If there's a single photo that resonates deeply with all of us old-time race fans and racers, it’s this famous shot of "the Ridge Route Terrors," Roger Coburn and James Warren, photographed by Jon Asher in Coburn's garage.
Everything in this powerful image just screams at me. It’s the West Coast's most dynamic Top Fuel duo, at home in what's surely the most humble of race headquarters. Warren rocked back perched atop a milk crate, his hand resting comfortably atop a supercharger, while the lanky Coburn kicked back in a cheap folding chair, feet atop another milk crate. Around them were spread parts of their dragster. A cylinder head on a shelf. Head gaskets on the wall. Fans of the team always knew that they were old-school to the bone; for years, they used one of the smaller tagalong Ed Wills-built trailers instead of the fifth-wheel Chaparral. Yet out of this humble garage roared an orange beast that few on the West Coast could tame. If I had to put a single word on this image, it would be "genuine," which, I guess, for a photographer is always the goal.
With the passing last week of Coburn, I thought it was time to get to the story behind the photo. Asher was happy to oblige.
The 'Garage Photo'
How it came to be and what it has meant
Thirty-six years ago, I was a relative newcomer at Car Craft magazine, carrying the masthead title of competition editor. It was almost a joke among the staff of highly motivated car nuts. These were guys who not only knew everything about cars, but they would ultimately prove incredibly influential in the formation of such categories as Econo Dragster and Altered and the Super Modified classes. We had guys on the staff capable of winning both divisional races and national events -- and did so. And then there was me, who (sometimes) knew where the engine was located in a car and could usually tell the difference between a carburetor and a supercharger.
I’m outlining this because I think it’s relevant. Our staff planning meetings were filled with story ideas covering the gamut from how-to stories for beginners to complete car buildups. Candidly, I was unable to contribute any ideas along those lines because, well, I didn’t know anything. My feeble story concepts were all about drag racing and the people who made the sport happen, and in 1974, few made it “happen” more than "the Ridge Route Terrors," James Warren and Roger Coburn, in their gorgeous Rain for Rent machine.
Reluctantly, the staff and editor agreed to let me do a feature story on this often taciturn duo from Bakersfield, Calif., so I made a few phone calls and connected with them. We agreed on a date that I’d drive up from L.A. to do the story, but when I reached the Grapevine, it was already heavily overcast, and by the time I’d reached Bakersfield, a steady, soft rain was falling.
We met at Roger Coburn’s place and sat down to talk about their racing exploits. To be honest, I don’t remember a word of that conversation because I already knew their car wasn’t assembled, it was raining, and I was pressing a deadline. I had plenty of action shots of the car but nothing of a personal nature. I had some shots of the guys at the track, but we needed more. When they showed me their “shop,” an overcrowded garage complete with washing machine and the assorted detritus of any suburban garage, I started to panic, but then I figured, what the heck, I’m not going back to Los Angeles with a story and no photos.
Roger and James were reluctant but agreed to sit in the garage for a time exposure, and I set up a tripod in the driveway in the rain with a coat over my Nikon between photos. We shot maybe a half dozen time exposures on Tri-X black and white film at various shutter speeds and f-stops. Even with a light meter, I was pretty much guessing, something that the onset of digital photography has all but eliminated. In today’s world, you fire off a few exposures, look at them in the back of the camera, and then instantly adjust your shooting accordingly. In 1974, you shot the photo, dropped off the film at the Petersen Publishing photo lab, and hoped you hadn’t made a fool of yourself.
Because I was unable to show them the finished photo, I’m pretty sure James and Roger figured they were dealing with an idiot. They’d been featured in other magazines, always in a photo shoot in bright sunlight with a pleasing background. This was in the rain in a crowded, overfilled suburban garage. A photo studio it wasn’t! And, since I’d never really met them before that afternoon and evening (other than the usual “How ya’ doin’?” at the track), I left there with the distinct impression that they thought they’d just wasted four or five hours.
The shot worked, and we used it as the opening for the story, and that was pretty much it. Then we started to get reaction from our readers, who seemed to like what they saw. Sometime later, Joe Martinez became CC’s art director, and our offices moved from one side of the building at 8490 Sunset Blvd. to the other. That’s also relative because Joe decorated our offices with various photos from the magazine, including my shot of Warren and Coburn in the garage, which by then had been blown up to poster size and board-mounted.
When Joe left to become corporate art director for the NHRA, he took some photos with him (with permission), including an 8x10 of the Warren and Coburn shot. As I recall, a couple of months later, he called and asked if I’d mind if they made a big blowup of the shot for the Museum. I was honored to have one of my photos selected, but there was a problem. Joe wanted the original negative to make the blowup, and it couldn’t be found. In fact, to my knowledge, it's never been located. I’ve always assumed that when the original blowup was made for our office at Car Craft, the negative was used by the outside company that made it, and it was either never returned or somehow lost in shipment. Joe ultimately used his 8x10 print from which a copy negative was made and the blowup printed for the Museum.
About five or six years ago, then-NHRA Vice President Steve Gibbs called and asked if I’d be willing to autograph 100 posters of the shot, although I couldn’t imagine why anyone would care if I signed them or not. The posters were then shipped to Bakersfield, where they were signed by James and Roger before they went back to the Museum for sale. I’ve been told on more than one occasion that the shot is the largest-selling item in the Museum. Years ago, Gibbs had asked me what I wanted in payment, but I declined, saying the Museum should keep whatever revenue was generated to help keep it going.
I never heard a direct word from either Roger or James about the photo, but I did hear from a few people who were friends with them that they loved it. Gibbs also told me that, so in the long run, it all worked out.
Please don’t misunderstand what I mean by this, but every photographer has at least one shot that will be forever linked to him. For Hall of Famer Steve Reyes, I think that shot is his clutch explosion from Larry Bowers' car at Orange County. For Bob McClurg, it’s his coming-off-the-line-sideways-smoking-the-tires shot of "Wild Willie" Borsch. For Hall of Famer Jim Kelly, there are too many to remember just one. For me, there are two shots in 45 years that are memorable, at least to me if no one else. The Warren and Coburn shot is one of them.
Through the passage of time, I found out that this once-invincible duo of Warren and Coburn had had a falling-out and were no longer talking to one another. It was, in some respects, like a long-term marriage that just doesn’t work any longer. For those of us on the outside, that “divorce” seemed surprising because there was no Warren without Coburn and no Coburn without Warren.
With Roger’s passing, drag racing has lost an iconic figure, a tall man who stood much taller than that in our little world of drag racing. I know there will be those who learn of his passing with regret, regret that they didn’t make that phone call to him last year or last month. We lose too many people every year, people we know in our hearts we should have spent more time with. Don’t let the next friend’s passing leave you with a feeling of remorse for having unintentionally ignored him or her. Pick up the phone and make that call. Today. Tell that friend how much you care. He’ll feel better for it, and so will you.
Thanks, Jon. What a great story.
I never really did anything in this column with James or Roger, but we did have some interesting stuff on them from other people in April 2008. In this column, former Top Fuel driver and W-C-M crewmember "Nitro Noel" Reese gave us a behind-the-scenes look at the team, and the second half of this column includes some of your personal memories and photos of the team.
RIP Roger Coburn.