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Of Light and Time: Photo Adventures in Mopar Land

While I make a pretty good living as a journalist (though some may disagree with that definition of what I churn out), I have to admit that I live more in the pursuit of the perfect image like most diehard photographers. I am not an artist in the sense that I look for something weird or obscure and try to make it seem important; after all, I never understood the fascination of looking at the wood grain of an old barn wall. I can appreciate technical excellence, but I don’t have to feel like a ‘pro;’ no 8x10 Sinar view cameras or $30,000 digital Hasselblads are mixed in with my camera gear. I am done with film regardless, having been on the take too long now as a scribe who thrives on the idea of being able to flip stuff on deadline (like this column, which I am cranking out just hours before Burk is going to call and start asking me questions about my deadlines).

No, I am much more drawn to the idea of light. After cranking out car features, I’ve learned that I don’t even want to take my cameras out between 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. on summer days – I want sunrises, sunsets, thunderstorms, and pollution-laden skies to add ambiance to the cars I am placing in them. Since leaving the employ of Mopar Muscle several years ago, I have also become much more open-minded about all sorts of cars, and have shot a lot of rare Yenkos, Shelby Mustangs, Z-28 COPOs and more. That said, my best ‘luck’ always comes with the Pentastar crew.

Every photographer wants an iconic image, and I was lucky to get one back in 2001 when I had a chance to photograph a fire burnout that we had set up during a project I was doing for Ro McGonegal, who was editing HOT ROD at the time (before coming to Burk’s empire as the editor and head philosopher at sister publication MaxChevy.com). Brian Kohlmann had his nitro-powered 1965 Dodge Coronet recreation at George Ray’s outlaw track in Arkansas, and we did the deed in three tries (one too cold, one too hot, and one just right). The sunset came in perfectly for the final image, which ran in the center of HOT ROD and which Mopar bought from me for a well-distributed poster a couple of years ago. Everybody knows that image.

There were the more dangerous ones that I might not try again. About 10 years ago, I was shooting Ronnie Sox’s brand new match-race SS/AA ’68 ‘Cuda one afternoon at Mooreville Dragway in the heart of NASCAR engine-builder country and wanted a low-down shot. Sox knew me well enough that he did a burnout as I laid down so I could shoot almost under the car with a wide angle – I was on the TRACK itself and that Hemi was roaring away about 18 inches and the front tire was even closer. I rolled back as he released the line-loc, clicked a frame, and closed my eyes so I wouldn’t see my own death if something went wrong. The image was good and Ronnie and I joked about it every time we saw each other until his passing. (Oh, and Cliff, if you ever find that slide, I’d sure like to get it back!).

Danger? I remember standing next to Tommy Johnson’s MOPAR nitro dragster at Atlanta as it broke apart on the starting line in the early 1990s, but that was nothing compared to the one time I stood in the starter’s box between two IHRA also-ran fuel cars set on 100% kill at Cordova, Illinois, one humid Saturday night – only needed to experience that sensation ONCE! (and I didn’t get the shot, either). One boom I did get was the aforementioned Kohlmann, in the original ‘65 Jake’s Speed Equipment Plymouth at one of Frank Spittle’s muscle car reunions, totally exploding a non-blanketed Torqueflite, complete with shrapnel flying.

Bob Reed, who had built the Sox car, became the subject of one of my favorite people shots. Reed and I would get to having a couple of beers or three in the pits, and one night at Bristol I ended up on the camper bed rather than foolishly getting back in my car and trying to smell my way home. The next morning, despite Goody’s powders, the pain was acute for both of us, and I shot a photo of Bob for the now-defunct Inside Motorsports newspaper, sitting in the staging lanes with a morning cigarette and an all-business look in his eyes. I have a single copy of that print in my files; need to find that negative one of these days.

Action images are fun, but they tend to trash equipment on occasion. Dave Hakim at Mopar had brought a new SRT8 Charger to the NHRA race at Bristol in 2006 before they were on the street. I came up with this idea to pretend we were bootleggers and would drive it up to the North Carolina line that afternoon. On the way back, the mountain sunset was gorgeous and I had a brand-new ultra-wide 15-30 lens; this one was by Sigma and had a big concave round front glass element. In other words, there was no way to put a safety filter on it. So, at about 60 miles an hour, I was holding the camera out of the sunroof, shooting the sunset, roofline, hood blister and the road disappearing into the distance. I got home, and found all these bugs had plastered themselves into oblivion to that front glass, ruining the special coating used to disperse light.

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