Stock Car Photos

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In the summers of 1969, 1970, and 1971 I photographed dirt track stock car racing at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds upstate in Fonda, New York, and at the dirt track in Morris, New York (near Oneonta). I used a Leica G that I bought for $50. from my college photography professor.

I had always loved stock car racing, and these local tracks had drivers and cars sponsored by local body shops and garages… working guys that banged metal all week, hauled their car to the track on Friday and Saturday nights for a little fun. It was hard, harsh, gritty work, hot, loud and thrilling. The smell of exhaust, hot metal, dirt, popcorn… the sounds of crickets and crowd voices and the ear-splitting roar of exhaust… the cars would slip and slew around in the wet mud for warm ups, trying to pack the dirt, and finally the flagman would signal that the track was ready, and the crowd would get restive, and the cars (20 or 30 of them) would tighten up, and they’d slowly rumble around and around the track, and then speed up in the fourth turn as the flags twitched, and when the green flag waved, all hell broke loose as they roared past the stands…

The purses were never very high, and anytime there was real money (like a $1000.) some well-heeled successful team would come down from Syracuse or Utica-Rome to win handily. My local guys must have really wanted to race. As you can see, some of the cars were held together with baling wire and spit. Tires would fly off, cars would smoke and die, some never make it off the infield grass…

I always felt the best time was after the last race, when the infield was open to the stands, and you walked over to the dark shadows of the infield grass. There would be the chinking sound of cooling metal and the chirp of crickets, the sputter and burst of sparks as someone tried to get some sheet metal away from a tire, the talk of folks drinking beer and laughter in the night… the stars and sometimes the moon up above, and the shadows with faces and shifting shapes all movement and indistinct on a summer night, the quiet all the more deep after the wildness of the races.

 I never used a flash, and the the low (sometimes close to non-existent) light levels posed an exposure problem. I used 1600 ISO (then ASA) film, and Mr. Zimmerman (the photo teacher) turned me on to chemical intensification of these still under-exposed negatives. I’d intensify them strip by strip in an open tray, bringing back ghost frames, almost clear with black spots from the lights, to some semblance of printable density. I will never forget the first one I printed, the “Northway Equipment” negative (up top). As the image came up in the tray I was breathless, and when I looked at it in the light I thought I had made the most beautiful thing the hand of man had ever fashioned. All grainy and coarse, with a wonderful textured granularity that captured exactly the harsh and gritty quality of the night, the deafening sounds, the screech of metal, the smell of burnt rubber and oil, the reek of gas and hotdogs and wet dirt, the ghostly flare of the lights up the poles, the deep, dense, impenetrable shadows next to glaring brilliance… the photographs were pictures of it all, smell, sight, sound and feel, and I had captured it.