NHRA - National Hot Rod Association

Five Fabulous Favorite Fotos: Steve Reyes

The dean of drag racing action photographers shares a handful of his famous and unforgettable photos
04 Apr 2008
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor

Steve Reyes needs little introduction to most longtime drag fans. His is probably one of the best-known names in the business, and there isn’t a single photographer past or present who doesn’t admire and respect his body of work.

Reyes always seemed to get the shot, and his photos were eagerly torn from magazines and pasted on the walls of many young fans such as me in the 1960s and ‘70s. If there was a great crash and burn photo, good odds were you’d find Reyes' name in the credit.
I first met Steve back in the 1980s, right after I came to work at DRAGSTER. My best friend, C. Van Tune, worked for Popular Hot Rodding magazine, where Reyes worked. (Van got into the publishing biz a year or so before I did. He went on to become the editor of Motor Trend, traveled the world, became a TV motorsports celebrity, and owns a bajillion cars including a Lamborghini, Corvette, vintage muscle cars, early Cadillacs and Buicks. Apparently, he’s filthy rich now and retired; me, I’m still here. But I'm not bitter.)

Reyes, too, has cut back on his work, but I caught up with him during his annual trip to Gainesville last month to ask for his Five Favorite Fotos. Here they are, with his story. Enjoy. “I attended my first drag race in 1963 and got hooked on the noise and power of the Top Fuel dragsters. In late 1964, I bought my first 35mm camera. I photographed racing at all the Northern California tracks, and if there was a big race in SoCal, I would try to find a NorCal racer who was heading south and hitch a ride. “In 1969 I became Division 7 photographer, covering all those races for National DRAGSTER. I still lived in NorCal, but most of my freelance clients and magazines were in SoCal, so in 1970 I relocated to seven miles from Lions Drag Strip. I ate, drank, and slept drag racing. Weekends were drag racing, and weekdays were film processing and printing. It was a crazy but fun time.

“Magazine and product work took over most of my time. I covered NHRA, AHRA, and IHRA races plus street rod events. One month in 1972, I had the cover photo on eight of 11 automotive magazines. Yeah, it was cool, but a lot of work. On Halloween of 1973, I became the photographic director for Argus Publishing. They had 12-plus magazine titles, and I got to shoot pics for all of them for the next 20 years and four months. They sent me everywhere there were cars, trucks, motorcycles, drag racing, sprint cars, mud bogs, and monster trucks. I went to every state in the USA, including Alaska and Hawaii, plus Europe, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, and all over Canada. All told, I've been to 109 dragstrips worldwide.

“To relax from automotive photography, I photographed Major League Baseball (1981-85) and the National Hockey League (1991-95) and still did my automotive pix. In 1994, I left Argus and California for the St. Louis area and freelanced for Argus or anyone who had money. In 1996, I moved to New England, then to Ocala, Fla., in 2000; my wife's CFO position dictated the moves. The traveling and abuse of my body in the early days caught up with me these last eight years. Getting old really sucks. “My wife, Bethany, and I have three daughters: Ashley (22), Haley (9), and Emily (3). Besides my daughters, the coolest thing to happen to me was in 2002 when I was inducted into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame. I'm one of four photographers to receive this honor.”

"This photo of Larry Bowers' clutch boom was shot at an [Orange County Int'l Raceway] Top Fuel meet in 1972. I was on the hill at the far end shooting when a couple of women started waving at Paul Sadler and me. There was an oildown, so we crossed the track to talk to the ladies. We made small talk, and soon we heard the sounds of nitro engines firing. We were trapped on the wrong side of the track. Oh well, let's shoot this pair then scurry back to the hill. Here comes Bowers. All I see when he enters the lights is a puff of black dust. I shoot, and all hell breaks loose around Paul and me. Pieces of clutch and engine block are pinging all around us. Sitting on the ground about five feet from us is a still-smoking pressure plate. Shot with a motor drive Nikon F with a 200mm lens."
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"Joe Winters and his flying Funny Car body happened in Fremont, Calif., in 1971. I had traveled to almost the end of the track to photograph cars and chutes. Someone oiled the track, so I ventured further down the track to answer nature's call. So here I am at the end of the racetrack, camera in my right hand. I hear a fuel Funny Car, and he's coming down the track. I raised my trusty Nikon and aimed. Woof! The body flies sky high."
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"One of my all-time favorite classes of drag racers: the AA/FA. This is Fred Sorenson's awesome Warlock at Fremont, 1967, with Herb Pickney at the controls. Because I was young and dumb, I was on my knees shooting. The manager of Fremont, Ron Lawrence, was pretty cool about where I could go to shoot pix. His only advice: 'Don't get run over!' The Warlock slowly creeps into the staging beams. The light goes green, the rear tires explode into billows of white smoke, and the front end heads for the moon. I thought for sure I was dead meat. Up goes my beat-up Pentax 35mm. Click. The Warlock crashed down to the track in front of me. I felt the earth move, but, hey, I got the photo!"
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"This was at one of those big-time Lions Funny Car circuses in 1967. It seemed like everyone who was anyone in the world of Funny Car racing was there. Lew Arrington and his Brutus GTO pull up to race Dickie Harrell and his Camaro. Well, since Lew is a friend and I do lots of photo work for his sponsor, Goodies Speed Shop, I stay on his side. A wave of photographers moves to Harrell's side. He's been doing wheelstands, so they all want that Kodak moment. Both cars stage, the light flashes green, and Harrell goes into a sky-high wheelstand. Meanwhile, Brutus moves about 10 feet, and boom! the transmission explodes in fire. My camera clicks, and I'm sure Lew is dead. The Lions starting-line crew is on the ball, and the fire is quickly put out. Through the smoke, I see Lew climb out and wave to the crowd. He's unhurt and less one tranny. This photo was shot with a Pentax 35mm, 50mm lens, and a $10 Fan flash unit with a flash bulb."
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"Yeah, this was a big boom. Larry Brown driving Bob Dumont's AA/FD at Tulsa in 1972. Parts and pieces everywhere. The tire, or what was left of it, flew over my head in the photo area. It was one nasty explosion. Motor drive Nikon F with 180mm lens."
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