By BOOYEON LEE

Staff Reporter

Associates say Robert E. Petersen, the founder of Hot Rod Magazine and once the largest special-interest publishing company in the country, had a brilliant sense of timing.


As a young publicist in 1948, he launched the magazine to help set up a hot-rod event at Los Angeles Armory and peddled the magazine at local speedways for 25 cents per copy. Little did he know that the publication would soon fan America's love affair with automobiles and help revolutionize the hot-rod industry.


In recent years, Petersen sold his aviation company, vineyard, ranches and gun collection, not realizing that he would soon be diagnosed with neuroendocrine cancer. After a brief battle with cancer, Petersen died March 23. He was 80.


"He knew what to do, when to do it. It was uncanny," said Joe Molina, Petersen's publicist of 13 years. "He knew how to time things in his life."


Perhaps it was his sense of timing, his eye for trends, or both. After launching Hot Rod at age 21, he went on to build a publishing empire that included Motor Trends and a dozen other automotive, hunting, fishing, photography and sports titles. By 1996, Petersen's worth was estimated at $400 million, according to Forbes magazine. The Business Journal last May pegged his wealth at $760 million, putting him at No. 50 on the list of wealthiest Angelenos.


Petersen lived every entrepreneur's dream, Molina said, and "made a fortune pursuing his hobby."


Reflecting his personal passions, Petersen's publications included Rod & Custom, Motorcyclist, Guns & Ammo, Circle Track, Off Road, Photographic, Snowboarder and Skin Diving. The Petersen Publishing Co. also published magazines for teenagers, including Sassy and Teen.


The company went public in 1997, and in 2001, it was sold to Primedia Inc. It was the best time to leave the publishing industry, said Dick Messer, director of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, where much of Petersen's car collection remains.


"The man had a sense about seeing situations before they would develop," said Messer, referring to today's volatile publication market.


Friends describe Petersen a humble man who rarely wore a tie and showed up to meetings in a turtleneck and sports jacket. "His zest for life was unlimited," Messer said. "He loved his airplanes, loved his food and wine. He loved the outdoors. He was always enthusiastic. He had the means to really enjoy life and he did."


Petersen's fascination with cars began at age 10 after his mother died and he began traveling and working alongside his father, who was a truck mechanic. His lifelong passion for engines and speed culminated in the 1994 opening of the Petersen Automotive Museum. Petersen's $30 million endowment made the world-class museum possible.


In true style, Petersen's family requested friends drive their "cool cars" to his funeral mass last Thursday at Holy Cross Cemetery in Century City.

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