Robert E. "Pete" Petersen - Perspectives - Up To Speed

Pete, We're Gonna Miss Ya

Bad stuff always happens while I'm on a business trip. Our pool turns green or some pipe breaks, which of course requires our entire front yard to be dug up.

It happened again last week while I was in Japan researching a future cover story. It wasn't a home-based tragedy this time, but one that, for me, hit pretty close to home. Robert E. "Pete" Petersen, the guy behind Motorcyclist-not to mention Hot Rod, Motor Trend and many other popular enthusiast magazines-passed away. He was 80.

I'd met Pete when I'd started at Motorcyclist in the mid-'80s, and although we'd have little interaction over the years (dinner with him and our wives once at Laguna Seca was our most involved meeting), his presence and fingerprints were all over the company. The guy was a true publishing magnate, and everyone knew it.

To get some perspective on Petersen the man, I spoke to Dick Lague, former publisher of Motorcyclist, who worked closely with Pete for more than two decades.

"Pete all but invented special-interest publishing," Lague told me, "and had a feel for what enthusiasts wanted in a magazine." The story goes that when Petersen returned from WWII and saw all his former GI buddies building hot-rods and bikes, he got busy, starting a hot-rod show, Hot Rod magazine and ultimately, with Wally Parks, the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA).

"He was a bike guy, too," Lague told me. "He owned Harleys and Triumphs in the '50s and '60s. He started Cycle magazine but sold it to Floyd Clymer because the market seemed to be going nowhere in the late '60s. This was a few years before the Japanese revolutionized the motorcycle world. Pete realized his mistake and bought Motorcyclist in the early '70s from Bill Bagnall [who sadly also passed away recently]."

Motorcyclist had a circulation of just 50,000 when Petersen bought it, and it struggled through the '70s even while motorcycling was exploding here. But in the early '80s Lague had an idea: create Dirt Rider for the off-road crowd and let Motorcyclist concentrate on streetbikes. "Pete was savvy enough to back this segmentation plan, and after spending a few million on Motorcyclist's launch and a couple years of promotion, it paid off, with Dirt Rider becoming the world's biggest off-road magazine and Motorcyclist eventually reaching nearly a quarter-million in circulation."

From there Petersen and Lague launched Sport Rider, Motorcycle Cruiser and other market-specific books, most of which proved successful. By the late '90s, the combined circulation of the Petersen motorcycle group was nearly half a million.

"Pete was a fair guy," Lague continued. "He'd listen carefully to debate-and then act. He had a tremendous BS filter and was loyal to people who knew their stuff. He sized up people quickly; he liked folks who were blunt and told it like it is."

After almost 50 years in publishing, Petersen in 1996 decided it was time to cash in and sold his company for nearly $500 million. He went on to develop the Petersen Automotive Museum (subsequently buying it outright and setting up a non-profit organization to run it) and eventually retired with a net worth of three-quarters of a billion dollars. The last time I saw him-about eight months ago in the office elevator (he still owns the building we occupy)-he looked frail, but his mind was sharp as ever. "How's the motorcycle group doing?" he asked me with a grin, as if the 10 years since we'd last seen each other had never passed.

I'll let Lague have the last word: "We'll all miss Pete. He was a great friend and boss. He was there when we needed him and always watching out for us in the background."

Thanks, Pete-for everything.