Cranke to race another qualifier in Ohio. In a wet, muddy mess of a race, Cranke finished second overall and the deal was sealed – Cranke was going to be part of the ’72 Team USA Trophy team. He earned Gold that year in Czechoslovakia. It was the start of a long and fruitful stint in ISDT events for Cranke.

Looking back at his ISDT career Carl says his ride in on incredibly rocky and challenging course in Camerino, Italy in 1974 was his personal best. That year the American Trophy and Silver Vase Teams finished fourth.

Cranke wrapped up his pro and ISDT career after the 1981 season.

Today Cranke lives in the Pacific Northwest, not far away from the location of the Washougal Motocross National, an area he calls “God’s Country”. He still enjoys dual-sport riding with his youngest son.

Cranke is also a member of the Motorcycle Hall of Fame for his illustrious off-road career. He looks back on that time as a golden age of the sport, where America was beginning to participate and do well on the world stage in what is now called the ISDE.

“I grew up in the absolute best time possible,” Cranke says. “There’ll never be another era like that where people could just have fun. Now you look at Supercross and stuff, and yeah, I was an athlete and took care of myself, but it’s so much different now. There’s so much training that it’s not nearly as much fun.

“I also feel so fortunate to have grown up and been part of John Penton and his company. I still stay in touch with Jackie (Jack Penton) and all those guys, the ones who are still with us.”

Larry Lawrence | Archives Editor In addition to writing our Archives section on a weekly basis, Lawrence is another who is capable of covering any event we throw his way.