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Sat, 27 Dec 2014, 11:41 AM

By Steve Reyes
Photo copyright 2014 Steve Reyes

Being around drag racers for fifty years, I have met all kinds of characters and one of those is Herm Petersen. Herm began his career in drag racing as a member of the Handlers Car Club based in his Northwest stomping grounds. At the wheel of his B/G Willy's Herm could be found blazing a path down the Bremerton Raceway quarter-mile on weekends in 1961.

By 1965 Herm was managing The Handlers events at Bremerton and that is where Herm got his top fuel racing bug. He soon became fast friends with Jerry "The King of the Northwest" Ruth and learned everything there was to know about top fuel racing in 1967. Then in 1969 Herm debuted his Woody Gilmore chassis top fuel dragster in what was to be a banner year for him. He also began a great friendship with partner Sam Fitz. The partnership of Petersen and Fitz did very well from 1969 to 1976.

With the success of Don Garlits' mid-engine top fuel car, Herm decided it was time to go mid-engine top fuel racing and in late 1971, the Petersen and Fitz team debuted their brand new mid-engine Woody Gilmore chassis race car. Then with Ed Donovan power the team tied Clayton Harris' 6.16 national record in 1972 and won top fuel eliminator at the biggest top fuel race of 1972, the PDA race at Orange County International Raceway.

Before going into the 1973 season, this is a good time to tell of one of my adventures with Herm and his Northwest gang. While on tour in 1972, Herm and I would cross paths quite a bit and towards the end of the summer as we were getting close to the NHRA Nationals on Labor Day, Herm asked me for a favor. I was all about helping Herm as he was a nice guy and heck he wanted me to stop in Missouri on my way to Indy because he was running short on time and couldn't make the stop. So I trolled the back roads of Missouri looking for a certain "hidden" house where I was to pick up some boxes. Silly me, I didn't ask what was in the boxes. It seemed forever but I finally found the house and knocked on the door. It was opened just slightly and I said, "Herm sent me." The door opened and I was handed three medium sized boxes. They weren't heavy so I carried them to the van and off I went to the NHRA Nationals at Indy. Yes, I was wondering what I was transporting and I began to wonder if I was going to end up in the "Grey Bar Hotel." Naw, Herm wouldn't do that to me, I was his buddy!

I finally arrived at the NHRA Nationals at Indy and the first person I looked for was Herm Petersen. Herm and his gang were in the middle of the hot car pits. Smiling, Herm greeted me as I swung open the back doors to my van and gave him the mystery boxes. He cut open one of the boxes and it was brimming with M-80's and now Herm is grinning from ear to ear. All I could think of was that I had been transporting illegal explosives and if they had exploded in my van I would have been a goner for sure. Unconcerned, Herm headed for the first empty 55 gallon drum and with his newly delivered M-80's send the drum into orbit with a very loud boom.

Then right after the NHRA Winternationals, Herm and the Northwest gang hung out after the race so I could shoot the car for Hot Rod Magazine. It was decided to do the photo shoot right next to the race track and use some large puddles of water for a different effect. I knew my cohort Jere Alhadeff had photographed Herm for Drag Racing Magazine and that included a great fire burnout for the cover. Well, I needed a Herm Petersen fire burn out for my Hot Rod Magazine feature that would out do the one for Drag Racing Magazine. Herm was willing so we decided to light up Pomona! Yeah, Herm did a fire burnout from hell and I got a very cool photo. We put out the fire and everyone was just standing around bench racing and giving congrats to Herm and his fire show. All of a sudden there were a lot of sirens with police and fire trucks pulling up and they wanted to know where the plane crash was located. We were puzzled, what plane crash? They had been called because of the large fireball spotted at the raceway. Apparently, since the track was next to a small airport, someone had thought a plane had crashed at the track. The police and fire department were not amused when we explained what had happened and we received a very stern lecture about fire.

Now back to the 1973 season, Petersen and Fitz had acquired a Heidelburg Beer sponsorship on the side of their new Woody Gilmore car and they set out to dethrone Jerry Ruth in Division 6 and to score victories at national events around the country. The first two outings really left a lot to be desired but it all came together at the NHRA Gatornationals with a big win in Top Fuel Eliminator. On the way, to his top fuel win, Herm put both "Don's" on the trailer. First Don Garlits and then Don Prudhomme felt the Northwest terror domination of the Florida 1320.

On July 21, 1973, Herm's life was changed forever. His horrific crash at OCIR almost took his life and left 55 percent of his body with third and fourth degree burns. He had cheated the Grim Reaper and just barely made it out of the hospital and burn center. A mere seven months later Herm was at the controls of the Petersen and Fitz Can-Am body styled top fuel car. Herm would race and then return to the hospital for skin grafts and surgeries after each event in 1974.

The Can-Am style top fuel car was cool looking but that doesn't win races. After nineteen runs, the car was sold and Herm and Sam returned to a "regular" top fuel car. With the conventional top fuel car, Herm finally took the Division 6 crown away from his pal/nemesis, Jerry Ruth in 1974. Then in 1976, Herm drove for the last time in top fuel. After a scary 230 mph run off the end of the track at Calgary, Alberta, Herm climbed out and walked away leaving the driving chores to newcomer Rob Bruins. Late in 1976, the car was sold to Rick Ramsey and Newt Withers.

During the 1980's Herm searched for his Can-Am top fuel car, found it and carefully restored it and it now resides at Don Garlits International Drag Racing Museum in Ocala, Florida. Among Petersen's personal ups and downs from 1989 to the present, Herm found and restored his 1971 front motored top fuel car, started his own fishing charter business and was inducted into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 2000. Now those are some of the good things of those years. However, not all was roses, because of all the operations when he was burned, Herm contracted hepatitis C which led to a liver transplant in 2003. Then in 2006, Herm was diagnosed with B-cell Lymphoma (a.k.a. cancer). In typical fashion, Herm faced it head on with chemo and beat it.

These days Herm can be found on his boat enjoying life with his wife Sandy, his bride of over 51 years. You gotta love Herm's summation of his life, "I've survived damn near everything" and I am glad he has.

If you wish to purchase prints of the photos below, they may be obtained by contacting us at Other photos may be viewed by following the link at the bottom of the page at

Herm debuted his first big time Woody Gilmore top fuel car at the
1969 NHRA Winternationals at Pomona, California.
Petersen and Fitz were going to run top fuel full time and try to unseat
Jerry Ruth in Division 6 top fuel wars.

Herm and Sam toured the country racing national events and match racing in 1971.
With the success of Garlits' mid-engine top fuel car, the writing was on the wall.
So the trusty old front engine car was sold to make way for a
new mid-engine Woody Gilmore car.

It was the end of 1971 when Herm and Sam debuted their all new mid-engine
top fuel car at Fremont, California for the AHRA World Finals.
The car had new car bugs so the best was yet to come from the now named North West Terrors.
It was a name hung on them by the National Dragster editor Bill Holland.

When the bugs were worked out, Herm and Sam lived up to their nickname,
"The Northwest Terrors." They matched Clayton Harris' 6.16 national record
and won the largest top fuel race on the West Coast, the PDA race at OCIR.
This car was sold at the end of the 1972 to the Stewart family whose
teenage son John Stewart took the helm.

On his way to winning the PDA race in 1972, Herm put Big Daddy on the trailer in first round.
Every top fuel team in the 60's, 70's, 80's wanted to race against Garlits.
Just to say they raced Big Daddy. Herm got to race and beat Garlits three times in his career.

It's the "King of the Northwest" Jerry Ruth vs. The Northwest Terrors of Petersen and Fitz.
These were the two biggest rivals in the Northwest top fuel racing.
It seemed like Herm was runner up to Ruth every year in NHRA Division 6.
However in 1974, Herm finally beat Ruth for the Division 6 crown in top fuel.

That was one happy Herm Petersen at the 1973 NHRA Gatornationals.
Herm and Sam beat Dick Lahaie, Don Garlits, Don Prudhomme and then
Jim Bucher for all the marbles in top fuel.
Not too bad for a couple of guys from the Northwest.

Sam Fitz is out in front guiding Herm back to the starting line.
In 1969 Herm and Sam formed their partnership.
Sam's real job was a restaurateur in the Northwest.
Sam wasn't very mechanical but he loved the sport of drag racing.
Sam passed away in 2000 and Herm still misses his old friend and partner to this day.

That July weekend in 1974 was just like night and day.
Friday night qualifying vs. Don Moody then on Saturday upside down backwards on fire.
That weekend changed Herm's life forever as drag racing could be a very cruel sport.

Seven months after his horrific crash at OCIR Herm was back at the wheel
with the all new Petersen and Fitz Can-Am bodied top fuel dragster.
Before the accident at OCIR, the team had a new funny car on the drawing board.
Because of Herm's serious burns, a funny car was now out of the question for
the team as it posed too much of a fire risk.

After nineteen runs the Can-Am style car was sold and replaced with a "normal" top fuel car.
Herm found the car many years later, restored it and donated it
to the Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing in Ocala, Florida.

This is an outtake from the Pomona, California feature shoot for Hot Rod Magazine.
We got to meet the LaVerne Police and Fire Department after Herm did a huge fire burnout
for me and my trusty camera. We got a stern lecture about the evils of fire burnouts
from the police and fire department. Ironically Hot Rod bought the feature from me
and then never ran it or the cool fire burnout.
Unfortunately, they wouldn't let me get a copy slide of the burnout.

Herm Petersen sometime in 1972.

Herm went and found his first race car a 1952 Willy's.
Then he restored it to serve as a push car for his restored front engine top fuel car.
Alas, Herm sold his top fuel car so at CHRR 2013 his Willy's was pushing
Jerry Ruth's restored top fuel car.

Here is Herm at CHRR 2013 helping tech the flood of retro restored top fuel dragsters.
That is Phil Morris of Gasser Wars Magazine listening to Herm vent about the racers of yesteryear.

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