NHRA - National Hot Rod Association


Herm Petersen, Part 3

30 Aug 2013
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor

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/.

{GALLERY_nagy}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.