Drag racing can be the most humbling of sports.
Less than two months ago, Eric Petersen was being extracted by rescue personnel from his destroyed 1969 Firebird during the final session of qualifying in Extreme Drag Radial for the Street Car Supernationals at the Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The throttle on his machine had become lodged just after leaving the starting line, and before the racer known as “The Wildman” could regain control, careened into the left side retaining wall, knocking him unconscious and sending the battered Firebird back across the track into the other wall before enduring a few tense moments in the middle of the racetrack with the throttle hung wide open. Footage of the devastating accident was initially seen by many – including his mother back home – on the live feed broadcast, and later went viral in drag racing circles.
“I launched the car and it hooked good – the best sixty-foot the car had ever recorded in fact – and then it started heading toward the middle of the track, where it spun the tires. When it did that, I tried to peddle it and realized the throttle was hung wide open. I tried pulling up on the pedal three times. It was traveling across the track pretty quick and it was apparent to me that I wasn’t getting it back, so I reached up and swiped the dash to shut off the ignition. I grabbed for the parachute and it was right then that I hit the wall and it knocked me out cold. Looking at it now, I missed the ignition switch, but managed to hit everything else.”
The Racepak data logger registered a forceful 11G impact with the guardrail; an impact that Petersen didn’t awake from until 10 minutes after the crash.
Then they had me in the ambulance and the paramedic tried to cut my expensive firesuit to strap me down and I broke the restraint on the ambulance to get out of it.
Petersen had owned and driven the Firebird for thirteen years, gradually transforming it from a fifteen-second street machine to a swift, seven-second race car in a street cars’ body. He’d even won two championships in the Northwest Pro Street Association with it. And so naturally, as any racer that’s poured his blood and sweat into a race car would, Petersen was livid when he awoke to the sound of the Jaws of Life cutting through the chassis of his prized race car.
“I woke up when they cut the first bar; when it made the loud snapping sound. I was really mad. My father told the rescue worker cutting the car that I wasn’t going to be happy once I came to and the guy said, ‘we’ve got this handled.’ As soon as I woke up, I was screaming and they had to get Chris [Huffman} to calm me down. Then they had me in the ambulance and the paramedic tried to cut my expensive firesuit to strap me down and I broke the restraint on the ambulance to get out of it.”
Despite the horrendous crash that rendered him unconscious, Petersen had no apprehensions of climbing back into a race car as soon as possible.
“We were already looking for a new car on the way home from Vegas. We don’t know why the throttle hung open, things just happen. But I’ve got a great crew and they’ve always given me a good, safe race car.”
After years of being limited by a small tire, Petersen went so far as to seek out a used Top Alcohol Funny Car chassis from area racer Randy Parker in order to let it all hang out, so to speak, on a larger tire. What he found was a virtually brand new, 1952 Chevrolet Pro Modified with an estimate two dozen passes on it. Northwest Pro Modified racer Perry Krinitt was the original owner of the car, but after his tragic death in a helicopter accident in 2010, his estate – including the race operation – was sold, exchanging hands once before Petersen purchased it this winter.
“Randy asked me, ‘I thought you were a door car guy; why don’t you buy a Pro Modified car?’ I said Randy, I can’t afford a Pro Mod. And he said, ‘well come over to my shop, I’ve got something I want to show you.’ I got over there, he opened the door, and there it was. He told me, ‘we’ll make sure you can afford this one.’ And he did; it was really cool.”
Lloyd Culp constructed the chassis that features a removable fiberglass body, Mark Williams gears, Koni adjustable shocks, a torsion bar front end, Weld wheels, a fresh air system, and a host of other high-end parts and pieces.
Petersen, Wilcox, and the rest of the team salvaged what they could from the Firebird before sending it to the scrap yard, including the fully intact 509 cubic inch, big block Chevrolet mill that will be paired with a ProCharger F3-X supercharger on alcohol, creating some 2,200 horsepower. Chris Huffman, another salt flat competitor featured in the past here on DRAGZINE, fabricated the custom intake manifold that sits atop a tunnel ram intake manifold, and all of the tuning aspects are handled by Hyperaktive Performance Solutions. In a change from the Firebird, Petersen has switched to a two-speed Lenco transmission with a clutch, adding an element that he’ll have to learn as he progresses into the new ride.
Petersen earned his Advanced E.T. license driving a “big tire” car, with a best quarter mile lap of 7.17, but never before has he driven a car with the performance capabilities of this ’51 Chevy, delivering a whole new challenge as a driver the first time he dumps the clutch in testing this season.
Pacific Street Car Association head man Mel Roth has hinted at an adjustment in the soon-to-be-released 2012 rules that would permit Petersen’s new car into Outlaw 10.5. If those changes come to pass, the larger meats will be traded in favor of a set of 10.5W’s. Given the finalized weight of the ’52 at 2,650 pounds and the horsepower and torque delivered by the supercharged big block, Petersen is confident he can light the scoreboards in under 6.2-seconds – enough to get him in the qualified field in Pro Street despite being over 200 pounds heavy.
As an NHRA Tech Inspector himself, Petersen is fully educated in the need for adequate safety equipment, and after experiencing a devastating accident first hand, has a better understanding than ever before in how he can keep himself safe in the future.
“Looking back, I’m thankful that I had all the proper safety equipment and then some; I went above and beyond what was required. I had Funny Car boots and a HANS device on, and I carry twenty pounds of fire suppression in the car, but I never hit any of it. They said I was trying to reach for the switch when they got to the car, even though I was knocked out cold.”
“We’re going to do some different things with the new car. The Firebird was based off a street car, and so the dash and switches were kind of tucked away. The new car will have everything in a push-pull setup so they’re easy to turn off. The parachutes and power switch will be on the steering wheel, and we’re going to put a transponder in it to shut the car down and deploy the chutes.”
In 2012, Petersen is going to retain the look of the car as-purchased and display memorial decals for Krinnitt – a man he’d never even met - to honor his memory.