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The Original Automotive Influencer: Freiburger Says It’s HOT ROD

HOT ROD logo HOT ROD 10/22/2020 David Freiburger,MotorTrend Staff
a car parked in a parking lot: 001-hot-rod-david-freiburger-nhra-power-tour © MotorTrend Staff 001-hot-rod-david-freiburger-nhra-power-tour

One of the reasons I've been so proud to work for HOT ROD is the legacy of accomplishments of the staffers who came before me. I recently wrote about how HOT ROD magazine was "The Original Influencer" for readers, but the mag has had incredible impact on the industry as well.

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It'd be disingenuous to claim that Robert E. Petersen founded HOT ROD in 1948 for any reason other than to capitalize on advertising for the burgeoning speed-equipment marketplace, but when he did so, HOT ROD quickly became the largest and loudest voice to help sell products.

Dan Gurney reading a book © MotorTrend Staff

Companies like Edelbrock existed up to 10 years before HOT ROD began, but many pioneers have credited Petersen for making their business thrive, and of course that led to more companies springing up. So, while HOT ROD didn't create the industry, it certainly made it huge and mainstream.

HOT ROD's first editor, Wally Parks, was hired in 1949, and it was his personal mission to lend legitimacy to hot rodding in general, leading to work with local police departments and even placement in TV shows such as Dragnet. This alone helped the marketplace. In 1951, Wally founded the National Hot Rod Association from within the HOT ROD offices and used the magazine as its bugle, to the near exclusion of any other organizer after NHRA held its first drag race in Pomona in 1953. Today, NHRA remains the single largest drag racing sanctioning body.

a group of people in an old photo of a truck © MotorTrend Staff

Of course, HOT ROD also spawned a publishing empire that radically increased Petersen's influence, starting with the launch of Motor Trend magazine in September 1949. It's now MotorTrend, which has become the name of this whole company, to include the cable TV channel formerly known as Velocity.

By the mid '50s, Petersen was an affluent man about town—that town being Los Angeles, if not all of SoCal—and his investments included a share of the new Riverside International Raceway that opened in 1957. A recent documentary on the MotorTrend App—MotorTrend 500: NASCAR Heads West [narrated by David Freiburger! —Ed.]—credits Petersen's Motor Trend 500 race at Riverside (1963 to 1971) for turning NASCAR into a nationwide sport. The HOT ROD Magazine Championship Drag Races were also held at Riverside International Raceway.

By the early '60s, Petersen saw the growth of the industry he had sparked, and capitalized on it by launching the HOT ROD Industry News publication. While the precise history differs depending on the source, this was either a reaction to the 1963 creation of the Speed Equipment Manufacturers Association (SEMA) or it lead to that spinoff. Either way, I believe HOT ROD employees certainly had a hand in creating and growing what is now the SEMA Show.

Likewise, Petersen's Rod & Custom magazine—later merged with HOT ROD—was responsible for turning go-kart racing into a nationwide sport and also for founding the National Street Rod Association that still exists. Likewise, the Street Machine Nationals, 4-Wheel Jamboree, and Hot Rod Supernationals were all spun from HOT ROD. Petersen once quipped to me something like, "I wish I had a dollar for every organization that people took out of here." Not that he needed those dollars.

Much of HOT ROD's influence also came from launching its own competitors as former employees and contributors went into business on their own. I can think of eleven former HOT ROD people who started their own publishing ventures, including legends Ray Brock and Tex Smith. The most successful was freelancer Tom McMullen who launched Street Chopper magazine in 1971, Street Rodder and Hot Bike in 1972, Truckin' in 1975, and many others. Through a series of mergers and acquisitions, McMullen's titles and Petersen's came under the same ownership around 2000.

In 1992, HOT ROD's Fastest Street Car Shootout lit the fire that turned into the massive street-car-racing trend (though it was not the first event of its kind). The FSC races were held at National Muscle Car Association events, and HOT ROD later came to own the NMCA, and then passed it to ProMedia that still runs it today. The original Fastest Street Car Races were the inspiration that later became the Pump Gas Drags and then today's HOT ROD Drag Week. The Drag Week idea of "endurance drag racing" (five races in five days during a 1,000-mile trip) was borrowed from One Lap of America, and has led to a number of knock-off races in the U.S., Australia, and Europe.

a car driving on a road © MotorTrend Staff

In 1995, HOT ROD Power Tour began as a simple cross-country road trip of staff project cars, and it has become the largest road trip in the world. Power Tour has encouraged tens of thousands of people to use their cars as real drivers, and spawned many other similar events. It's changed the face of the aftermarket, as parts these days need to perform for the Long Haul.

Combine these anecdotes with a much larger universe of people who have been inspired by all the Petersen publications, and all the people who worked here and moved on, and all of the companies who thrived and expanded thanks to coverage in Petersen titles or events, and you soon see that HOT ROD—through however many degrees of separation—is truly Where It All Began.

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