Less than seven months after being severely burned over more than half of his body when his race car overturned and caught fire at Orange County Int’l Raceway in July 1973, the indomitable spirit that sustained Herm Petersen before and since had him ready to return to competition for the 1974 season-opening Winternationals in Southern California.
His comeback machine, pictured at right, was as special as the comeback, though not nearly as successful. Innovative chassis builder Woody Gilmore had dreamed up and then built his “car of the future” for Petersen and partner Sam Fitz, a Can-Am-inspired machine that looked as if it might be more at home on a road course than a straight-line quarter-mile. Its blue anodized bodywork draped over the chassis, covering the engine and both front and rear tires, with the rear wing integrated into the bodywork. Petersen had obtained backing from Olympia beer and Justice Brothers, whose names and colors adorned the sleek-looking machine.
Despite the serious nature of Petersen’s injuries and his ongoing recovery and future reconstructive surgeries, the mood on the team was certainly lighthearted.
“We were ready to leave the shop for Pomona,” recalled Petersen. “We all had CB radios then, and my handle had been ‘Northwest Terror.’ As I got in the truck, my good-humor crewman David Belyea said, ‘You have two choices for a new handle: ‘French Fry’ or ‘Bar-B-Q!’ So it’s been ‘Bar-B-Q’ ever since. We’ve had lots of fun with that over the years.”
Before heading to the racetrack in Pomona, they stopped Wednesday at Irwindale Raceway, just 10 miles down the highway, to shake down the new and unproven machine and to give Petersen his first passes since the accident.
“They pushed me down, and we fired it up, and it was just bitchin',” he recalled, a grin spreading across his face. “I made a half-pass and was so happy that I was crying at the other end. I’m back!”
The new car – still powered by a Donovan engine when many were switching to the Keith Black late-model style “Elephant” engine -- didn’t come close to the 6.17 Winternationals bump established by Jim Bucher, but they loaded up and headed east to Gainesville for the Gatornationals anyway because, as the defending event champ, they were seeded into the field (a practice long since abandoned). He lost in the first round to Carl Olson with a 6.63 that wouldn’t even have been quick enough to qualify.
“The car did everything right; it handled perfectly, never did anything evil, but it was 200 pounds too heavy,” he explained. “It probably would have worked fine today with these cars having to weigh so much, but not back then, so we went back to L.A. and told Woody we had to have a conventional car, but there were two cars ahead of me, yet I had to have a car right away because of my sponsorship with Olympia beer.”
Herm Petersen, far lane, took on Harlan Thompson in Petersen's Can-Am car.
Petersen in 1975, finally able to fly the 61 on his car after winning the Division 6 Top Fuel championship the year before (Jerry Bennett photo)
In an amazing turn of events, George Schreiber not only had a recent Woody-built car in his possession that had never been finished, but he had sat in Petersen’s dragster before his crash, liked the fit, and had Gilmore build it to the same specifications, so Petersen bought the car from Schreiber and fit comfortably into his “new” car.
The Can-Am car made just 19 runs in its short life, the last under the control of Harlan Thompson, who drove the car for Petersen at the 1974 Northwest National Open in Seattle, but not with much success.
“Harlan was used to driving Funny Cars, and the dragster had Funny Car tires, but it also had rack and pinion steering. I never had any problems with it because I was used to rack and pinion, but when he drove it, it was all over the track. He made two qualifying attempts. [Track operator Bill] Doner came up and told me that he couldn’t let Harlan run because it wasn’t safe; ‘No problem,’ I said. ‘Pair him against me in the first round, and there won’t be a problem.’ I told Harlan, ‘Don’t even think about trying to race me; don’t leave the starting line until I’m at the Christmas Tree.’ I went on to win the race.”
Petersen ended up selling the Can-Am car to a local racer for $5,000, but, as it would turn out, it wasn’t out of his life forever.
After years of finishing as a runner-up to Jerry Ruth in the Division 6 points standings, Petersen finally won the crown that year with his conventional car. “I was so focused,” he remembered. “Every time I pulled into a track, I knew I was going to win the race. I won five of the six races and whipped Ruth good.”
In 1975, Petersen reached his second national event final at the historic World Finals at Ontario Motor Speedway, where he not only was runner-up to Don Garlits, but also helped “Big Daddy” secure the world championship when he beat Gary Beck in the semifinals. “That was worth $500 from Garlits,” he said gleefully of the bounty that Garlits had posted for anyone who could beat Beck. “I still have a copy of the check on my wall.”
The end is near
The 1976 season was the last of his three-year contract with Olympia and would turn out to be his last behind the wheel.
After Petersen quit driving in mid-1976, Rob Bruins, center, took over the wheel and drove the car to victory at Fremont Raceway's PDA event.
“We were running a match race in Calgary [Alta.],” he remembered. “I was running Gaines [Markley]; he’s in the right lane; I’m in the left lane. Right in the lights – boom! -- I heard the blower go. I hit the chute and grabbed a handful of brake, but just at the moment the blower went over the side and popped the left rear tire. The vibration was so bad that it broke the bar that the chutes were hooked to. I was going 230 mph with no parachute. I was grabbing the brake, and the car was swerving all over, and I’m thinking I’m either going to go upside down again or run into Gaines, so I let go of the brake and rode it out into a cow pasture at the end of the track. I got out of the car – no one was around – I kicked the son-of-a-bitch in the side, and said, ‘You’ll never get another shot at me,’ and I quit. The next week, I got Robbie [Bruins] licensed in my car, and he finished out the year.
In his short stint in the car, Bruins avenged Petersen’s Ontario loss to Garlits by beating him to win the PDA event at Fremont Raceway in Northern California. The car was sold early the next season to Rick Ramsey and Newt Withers. Petersen kept the engines and had begun a partnership with Norm Lane and driver Tom Christensen to let them use the engines while he booked the car and made a percentage of the bookings.
“I already had three bookings for him, and Seattle was the first one,” he remembered ruefully. “The kid leaves the starting line harder than he’d ever left before, got out of shape and into the grass. I turned around and started walking away, then I hear the motor come up. He steers it back onto the track and gets back into it and rolled it in the lights. That was it; I walked away.
“I didn’t miss it. I didn’t have anything more to prove. I’d beaten everybody, everybody had beaten me, I’d won a national event and won the division, so I just walked away.”
Petersen and the restored Can-Am dragster. (And, yes, Linda Vaughn, too!)
After sitting out for several years, Petersen lent his expertise to the Washington-based Hansen brothers on their Coors Light-sponsored Top Alcohol Dragster for four years in the mid-1980s. During a trip with them to the Gatornationals and a visit to Garlits' Museum of Drag Racing, Garlits let it be known that he wanted Petersen’s Can-Am car in his shrine to the sport and would pay dearly for it.
“When I got home, I did a little legwork and tracked it down,” he said. “It was hanging upside down from the rafters of a barn in Moses Lake, Wash. The guy’s mother took us out there. Sam and I opened the doors to the barn, and there it was. It was still blue anodized, but they had taken off the lettering and the Justice Brothers stripes. We were so happy to find it that we wanted to go nuts, but we had to be restrained because we didn’t want to let on how bad we wanted it because you know the price would have gone up. We ended up getting it for $3,000, less than what I had sold it for.”
Thanks to the generosity of a number of people, the car was lovingly restored, and Petersen donated the car to Garlits’ museum, where it resides today for other generations to enjoy.
In 1989, Petersen and his devoted wife, Sandy, took a 25th anniversary cruise to Alaska and fell in love with the region. A good friend from Washington was a seasonal gill-net fisherman in Juneau, Alaska, and took him out on his boat. Petersen so enjoyed his time on the water that he offered to drive the boat home to Washington for the owner if he ever needed someone’s help, and he took Petersen up on his offer. “I had a fabulous time and did it again for him the next year,” he said. “After the second trip, I decided that I was going to buy a boat to go fishing.
Steve Gibbs and Petersen landed a big one that didn't get away.
"I bought a boat at the end of ’89 and started in 1990,” he said. “I was there about a week before the season started, and a couple of guys came down the docks looking for someone to take them fishing. I had done a lot of sportfishing, so I took them, and they had a great time; one of them caught a 200-pound halibut, and word got around. That was the start of Bar-B-Q Charters.
“There were only three days a week you were allowed to fish gill nets, so I had the other days to take charters. By the next year, every opening was booked. The boat was pretty much working seven days a week.
"It was a fabulous lifestyle, but it was hard work. I did all of the work myself; no deckhand. I’d do the cooking, the baiting, netting the fish, fileting them – everything.
“I did that for two years, and the price of fish was going down, so I quit the gill netting, and sold that part of the business and did charter fishing for the next 16 years, until 2010. I had a lot of my racing buddies go with me over the years, guys like Steve Gibbs, Dave McClelland, Gordie Bonin, Ed McCulloch, Marvin Graham, T.C. Lemons, Jim Walther -- the storytelling was out of this world.”
The sound of thunder
His continued friendship with former NHRA Competition Director Gibbs, who had since taken over the management of the NHRA Motorsports Museum California Hot Rod Reunion presented by Automobile Club of Southern California, led to an invitation in 2004 for Petersen to drive Chris Karamesines’ car in the event’s Cacklefest.
“We started it up in the pits, and I was hooked again,” he said. “I knew I had to find my old [front-engine] car, so I started looking again and found it. It had been through seven owners, but we found it. The guy we bought it off didn’t know it had been a Top Fueler; if he had, it would have gone for more money than I wanted to spend.
“I had a lot of help from a lot of tremendous people restoring it; it was very heartwarming. We’d take it all over and Cackle it, then my competitive spirit got the best of me again,” he said, a devilish grin crossing his face.
“People would tell me that my car sounded so much louder than everyone else’s, and that was because I’d had a special cam put into it with a real early exhaust. Anyway, Bucky [Austin] starts telling me that Ruth’s car and Hank’s [Johnson] car is louder than mine, and he nicknames me ‘Mr. Quiet.’
“I needed to find out, so I went online and ordered a decibel meter. I hid it under my coat and walked from car to car and wrote down all of the numbers, and mine was three decibels louder. I told Bucky, but he didn’t believe me. So the next time I hold it in the open so everyone could see it, and again mine was loudest, and everyone says, ‘Well, it’s in the way you’re holding it,’ so I got a little bracket made up so I can put it on a camera tripod, and I add a second decibel meter, set it on maximum hold, and walked away. Then I’d take an average from both. These guys who Cackle these cars for the fans don’t get any money or awards, so I thought we needed a contest, so for the 2009 reunion, I came up with the Cackle Thunder Contest.
“I made up rules – like 90 percent nitro and you can’t turn headers and things like that -- and marked out a spot for each car the same distance from the motor plate. I charged $25 to enter, with 60-40 split to the winner and runner-up. I didn’t go into the contest because I didn’t think that would be fair, but I was going to be in it the next year, so I tested my car. Junior Kaiser had the loudest Chrysler, but [the Chevy-powered dragster of Roger Gates and Denny Fenstermaker] was the loudest of everyone. I was one-tenth of a decibel behind the Chevy and six-tenths in front of Kaiser. I was sure I would win the next year’s contest, but over the winter, I began to rethink it, thinking of what people might do to make their cars louder, and maybe someone’s going to blow a blower off, so I decided that it was the first and last Cackle Thunder Contest.”
Beating the grim reaper … again
Petersen was inducted into Division 6 Hall of Fame in 2000 and into Garlits' International Hall of Fame in 2004, but not a lot of people knew that during that time, Petersen was battling serious health issues.
He didn’t know until 28 years later, but he had contracted hepatitis C from one of the blood transfusions during the many operations that followed his 1973 accident. That had led to a liver disorder called hepatic encephalopathy, which attacks the brain and nervous system. Without a transfusion, he would die.
“I started having trouble in 2001, and it got worse rather fast,” he said. “I got on the list for a liver in February 2003. That November, I got the call to come to the University of Washington; they had a liver coming from Hawaii. They opened me up before the liver got to the hospital, but when the doc looked at the liver, he didn't like what he saw. He had his pathologist look at it, too, and they decided not to use it, so they closed me back up! Ten days later -- Nov. 29, 2003 -- they got another liver. I was in pretty bad shape by then, but they put that one in, and I felt better right away.”
This little square of history on the wall of Petersen’s home tells a lot about him. On the left is the Wally from his only NHRA national event win at the 1973 Gatornationals. At the right is the trophy emblematic of one of his proudest moments, induction into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame. Between is half of a real Donovan 417 engine, also full of symbolism. The block is one that got hurt in Seattle with Rob Bruins at the wheel. The injector had its right side ground off when he slid 1,000 feet on his lid during his crash at OCIR. The blower and valve cover are from his last ride in a Top Fueler at Calgary in 1976.
Three years later, Petersen was diagnosed with B-cell lymphoma, a form of cancer. Thanks to aggressive chemotherapy, he beat it, too. “The chemo killed the cancer and almost me,” he said, “so I don't let anything get me down. I thank the Lord every day that I'm here, and I make the most of them.”
Listening to Petersen share his story was inspirational. Through all of his tough times, he never was bitter about the hand that he was dealt and only seemed strengthened by it. He still loves a sport that nearly claimed his life, and he recently donated his restored Cackle car to the Portland, Ore.-based World of Speed motorsports exposition so that others might enjoy it. He also built a replica of his first race car, the '52 Willys, to push-start the car, an eye-opening piece that drew as many appreciative looks in Seattle as the dragster. The Willys sports a blown 392 Chrysler engine built by Petersen's Cackle Thunder Performance shop.
Although his career ended early and of his own choosing, I asked what he thought might have been ahead had he continued to race.
“I probably would have won a lot more events, and I probably would have ended up switching to a late-model [engine], but I was so loyal to Donovan at the time,” he said. “I don’t regret that because I had the quickest Donovan in the country for a time.
“But when I quit, I never really looked back,” he admitted. “I had a wonderful career. I really enjoyed it, and I think I miss the people more than anything.”
And I think it’s safe to say that fans today, especially those reading this, miss having racers like Petersen to root for and that we’re all thankful that those who are still with us are willing to share their stories for all to enjoy and reflect on. Thanks, Herm.
The button on Herman Petersen’s trademark brown hat pretty much sums it all up: “I’ve Survived Damn Near Everything.” It’s not an idle boast.
The Washington state nitro veteran, known as "the Northwest Terror," has stared down death on at least four occasions -- only two of which were related to racing -- and came out the other side each time with a brighter outlook on life.
To shake his hand is to touch the soul of humanity. His gnarled hands, missing at least the tips of each finger, are mute testimony to the ravages of a terrible fire suffered at the wheel of his dragster just more than 40 years ago, yet it’s a welcoming handshake.
And the smile that brightens a face that also shows the scars of that fire is testimony to the resiliency of the human spirit and to a man at peace with his place in the world, one who assigns the proper perspective to the joys and sorrows that 70 years of life can bring.
It’s pretty safe to assume that the knowledgeable readers in the Insider Nation know the basics of Petersen’s tale, of that fateful July day in 1973 at Orange County Int’l Raceway when a crash and ensuing fire forever changed his life, of his courageous comeback, and of his retirement just a few years later, but as you’ll read in the next two parts concluding next Friday, the frightening accident at OCIR was only the better-publicized portion of a wonderful life inside and out of racing.
As I mentioned last week, I had been trying to get together with Petersen for a few years, but because he’s seemingly always on the go and I hadn’t traveled to our Seattle event in more than a decade, it never happened. I added Seattle to my schedule this year, and a note from Petersen a few weeks before the event invited me to drop by his display area to see his latest treasure, a bright-orange supercharged ’52 Willys – the same make and model of his first race car decades ago – that would serve as the push vehicle for his restored slingshot dragster that would take part in Sunday’s Cacklefest. I had hoped to carve out close to an hour during Friday qualifying to sneak away from my reporting duties, but just as we sat down, it began to rain, and it continued for several hours, making for a leisurely and pleasurable trip down his Memory Lane.
Like a lot of guys in the 1960s, Petersen became acquainted with drag racing through his local car club, which in his case was the Handlers, which called Bremerton Raceway its home, but he was into cars long before then. When he was 13, he would drive the family’s old ’41 Dodge up and down the logging roads by his dad’s house in Chico, Wash., just outside of Bremerton, but the cold climes presented challenges.
“I’d have to take the spark plugs out of the flathead six, take them in the house, warm them up in the oven, then screw them back in to get it to start up,” he remembered proudly. “I’ve always liked cars.”
He started hanging out with the Handlers not long after graduating from East Bremerton High in 1961 and racing a B/Gas ’52 Willys, which was followed by a C/Modified Production ‘57 Chevy. By 1965, he was the club president. Running the drags at Bremerton was part of that responsibility and led directly to his career in Top Fuel.
“In 1967, I decided to put on a Top Fuel show: $400 to win, $300 runner-up, $100 a round. I knew I needed Jerry Ruth there because he was the star guy. So I call him up and tell him the pay schedule, and he says that I need to pay him $100 under the table or he might be ‘sick’ or something. So I agree to that, and I get off the phone, and I’m thinking, ‘Herman, what’s wrong with this picture? I’m racing for a $12 trophy – and I know it’s a $12 trophy because I bought it for the club – and this guy is getting paid $100 under the table just to show up?’ I didn’t figure he had much more money in his dragster than I had in my ’57 Chevy, so I befriended him. I’d go over to his shop on Monday nights after my job and take his car apart for him after a weekend of racing. I was working like a slave, but I had my ears open all the time. Then I’d go back on Fridays, and we’d put it all back together. By the end of that year, I decided that I could race in Top Fuel. I bought Terrell Poage’s Top Gas dragster, bought a short-block and an injector from Ruth, and some heads and a blower. I licensed in Bremerton in the next year.
“I didn’t know if I was going to like it, which is why I bought a used car, but, hell, it didn’t take long to figure out that I was in love with it,” he said.
Petersen loved it so much that at the end of 1968, he quit his full-time job at the Tide Chevrolet dealership in Poulsbo and hoped to rely on the steady income from his home-based side business, Petersen’s Auto Glass, at which he replaced windshields at nights and weekends for people who couldn’t find the time to go in on a weekday. “That business was working pretty good, so I decided to go Top Fuel racing full time,” he said.
He and wife Sandy drove down to L.A. in his brother’s new Corvette and straight to Woody Gilmore’s Race Car Engineering shop, where he ordered his first new slingshot, which he debuted at the 1969 Winternationals. He got a sponsorship from Beach Imports, a Fiat dealership in Bremerton, and went racing, and the following year, he began a long and wonderful partnership with Sam Fitz, a local restaurateur. Long after their racing days ended, they remained tremendous friends until Fitz passed away in 2000 of Huntington’s disease. “He was a great, great guy,” Petersen remembered fondly. “He didn’t know anything mechanical, but he loved the sport.”
Petersen & Fitz raced that car until the end of 1971, and the handwriting was on the wall about the future of Top Fuel. They had Gilmore build them a rear-engine car – the first such car to run in the Northwest – and raced the car throughout the year with crewmember Denny Bale. Midway through 1972, Petersen became just the second driver (behind John Wiebe) to run Ed Donovan’s new aluminum engine block (his was serial no. 004; Wiebe had 001 and 002, and Mike Kuhl and Carl Olson got 003).
They tied Clayton Harris’ 6.16 national record in June at Lions Drag Strip and won the PDA race at Orange County Int’l Raceway that year, then sold the car and trailer turnkey toward the end of the season to Bernie Stewart for his teenage son John to drive with the provision that Petersen got to drive it at the season-ending Supernationals and at Lions’ Last Drag Race. At Lions, he qualified in the top half of the field and went two rounds before shearing the input shaft.
‘The best car I’d ever had’
Jere Alhadeff sent this photo of a Petersen fire burnout that he shot at OCIR for the cover of the June 1973 issue of Drag Racing USA.
With sponsorship from Heidelberg beer, another Gilmore chassis was readied for 1973, but they couldn’t have been ready for the season that lay ahead. After a disappointing debut at the Winternationals, where they qualified just No. 20 in the 32-car field and lost in round one to Don Garlits, they trailered to Gainesville for the Gatornationals. Petersen qualified sixth with a 6.20, more than a tenth off of Olson’s polesitting 6.08, and got past Dick LaHaie in round one with a 6.19 to move him into a second-round date with Garlits, who had just sent his hometown fans into paroxysms with a 6.05 against Chris Karamesines. Petersen shut ‘em all up when he took down “Big Daddy” on a 6.08 to 6.18 score to avenge his Pomona defeat.
“You could have heard a pin drop in that place,” he remembered, still relishing the moment 40 years later. “I just beat their boy. That was very gratifying.” The best was still to come. Another 6.08 in the semifinals put the sport’s other legendary Don – Prudhomme – on the trailer. Awaiting Petersen in the final was the meet’s other Cinderella story, Jim Bucher in his Chevy-powered Kenner SSP rail, who had set the national record at 6.079 in the second round, backed up by his first-round 6.12.
What should have been a tight match between two guys seeking their first career wins in an all-6.0-second final ended before it began when Bucher’s Can Am Chevy pulled loose the head studs and backfired the blower on the burnout, leaving Petersen to solo for the win with an easy 6.22. The good times didn’t stop there.
“We went home and ran Yakima, Puyallup, and Seattle the next Friday, Saturday, and Sunday and won all three nights, set the track record at all three tracks, and never had the heads off. That motor was happy. We’d pull the plugs, change the oil, and run the valves after every run, then check bearings after each night. It was the best car I’d ever had. It was running so good.”
Moments from disaster at OCIR; you can already see the car dipping to the right as the axle breaks.
The details are firmly imprinted in Petersen’s mind. July 21, 1973. Saturday qualifying at the Orange County PDA meet, where he is the defending champ. It’s about 1:30 in the afternoon.
“I was really on one,” he remembered, his face brightening at the thought. “All of a sudden, [stuff] starts happening. It broke the right rear axle, which caused the car to go to the right. Immediately, I cranked the wheels back to the left and grabbed a handful of brake; that now pulls the car the other way, and it finally dug in and flipped. It landed upside down and slid upside down and backwards for 1,000 feet.”
The flip-top lid on the fuel tank – just behind the driver -- came off, and seven gallons of fuel poured out. With the car going backwards, it flowed right into the cockpit, and the sparks from the roll bar set everything on fire, including Petersen.
“Something snapped in me,” he remembered. “Back when I was in driver training in high school, the state patrol came around showing photos of accidents, and I remember distinctly a driver of a fuel tanker that caught fire. He wasn’t burned, but he inhaled the heat, and that killed him. That snapped in my mind, so I held my breath.
“The first [emergency worker] runs up with fire extinguisher, points at me, and I’m thinking, ‘Good, they’re going to get it out,” but the fire extinguisher was empty. The other extinguishers were on the truck but locked in a box, and they couldn’t get them off the truck. I was still holding my breath – I held it for 55 seconds – and I was just about to pass out, and I remember thinking, ‘Orange County Raceway; what a [crappy] place to die.’ About that time, they got the fire extinguishers working.
“They righted the car and helped me out. I actually raised a hand to the crowd. I didn’t think I was that badly hurt. They loaded me on a gurney and took me to the hospital. They poured a big bag of ice all over me. Fortunately for me, the Orange County Burn Center was just up the road.”
Petersen’s injuries were horrific. He suffered third- and fourth-degree burns on more than 55 percent of his body, including his back, legs, arms, hands, and face. The helmet’s plastic face shield melted onto his face – to this day, you can see the difference in the skin color in the perfect shape of the helmet’s opening. His sight was saved by the “little Benjamin Franklin-style” glasses he wore, but his nose was destroyed.
Steve Evans interviewed Petersen shortly after he got out of the hospital.
His injuries were so severe that on the third day in the hospital, doctors told his wife that they didn’t think he’d make it through the night. He did, but he spent three and a half months in the burn unit, getting numerous skin grafts from the noninjured parts of his body and reconstructive surgeries and had another brush with death.
“After five weeks, I got an infection in my skin grafts and had a 107-degree temperature for three days and fell into a coma,” he said. “The doctor told my wife that if I survived it, there was a good chance I’d have brain damage. She was staying with Larry and Pam Sutton, and she knew I wouldn’t want to live that way, so she just prayed to the Lord and said it was up to him. And I pulled through with no damage.”
The doctors at one point even wanted to amputate both hands, but retiring from the sport that had just cost him so dearly never crossed his mind – “I was fine. I always knew I’d come back to racing,” he said. “I’ve always had a positive attitude about everything.” -- and he had lots of inspiration to get back behind the wheel.
“Jerry Ruth came to visit me in the hospital, which I thought was very nice,” he said. “At the time of my accident, I was way ahead of him in [Division 6] points that year. I had been runner-up to him the previous three years. He’d already heard I’d ordered a new car, and he was trying to convince me that I needed to quit, and I’m thinking, ‘You son of a bitch. I’m gonna get out of here and whip your ass.’ Then he told my wife that he thought maybe I did have brain damage and that they shouldn’t let me race. When she told me that, I was pissed. Really pissed. Every race that I went to when I came back I wanted to beat him. [They put Petersen’s engine in Gaines Markley’s car – back when a proxy driver could earn points for another injured driver – and finished second behind Ruth.]
“Meanwhile, Sam and Denny and my wife got together and decided they were going to get me a new car to keep my spirits up. The week before the accident, we were at Woody’s, where we kept the car when we were racing down there, and he showed us drawings for the [Can-Am] streamliner, ‘the car of the future.’ We weren’t at all interested in it. In fact, when I crashed, sitting on the dashboard of my truck was an order form for a Funny Car that we were going to start racing as well. We had a good name and ran hard, so we thought we’d be able to book both cars. Sam knew that after this, the Funny Car was probably out because I’d always called them ‘fire boxes.’
“I didn’t know they did it, but Sam and my wife went ahead and told Woody to build the streamliner for me. On my first two-hour pass out of the hospital, I went to Woody’s, and the car was already in the jig. It got me charged up.”
While he was hospitalized, Petersen received about 3,000 cards and messages, which also boosted his spirits, and Sandy read each one to him.
Partner Fitz was a good sport and took his turn in the dunk tank -- and got dunked multiple times -- at a benefit for Petersen at Bremerton Raceway.
Numerous benefits were hosted to raise money for the hospital bills, which were astronomical. “The insurance didn’t come close to covering them, and I couldn’t pay,” he recalled. “The hospital sent me to a lawyer who sent me to another lawyer to file a lawsuit to recover the money. The only people I wanted to sue was the fire crew – which was an independent contractor to the track -- because they were so ill-equipped, but they told me I couldn’t do that, that I had to name everybody because if I didn’t, they’d all point the finger at the ones I didn’t. I went to all of my friends in the business who got sued to explain that to them. What we got still didn’t even come close to covering the costs. We were able to protect my house through the Homestead Act, and eventually, the rest of the debt was forgiven.”
Petersen finally went home in October, and the car was just about done, but hard work still remained. Sandy worked with him daily for therapy on his fingers, bending them “until we both cried.” The muscles in his hands had shriveled and bent them into a clutching position, which was fine with him. “I told the doctors, ‘Just leave them bent so that I can grab a steering wheel.’
“I went back to Orange County Medical Center over the next two years for more grafts and reconstruction, especially on my nose, which had been burned off. I’d tell them they could have me after the World Finals, but I needed to be ready for the Winternationals. They took skin off of my forehead and folded it down to make me my first nose. I could have done a Frankenstein movie without any makeup. It was pretty gross. The second year, I went back three or four times for them to continue to work on it. The next year, I told them, 'Nope, I’m done. I’m fine with the way I look. You’re not going to be able to make me look like I was before. We’re done.' "
But Petersen was far from done, with racing or with life. Next week: The comeback, and a life after drag racing filled with and fired by his always-competitive spirit.
This is going to be a little short and sweet column, written earlier this week because The Man Who Never Takes Vacations is taking a couple of days off at the end of this week (two days counts as a vacation, right?) to refresh and recharge before we head into Brainerd and Indy and the Countdown playoffs, which is just going to be a sea of lunacy with points battles raging left and right and rumors raging all around.
As I mentioned last week, I was up in Seattle last weekend for the great event there. After being a steady visitor there throughout the 1990s, I hadn’t attended that race for more than a decade due to the vagaries of scheduling and staffing, so I was really looking forward to it. If you haven’t been, it’s really a bit of a throwback to the 1970s as far as look and atmosphere are concerned, which, as the regular followers here well now, is just fine by me. After hitting the race in Epping this year at the throwback New England Dragway facility, it has been a nostalgic kind of year.
There aren’t exactly a lot of ways to get to the track, and on the half-hour trip from our hotel in Renton, winding up the tree-studded hills of Highway 18, I couldn’t help but think of all of the duallies and Chaparral trailers that had traversed the same route over the decades en route to the track’s annual 64 Funny Cars, Northwest National Open, and other big-name match races under the supervision of guys like Bill Doner and Jim Rockstad.
I’m pretty certain that the unique layout -- with fans parking among the trees, the odd pit-area arrangement in the loop of the road course, and the angled behind-the-starting-line grandstands -- also hasn’t changed much. Sure, they’ve added some nice grandstands and a larger tower (though nothing like the towers in Pomona or Chicago, for example), and the Fiorito family has been making continued improvements to the facility since they took over, but, again, I’m not complaining: I love the place and the atmosphere.
The only thing not to love, of course, is the rain and – of course – it hadn’t rained in the region for more than a month until the NHRA (often derided as standing for Next Heavy Rain Area) rolled into town. We lost most of Friday to a steady drizzle/sprinkle (drinkle? sprizzle?), but that turned out just fine for me, too, as I had arranged to sit down at the event with the Northwest Terror, Herm Petersen, for a future column. With the rain, I was able to get about two hours of mostly uninterrupted time with him that I might not have had the race gone on as scheduled.
Yours truly, flanked by Herm Petersen, left, and Rob Bruins
I’ve been trying to hook up with Petersen to share his incredibly inspirational story for a few years, but we kept missing one another’s windows of opportunity. Sure, we could have done it over the phone, but it was so much more meaningful for me to sit with him, to see the scars and wounds of his misfortune, to be able to look him in the eye as he described the joys and the horrors of his career, and to watch him smile throughout the retelling.
Look for that story, I hope next week. I have a lot of recording to transcribe to get that far, and it’s rich in detail and emotion.
Petersen was there to show off his two cars – his Cackle slingshot (which he since has sold to the World of Speed motorsports exposition in Wilsonville, Ore.) and its push car, a '52 Willys that is a re-creation of Petersen’s first race car. With Petersen (and in the cockpit of the digger) was a great friend of this column, former Top Fuel champ Rob Bruins, who drove for Petersen after his retirement in 1976. We had a great time catching up.
The Cacklefest that took place Sunday before the final rounds was packed with Northwest legends. In addition to Bruins and Petersen, there were Jerry “the King” Ruth, former NHRA Funny Car champ Frank Hall in Jim and Betty Green’s B-Boys gas dragster, “Gentleman Hank” Johnson in the Dailey & Johnson fuel rail, Walt Austin’s twin-engine Top Gasser, Hugh Tucker’s roadster, and more.
It was a great event all around: thrilling nitro action and pure emotion in seeing Shawn Cowie -- so devastatingly injured two years ago in a street motorcycle accident -- get back to the winner’s circle and long-suffering Dan Fletcher finally get his first double after eight misses. Good stuff.
One funny story before I go. I mentioned a few weeks ago that Mike Goyda (goyda.com) was able to pull together a near-complete collection of Drag Racing USA magazines from the early 1970s for me, and I’ve been enjoying going through them and reliving some great memories. In the It’s A Small World After All aspect of our great sport, I had just finished reading the December 1972 issue’s coverage of the 1972 U.S. Nationals and getting a bit of a chuckle out of the photo at right showing a crewmember from the Motes & Williams Top Gas team taking a spill in the Indy water box. The next day, I was doing an interview with Jeff Koron following his Top Dragster win at the Mopar Mile-High NHRA Nationals, and he mentioned that his current crew chief is R.C. Williams, the tuner of that fabled twice-motored rail, and that they’re still friends with the driver, Ray Motes, and how Koron used to work on their crew back in the 1970s, and hey, maybe I had seen the famous photo of him falling in the bleach box in Indy. Are you kidding me?
“Yeah, that was me,” he assured me with a chuckle. “I remember that like it was yesterday. That isn’t actually Ray in the Motes & Williams car at the event – it was Jim Bunker – and I was the only guy there to help him. I had to push-start him, then run up there real quick and put the bleach down for him to do the burnout, and I slipped in my cowboy boots. Bunk told me he was so embarrassed he damn-near dropped the clutch and ran over me.”
(Top Gas was no longer a class in 1972; the car probably was running in Comp after winning the final two Top Gas season championships in 1970 and 1971.)
“R.C. and I are from the same town [Russell, Kan.], which is where they kept the car, and they’d let me work on it at night and run around and get stuff for them, and when my parents would let me, I’d go to the races with them. We still talk about that photo all the time. I’ve been trying and trying and trying to find a copy of that photo; I bought stacks and stacks of National Dragsters off of eBay looking for it. I guess I was looking in the wrong place.”
I scanned the image from the issue and emailed it to him; it’s not quite the same as having the photo, but at least now he has visual evidence to go with the story.
The famous twin was discovered a few years ago in a barn, totally stripped other than for the body, and was resurrected by Williams and Koron. They display it, cackle it, and even do burnouts in it for exhibitions.
OK, gang, that's it for now. My last official duty is turning this column live just as I'm ready to pull out of the driveway for my mini getaway, hence its day-early appearance. See you next week, hopefully with the Petersen story.
By the time you read this, I’ll be in Seattle for the big show there, but I wanted to leave you with a few more parting comments on popular car owner Paul Candies, who died two weeks ago Sunday and whose story I shared here last week, which, as expected, elicited comments from those who also knew him, some way better than I did.
I exchanged emails with Jon Asher, who attended Candies’ service last week, and who had known Candies for more than four decades and authored his own brilliant and touching piece about the man that you can find here.
Above right is the decal made by Colbert Seagraves and the Matt Smith/Viper Racing team and distributed to racers last weekend in Sonoma. Seagraves is the son of former R.J. Reynolds exec Ralph Seagraves, a big supporter of the Candies & Hughes team.
I also was not surprised to hear from longtime Insider contributor and Candies & Hughes fan Lance Peltier, who grew up in Houma, La., idolizing Candies and was there July 9, 1969, when Southland Dragway opened and, of course, Candies & Hughes were the star attraction.
"As you probably know by now, Paul Candies was a childhood hero of mine. I grew up in Houma, La., and [Southland Dragway] was brand-new back then. It opened in July 1969, I was 9 years old, Dave McClelland was the track manager, and Candies & Hughes were my neighbors, so without a doubt, they were the talk of the town.
“I lived near Leonard Hughes' house and remember their 1969 fastback Barracuda vividly,” he wrote. “Leonard would work on it under his carport, the chassis up on jack stands, the fiberglass body lying in the lawn, and the ramp truck parked in the ditch out in front of his house. At night, he would just cover it with a tarp. As a kid, I thought that it was by far the coolest thing that I had ever seen. The very next year, they built a brand-new shop on West Park Avenue in Houma. No pictures really exist that I've seen, but I remember seeing Paul drive around Houma all the time in a brand-new 318 Barracuda that was painted and lettered exactly like his Funny Cars. They used it as a tow car sometimes, but he raced it at Southland against Shirl Greer's Funny Car at the 1970 Bayou Championships after Leonard crashed the Funny Car. I think he had a 10-second head start, big smile, cigar in mouth, and all. He later told me that his wife used to drive the kids to school in it.
“I now live in Austin, Texas, but back in the late '90s, I was going to go spend a week on a family vacation with a bunch of Cajuns, fishing in Grand Isle, La., so I emailed him at Otto Candies and said that I would like to stop by during the week to visit and show him my old pictures. He called me back and asked me to please stop by. He was such a nice person to me; we looked at old pictures and reminisced about the old days.
“He gave me one of the old Candies & Hughes hats and then gave me a huge box full of racing pictures and said, ‘Just scan what you want and mail them back to me.’ I thought that was pretty crazy; he didn't even know me but gave me his entire photo collection. When I left that day, I shook his hand and said, ‘Thank you.’ He said, ‘No, thank you for being my biggest fan for the last 30 years.’ After that, he always kept in touch, invited me to meet them at the races, and added me to his joke email list. I received my last email from him last Wednesday. I'm really going to miss his emails.”
Any doubt that Peltier is the team’s biggest fan might well be erased when you look at the pics he sent me showing the spare room in his house that he has turned into his own little drag racing museum and which, of course, is mostly occupied with C&H memorabilia.
Bill McLauchlan dropped me a line to offer clarification on the early Candies & Hughes Funny Cars.
“The 1968 Logghe car (Keith Black 426 Hemi, Fiberglass Ltd. body, candy red) was run in 1968, set the record at LaPlace, ran S/XS at Indy in Super Eliminator with ‘Dyno Don’ Nicholson and Bruce Larson (no Funny Car class then). Also ran the OCIR Manufacturers Meet (photo with weird yellow decal).
“This car was sold to [Tom] McEwen, who painted it blue to match his AA/FD, put a 392 with a Hays direct-drive clutch in place of the 426. Qualified No. 1 at ’69 Winternationals and runner-upped to Danny Ongais at ’69 Springnationals in Dallas.
“In 1969, Candies purchased his first Don Hardy car (Keith Black 426, Fiberglass Ltd. body, blue paint). This car had a longer wheelbase, ran 7.28, 208 at ‘69 Indy (I think they went out in the semi's to [John] Mazmanian but would have to look to confirm), and was the car [Larry] Reyes drove at the ’70 Gators. The 1970 'Cuda that was part of the first team final at Gainesville was also a Don Hardy car. In 1971, Candies began buying Woody cars, which Leonard, then Leroy Goldstein, would drive."
I also heard from reader Bill Tickle, who shared, “I had always been a big fan of Candies & Hughes, but like 99 percent of the masses attending any national event, the opportunity to tell them I was a fan never presented itself -- until the Gatornationals, when the Smokin’ Joe's sponsorship was in place. I saw Paul walking through the pits, and with more bravado than I felt, I yelled out his name, and he turned around to see who it was. I stuck my hand out and received a bone-crushing handshake and told him how great it was they were back. We had a nice conversation for about 15 minutes, and I came to the conclusion that Paul Candies was one of the nicest people in drag racing. Taking time out to talk to a fan like that was a wonderful experience. I had always hoped in the back of my mind that the fabled team would once again terrorize the national event scene, but it never happened, and now never will. A true gentlemen who will be missed.”
And from Jay Watson: “That was an excellent write-up on Paul. I was so glad you went back to the Wale-Candies days as that was when I first met Paul. That night in 1965 at Harmon Raceway when 'Q-Ball' [Wale] was killed, Paul stepped in to take care of 'Q-Ball's son, who had made the trip. He continued to look after that boy for many years. I was there to qualify for my fuel license that night.
"You left out another of Paul’s close friends that is a legend in drag racing: Joe Teuton. Paul helped Joe come from an energetic poor kid to a very successful businessman in Houma with three truck dealerships. Joe used to give a Christmas party every year, and Paul was in his glory telling war stories about the good ol’ days!” He also attached this photo of Candies and Wale and their dragster in Pomona in the early 1960s.
Billy Meyer, who raced against the Candies & Hughes teams in the 1970s and 1980s, shared this photo of Candies at the wedding of Meyer’s daughter. “Paul was the consummate gentlemen at all times,” he said. “The funeral was spot-on as he loved and was loved by many. We really did not get to know each other well until the mid-‘70s, but he took me in and was a great mentor then later a great confidant. I can't tell you how many dinners he and I and [Raymond] Beadle had at both series race weekends. He and Rita were and are considered close friends; I guess that is why they were at our daughter's wedding.
"He has never failed to bring a cooler of shrimp and crab claws and sauce and beverages each year to the suites at the Motorplex. I can't tell you how many times we lied to each other about shutting off early during night qualifying at poorly lit IHRA events when they had money up for low e.t. and top speed.”
Paul Candies, a great man, a great friend to many, and a shining star in our world. Thanks to all who have shared their thoughts with me in the past two weeks to let those who didn't know him very well know what we all knew.