If we reflect for a moment on the life and career of Robert E. Petersen, we have to acknowledge that Pete, as he was known to close friends-along with Wally Parks, the first editor of Hot Rod magazine and founder of NHRA-was responsible for the careers most of us were able to pursue. As writers. As automotive journalists. As aficionados of hot rodding, and, of course, its offshoot-drag racing. We speak casually about the various industry segments, and hot rodding and motorsports divisions of SEMA. However, if you think about it for a moment, you come to realize that, gee, guys, we wouldn't even be here if it weren't for Pete Petersen. That, dear readers, is heavy stuff. But it is reality.
For starters, think about it. "Back when," meaning the late 1940s and early '50s, there was no Hot Rod magazine, no NHRA, no Car Craft, no Motor Trend, and on and on. There were Bonneville and dry lakes speed trials, and there were guys cruising Sunset and Hollywood boulevards in hot rods, but nothing was organized. There weren't any careers; Vic Edelbrock Sr., Phil Weiand, Dean Moon, and countless others were making parts in their garages-a piece at a time, and mostly for friends. Moon cranked out spun-aluminum fuel tanks and then he came up with the Moon discs, the first of what we can refer to as mass-produced wheel covers. But there was still no industry, and startup efforts were iffy. SEMA came along later to organize that which was an industry on the verge of growth.
It took a bunch of guys to really push the hot rod movement-guys like Tom Medley and Stroker McGurk. Tom's cartoon character appeared in the pages of Hot Rod and set some trends, and the first drag chutes appeared on the back of Stroker McGurk's Bonneville roadster to slow it down after a run! It was Tex Smith who brought true hot rodding to Hot Rod, and even Tom McMullen's efforts could be seen by all in the magazine. It was Ray Brock, as tech editor and publisher of Hot Rod (and then organizer of Rod Action magazine, where I furthered my career), who helped perpetuate various forms of motorsports by giving them priority space in Hot Rod (think Pike's Peak Hill Climb, the Indy 500, and so on). Then there was Dick Wells, who gave the NSRA its official start and developed the Street Rod Nationals concept that's still in use today. All were a part of Hot Rod magazine and its spectacular influence on motorsports hobbies. What a glorious history-a history that all came to be because Robert "Pete" Petersen had a vision.
So, when I speak of Mr. Petersen's efforts in the early days, and his legacy, what I'm really saying about this veteran and pioneer is that I don't know what I'd be doing if it weren't for him. Selling women's shoes or furniture at Sears? I don't know. Ponder that for a moment, and ask associates involved in the industry what they'd be doing if it weren't for Pete, Hot Rod magazine, and his ambitious vision. Wow! Talk about a dream come true that could have easily never happened. Remember, Mr. P organized one of the first hot rod-type car shows in the Los Angeles area, and, as the accompanying text reveals, he did a lot more (too much to completely go into here). That includes helping SEMA get its start to thwart the first efforts to control hot rods and modifications to our street-driven cars.
Next time you thumb through the pages of this magazine, keep in the back of your mind that there was a day when these pages didn't even exist. It took a guy-a young guy-with a vision to "put up or shut up," to start a magazine and spread the word about hot rodding. As I understand it, Mr. Petersen borrowed about $400 to start Hot Rod magazine, and for all of us, it's a "Whew. I'm sure glad he took the gamble and tried." I can't help but go back to my original thought: If he hadn't done so, I wonder what I-and most of the readers of STREET RODDER-would be doing for a career, and what the heck would we be driving as our Sunday rides? No, I don't want to think about that, because I have a vision of an AMC Pacer instead of my '29 on Deuce 'rails. That is not a pleasant thought.
Thank you, Mr. P, for setting the table.
Robert E. Petersen1926-2007Rodding and motorsports aficionados worldwide mourn the passing of Robert E. Petersen, a true pioneer of all that is rodding. He founded what grew to become one of the largest publishing companies in the U.S., and was the originator of many of the most popular automotive magazine titles. Among those titles are Hot Rod, Motor Trend, Car Craft, Rod & Custom, and more. Pete was instrumental in the evolution of the hot-rodding culture, and, with his wife Margie, realized his dream of establishing an educational museum to pay tribute to the automobile with the 300,000-square-foot Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles.
Mr. Petersen left our world in late March after a short but valiant battle with cancer; he was 80 years old.
Pete helped create and feed the American obsession with the automobile, delivering dreams in print to the mailboxes of millions. "He understood the thrill that an average person could get from seeing and reading about horsepower as an art form," commented Dick Messer, director of the Petersen Automotive Museum.
After graduating from Barstow (California) High School in the mid-1940s, Pete moved to Los Angeles, where he worked at MGM as a messenger boy. Following his military service toward the end of WWII, Pete immersed himself in the burgeoning customized auto culture of California, was instrumental in creating the first hot rod show in Los Angeles, and, in January 1948, launched Hot Rod magazine. Motor Trend, a more upscale publication for production-car enthusiasts, and dozens of other titles aimed at specialty automotive segments soon followed, as did a parade of how-to books and magazines in other fields, such as Guns & Ammo and Skin Diver magazines. The Petersen film division produced a variety of television shows; notable among them was "The Wonderful World of Wheels" that aired on CBS.
Unknown to most of today's rodders and racers, and many principals of the specialty industry as well, was Mr. Petersen's generosity when it came to viable industry causes. During the early days of SEMA, the association was strapped for the resources necessary to combat the emerging, very restrictive, and threatening legislation in California and other states. It was Mr. Petersen who came to SEMA's aid by funding the essential legal actions necessary, including hiring an attorney. It was also Mr. Petersen's foresight and investment that brought about the first SEMA Show-a humble 98-booth beginning that has flourished into the world's largest trade show, now at about 1.5 million square feet of space and held annually in Las Vegas.
There were many other Petersen firsts, but the champion of rodding causes will best be remembered for Hot Rod magazine, and certainly the Petersen Automotive Museum, which opened on June 11, 1994. Today, the Petersen Museum stands as the nation's premiere automotive showcase, welcoming thousands of visitors each year. Its mission remains to educate and excite generations of auto enthusiasts with the fascinating stories, vehicles, and people that have influenced the American love affair with the automobile-a mission that has been a resounding success thanks to the generosity of its main benefactor.
Mr. Petersen was honored with both the Automotive Icon and Visionary Awards at the Petersen Museum's annual gala in May 2007.
Messer said it best when he commented: "What made Pete so special was that he gave every ounce of his energy and abilities to his dreams. He was a quiet man who truly became an American icon. He made his living doing things he loved and he found success at every turn. The way he lived his life, always looking for ways to give back in return for the success he enjoyed, made us proud to count him as a friend. The museum is now his legacy."
Mr. Petersen is survived by his wife Margie.
Dick Wells was an early employee of Petersen Publishing, a lifelong friend to Pete, and is an accomplished journalist.