NASCAR & Auto Racing

In an instant, heartbreak

Nicknames are often supposed to be ironic. You call a short guy "Stretch" or a rotund one "Slim."

That's the only context in which Doug Herbert's nickname makes any sense at all.

Drag racing fans know him as "Dougzilla," and once in a while he'll trot out a paint scheme on his National Hot Rod Association top fuel dragster that features a big, green fire-breathing monster.

But while Herbert's 7,000-horsepower machine sometimes does spit fire as it rumbles to life, the man behind the wheel could not be more of a gentle soul.

And for those who know him, that's what made Saturday's awful news that much harder to take.

Herbert's two sons, Jon and James, died in a wreck in Cornelius, not far from their home on Lake Norman. Herbert's high performance racing parts business and race team are based in Lincolnton.

Jon Herbert made a tragic mistake, the kind too many teenagers make behind the wheel. He was driving on Jetton Road with James as his passenger in a Mazda. Witnesses said their car was going too fast while trying to pass another car, crossed the yellow line and ran head-on into a Hummer.

Two people in the Hummer suffered injuries, but thankfully it appears they will be OK.

Jon would have celebrated his 18th birthday next Saturday. James, who was trying to follow in his father's footsteps in earning an Eagle award in Boy Scouts, was 12. They are survived by a 9-year-old sister, Jessica.

In Herbert's bio at, he lists "riding motorcross with the kids" as his No. 1 hobby. In his blog last year he wrote about how much fun he had taking Jessica and her friends to see a Hannah Montana concert in Charlotte, renting a limo for the occasion.

Herbert was at Lowe's Motor Speedway on Thursday, smiling from ear to ear as plans for the new dragway were finally announced. He then headed to Phoenix for a three-day test. The NHRA season opens in two weeks at Pomona, Calif.

If there is a nicer guy in all of motorsports than Doug Herbert, I don't know him.

Every year he is one of the first to show up and the last to leave at Stocks for Tots. Earlier this month, he helped the Charlotte Checkers celebrate their "NASCAR night."

Doug's sister, Heather, is in the Army's judge advocate general corps and did a tour in Iraq. For years, Herbert has welcomed members of the U.S. Marine Corps as honorary crew members at races around the country. He's welcomed guests who've contributed to the Racing for Christ ministry in drag racing.

He helped raise money to benefit the family of fellow driver Darrell Russell, who was killed in a crash during an NHRA race in St. Louis. Herbert also gave money from his souvenir sales to victims of Hurricane Katrina and has participated in dozens of activities on behalf of Speedway Children's Charities. The family has asked that memorials be made to that organization.

"Doug has a big heart," said long-time friend Brad Fornes, who is Herbert's team manager. "I was in San Francisco in a restaurant and this boy, about 6 years old, came in wearing a Doug Herbert T-shirt. It had Doug's autograph and I asked him where he got it. He said he'd met Doug at the drag strip in Sonoma."

Fornes took out his cell phone and dialed Herbert's number. Herbert was riding his motorcycle; he pulled over and talked with his young fan.

Fornes was still in Phoenix Saturday evening. Herbert, who matched his career best with a sixth-place finish in the top fuel class last season, was coming home to face a parent's worst nightmare.

But his team kept working.

"The last thing he told me before he left was to get the car ready," Fornes said. "He said, `I want to win the championship now, for the boys.' We're going to get this car ready for him to do that."

Related stories from Modesto Bee