Thursday, April 23, 2009

Drag racing pioneer Chet Herbert passes away

If we're lucky, people come along in our lives and provide us with inspiration. They make us want to do what we know will be hard to do but that we also will be worthwhile if we can accomplish it.

Doug Herbert, the drag racer who lives in Huntersville and has his Top Fuel shop in Lincolnton, grew up with such a man living right there in his house. Chester "Chet" Herbert, Doug's father, passed away Thursday in California at the age of 81.

Chet Herbert grew up in Southern California in the age of the hot rod, when the sport of drag racing was just being invented as an organized way to do what people like Chet Herbert were already doing.

When he was 20, Chet Herbert was stricken with polio. He lived the rest of his life in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waist down. The operative word in that previous sentence is "lived." Despite what polio did to him, Chet Herbert never stopped living.

"When my dad was 12, my grandma bought him a trumpet and hoped he would learn to play it," Doug Herbert said. "He traded the trumpet for a Cushman motorscooter and it was life in the fast lane ever since."

As Chet Herbert spent six months in an iron lung in a hospital in 1948, he started figuring out ways to make better parts for racing in his head. When he got out of the hospital, he developed the first roller camshafts. He was among the first to try nitromethane as a fuel after reading about how the Germans used it to power torpedoes in World War II. Nitro is still used in Top Fuel and Funny Cars today.

Chet Herbert was inducted into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 1993.

“My dad was my hero," Doug Herbert said. "He taught me so much about how to be a strong and determined person. 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. He proved to everyone that he could accomplish whatever he set his mind to; which taught me that, no matter how tough something may seem, if you fight hard enough, you can overcome it.

"I always looked up to him. I’m glad I had the opportunity to follow in his footsteps and be involved in a sport that he helped to invent."

After Doug's sons, Jon and James, were killed in an automobile crash in January 2008, he and his father started working on a project together -- a streamlined car in which Doug Herbert wants to set a land speed record at better than 500 mph later this summer on the Bonneville Salt Flats.

"Some of my best memories with my dad were made over the past year," Doug Herbert said. "We had grown much closer since my boys died. ...I will miss my dad very much. I am lucky to have many wonderful memories of him that I will always cherish.”

Chet Herbert is survived by his wife, Leanne; his son, Doug; two daughters, Heather Herbert-Binetti and Tracey Drage, and a sister Doris, who as editor of Drag News, was also inducted into the Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 1993.

A memorial service will be held at 10:30 a.m., Saturday at Covenant Presbyterian Church, 1855 Orange Olive Road, Orange, CA 92865. A private, graveside family service will be held that afternoon at 2 p.m. at the Fair Haven Memorial Park in Santa Ana, Calif.

In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to Doug Herbert's Be Responsible and Keep Everyone Safe (BRAKES) program that promotes safe driving among teenagers. Send donations to BRAKES, 1443 E. Gaston St., Lincolnton, NC 28092 or go online at


Anonymous said...

Chet Herbert was a real ledgend in the sport of drag racing and a pioneer in developing high performance engine parts.

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This is interesting. Drug racing is also popular here in our country.

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Anonymous said...

Sorry to hear Chet is gone, RIP.

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