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Chester Herbert dies at 81; drag-racing pioneer continued to innovate after contracting polio

Chester "Chet" Herbert, a drag-racing pioneer who continued to innovate in the sport after polio left him paralyzed from the chest down, has died.

Herbert, 81, who lived in Villa Park, died of pneumonia Thursday at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, said Sara Fensterer, a spokeswoman for his son, Doug, who is a professional drag racer.

When it was common for motorcycles to drag-race cars in the 1940s, Herbert dominated the local scene driving the Beast, a "hopped-up Harley that was the fastest thing around," Herbert told the Orange County Register in 1989.

After contracting polio in 1948, when he was 20, Herbert was confined to a wheelchair but remained a dominant drag-racing designer. He became known for developing equipment that sped up racing, including an exhaust header that blew smoke away from rear tires to improve traction.

At the Santa Ana drag strip -- now the site of John Wayne Airport -- the Beast in 1950 became the fastest quarter-mile dragster ever when it was clocked at 129 mph.

From the late 1950s through the 1960s, Herbert owned a series of top-performing dragsters, said Gary Sharp, curator of the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum in Pomona.

Creighton Hunter, who organized the old Santa Ana drag races and died in 2006, once recalled that Herbert was ahead of his time.

"Motorcycle-wise, he was one of the first to make them go really fast," Hunter told the Register in 1989. "He's a thinker, not a follower."

Born March 4, 1928, in Glenbar, Ariz., Herbert grew up in Los Angeles. An uncle who was a mechanic helped ignite his interest in cars.

Upon semi-retiring as a car designer in the early 1960s, he turned his attention to what was then called Herbert Speed Shop in Anaheim and a mail-order racing parts business.

After his grandsons -- Jon, 17, and James, 12 -- were killed early last year in a two-car accident in North Carolina, Herbert worked through his grief building a Bonneville streamliner to race on the Utah salt flats with his son, Doug, the boys' father.

In addition to Doug, Herbert's survivors include his wife, Leanne; daughters Heather Herbert-Binetti and Tracey Drage; and sister Doris, a former editor of Drag News.

A memorial will be held at 10:30 a.m. May 2 at Covenant Presbyterian Church, 1855 N. Orange Olive Road, Orange.

Instead of flowers, the family suggests contributions to the safe-driving organization founded in his grandsons' memory, www.putonthebrakes.org.

valerie.nelson@latimes.com

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