For as long as he can remember, Sarasota resident Peter Herke’s life has revolved around cars and racing.
He rolls out from beneath a BMW he’s been working on and wipes his hands on an old rag. Behind him, in his shop, sits a handful of other cars, mostly BMWs, hidden under protective covers. These highly modified cars, including several rarities, are only part of the collection Herke has built during his 40-year racing career.
Now, sitting in his office, which is lined with racing trophies, photos of his old cars and other mementos, the Berlin native describes how he developed his need for speed at a young age.
“You take a watch apart to see how it works, and you find that you’re mechanically inclined,” he says. “Then you take apart your bicycle, and you move on to mopeds, and, of course, you modify them to see how fast he you can make them.”
At the age of 14, Herke became a journeyman and learned the ins and outs of the car mechanic trade before beginning a career that would take him all over Europe. He worked for dealerships and racing teams. In 1972, Herke opened his own shop in San Francisco, where he met his wife.
Shortly after starting the business, Herke grew anxious to get out of the shop and onto the track.
“I always wanted to give it a try,” he says. “I wanted to see what it was like on the other side.”
He earned his proper racing qualifications and bought a 1968 BMW, which in a slight stretch of the truth, he told his wife he was going to resell, and prepared it for the track. After his first race, Herke says the feeling of being behind the wheel had him hooked.
“You go into the turns as fast as you can, and you try to push the limits before you fly out,” he says. “It’s like you’re dancing with the car. You try to scare yourself — or others.”
Soon, Herke and his family lived and breathed racing. His wife, Rosemarie, is quick to point out that the couple even had to plan their wedding around his racing schedule. His daughter, Sonja Dickey, remembers growing up immersed in the racing culture.
“My brother and I practically grew up on the racetrack,” she says. “We used to love going out there and getting dirty. It was such a cool experience for us.”
Although he often raced against drivers backed with much heavier factory support, Herke’s knowledge of the cars, combined with his skill behind the wheel, gave him a competitive edge, and he saw a lot of success throughout the years.
Herke says that some people are born to race, but he doesn’t include himself in that category.
“I’m better behind the scenes,” he says. “My excitement comes from seeing a car at 9,000 rpms. I want to see how fast I can make a car go, and how far I can push the materials and the motor. If it breaks, you start over.”
After closing his shop and retiring in the late 1990s to Sarasota, he slowly transitioned into a more behind-the-scenes role, suping up cars for his son, Andre, who’s developed his own successful racing career using Herke’s cars.
“He drives with my wallet now,” Herke jokes.
Even as he approaches his 70th birthday, Herke’s love for cars hasn’t faded. He’s in his shop six days a week, constantly working on his cars to restore them and, of course, make them faster.
Herke remains modest, but his reputation as an expert BMW mechanic still precedes him.
“We still go on father/daughter road trips,” says Dickey. “I can’t believe how many people know who he is. Everyone comes up and asks him for advice. He becomes the guy everyone comes to.”
Big boy toys
Herke’s current car collection consists of the following:
• 1973 Pantera L
• 2002 BMW M3
• 1972 BMW 2002 tii
• 1972 BMW 2002 “Shorty”
• 1968 BMW 2002
• 1961 Porsche 356