Rows of colorful racing helmets with complex designs lined the walls of Eric Petring's workspace Monday as he delicately moved an airbrush over his latest masterpiece.
He carefully blended white paint into the black-and-yellow checkerboard pattern on the helmet driver Jamie Nilsen will wear during this weekend's Columbia Cup hydroplane races.
The helmet is one of seven Petring designed and painted for drivers to wear. He crafts all the helmets in the back corner of his friend's two-car garage on West Clearwater Avenue in Kennewick.
Petring, 47, of Pasco, the owner of Central Coast Airbrush, talked over the humming of a large box fan Monday afternoon about the creative process involved in designing some of the most elaborate helmets in all of sports. A helmet can take anywhere from 10 to 25 hours to create.
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"You really get to get your creative juices flowing and run with the idea (the race teams) want to do," Petring said. "It's just cool to see your artwork going around in a circle at 200 mph."
Petring, who has always had a creative side, got into the art of airbrushing in 1992 when his former in-laws bought him lessons with an instructor as a gift, he said. After getting the basics down, he decided to move to Pismo Beach, Calif., to airbrush T-shirts.
He stayed in California for around a year before packing his belongings into a full-sized Chevy van and hitting the road, he said. He traveled the country for seven years attending NASCAR, drag and motocross races as a vendor.
"I set up shop and painted everything and anything," he said. "I even put a motocross number 12 on the side of a family dog."
While working the drag races at Pacific Raceways in Kent, Petring was asked by a Budweiser race crew to airbrush an image of the hydroplane on a T-shirt, he said. The crew members liked the painting so much they offered Petring a tour of their facility and eventually took him on the road to help with the hydroplane.
"I was basically a glorified towel boy," Petring said.
After spending a few years with the Budweiser team, Petring jumped over to U-100 Leland Unlimited racing to help owner Fred Leland, who has since passed away, he said. He designed helmets, painted boats and helped with some aspects of the day-to-day operations.
By that time, Petring planned to settle in the Tri-Cities to enjoy the sunny weather and get away from the hustle and bustle of Seattle, he said. In the early 2000s, he decided to call it quits from working as a hydroplane crew member.
"I got tired of running with the big boys," he said. "I basically retired, more or less hanging out at the beach drinking beers."
However, Petring continued to design paint schemes for boats and helmets for drivers on a regular basis, he said. He also airbrushed locally for his business, designing signs and murals, as well as painting motorcycles and cars. It wasn't until last year -- when a member of Leland Unlimited coaxed Petring out of retirement -- that he decided to return as a crew member, he said. He traveled with the team for about six months, driving across the country airbrushing for Leland Unlimited and other teams on the circuit. Though he didn't make much money, his expenses were paid for and he got to be close to the action on race day.
"It's kind of that rock star lifestyle," he said. "But it does get to be quite an ordeal. The burnout factor is quick."
Petring has since returned to the Tri-Cities and doesn't have any immediate plans to go back on the road, he said. However, he does still attend many of the H1 Unlimited races to hand-deliver his helmets to drivers, a unique aspect of his business he takes pride in.
The past month has been busy for Petring, as he has been asked to design and paint multiple helmets for circuit races.
When J. Michael Kelly took first place earlier this month in Madison, Wis., he wore a helmet designed by Petring. The design, a red helmet with black flames, is one of Petring's favorites.
The seven drivers who will sport Petring-designed helmets during the races along the Columbia River this weekend are Kip Brown, J. Michael Kelly, David Warren, Greg Hopp, Jamie Nilsen, Brian Perkins and Scott Liddycoat, Petring said.
Petring will not be affiliated with any race team during the Columbia Cup and plans to watch the races from his boat, he said.
Though designing the helmets is a tedious process, Petring will continue to create helmets for H1 races to help keep his favorite sport alive, he said. He doesn't profit off the H1 helmets he makes and just gets enough money to cover expenses.
"I do it for the satisfaction of seeing my art out there on the water," he said.
For more information on Petring's custom designs, call 509-539-7758 or email email@example.com.
-- Tyler Richardson: 509-582-1556; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @Ty_richardson