After suffering a parent’s worst nightmare, Doug Herbert spent most of the past five years trying to spare others of similar pain.
In January 2008, Herbert’s sons, Jon and James, were killed in a highway accident near their home in North Carolina. Once consumed with drag racing, the veteran Top Fuel pilot devoted most of his time over the next five years to B.R.A.K.E.S., a charity founded in memory of his sons, and one whose mission is to save lives by educating and training teenage drivers.
Now with the charity well established, the 45-year-old Herbert will make a return to the race track this weekend at the NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals at Bristol Dragway.
“With my personal things that have happened the last few years, a lot of people have figured maybe Doug just retired and didn’t want to race anymore,” Herbert said. “I talked to (John) Force the other week and said, ‘Maybe I’m just too old.’ He was like, ‘I didn’t win my first championship until I was your age. Are you kidding me?’
“It got me a little revved up. I’m a racer, you know. I’ve spent the last five years building this charity up and we’ve trained 10,000 kids. But I need to be racing. That’s what I’m about and that’s how I plan to help build the charity up to train more kids.”
Herbert added there has been plenty of support for the charity in the racing community.
NHRA president Tom Compton has brought both his daughters to the B.R.A.K.E.S. school and Bristol Dragway owner Bruton Smith has offered Herbert the use of any of his tracks. NASCAR team owner Rick Hendrick has given vehicles to the schools, while fellow NHRA racers Ron Capps, Allen Johnson and Jack Beckman have all made appearances for the program.
Now Herbert is ready to get back in the cockpit at Bristol Dragway, site of his first career win in 1992. He was also the first driver at Thunder Valley to break the four-second barrier and the 300-mph barrier.
“I figured this was the best place to get back racing,” he said. “It’s the place I won my first race and where I’ve won more races than anywhere else. It’s why I love Thunder Valley. This is one of the premier tracks in the country.”
Herbert has a total of 30 Top Fuel wins overall, 20 on the IHRA circuit and 10 on the NHRA circuit and 75 final-round appearances. He once had a stretch of six consecutive wins at Bristol, and said it’s no accident why different drivers like Tony Schumacher, Doug Kalitta and himself have enjoyed so much success racing between the mountains.
“You come here and it’s a little tricky,” Herbert said. “When we won all those in the IHRA days we raced guys like Eddie Hill, Kenny Bernstein and Gene Snow. Something about coming here, it’s not Denver, but it’s not Englishtown. There are not a lot of places you race at in these kind of conditions. I’m a little driver, a little crew chief, a little bit of everything and winning at Bristol takes something different than winning at Pomona, Englishtown or any other track.”
The towering driver nicknamed “Dougzilla” doesn’t worry about rust in making his first Bristol appearance since 2010. He believes once he straps into his 8,000-horsepower rocket, going down the drag strip will come natural to him.
“Drag racing is a lot about confidence, concentration and focus,” he said. “Those are things you build up. It’s not like NASCAR, necessarily, where it’s more a young man’s deal. You have to get comfortable with the car where you forget about the car where you just think about driving. It’s harder to do than what it seems like.
“It’s one thing I’ve been lucky over the years to put the helmet on and it’s like, ‘Bam, I’m a racer.’ You’re not anything else anymore but a racer. That’s what a lot of the guys who are really good are able to do.”