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Shelton Mason County Journal
Shelton, Washington
Mason County Journal
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November 27, 2014     Shelton Mason County Journal
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November 27, 2014
 

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Thursday, Nov. 27, 2014 -Mason County Journal- Page A-13 Herman Petersen stands with his 1952 Willys Aero, a similar car to his first dragster in the 1960s. to speeding down the quarter mile with some of the fastest dragsters of the 1970s. He lives with in Belfair. Journal photo by Natalie Johnson Petersen went from drag racing the Aero his wife, Sandy, of 52 years in their home DRIVER continued from page A- 1 Six months after the injury, in between reconstructive surgeries, his friends lifted him into the seat of a new dragster. Sponsored by Olympia beer, Petersen continued to hurtle down the quarter mile for three more years before retir- ing from driving. In March 2004, he was inducted into the International Drag Rac- ing Hall of Fame. "I got to take it through a really neat era," he said. "I've had a won- derful life." t'. "Here's the thing about drag racing any t/me there's a record set in your c/ass, there's only one kind of goal to have and that's to break the record." -Herman Petersen "ll }rost recently, Petersen, , .... 71, has been perfectmg -dent of the Handlers Car Club in able happened during a qualifying J[ ,JLhis 1952 Willys Aero. The Bremerton and worked with clubrun at the Orange County Interna- street-rod is a reincarnation of the members to organize a Top Fueltional Raceway in California. %- first race car he ever bought -- a drag race in the area. The run started like any other, 1952 Aero he purchased in 1964Petersen invited the man who Petersen said. -- the car that first propelled him would later become his archrival "I left the starting line like a into the racing world. -- professional drag racer Jerry rocket," he said. It's nowhere near stock," he said Ruth -- to headline the event. In Then only a few hundred feet about his new car, a flame orange it, each individual-race winner re- from the starting line, going 130 speed machine. "The only thingceived $100, and the overall win- mph, the rear axle broke on Pe- stock about it is the body shape." ner received $400. tersen's rear-engine dragster. The That's soon to change though. That cash was significantly car spun and flipped upside down, After his interview with the Jour- more than Petersen was earningskidded down the track, and nal, Petersen drove the car to the drag racing, first in the Aero, and pinned Petersen beneath it. shop that would paint its new later in a 1957 Chevrolet. The fuel tank, filled with nitro- hood, which he chopped to show"I thought, ell, the only way methane, leaked, igniting a fire offthe Aero's Hemi engine, to solve this problem for myself is that burned the racer over Petersen now builds custom to start racing Top Fuel,' "he said. 50 percent of his body -- despite Chrysler Hemi engines for his busi- "Obviously, I fell in love with it." the fireproof racing suit he wore. ness, Cackle Thunder Performance, His first Top Fuel dragster was "I was on fire for 55 seconds," a reference to the roaring sound 188 inches from axle to axle. Its he said. of the en .nes, out of his garage in engine was mounted in front ofTrack crews put the fire out, Belfair. He has worked on engines the driver, unlike modern rear- and Petersen, who never lost con- since the 1960s. Forty years ago, he engine dragsters, sciousness during the accident, also got behind the wheel of some of "I don't know if we ever won awalked to the waiting stretcher, the fastest cars on the planet, race that first year," he said. waving to the crowd. Petersen spent two years drag But that reality was soon to "We all realized it was danger- racing his first Aero before moving change, ous," he said. "It's dangerous, but on to the world of Top Fuel. Between 1971 and 1973, Pe- it can't happen to me. That's what Today, the National Hot Rod tersen traveled across the country I thought." Association (NHRA) has 15 drag- and competed in a different race The accident left a mark on the racing classes, most of which in- each weekend, industry, inspiring new require- clude cars driving the quarter mile "I never went to a drag race ments, such as thicker fire suits at more than 200 mph. I didn't expect to win," Petersen and fuel tanks less prone to spill In the late 1960s and 1970s, said. in accidents, he said. Petersen raced Top Fuel, the fast- In June 1971, he tied the na- Petersen still has his charred est of the classes. According to the tional record for the quarter mile helmet hanging in his workshop. NHRA, modern Top Fuel drag- at 6.544 seconds. The fire suit was also mostly in- sters have engines with more than "I'm still not sure I didn't set tact, but the heat left him with 7,000 horsepower. The 25-foot-the record," he said. third- and fourth-degree burns on long, 2,300-pound machines canIn June 1972, he tied the record much of his body, including his race a quarter mile in less than again, at 6.14 seconds, and again hands, arms, torso and face, that 3.8 seconds at more than 325 mph. in March 1973 at 6.08 seconds,required skin grafts. Doctors made The high-powered racers are fu- "Each year I'd win more," Pe- him a new nose out of a piece of eled by nitromethane, a highly tersen said. were No. 1 in theskin from his forehead. explosive solvent, world in points." "It's like, you wrap a potato Petersen beat some of the fast .................................. in foil and you put it in the oven. est racers in the world during his Tn by july 1973, Petersen and his The foil is fine, but the potato is time on the track. |team were at the high point of cooked," he said, treating his in- In 1968, he was elected presi- J.their careers when the unthink- juries with a characteristic humor he maintains while talking about the subject. When doctors wanted to per- form additional surgeries on his new nose to remove a bump, Pe- tersen said no, telling doctors the bump kept his glasses on. Petersen went through painful` physical therapy to keep the use of his hands, which were badly burned in the fire. When doctors told him they wanted to remove the remains of one pinky finger to give his hand a more normal ap- pearance, he declined, saying he needed the remaining muscle to grip tools. "All I want to be able to do is grab that steering wheel," he said. "I am perfectly comfortable with the way I am. I never had a 'poor me' attitude." After he returned to racing, Petersen's team members changed I his CB radio call ONE-OF A KIND sign from "North- is a profiles series fea- west Terror" to turing Mason County "Barbecue," he re- residents, each unique, called, laughing, and each with a story While recov- to tell. ering, he came down with an infection and a high fever -- the second time the crash almost killed him, he said. He was in the hospital for 3 months. In February 1973, Petersen got back in the drivmZs seat for the first time, sponsored by Olym- pia beer. He had to get a note from his doctor to be allowed to race. "I was so determined, nothing was going to keep me from it," he said. In 1974, he won five of the six rac- es he participated in. He continued to have success in 1975 and 1976. Petersen quit driving in 1976 af- ter a second accident. He wasn't in- jured, but he had finally had enough. "I just said, 'That's it. You'll never get another shot at me,'" he said. In all, Petersen estimates he's used six of his proverbial nine lives. He contracted hepatitis C from blood transfusions after his racing injury and had a liver transplant about 10 years ago. He's been in two comas, had two near-death ex- periences and survived cancer, and he's still making speed machines. "I have, and always have had a very competitive spirit," he said. "I don't like getting beat at any- thing."