Chet Herbert R.I.P.

mike honcho

Feb 9, 2009
Drag racing pioneer Chet Herbert dies at 81
Apr 23, 10:22 pm EDT

ORANGE, Calif. (AP)—Chester “Chet” Herbert, a member of the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame who helped develop an exhaust header that blew smoke away from a dragster’s rear tires to improve traction, died Thursday. He was 81.

Herbert died of pneumonia at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, according to Sara Fensterer, a spokeswoman for Herbert’s son, Doug, who followed his father into professional drag racing. The elder Herbert lived in nearby Villa Park.

Herbert was stricken with polio at age 20 and lived the rest of his life in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the chest down.

“My grandmother told me he was so wild about racing, that if he didn’t have polio to slow him down, he probably would have died,” Doug Herbert said in a statement. “When my dad was 12, my grandma bought him a trumpet and hoped he’d learn to play. But he traded the trumpet for a Cushman motorscooter and it was life in the fast lane ever since.”

Lying in a hospital iron-lung for six months in 1948, Herbert developed ideas for manufacturing racing parts in his head.

Among his engineering and design innovations were the first roller camshafts for race cars. He was among the first to try nitromethene fuel in a dragster after reading how the German army had used it to power torpedoes during World War II.

Herbert helped develop the Zoomie-type exhaust header that blew smoke away from a dragster’s rear tires to improve traction, helping dragsters surpass 200 mph.

Growing up in Southern California’s 1950s hot rod scene, Herbert turned a Harley-Davidson motorcycle into the fastest quarter-mile dragster of its time. Nicknamed “The Beast,” the motorcycle clocked 121 mph at one of the first drag races in Santa Ana.

Herbert’s rivals complained that motorcycles held an unfair advantage and should be disqualified from Top Eliminator competition.

Eventually, Herbert turned to building innovative cars that often tested the rules of the National Hot Rod Association, the sport’s governing body. He developed scores of dragsters, drag motorcycles and land speed-record streamliners for other drivers.

Herbert was one of the first to establish a successful speed shop and parts mail-order business and was one of the first racing parts retailers to advertise in national magazines.

“Despite the fact that he had polio and was in a wheelchair for much of his life, he never let that stop him from doing anything,” Doug Herbert said. “I’m glad I had the opportunity to follow in his footsteps and be involved in a sport that he helped to invent.”

Herbert is also survived by wife Leanne; daughters Heather Herbert-Binetti and Tracey Drage; and sister Doris, who as editor of Drag News was inducted into the sport’s hall of fame along with her brother in 1993. Herbert’s grandsons, Jon and James, were killed in a car accident last year.

At the time of his death, Herbert and his only son were in the process of building a Bonneville streamliner with which they hoped to achieve 500 mph and break the world speed record for piston-powered, wheel-driven cars.
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