NHRA - National Hot Rod Association

The return of Five Fabulous Favorite Fotos: Norman Blake

20 Jan 2009
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor

(Charles Denson photo)

One of last summer's popular Insider features was Five Fabulous Favorite Fotos, wherein I contacted some of the sport's greatest lensmen and asked for their best shots. I'm proud to bring it back and equally proud to reintroduce it with Norman Blake as its subject.

"Stormin' Norman" has long been considered one of the East Coast's finest racing photographers (this despite the fact that he only got his driver's license seven years ago and to this day has never even owned a car) and a longtime friend of mine, so I was proud to have him accept my offer to showcase his skills. Here's his story, in his own words, followed by his faves, which, as you will see, he found impossible to limit to five.

"I always had an interest in cars and cameras from an early age. I started making photos when I was about 8 years old with a Kodak Brownie Super 27 (which I still own). I would go to car shows and read the magazines that were out at the time: Hot Rod, Car Craft, Drag Racing USA, and any others I could get my hands on. I always liked seeing what cool and spectacular pics that were being made by people like Steve Reyes, Jim Kelly, Bob McClurg, Leslie Lovett, and others that were helping produce the images (which were plastered all over my walls) for these publications. Especially Reyes. I was always amazed at the moments he would catch on film! This would kinda stick with me down the road.

"In 1971, some older friends asked me if I would like to go to an eight-car Funny Car match race with them, and I jumped at the chance. This was at New York National Speedway out on Long Island. I was hooked at this point. So when they asked if I wanted to go to RacewayPark a few weeks later to another Funny Car show, I did not hesitate at saying yes. Once I found out I could get to RacewayPark by bus, I went as often as I could afford to. Along the way, I got a better camera and a longer lens and started to notice I could make photos like the ones I saw in the magazines and the track newspaper, Raceway News.

"I learned in school how to develop and print my own black and white film and prints and then struck up a bit of a through-the-mail Q&A friendship with Larry 'Max' Maxwell of L&M Photos fame. He was very helpful steering me in the right direction on what I was trying to do. I also started to sell some B&W prints to the gentleman who ran the souvenir stand on the spectator side of the track. Long story short, this got my foot in the door at RacewayPark. I was given a photo pass by Richard Napp, and from that moment on, I’ve been a contributor to their newspaper.

"When I finished high school, I hit the ground running. I shot the ’73 Summernationals with credentials and got to meet 'Max' and my other photo heroes. I had my first photo published in National DRAGSTER from that event. For the next 30 or so years, I basically ate, slept, and drank drag racing. I was Division 1 photographer for a year in 1980. I freelanced for all the publications that ran drag racing. I worked mostly for Super Stock & Drag Illustrated as one of their main contributors. I also contributed to Home Mechanics and Popular Mechanics. I was associate editor for a short-lived newspaper, Dragstar Racing News, and for Drag Racing Illustrated (which only lasted for one issue; the second never got to the newsstand). I also photo-edited publications for Fass/Harris and Engledrum Publishing Cos. early on. In the latter part of the '80s, I started doing freelance assisting for other photographers, doing lighting and whatever else it took to make a photo -- mostly on-location work. I also worked as a photographer (with 'Stat Guy,' Lewis Bloom, an accomplished photographer in his own right) for the N.Y. Roadrunners Club (the people who put on the New York Marathon in the late ‘80s early ‘90s) for their in-house magazine, New York Running News and also shot rock 'n' roll shows for fun. Some of that work has been published in books and magazines. Today I only go to a race on occasion as mostly I have been following and photographing the neo-burlesque and sideshow entertainment that is going on here in New York and around the country.

"I would like to thank Vinnie, Richard, and Uncle Lou Napp and their families, along with Vince Mele, for allowing me the freedom to do some of the crazy things I have done at RacewayPark to make some really cool pics. I would also like to thank Mike Civelli, Art Leong, Ray Cook, Dave Bergfeldt, Bill D'Ottavio, and the many others that allowed me to tag along for a ride on this roller coaster of a career. And thanks to my friends and colleagues for keeping me on my toes, too! Thanks everybody that has helped and supported my career to this day. Godspeed to those above that are no longer with us. You are sorely missed."

"Dale Barlet brought out his Funny Car to make a couple of test runs during a match race at Englishtown on this Sunday. Well, they fire up the car, and he pulls up into the water and proceeds to do one of the most horrendous burnouts you ever heard out of a Funny Car. He then proceeds to back up with engine sounding really horrible. I figured they would just back it up and shut it off because it sounded so bad. But lo and behold, he does a bit of a dry hop and proceeds to move toward the starting line to stage!

"Well the bell goes off in my head, and my brain says there is no way you are going to watch this thing run from the starting line. So I say 'See ya’ to my fellow lensmen that were standing there and ran as fast as I could toward the finish line. Now they all think I’m crazy. 'Stat Guy' Lewis Bloom (then announcer at the track) mentions 'There he goes' over the PA, and I haul buns! I keep looking over my shoulder to see if he is actually going to stage. He's still running, and so am I. He stages, and I stop dead in my tracks, focus my camera, and aim at the line as the car actually leaves when the green comes on!

"The car actually makes it under power to where I landed up, which was about three-quarter-track, and right about at the spot where I’m standing, the car erupts into a ball of fire. The car burns to the ground, but Barlet got out with a few serious burns. But sorry to say this just about ended his career as a FC driver. As I’m walking back to the line, Lewis asks over the PA how many frames I got, and when I got back to the line, everybody is shaking their head like 'How the heck did you know?' " (Nikon FE, motor drive, 80-200 2.8, 1/1000sec F8 ½ Tri-X film)

It’s another Pro Stock final at the last Division 1 WCS for the ’78 season at Raceway Park: Larry Lombardo (in Bill Jenkins' Monza) against Frank Iaconio in his Monza (co-owned with Ray Allen). This had been a longstanding but friendly rivalry for years. They do their burnouts, pull up to the line, and both cars get into the pre-stage beams, and they wait, and they wait, and they wait. One revs the engine, and the other follows suit. Well, this went on for a good two minutes, and then, in an instant, they both stage at exactly at the same time.

"The Tree goes green, and both cars leave the line. Lombardo fouls, but Frank shears the studs on the right rear slick and proceeds to cross the centerline and just miss the Christmas Tree, coming to a halt in the grass on the opposite side of the track, handing the win to 'the Grump' and Lombardo. I don’t remember, but I think division was decided on that pass, too. It was cool to witness. One of my all-time favorite runs." (Nikon FTN, motor drive, Vivitar 80-200 zoom, 1/1000sec F8 ½ Tri-X film)

"I’m on the line at Indy in 1984 when this Top Fuel dragster comes up to the line with no wing way up there in the wind like the rest. Instead, it has a wedge-shaped ‘ground effects’ tunnel hanging out from behind the slicks. He does his burnout and backs up, and I look at this thing and think of all the weird things that have been tried in the past that never really worked.

"So that little voice in my head says to go downtrack as far as I’m allowed to, which is about 300 feet out. The car is in the right lane, and I’m shooting from the left. The car stages and leaves on the green and starts shaking and smoking the tires. Under power, it hooks a quick right, getting the car sliding on its left side with the throttle hung wide open headed toward (thank God) the right-side guardrail with tires still blazing. Just as it gets to the guardrail, the car plops back on all four wheels just in time to go vaulting full throttle over the guardrail, turning itself into an expensive lawnmower. The car went the rest of the way in the grass, tearing up the front end and the grass pretty good.

"The driver, Phil Hobbs, got out okay, but his ego and the idea were a little worse for wear. It never ran again (that I know of) in that configuration." (Nikon FE, motor drive, 80-200 2.8 zoom 1/1000sec F11 Tri-X film)

“"Let’s get this out of the way right now: Kids, don’t try this at all, and the management here does not condone street racing. Now, back to our regularly scheduled story. Well, it’s another summer day in 1974 at the Coney Island amusement area here in Brooklyn. A display has been put together by the PRO organization (run by 'Big Daddy' Don Garlits) to show some of the cars that will be running that weekend’s National Challenge at New York National Speedway. 

"  ‘The Grump’ has his Pro Stock Vega, Flip Schofield has his Top Fueler, and Freddy DeName has his Camaro Funny Car. It’s the usual grip-and-grin sessions for the drivers and fans. Things were getting kinda boring, so Freddy decides 'I’m going to make a little noise.' He puts some fuel in ‘er and rolls the car away from the rest of the vehicles, then puts on his fire jacket and mask. They hook up the batteries and fire it up.

"So he’s sitting there with the body up and the engine cackling away. All of a sudden, he signals his crew to put the body down. They do so, and he backs the car up as they clear the crowd a bit. And then proceeds to do a burnout right there on the street!! This is all going on right up the street from the original Nathan’s.

"None of this was cleared with the local constabulary, but no one got in any trouble, either. (For those that don’t know -- I didn’t at the time, thank God -- Freddy was linked to some, as I will put it here, shady characters; you do the math). This pic is a bit historic for what is in the background, too, because it’s now all long gone. And what replaced it is gone now too, sad to say. As we speak, land developers are trying to get zoning to build condos and businesses that don’t belong there. It’s now just an empty lot.

"This is where I spend my free time shooting these days. Help Save Coney Island!" (Canon FTb, 50mm lens 1/1000sec F8 ½ Tri-X film)

"This was shot during qualifying for the 1976 WCS race at Englishtown. I was having an eventful day there in the lights. On this one roll of film, I shot Al Segrini collapsing a roof on the Highland Bandit AA/FC, then the Trojan Horse of Larry Fullerton lost a slick in the lights (but saved the car), then along comes Grant Stoms in the new unpainted Rampage Top Fuel car. I watched him coming down the track and all of a sudden noticed the supercharger leave the top of the motor. No bang or boom, so I thought. The car gets closer, and I see he is dragging the whole motor next to the car, held on by just the main fuel lines! All that was left in the frame was the crank still in the clutch with a rod or two on it. It was determined the cast-iron block just cracked around the main bearings, throwing it out of the car." (Nikon FTN, motor drive, 200mm Nikkor lens, 1/1000sec F8 Tri-X film)

"I learned a bit of a lesson this day: Don’t be lazy!!! I had a big old Nikon FTN with a motor drive, which was a heavy sucker. I decided I did not feel like carrying the weight around my shoulder this day, so I loaded up my Nikon EL2, which just had a winder on it and was lighter. (Note: A motor drive shoots a continuous burst of frames when the button is held down; a winder shoots a frame at a time when the button is pressed.)

"The order of the day was a match race between jet dragsters and fuel Funny Cars. Up comes Frank Mancuso in the Travel Agent Funny Car against Mike ‘Mr. Green Jeans’ Evegens in the Earthquake jet dragster. I moved out a ways to get a pic of the cars running side by side off the line after the handicap the Funny Cars got. The cars leave the line, and all of a sudden, the Travel Agent darts from the left into the right lane, where the Earthquake promptly T-bones the errant FC. I shot this picture and froze still looking through the camera. That voice in my head asks, 'Do you believe that just happened?' Meanwhile, the connected cars spun toward the grass as I watched through the camera lens. Then finally, the voice says again, 'Shoot it, stupid!' So I started rapidly pushing the shutter button. Remember … too lazy to use motor drive!! Well, I learned a lesson, and the rest is history, but at least I got the pic; the rest of the photogs there missed it!! Both drivers were injured but are around to reflect on this incident as they have in this column in the past.” (Nikon EL2, winder, Vivitar 80-200 zoom, 1/500sec F8 Tri-X film)

"Where were you when 'Big Daddy' blew over? I was at the other end of the track making pictures of the whole thing as best I could. It was a dingy day (lightwise) of qualifying at the 1986 Summernationals, so I figured I would head to the finish line and make a few high-speed-run pics, save a bit of film, and maybe even get something crazy if I could. That was the vulture in me thinking.

Well, I guess I sort of got what I was wishing for, because here came Don Garlits with his Swamp Rat XXX up to make a qualifying run alongside Darrell Gwynn. Both cars left the line, and all of a sudden, I can see almost the whole bottom side of Garlits' car, so I start shooting a frame or so as the car comes down the track going up and up and up and over!

"I buried the motor drive as the car did a pirouette on the wing strut and was bouncing with the throttle wide open, smoking the tires, and bouncing to a stop while backwards. The car stopped for a second, then started to drive back toward the starting line through the cloud of smoke he just created. This is when my heart started to race a bit for Garlits himself. I thought he might be out cold and the car would get back to the starting line under power, but the smoke cleared in time to see Garlits pull the car in the grass next to the lane he was in, cut off the motor, and get out and wave his hands to the crowd that he was all right. Whew. Then I turned to one of the other photographers standing next to me and said, 'There is a spectator sitting on a gold mine right now and does not know what to do with it.' I ran and did a few photos of Garlits being interviewed by Steve Evans and Diamond P.

"I was lucky enough to have this series published in just about every magazine that covered drag racing plus Car and Driver. It also appeared with the car on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History (where my sequence is in their archive), but as I said, I’ve seen some spectator photos of this that I would have killed to have been in their shooting position. My hat is off to you all that recorded this moment in drag racing history." (Nikon FE, motor drive, 200mm Nikkor lens, 1/500sec F4 Tri-X film)

"This is one of my favorite photos of the late, great Leslie Lovett. It shows three of the things he loved in life: drag racing, his photography, and his love for scavenging parts for his office decoration. If you ever saw his space in the old North Hollywood HQ, you probably could have built a car with the parts he had stashed there. Thanks for the inspiration and the friendship along the way. We love you and miss you, my friend!" (Canon FTb, 50mm lens, 1/1000sec F5.6 ½ Tri-X film)

Thanks for sharing your stuff, Norman. I know the readers here will eat this stuff up.

You can see more of Blake's great and diverse set of photographs online here.