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BACK IN THE DAY: When drag racing was king

Published July 14, 2014

Pioneer John Petrie raced for Chrysler, Ford, then walked away from it all

With the annual Nitro Nationals taking place this weekend at Toronto Motorsports Park, it seems like a good time for a visit with John Petrie, one of the first Canadian drag racers to compete at a professional level.

Born in England in 1942, Petrie settled in the Toronto area. While working at Mount Pleasant Motors in 1964, he got his mechanic’s license but knew he wanted to make drag racing his vocation.

It was about this time that he bought a 1964 Plymouth Savoy, an ex-police car, and built a 426-cubic-inch engine to get down the strip as fast as he could. He was very successful with this car, beating the top cars of the day, including the Hemi-powered Mopar sponsored by the Argyle Dodge dealership.

“I wanted to drive the most current new classes of cars available as the sport of drag racing was emerging,” Petrie said in a recent interview. “In the early years, I just tried to go faster and faster. It wasn’t until I drove my Canadian Highlander (with sponsorship from Argyle) that I realized the potential of this car. It felt great to set my car on its bumper for 1,320 feet.”

Driven in 1965-66, the Highlander was a stock-looking Dodge Coronet with a 426 Hemi engine and was capable of running at 240 kilometres per hour, usually all the way down the track on its two rear wheels.

During this time, he established a performance shop but bigger things were about the happen for Petrie and his crew, which included wife Grace, crew chief Danny McLennan and Paul Eyman as media spokesperson and business manager.

In the 1960s and early ’70s, cars were a big part of the youth culture and the automakers had adopted a “win on Sunday, sell on Monday” strategy. Detroit provided the cars, engineering, technology and factory-backed sponsorship, especially in the Stock/Super Stock classes of drag racing where fans could buy an off-the-shelf muscle car that had just taken top eliminator honours at the track.

In this setting, Petrie was approached by John Phillips in 1966. Phillips was head of Ford of Canada’s performance efforts and was instrumental in putting Ford on the racing map, not only with Petrie but with other Canadian racers such as Scott Wilson and Barry Poole.

He asked Petrie to switch camps and drive a Ford product. Ford was tired of Chrysler getting all the wins, and Dearborn contracted the Logghe Stamping Co. of Michigan to build five Funny Cars for this new class in the sport.

While the likes of U.S. racers Don Nicholson and Jack Chrisman received these Mercury Cyclone fiberglass-bodied cars with 1500-horsepower fuel-injected overhead cam 427 engines, one was delivered to Ford of Canada, which was campaigned by Petrie.

With BP (British Petroleum) as his primary sponsor, and with the blessing of Ford, Petrie was a hit at strips all over with the Funny Car, officially known in NHRA jargon as an AA/FC. In 1968, the team installed a supercharged 427 in the Cyclone, producing seven-second passes.

“This was a great time for me to be a drag racer,” said Petrie. “Racing was good, my friends.”

Part of Petrie’s involvement with the factory-based car was to travel around the country to performance clinics at dealerships. Race teams would show off their cars to the public and hold seminars about racing and building race cars. And the dealerships hoped to sell more cars.

Petrie went back to his first love — Mopar — with a two-car effort, a 1969 Dodge Super Bee and a Plymouth GTX, both Hemi-powered cars running in NHRA Super Stock classes with support from Chrysler Canada’s performance program.

Starting in 1970, Petrie built cars and drove in the new Pro Stock category, a popular class in major competition that continues to this day. This continued through 1972 until Chrysler dropped its support. But it was a great time while it lasted for Petrie, competing against names such as Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins, Dick Landy and the formidable team of Ronnie Sox and Buddy Martin.

Some of Petrie’s racing highlights include a semifinal finish against Sox and Martin at the 1971 Winternationals and winning four of five NHRA Division One meets in Pro Stock. His cars were featured in the top publications of the day, including Hot Rod and National Dragster.

But when the factory support stopped, the team decided to call it a day.

“As a professional drag racer for almost a decade I welcomed the challenge of trying to excel at my sport,” he said. “I went at it for 11 years; I did everything and I was burned out. It was great and I enjoyed it, but I wanted a life.”

He wound down by leaving the racing community entirely and moving to British Columbia, where he continues to live.

Tim Miller is a veteran motorsports reporter who contributes to Toronto Star Wheels. Email: wheels@thestar.ca

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