There’s no doubt that this year’s newly rechristened Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals was a pretty darned great drag race, with lots of drama, close and exciting racing, Don "the Snake” Prudhomme as grand marshal, and much more, but through all of the hullabaloo of the annual Big Go, we all somehow forgot that the event marked the 50th anniversary of the debut of the now iconic Christmas Tree.
Yes, race fans, it was at the 1963 event where NHRA rolled out its electronic contraption, much to the consternation of many of the racers who had honed their anticipatory and body-language-reading skills for years on acrobatic human flag starters.
Although flag starting was an accepted method, because it involved humans, it was fallible, could be gamed, and was sometimes controversial. There sometimes were charges of favoritism in early tip-offs between flag starters and their driver buddies or, because at the time the starter also was the sole judge of a foul start, of those being overlooked or incorrectly charged. Clearly, if NHRA Drag Racing was going to continue to evolve, the human element in the starting-line officiating had to be limited.
Improvements were made along the way to limit those indiscretions. At several events, NHRA kept the flag starter, but instead of him flamboyantly whipping the flag up from various positions, the starter used the tip of his flag to depress and hold a button on the ground that was linked to a beam that ran across the starting line. When the button was depressed, an overhead green light was illuminated (but oddly was not the sign to go). Once the starter was sure that both drivers were ready, he would whip the flag up from its position, and the race was on. If a driver left the starting line before the flag released the button, a foul start light came on next to the green. At most events, drivers were given two free false starts before disqualification on the third. When this system was used at the 1963 Winternationals, it reportedly resulted in 80 percent fewer foul starts than the flag-started 1962 Nationals.
NHRA National Field Director Ed Eaton, left, and Division 1 Director Lou Bond, who developed the starting system that became known as the Christmas Tree
Early in 1963, NHRA officials let it be known that a change was coming and that the Countdown Starter (as it was initially known; the Christmas Tree name apparently didn’t come into use right away) would debut in Indy. It was billed as "Foolproof in design [and] an equal start for all is assured."
Designed by then Division 1 Director Lou Bond, it consisted of five amber lights, a red, and a green on a skinny pole positioned between the two lanes. There were no pre-stage and stage lights, so the system was activated by the starter once he judged that both cars had their front tires on or pretty near the starting line. There was one staging beam to determine a foul start, but the cars didn’t have to be in it for the Tree to be activated (the birth of shallow staging?).
Initially – and, actually, through the end of 1970 – the Tree was a full five-bulb countdown for all classes, including the Pros, which probably most raised the ire of veterans who thought that their reflexes, honed by years of experience, were being negated by a series of “get-ready” blinks so that it became a matter of timing rather than reflexes or reading the starter’s body language.
Don Garlits, who famously red-lighted away the Top Eliminator final to Bobby Vodnik at that 1963 event, wrote in his book, Tales from the Drag Strip, "We had all gotten pretty good at reading the flag starter just by watching his eyes. We could read the muscles in his arms and how they tightened up just before he threw the flag. … The older guys hated it when the Tree came in. We eventually adjusted to it, but we really didn’t want it."
Yesterday, I chatted with supercharged gas legend “Ohio George” Montgomery – whom I see each year in Indy, when he is a guest in our National Dragster suite – to ask his memories of the 1963 event. By that time, Montgomery was the only driver in Indy history to win the Big Go twice (back to back in Little Eliminator at the 1959 and 1960 events in Detroit), and he obviously had no problem with the Tree in 1963, when he added a third title, this one in Middle Eliminator.
Montgomery remembered that he had seen the new system just a few weeks prior to Indy, where it was showcased at a Division 3 event. He and his fellow racers didn’t get many cracks at it, but it soon became apparent to him and others that the instructions to not leave until the green light came on was the fallacy that we all know today and may have given him an edge in Indy (though his fierce opponent in the AA/GS battles, the Stone, Woods & Cook team, later alleged that NHRA had disabled the foul start for Montgomery).
“There were no reaction times back then, so you never knew how close you were to red-lighting or how well you had timed it, so we learned as we went,” he said. “I actually liked the system because it had gotten to the point where there were a lot of complaints about the flag starters, especially for us guys back East. It seemed like NHRA always brought in the West Coast starters, and the West Coast guys all knew their moves. The button system helped change that for all of us because he always started from the same position.”
The creation of the Christmas Tree also led to the ability to handicap cars and classes based at the time on their class’ national records (before then, and only on a local basis, handicapping was done informally based on car lengths), which further leveled the playing field, especially in the Sportsman classes where a car from a much faster class invariably beat a lower-classed car in the catchall final eliminator runoffs, and, of course, led to today’s current formats.
The pre-stage and stage lights and beams were introduced at the 1964 Winternationals and billed as "the automatic line-up system," though the pre-stage and stage bulbs weren't yet actually on the Tree but rather positioned on the starting line itself.
The Tree has evolved numerous times since. The first Pro start as we know it took place at the 1970 Supernationals, where drivers in Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock, and Top Gas got only one bulb (the fifth and final amber) before the green. The Tree later was shortened to three ambers for the Sportsman-driver countdown at the 1986 Winternationals, which turned out to be an enormous time-saver (believe it or not, one second per pair during a weekend really adds up).
The Pro start also changed to the simultaneous flash of all three amber lights (meaning that Pro Stock drivers in the left lane no longer had to peer over their ever-growing hood scoops), and the extra bulbs made the start a little more fail-safe should that lone amber burn out or break, an ongoing problem that was also eventually addressed when LED bulbs replaced the breakage-prone incandescent bulbs in 2003 (officials reportedly were changing out an average of 20 bulbs per race). Also in 2003, the Winternationals marked the debut of the .000-is-perfect reaction time (previously, .400 was perfect on a Pro Tree, .500 on a Sportsman Tree).
The Tree remained basically unchanged until the smaller yellow incandescent pre-stage and stage bulbs were replaced in 2011 with the current scheme of two semicircles comprising smaller blue LED lights, with the top half illuminated when pre-staging is complete and the bottom half when a car is fully staged. The new look, which took a while to get used to, was first implemented at the Four-Wide Nationals that year to make it easier for drivers to track their opponents’ staging progress across four lanes and later was adopted schedule-wide.
The Christmas Tree has come a long way in 50 years, and who knows what may occur between the lanes in the next 50. Can a hologram Tree be far away?
While it’s fun and exciting each week to reminisce about the great cars and moments in the wonderful history of our sport — and based on the continual feedback from the Insider Nation, it’s a weekly trip you all enjoy, too — the stories that seem to most deeply touch all of us are the struggles and courage of some of the individuals I’ve chronicled here for the last six-plus years.
I saw it first early in the life of this column in 2007, when I wrote about John Force’s devastating accident in Dallas, [Hurry Back, Superman] and more recently in sharing Jeb Allen’s tale of success, addiction, recovery, and redemption [Jeb Allen: Building a new life, one home at a time] and the plight of Pat Garlits [Pat Garlits: The Great Woman behind The Man], and my recent two-parter on the courageous Herman Petersen has elicited a similar feeling among readers.
Of course, I was most pleased to hear from Herm himself because as a writer you always want to make sure that a) you got it right and b) you conveyed the story. I won’t go into the details, but he was very pleased with the outcome. After I also forwarded some of your emails to him, I was thrilled to hear from his wife, Sandy — the prototypical great woman behind every great man — who has shared my column with family and friends, cried over it, and, best of all, gave her another chance to say that she’s proud of him. I tried to talk her into sharing her side of the story — I’m sure there are things that Herm is too proud or humble to have told me — but she politely deferred. “He really is such an inspiration to so many, he has gone through so much,” she said simply. “I am so proud to be his wife.” (Herm reciprocated the feeling: “She is a great lady and a wonderful wife of 51 years. She never once said I should quit racing, but when I did quit driving, I know she was happy!”)
Over the course of the time I was promising and then delivering the story, I received quite a few emails from you guys with some great photos, so I’m going to share them today.
Chris Stinson sent the above to me, and it really says a lot. It’s from the souvenir program for the 1973 Supernationals after Petersen was injured, but the NHRA staff obviously felt strongly enough about him to mention him in the program. I really dig this because it says in just a few short words what took me about 6,000 to write the last two weeks.
And they (and I) are not alone in our admiration. Insider reader Eric Widmer wrote, “I thoroughly loved reading about Herm. You have completely humanized Herm, to not only be a Top Fuel demagogue who was beloved as an owner/driver/tuner but as a man that anyone would simply want to know, not just know of. It appears that after the ups (driving Top Fuel) and downs (getting toasted, to put it lightly) of life, that he is still joyful for his life to this point. I really liked how his wife surprised him with a new Top Fuel car. What a testimony to the dedication of her to her husband, which could only happen if he were dedicated to her and the both of them to the sport we all love. Just the humble opinion of a Top Fuel and Funny Car fan who grew up near OCIR and who still dreams of getting behind the unique butterfly wheel!”
Two weeks ago, I ran Jere Alhadeff’s fire-burnout pic of Petersen that graced the cover of Drag Racing USA
’s June 1973 issue, and he also sent along the pic above left, of the first rear-engine Petersen & Fitz Top Fueler (which ran sans wing in the beginning), which he also shot at Orange County Int’l Raceway and part of a shoot from which one of the pics also ended up on the cover of DRUSA
(January 1972). Sharp-eyed readers and former denizens of OCIR immediately will spot that Petersen appears to be going the wrong way on the track (the dirt berm was beside the right lane, not the left), and Alhadeff explains that the photo, which was actually his car being towed (sorry to burst bubbles again on a DRUSA
cover), was shot that way simply (yet importantly for this kind of stuff) “because the sun direction was better.”
Alhadeff also sent along this dramatic pic of Petersen’s later car, also at OCIR. You can see that the engine is at max cackle, the stage bulbs are lit on OCIR’s famous suspended Christmas Tree, and it’s go time!
Count Steve Ojard, who lives in Lacey, Wash., among Petersen’s big fans. “I got the chance to meet him several times at local events through the years but didn’t realize to what extent this man has fought such a heroic battle to have a normal life after the accident,” he wrote. “He is an outstanding representative of the Pacific Northwest, a tribute to motorsports everywhere, and a truly inspiring human being. All of his famous cars have been beauties, but that gorgeous 1969 car just captures the spirit of the era like no other, especially when he whacks that throttle lever!”
He sent along several photos (one of which is included at right) of Petersen cackling his restored Petersen & Fitz slingshot.
I think I mentioned it a few columns ago, but this car is now part of the cool, new 80,000-square-foot World of Speed motorsports exposition in Wilsonville, Ore. The exhibit houses a number of famous cars and interactive displays. In addition to Petersen’s car, the World of Speed is home to Mickey Thompson’s famous record-breaking Assault and the 1979 NHRA Top Fuel championship car of Gaines Markley and Rob Bruins. You can read more about it at http://worldofspeed.org/.
The Can-Am car at the 1974 Gatornationals. That's Petersen at left, and a very interested young fan at right.
Tom Nagy, a longtime and generous contributor of his wonderful photos to this column, passed along a half-dozen photos of Petersen’s rear-engine cars, which you can find in the gallery at right. Like many, Nagy is in awe of Petersen’s spirit and demeanor. “His determination to still be part of the sport was incredible,” he wrote. “He handled those burns with a grace and friendly manner that was very difficult to find in drivers that hadn't suffered nearly as much.”
Mark Wallace, who was in the top-end grandstands at OCIR with friends on that fateful July 1973 day when Petersen crashed, called it “one of the most frightening days of attending drag races. … Herm was sliding backwards, which seemed like it was a very slow motion. The first safety guy there was in complete shock and motionless for what seemed like forever watching as we all were in the stands. Little was known about the safety required of the back-motor car then. The fear and sadness that I felt will never be forgotten.
"Herm Petersen must be a great and confident man to have survived the horrible pain, fear, and embarrassment. I would like to meet him one day, and maybe a small part of his strength will flow from a much-honored handshake.”
Jerry Clayton, who so generously shared the story of the Keeling & Clayton team here a few months ago, also was at OCIR but with an even closer vantage point. “We were at the pushout at about the finish line getting ready to push off in the next pair or two when Herm broke his axle and flipped over and was sliding backwards on fire. As he was slowing down, it looked like he would come to a stop near where we were, and while he was still sliding, the fire guys were getting into the truck and starting for the open gate. I thought, ‘Wow, they are going to be right there as he stops — how lucky can he be?’ Well, the fire extinguishers were locked onto the truck, and no one had a key. Talk about a totally helpless feeling. Herm had just loaned us a T-slot nut for the blower idler pulley, and I was torqueing it up as this all happened. I was totally helpless to give him any assistance in getting out of that fire. Anyway, we all changed our rears to full floating housings and changed fuel caps away from those flip-up caps, but I do still have one of them; it is just a conversation piece and not a very good memory.”
Ray Romero also thinks highly of Petersen and attached the photo at right, which shows Petersen with Romero’s daughter Michelle in May 1972, according to the date on the photo. “She was always asking to go to the drags at SIR,” Romero recalled. “I was stationed at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island in Oak Harbor, Wash., at this time. We used to welcome drag racers to use one of our inactive runways for some events."
Former National Dragster Editor Bill Holland, who gave Petersen his famed “Northwest Terror” nickname in the early 1970s (and also tried humorously to dub innocent-looking but mischievous new Funny Car star Gordie Bonin as "the Choir Boy"; it didn't stick), remembers a funny story about Petersen’s recovery that the good-natured Petersen also assuredly found humorous.
“When he got out of the hospital burn center, some of us NHRA types took him out for lunch,” he remembered. “As I recall, it was ‘Big Hook’ [Steve Gibbs], [ND Photo Editor Leslie] Lovett, [ND lunatic Bill] Crites, and myself in the car with Petersen. We decided to go to Benihana's restaurant in Encino [Calif.], but when we got there the place was closed because of a fire. Not exactly the best omen. He took it in good stride, and we went elsewhere.”
Steve Scott took this photo of Petersen at the 1975 Columbus event, where he’s surrounded by Linda Vaughn and the Hurstettes. As you can tell by the shape of his nose, this was in the middle of the reconstruction efforts. Despite the disfigurement, Petersen never shied away from public appearances or photographs, a testament to the state of mind that helped him get through an ordeal that would have devastated most of the rest of us.
The final images I want to share come right out of NHRA HQ here in Glendora, Calif., where we have Petersen’s 1972 Northwest Terror helmet on prominent display in a case in the main conference room (alongside a similar-era Funny Car helmet and breather mask from “TV Tommy” Ivo).
Petersen's helmet is immortalized in the amazing photo at right, which was created by Lovett in cooperation with Petersen, who allowed Lovett to attach a remotely fired camera to his car to capture a run in the car at the 1972 U.S. Nationals. I don’t know the particulars of the sequence — Lovett also did this with other racers, most famously with Bennie Osborn when he repeated as Top Fuel world champ in Tulsa, Okla., in 1966, a photo that ran on the front page of National Dragster, and even up through the early 1990s, I remember assisting him with a rig for a cover shot of Joe Nowocinski’s front-engine Alcohol Dragster at one Winternationals — but pretty much the camera was fired remotely as the car left the line with the motor drive singing through the 36-exposure roll of film with the hope you didn’t do it too soon so that you’d run out of film before the end of the run (no longer a problem with today’s digital cameras and their larger media storage). This photo is from fairly early in the run (I like it because you can see some Indy landmarks like the tower and Hurst crossover bridge), but the sequence goes all the way to the lights, where you can see the tire growth and Petersen steering the car. Great stuff.
Well, that kind of wraps it up for the story of Herm Petersen. It has been my honor and privilege to have been able to share it with you all and to get to know him in a much better and deeper way than I ever dreamed possible. I hope I’ve taken you all along on the same journey.
A couple of extra notes to wrap up the week. As you can imagine, when this first publishes Friday (written on Wednesday), I’ll already be in Indy for the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals. It’s my 31st straight year attending the Big Go, and I’m looking forward to it as much as any since my first. NHRA members can catch our live reporting on NationalDragster.net (and also check out the cool photos I’ve posted there in the last two weeks of Indy’s Top Fuel and Funny Car heroes in my weekly My Favorite Fuelers column).
This past Monday, I was in Hollywood for the grand premiere of the Snake & Mongoose film, where our heroes walked the red carpet (you can check out an NHRA.com photo gallery here). As could be predicted, there also was a strong turnout of other legends of the sport, and I used my time wisely to collect some more contact information for future columns and to otherwise chum for news (like how popular 1970s African American SoCal Funny Car racer Leon Cain not only still has his Ebony Prince Omni in his garage but that he lovingly waxes it regularly and how it might make an appearance somewhere soon).
Finally, it you get MeTV on your cable program, be sure to checkout your local listings Saturday for the day’s episode of Adam-12, “Who Won?”, which aired in mid-1972 and features our favorite flatfoots competing at Lions Drag Strip as they try to stamp out some illegal street racing. Set those DVRs!
I’ll see you next week. Thanks, as always, for reading and contributing.
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.