No. 22: Pete Robinson
When Pete Robinson suffered fatal injuries during qualifying at the 1971 Winternationals, drag racing lost one of its most prolific innovators and one of the sport's best-liked gentleman. Robinson's easygoing nature, which made him popular among fans and fellow competitors, belied his intense demeanor as a racer, an asset that made him a three-time national event winner in five final-round appearances during an era where there were no more than four major races per season.
After beginning his racing career in 1950, Robinson became a household name within the drag racing fraternity when he won Top Eliminator at the 1961 NHRA Nationals with his small-block Chevy-powered gasoline-burning dragster. When NHRA restored Top Fuel as an active category in 1964, Robinson made an easy transition and scored a runner-up finish to Maynard Rupp at the 1965 Springnationals, a 1966 triumph against Dave Beebe at the World Finals, and a 1967 Springnationals runner-up effort against Don Prudhomme. His final victory came at the 1970 Summernationals when he defeated Jim Nicoll in the Top Fuel final.
Robinson's innovative nature was exceeded only by his obsession for eliminating unnecessary weight. When once asked by an observer why he was going to such great pains to grind a bit of metal off the engine block, he replied, "Anything that falls to the ground when you let it go from your hand is way too heavy to be on my race car."
The extremes that Robinson went to in an effort to lighten his race cars were matched by aviation pioneer Charles Lindbergh.
Before becoming the first man to fly an airplane across the Atlantic Ocean, Lindbergh went to the lengths of trimming the 1/4-inch margins off his maps to eliminate weight. Robinson exhibited similar diligence during the days when the cars were weighed with the driver: He often chose not to wear any clothes under his fire suit. Of this practice, Robinson said, "It had a twofold purpose with the obvious weight-saving factor, and it helped me fit into the seat better."
Though Robinson was most famous for his exploits in dragsters, he spent the first 11 years of his career campaigning a B/Gas Buick-powered '40 Ford, concentrating on learning the fundamentals of drag racing and keeping variables to a minimum.
Robinson's first dragster was originally constructed by one of his friends, whose wealthy father frowned on extremely fast race cars. When Robinson's friend failed to convince his father that the dragster was only a go-kart, he was ordered to sell the car, and Robinson took the machine off his hands. But rather than rush the entry to the track, Robinson spent three months rebuilding the car to his own standards. Obvious oversights such as backward-installed pistons were corrected, and Robinson managed to lower the car's weight from 1,256 to 1,120 pounds. His first visit to the race track quickly eclipsed the car's previous best of 9.50 with a 9.13.
Arriving at the 1961 Nationals practically unknown, Robinson's first few runs were so quick that they initially were not announced to the crowd. But as he began defeating the top drivers one by one, the racing officials and fans warmed up to drag racing's newest star. He defeated Tom McEwen in the AA/Dragster class final and Dode Martin for the Top Eliminator title, and his low e.t. of the meet, an 8.68, contributed to his "Sneaky Pete" persona.
In 1950, Robinson switched to Ford's new Cobra 289-cid small-block engine because it was 50-pounds lighter than the Chevy. With the new engine, he won Top Gas at Bakersfield and defeated Don Garlits in open competition. The additional focus on Top Fuel drivers caught Robinson's attention when nitromethane was reinstated by NHRA in 1964.
"I got one sentence of mention in Hot Rod Magazine after winning a Top Gas meet, but two paragraphs after running at a Top Fuel race in which I didn't even qualify," he said.
His winning efforts with the 289-cid Ford engine enabled Robinson to obtain one of Ford's new 427-cid SOHC engines in 1965, a move that led to a runner-up finish at that year's Springnationals. After winning the 1966 World Championship in Tulsa with a sizzling best of 7.17, he came back from a broken arm suffered in a tire-testing accident early in the season to become runner-up at the 1967 Springnationals. He also tied Tom McEwen's then-existing NHRA national record of 6.92 that season.
Following his third national event title at the 1970 Summernationals, Robinson decided to vacate the cockpit to concentrate on a new enterprise that would specialize in lightweight supercharger cases, rear-end housings, and other components. Robinson, now the only SOHC Ford campaigner left in the ranks and without factory support, tabbed Bud Dabler as his replacement driver.
Robinson had recorded his quickest time ever, a 6.50, at the AHRA Grand American Series opener three weeks prior to the NHRA Winternationals and decided to make a last-minute trip to Pomona to take over for Dabler, who felt uncomfortable in Robinson's new ground effects-equipped car. After recording a 6.77 that would stand as low e.t. for the day, Robinson encountered chassis twist on a later run that forced the bicycle tires to spin off the front wheel. The car veered into the right guardrail, breaking into multiple pieces, and Robinson succumbed to injuries later that evening in a Pomona hospital on Feb. 6, 1971, at age 37.
Robinson's death brought tribute from many of his contemporaries and brought back memories of John Mulligan's death at the 1969 Nationals. Said Don Garlits, "If he had survived that horrible wreck, he'd be an engineer on some team right now. Pete was always on the edge of the envelope, and I always had respect for him. Pete just didn't stick somebody in his car when he had some idea. He was the test pilot, just like Chuck Yeager or any of them. He took the risk, and there's a lot to be said for that. I did too, [speaking of his clutch explosion at Lions in 1970], but I survived mine and got to come back and see what I did wrong. Pomona got Pete, and the sport really lost something."
NHRA Founder Wally Parks said, "Who can guess what his fundamental talents might have contributed to today's world. Pete was an innovator whose discoveries were the leading edge of technology." -- John Jodauga
Comments from the panel
"Master of intrigue; realized an economy of scale by building small engines and putting them in very light vehicles. The epitome of the 'southern mystique.' " -- Ro McGonegal
" 'Sneaky Pete' was before my time, but his innovations were as clever as anything a Formula One designer might devise today. Robinson's insistence on light weight produced purposeful, elegant machines." -- Rick Voegelin
"Innovator, theorist. Winner." -- Cole Coonce