Herman Petersen's Top Fuel dragster, powered by a supercharged Chrysler hemi-head V8 (left), sets next to Jerry King's Jr. Fuel dragster (right), powered by a fuel-injected Chevrolet V8 at the Edmonds (WA) Car Show. (Photo by Terry Parkhurst)
Herman Petersen started drag racing at the age of 16, going to a quarter-mile long racetrack in Bremerton, Washington, back in 1958. About 10 years later, he was driving a dragster purpose-built to go as fast as possible down a quarter-mile track. It was a race car with minimum bodywork, exposed frame rails, small wheels up front and huge racing tires called “slicks,” due to lack of tread, on the rear.
The template was tagged “a rail job,” by racers inspired to prove their mettle on quarter-mile long tracks. It first debuted in the 1950s, at tracks around the country called “drag strips.” That led racers to call them “dragsters.” Drivers who became well known in this emerging form of motorsports, included Don Garlits in Florida and Tommy Ivo in California. Like them, drag-racing became Mr. Petersen’s passion; but he made it work for him, too.
“My theory was, if the car was sitting in Poulsbo, it wasn’t making money. Wherever there was a national event, I went to it,” he said, recalling racing events he went to, up and down the West Coast of America and up into Canada.
“The first car I raced, was a used chassis; put my own engine in it. I raced it for one year, got my feet wet. Then in 1969, I ordered a brand-new chassis from Woody Gilmore Racing, down in Downey, California,” he said. Like most ultimate dragsters of that era, his car was powered by a Chrysler hemispherical (cylinder) head V8, specifically one from a 1958 Chrysler. When topped with a 6:71 supercharger, it produced 3,000 horsepower, by running a fuel mixture that was usually about 86 to 88 percent nitro methane; the rest of the fuel mixture is methanol. The fuel mix earned such racecars the name of “Top Fuel” dragsters.
That racecar tied the national record of 6.54 seconds elapsed time for a quarter mile, at Bremerton Raceway in 1971.
“It was still affordable (to race) when I started out, Mr. Petersen said. “Everything originated in Detroit, when I first ran, even the supercharger - although we reworked it. My race car ran with a 392 cubic-inch block, from a Chrysler Imperial that I was given $100 for, after pulling the engine and giving the rest to a salvage yard.”
He sold that front-engine dragster, later in 1971, and then went on to build and drive the first rear-engine Top Fuel dragster in the Pacific Northwest. It had a custom built engine.
“I ran with the second Donavan-built 417 cubic-inch V8 - a replica of the 1957 Chrysler “hemi,” but with an aluminum block, equipped with steel sleeves,” he recalled. “It was stronger than a cast-iron engine block; that meant more (supercharger) boost and nitro.”
He took that car down to Lion’s Drag Strip in California and tied the national record of running a quarter mile in 6:14 seconds.
In 1973, while driving his rear engine Top Fuel dragster, wiht a chassis built by Woody Gilmore, Heidelberg Beer became his sponsor. It was an indicator of his professionalism. That car, named the “Heidelberg Hauler,” won the 1973 Gatornationals in Florida, tying a national record for the quarter-mile of 6.08 seconds. In that car, he also had a fiery crash, in July of 1973, that sidelined him. He spent three-and-half months in the Orange County Hospital burn center.
While he was in the hospital, his partner Sam Fitz, had another rear-engine dragster built, with a streamlined body. Olympia Beer became his sponsor, along with the Justice Brothers. Woody Gilmore built the car. It was constructed entirely out of aluminum, with a monocoque front end. However, its weight -- about 200 pounds more than his previous racecar -- made it less competitive; after 19 runs down various quarter-mile racetracks, he retired it.
He then went back to driving a conventional front-engine/rear drive dragster. That car, with sponsorship again from Olympia Beer and the Justice Brothers, was successful, winning the 1974 pision Six Championship and the IHRA (International Hot Rod Association) Gateway Nationals, in St. Louis, Missouri.
In 1975, Mr. Petersen went on to run the quarter mile in just 5.87 seconds in that car, while achieving a speed of 241.96 mph, at the end of a quarter-mile.
In June of 1976, he quit driving dragsters: but continued his involvement with racing a car, for another year, with his friend, Rob Bruins, doing the driving. “He was a natural,” Mr. Petersen enthused. “It cost $3,500 for the (engine) block in my last racecar - $2,000 for a billet (all solid steel) crankshaft. It was $15,000 for each engine, by that time,” he recalled.
Mr. Petersen then ran an auto glass business through 1988. He went on to operate Bar B-Q Charters, a sport fishing business in southeast Alaska, about four months of the year; while living in Belfair, Washington with his wife of 49 years, Sandy. He quit doing that, about two years ago and now runs Cackle Thunder Performance, which builds Chrysler "hemi" V8 engines, to run on gasoline or alcohol, for use in street rods or custom cars.
His first car went through seven different owners. Then in December of 2004, Mr. Petersen found it and bought it back. Now, he’s demonstrating its capabilities, by exhibiting it and, on occasion, running the car in place, with the engine at full throttle.
He’s part of a unique band of brothers who take their “fuel” dragsters, to what Mr. Petersen calls “cackle-fests,” adding that the cars are run only to give those who’ve never heard a supercharged nitro-fueled engine, wide open, a chance to hear one.
“We can’t race them; there's no driveshaft hooked up to the rear-ends. We just whack the throttle and take the engine to about a third of the way (to full power), to about 4,000 rpm, for an instant," he explained, and proudly adds, “My car is the loudest on the West Coast. I’ve measured it: 125.8 decibels."
Two Top Fuel dragsters owned by "Bucky"Austin of Bucky Austin Racing, run in place (no power to rear wheels) at full throttle, in a demonstration of what drag racing was like, when Top Fuel racecars were coming into their own. It's loud. Notice the people plugging their ears at this showing, at the Edmonds Car Show. (Photo by Terry Parkhurst)
“We let all the promoters know we’re available and do about 8 to 10 bookings a year,” Mr. Petersen explained. “We’ve done shows at car dealerships - a Dodge dealership in Lynnwood, Washington -- and other events. We’ve got a car show up in Abottsford, British Columbia we did in April and we’ll be doing that again in the coming year.”
Jerry King is another such former racer. He restored a car he drove, as part of a team that included his partners, the late Jack Cross and Jerry Mann, from 1966 to 1970. However, the Cross-Mann-King dragster is what was known as a “Junior Fuel” car; one with an engine that was not supercharged and was limited to 310 cubic-inches displacement (or 3 pounds of total weight, per cubic inch).
It set the NHRA (National Hot Rod Association) national record for C/fuel dragsters at 178.39 mph, using just a 265 cubic-inch Chevrolet V8 engine. When NHRA discontinued the class at the end of 1966, the car was lengthened and a 309 cubic-inch engine, of Chevrolet origin, was installed. It then ran the quarter-mile in just 7.42 seconds and hit 199.86 mph at the end of that distance.
Bucky Austin, owner of Bucky Austin Racing in Puyallup, Washington, owns two other dragsters that are part of the group. Both of those use Chrysler hemi-head V8s and were driven competitively, from 1969-’71. One, equipped with a full body over its frame rails, was owned and driven in its prime, by Hank Johnson of Marysville, Washington. The other, with mostly exposed frame rails and a short body, was driven by Jerry Ruth of Burien, Washington.
Both these Top Fuel dragsters, shown at the Edmonds (Washington) Car Show, are owned by Bucky Austin. The full-bodied one (on the left) was originally owned and driven by Hank Johnson from Marysville, Washington; the short-bodied one (on the right) was originally owned and driven by Jerry Ruth from Burien, Washington. Both dragsters were raced circa 1969-'71. Both also sport the engine most often found in Top Fuel dragsters of that era: the Chrysler hemi-head V8, equipped with a 6:71 supercharger. (Photo by Terry Parkhurst)
Running nitro-methane in an internal combustion engine could be disastrous; but it was done without computer analysis, in the 1960s and ‘70s, by studying the engine, after a run.
“With each engine, we’d look at the compression ratio, the timing setting and the pressure the blower (supercharger) produced,” explained Herman Petersen. “You’d read the spark plugs. If they were getting excessive heat, you’d take some nitro out of the fuel mix; or you’d reduce the boost or retard the timing. We usually ran 86 to 88 percent nitro. But if the plugs weren’t burnt, we’d run 88 to 89 percent nitro. Straight nitro would detonate too easily.”
Asked what he thinks of the current Top Fuel dragsters, which can achieve 300 mph by the end of a quarter mile run, Mr. Peterson admits that, “It’s hard to watch races, these days. About 50 percent of the time, one of them will blow an engine, before the finish line; or hurt the engine. The NHRA (National Hot Rod Association) allows two magnetos that are like welding machines, and then, those fuel pumps. You have a 900-foot fuse on a 1,000-foot bomb.”
He added, “That’s not racing; it’s not a realistic way to race. Engines now can cost $50,000. It costs so much more money, without sponsors, you can’t do it.”
But one thing, he’ll admit, hasn’t changed from the time he and his fellow competitors checked the plugs; then the key to knowing whether to dial up the boost, change the timing or carefully add more nitro.
“Records are only set to be broken,” Mr. Petersen asserted, “just like any other form of racing.” -- Terry Parkhurst
If you have interest in having an engine built, or have other questions, related to this topic, Herman Petersen, Cackle-Thunder Performance, can be reached via telephone at: 360.710.9245