NHRA - National Hot Rod Association


Friday's Five Fabulous Favorite Fotos: Joel Gelfand

Longtime drag racing photographer Joel Gelfand shares his favorite images
22 Feb 2008
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor

It's Friday which can only mean one thing (at least in this column): Time for another round of Five Fabulous Favorite Fotos. This week we reverse the lens and point it at someone outside the DRAGSTER staff: Southern California-born and -bred Joel Gelfand, who has been a constant photographic fixture on the NHRA tour for two decades, shooting the track at both ends with equal adeptness. Joel, a lifelong drag racing fan, remembers well his introduction to our sport.

"When I was about 7 or 8, my next door neighbor 'snuck' me with him to a race at Irwindale," he said. "I don't remember much about it except that it was the most amazing thing I'd ever seen or heard! I started to shoot freelance news for the local paper in 1980 and in 1985 I bought a Nikon FE2 and a couple of lenses. The FE2 had a top shutter speed of 1/4000th and I wanted to see what it could do, so I went to the top-end grandstands at a Pomona Funny Car qualifying session. It was Billy Williams in his first nitro attempt running alongside the Blue Max. Williams had a massive explosion right in front of me, and at 1/4000 the shots were awesome. I showed them to friend from photo school, Gary Nastase, who introduced me to both Dave Wallace and Les Lovett. They both ran my photos. Dave mentored me with some writing and Les took me under his wing with the cameras and I've been getting my 1320 fix ever since! I have to thank Lanny Miglizzi, Teresa Long, Jim Kelso, Ralph Gorr, Phil Burgess, Tim Marshall, and Lou Gasparrelli for helping and encouraging me over the years.

So, without further ado, here are Joel Gelfand's Five Fabulous Favorite Fotos and the stories behind them.

"In 1988, I met Alan and Blaine Johnson through Ralph Gorr and became friends with their entire family. I knew they were building a new TAD at the farm in Santa Maria, so I drove up to shoot a feature on the car. This shot of Alan, Blaine, and dad Everett is a special one to me."
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"Shortly after Firebird International Raceway opened neat Phoenix I covered the first National Time Trials in 1985 for Hot Rod's Drag Racing magazine. This may have been my first time shooting the top end and it didn't take long to get "broken in!" Paul Smith was driving the Bill "Captain Crazy" Dunlap-owned Funny Car. Right at the finish-line the car erupted into a ball of fire. I was standing in the small hill just before the Goodyear bridge with my Nikon F3. Shooting with a 180 2.8 lens at about 1/500 second, F/8 I was able to capture 20 frames before running out of Ecktachrome 100 film. I remember feeling the heat as the car went past me and thinking that the driver was in serious trouble. Smith suffered only minor injuries and was back behind the wheel in just three weeks taking the teams back-up flopper to the final round of the ADRA Winter Nationals in Tucson. After that, Smith parted ways with Dunlap."
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"I took my first of two trips to Gainesville with Lou Gasparrelli in 1985. During qualifying, Bob Gottschalk attempted to qualify in a nitro flopper for the first time. His attempts were wrought with troubles and on this run the car exploded into flames before the finish line. I was again shooting top end and after getting a couple of shots on the car blazing past me in black & white I watched as Gottschalk went into the shrubs past where the guardrail ended. The fire took off into the woods next to the track, causing a major brush fire. In this shot, members of the NHRA Safety Safari are on the scene as trees near the track are engulfed in fire. There was a delay in qualifying due to the fire and smoke. Gottschalk suffered moderate burns. Nikon F3 @ 1/500 second, Nikkor 35-105 zoom lens. Ecktachrome 100."
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"This shot of 'Comet Skuza' was shot at the Texas Motorplex in Ennis in 1996. I was sitting in the new top-end bleachers for the Friday night qualifying session and caught Dean's first fuel Funny Car fire. He was uninjured but the same could not be said of the car... Nikon F3 @1/30 sec Nikkor 180 2.8 Fujichrome 1600."
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"When I took this shot of the IN-N-Out Burger Funny Car at the 1993 Winternationals, I was shooting top end for late National DRAGSTER photo editor Les Lovett. I had bought a Nikkor 600 4.0 super-telephoto lens the year before and Les had taken me under his wing and taught me how to use it on the big end of the racetrack. When he felt I knew what I was doing and was smart enough to not get hurt, he had me shooting top-end for him at several races. I also was shooting top end for Dave Wallace and Jon Asher back then. One of the most important things I'd learned was how to work WITH the TV camera operators. They knew I would not get in their way and we got along very well. When I took this shot I had no idea that Oswald and the Over-The-Hill Gang had made an amazing 5.06 run. I was concentrating on: 1) getting as many shots as possible; 2) getting out of Diamond P cameraman Jeff Kelty's way; 3) getting away from the wall; and 4) seeing Oswald get out of the car safely and uninjured. All four things happened! Camera: Nikon F3 Shutter speed: 500th/sec Motor Drive Speed: 6 frames/second Lens: Nikkor 600 4.0 F/8."
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Joel's third shot brought back some amazing memories. I also was shooting at the top end when Gottschalk blazed through there. Actually, the day before he had come through and lost some header bolts, and the pipes scraping the ground launched sparks into the woods and started a smaller fire which was quickly extinguished. The next day, he returned and things got worse.

What I remember most was the bravery of the Safety Safari team as they waded, hoses blasting, into what was a pretty significant forest fire to knock it down. Obviously these guys are trained for racetrack emergencies, but they wasted little time doing what was necessary here ... just one more reason why the Safety Safari gang is the best safety team anywhere. For some reason that escapes me now, I followed them into the brush, camera in hand like some crazed war correspondent, to catch their heroic efforts.

That race was memorable for a lot of the wrong reasons. It was the first national event after four-time Pro Stock champ Lee Shepherd's death in a testing accident, and I remember his peers doing a missing-man formation up the track before eliminations. Gottschalk's was one of eight nitro and alcohol floppers to catch fire at that race, Harold Denton spun out and crashed his Party Time Pro Stocker, and there was a lot of parts carnage. It also rained like hell.

Not a good weekend.