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THE HERBERTS,
Drag Racing Royalty

or

The Potential Ramifications of Trading a Trumpet For a Motor-Scooter

by Christopher "James Joyce" Martin

 

"Itís hard to pin down when I got interested in cars, but Iíd say my uncle was an important guy [in that transition]. He was a mechanic. I know when I was a youngster my folks bought me a trumpet for my birthday or Christmas, canít remember for sure what occasion it was. But I was interested enough in cars, mechanics, to trade it for a motor scooter. Thatís probably how all this started."

ó Chet Herbert,
father of the roller cam and Hall of Fame racer
(b. 1928)

"Iím guessing, but Iíd say it was the Ď82 Winternationals and I was 13 or 14. Anyway, my dad [Chet] took me through the pits and introduced me to guys like Don Garlits, Prudhomme, Tom McEwen, and I remember that and the whole race thing was pretty neat. He told me Garlits was the best guy out there and I remember thinking, ĎYou know I might like to try to do this some day.í"

ó Doug Herbert,
4-time IHRA Top Fuel World Champ.
(b. 1967)

"Well, Chet bought the paper [Drag News] from Dean Brown. Actually, it was his money, but I was the buyer of record. Chet gave me half the money and I had six months to pay him the remainder of the price. I paid íem all back. And stepped into the busiest period of my life."

ó Doris Herbert
(possibly drag racingís most important journalist,
Chetís younger sister and Dougís aunt)

If youíve been around drag racing for any time at all, you know that the Herbert family runs the drag racing gamut. Chet hit the dragstrip the day Santa Ana opened (July 3, 1950), his younger sister Doris did in fact make Drag News the first great drag racing newspaper, and, of course, son Doug has acquitted himself admirably, winning the IHRA championship, five NHRA national events, and making himself the subject of the worst starting line explosion in the sportís history this year at the Winston Finals. Our Large Editor immortalized him in the pages of Sports Illustratedís century in review history on Nov. 29 with an explosion shot that looked like a pipe bomb in a Euro trash disco.

Drag racing has certainly produced its share of familial dynasties. The Andersons, the Austins, the Dixons, the Dunns, the Kalittas, the Pedregons, the Powells, the Smiths ... hell, look at the Winston Top Fuel champ, Tony Schumacher, son of 1973 AHRA Funny Car champ and if-not-already-soon-to-be Hall of Fame Funny Car resident, Don Schumacher, but the Herberts are a special clique.

The Jock Ewing of this clan could be saddled with the label of genius, and that can be embarrassing to a degree, especially if the compliment is from a writer who canít tell a camshaft from a crankshaft. In Chet Herbertís case, that qualification suggests a torpedoed story, but Herbert is one of the sportís pioneers and truly great cam grinders in history. Not only that, he is one of its greatest visionary innovators.

"My racing philopsophy? I want to do something different. You know Doug and I would make model airplanes when he was a kid. He would follow the instructions on the box to the letter and always did a good job. Me ? I had to ignore that. I wanted to do it my way and so Iíd come up with my own design and build it my way. Sometimes, his plane would fly much better than mine, but other times, mine would really do the job and that gave me great satisfaction. Nothing makes me happier or is more fun than to come up with something really different and make it work really good.í

ó C.H.

"Jim Brissette was the guy who wrenched the car that made me the second driver over 300-mph, and he had run my dadís cams in his Chrysler Top Fuelers for years. He and I were talking about my dad and he said, ĎYou like to do things your way, and thatís good, but your father is the same way and heís never going to change.í"

ó D.H.

Historical evidence is abundant in that regard. Herbert, who was born in Glenbar, Ariz. and raised in Los Angeles, terrorized the streets in the mid-1940s with a highly competitive Harley-Davidson motorcycle. In 1948, Herbert was put in a wheelchair with polio, obviously parking his butt as a driver, but his mechanical lust was hardly abated. While at one of the first races at Santa Ana, his driver (he canít remember who) broke the track bike record of 101-mph with a 103-mph shot.

And it got better from there. In 1950, his rider, Al Keys, went 121.62-mph, which was one of the fastest speeds by anything at Santa Ana or elsewhere. Later that year, his rider, Ted Irio, powered Herbertís "Beast" (as he called it) to a new track record of 129.49 mph.

(Motorcycles were the equal of the dragster in the early 1950s as guys like Herbert, Tommy Auger, Lloyd Krant, Keys, Pat Pressetti, Mike Ward and Bud Hare many times would set top speed of the meet on two wheels.)

Herbertís Harley experiences proved to be highly educational and paved the way for a breakthrough in drag racing technology.

 



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