Vale burnout king John Peterson

An interview with the original burnout master, John Peterson

Photographers: Simon Davidson, Neil Johnson

ONE of the founding fathers of the Australian street machine movement has passed away. John Peterson was renowned as a Ford fanatic, drag racer, gun engine-builder and the inventor of the sport of burnouts. John was a great character and much-loved figure across the country. We’re working on a tribute story, but in the meantime, here is an interview with the great man we published after his return to Summernats in 2005.

This article first appeared in the May 2005 issue of Street Machine

HE’S greyer and more wrinkled than 20 years ago but John Peterson’s eyes are still as full of mischief as an eight-year-old with a slingshot. A wild man with a tough-guy reputation, he’s the grandfather of the burnout, the first bloke to make tyres quake with fear.

If you didn’t know this, don’t worry, because he threw his last steel-belted carcass on the tip years ago and has kept a relatively low profile since, building engines while letting the rest of the world get on with the business of burnouts. Until now.

John shows off his smoking habit at the 5th ASMF Street Machine Nationals

Last year he poked his head in again at the Street Machine Summernats and this year he was feted as a star and asked to guest-judge the burnouts. We got suspicious. Is he getting bored with growing old quietly? What’s he planning? We decided to find out.

Are you planning a comeback?

I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t gamble, so I’ve got to do something to keep me sane.

What did you do to kick-start this whole burnout phenomenon?

Well, it really started at the Heathcote Drag Nationals in ’77. They had what they called a wheelie competition. Everyone was doing the normal rev-it-up-and-drop-the-clutch deal. Came my turn, I did a burnout the length of the quarter mile, did a U-turn through the traps and came back again. The guy behind me just shook his head and said: ‘I’m not even going to try to better that. I’m backing out.’ So I won it.

The next Nationals, a guy rolled his car. The announcer said he’d tip in some money and get the crowd to contribute if I’d do another full-length burnout and donate the money to him, which we did. And it just seemed to erupt from there. I’ve been having fun ever since.

Did the promoters get behind this sort of action pretty quickly?

Yeah, because it was something nobody had done before, apart from the Funnies or rails — they’d do a decent-sized burnout. No-one had ever done it in a street car, going the length of the quarter and back. I got invited to the Hot Rod Nationals at Mildura to do it. Narrandera, Griffith, South Australia, Sydney. I went everywhere doing it, much like Gary Myers now.

Judging by your welcome here, lots of people vividly remember your shows.

Over the years I’ve had a good time and made a lot of good friends out of it. It’s great that you can go to places where you’re not in your own state but you might as well be because you know everybody. Last year was the first time in 20 years I’ve been back at Summernats and everyone knows me. It’s good, you know?

Chic Henry gave me a Burnout Masters plaque because he reckons I deserve the Burnout Master tag. He told people I was better than I was [laughs]. He and I have been friends for a long time. A bit of a standing joke: Chic had the ’62 Chev and it had a paisley interior. Well, in Melbourne there were these people who sold very ethnic furniture, called Franco Cozzo, and the joke was Chic’s got Franco Cozzo seats in his car. Anybody from Victoria knew what I was on about but Chic didn’t until someone told him [laughs]. He called me a few choice words.

Your car was a Zephyr. Don’t see many of those around any more.

The car that I used to win everything in was a service vehicle for the bulldozers at Sugarloaf Reservoir in Melbourne. It used to carry all my welding and service gear around in the back seat. I got sick of the six-cylinder so I put in an eight, only a mild one, and then I built a better one for it, which was the one I had all the fun with. The car got going better then so I started really doing it up. I’d drag-raced it pretty solidly at one stage.

Do you know where it is now?

Yes. I found the car in a Melbourne suburb and tried to talk the guy into selling it but he’s not interested. I tried to buy my old white one back but got beaten to it. The guy who bought it has four of them and he’s got a really straight green one that’s good enough to paint black. And it’s got the same trim as my old black one. I’ve just got to talk him out of the car.

If I get it, it’ll be a clone. Same wheels, same steering wheel, same plates. I’ve still got all that stuff. I’ve still got the bonnet scoop under my bed.

How much has the burnout scene changed over the years?

Oh, it’s changed immensely. Back when we were doing it you might be lucky to get 20-30 cars. People just weren’t willing to cane their cars. The way it has changed now — five hours of solid burnouts — has just overwhelmed me.

What about the techniques? Have they changed a lot?

A lot of people bring their cars here on trailers and do it. When we were doing it you drove here, emptied the family out, unloaded the boot, did the burnout and when the deal was over you loaded up and drove home again.

This main road out here [Lunatic Lane], that was the main burnout track. We used to come around the bottom corner and burnout to the other end. It was really good fun.

Was it scary doing burnouts with a crowd that close?

The crowd wasn’t that close. They were kept well back and had grandstands and hay bales to keep them away. It wasn’t dangerous. Chic had it under control. I mean, he’s not silly.

Now, what about next year? Will we see you do a burnout at Summernats?

I’m building this car for a quadriplegic — he can’t move, can’t even talk. He wants to have the car here and wants me to drive it. He’ll get strapped into the passenger seat. Where he gets the courage from, being how he is … but that’s what he wants and we’ll endeavour to have the car here for him. I just want to do a demo with him in the car and go from there. But yeah, I’ll be back. One way or another, I’ll be back.