Formula One racing had a profound effect on my life as a man and as a photographer. My superheroes weren’t Batman, Superman or Spiderman; they were Mario Andretti, Al Unser, Dan Gurney and Paul Newman.
I grew up in the “Inland Empire” in Southern California. I was surrounded by race tracks: Ontario Motor Speedway, The Riverside Raceway, San Bernardino Nascar Raceway, Long Beach Grand Prix and the Winternationals at the Los Angeles Fairgrounds. During the Winternational Drag races, I could stand on my front porch and hear the drag cars jet off to their finish lines, I could hear the burning rubber tires and smell the nitro in the air. I was miles away, but it was still thrilling.
Studying art photography in college and working full-time as a photojournalist gave me a lot of freedom to pursue both passions. On a scouting day September 3rd, 1977, I was at the Ontario Motor Speedway, I was enjoying lunch at the “Winner Circle” restaurant. I was approached by a wavy-haired Italian driver who later became a friend, Mario Andretti, we chatted for a long while and from that moment on we became friends.
When I was at the track on assignment, or on my own attempting to do my art-documentary work, Andretti would look for me ask me what I was working on.
On September 3rd, 1977 I was working on my personal race day art project. I wanted to hang in the garages, pits and concessions at the Ontario Motor Speedway and document behind the scenes. The next day was the official California 500 Open Wheel (Formula One cars).
I was excited to do my own personal work but, I needed permission from the United States Auto Club also known as USAC. I didn’t know who to approach so I spoke to Andretti. Andretti spoke to the USAC officials and came back to me with the bad news and the good news (that’s how he approached me with the news.)
The bad news was I needed a driver to sponsor me and he was already a sponsor. He stopped there for the longest — and what I think he thought was a funny — pause. I was floored and ready to pack up my gear, then Andretti gave me a big smile and put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Now the good news. Al Unser said he’d sponsor you.”
Andretti saved the day. After all, you always mess with your friends right!
Now you must understand that back in the late 1970’s the top three race car drivers IN THE WORLD were Al Unser, Mario Andretti and AJ Foyt. I now had access to them, their crews the cars everything. I spent the day shooting roll after roll of black and white film.
A dream came true.
If you’re interested, here’s some race date from the following day:
Race time: 3:17:16
Average speed: 154.687 mph
Pole speed: 195.111 mph
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