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Petersen was born in East Los Angeles, California and served in the Army Air Corps in World War II. Starting with Hot Rod Magazine in 1948, he built his publishing empire on automotive-themed publications, including Car Craft, Sports Car Graphic and Motor Trend. He also published CARtoons, Guns & Ammo, Sport, Motorcyclist, Motor Life, Hunting, Mountain Biker, Photographic, Teen, Tiger Beat, and Sassy Magazine.
He married Margie McNally in 1963 and had two sons who died in a 1975 plane crash.
In 1996 Petersen sold his company Petersen Publishing Company to a private equity fund for $450 million which, in 1999, sold it for $2 billion to publisher EMAP. In 2001 it was sold to Primedia. In 2007 Primedia's enthusiast publications, including all the once-Petersen titles, were again sold to Source Interlink, controlled by Ron Burkle. In 1999 Petersen bought Sports Afield from Hearst Corporation and he sold it in 2002 to the owners of Safari Press.
An avid hunter and collector, Petersen had amassed a sizable collection featuring hundreds of unique and historically significant antique and modern firearms. Following Petersen's death, in following with his wishes, Bob's widow donated a 400-piece portion of his extensive collection to the National Rifle Association's National Firearms Museum in Fairfax, VA.  Among his collection the work of firearm engraver Richard Roy of Connecticut Shotgun are displayed.
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