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Remembering Jim Kelly, 'drag racing's Ansel Adams'

22 May 2015
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider
Steve Reyes photos

I don’t know who illustrated the reading you did as a kid, whether it was Dr. Seuss or Charles Schulz or Sergio Aragones, but for me, my favorite reading was usually accompanied by the photographs of Jim Kelly, one of our sport’s most prolific and greatest photographers, whose work filled the pages of magazines such as Drag Racing USA and guided this nascent fan’s journey and infatuation with the sport.

Guys like him, Steve Reyes, our own Leslie Lovett, Jere Alhadeff, Alan Earman, Jon Asher, John Shanks, Paul Sadler, Tim Marshall, Barry Wiggins, and many others were my eyes and ears for a wonderful sport happening beyond the boundaries of my pre-car teenage days, whisking me off to Beeline, Tulsa, Spokane, Green Valley, Maple Grove, Capitol, or wherever they chased the racing and brought it to my bedroom. There's little doubt that their memorable work -- I can still repeat great passages from their reports and instantly recognize photos and their location, date, and significance -- inspired me to join their world years later.

We lost Kelly earlier this week to the cancer he had fought and fought hard, and a little bit of all of us who lived those years died with him. Just reading the comments posted on Facebook pages by his peers and even the racers he worked with back in the day brings home what he meant to so many.

I’ll be honest; other than by reputation and a casual “How’s it going?” I hardly knew Kelly at all, but I always wanted to. I remember seeing him a few years ago at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood for the premiere of the Snake & Mongoose movie. I asked if he’d like to sit down and talk about those golden days on the road, but he politely declined. “I’m pretty much over all of those old days,” he said plainly, and I understood. I know there’s more to that story and reasons that I won’t go into here, but because I never got the chance to tell his story, I reached out to those who did know him, intimately, and will let them tell us all about him.

Here’s what I do know about Kelly, as gleaned from an article that he wrote about himself in the April 1975 Issue of DRUSA.

He started out on the other side of the camera, racing his ‘56 Austin Healey at places like Lions, San Gabriel, Riverside, San Fernando, Colton, and Bakersfield, and was pretty successful. Like many racers, he would buy photos of his car from local track photographers, including a fellow named Al Johns, who was a contributor to Drag News. When the Healey was totaled in a street-car accident, he knew that he wanted to stay in the sport and, realizing all of the money he had spent buying photos of his car, decided that photography might be the way to do it. Easier said than done.

“Boy, were my pictures bad,” he wrote. He got some advice from Johns and continued shooting for his own personal collection. Then one fateful day in May 1962, Johns didn’t have a shot that Drag News needed, and he asked Kelly to look through his own shots. Kelly had the photo, it got published, and Drag News publisher Doris Herbert thanked Kelly by giving him his first press card. And the rest, as we say, is history. Before long, he and Phil Bellomy had their own magazine, Drag Sport Illustrated, that specialized, as the name might indicate, in high-quality and larger photos. The racers loved it, but it only lasted three years. In 1963, he went on tour with Tommy Ivo as a crewmember and, naturally, brought along his camera and sent back photos of everyone and everything he saw and became fast friends with the era’s top racers, who admired his work.

With a reputation now as his calling card, he got work from everyone. He traveled to England for the 1963 U.S. Drag Team meet and covered it for Super Stock & Drag Illustrated, where he went to work after DSI died. He had a short stint in his dream job at Petersen Publishing, home to Hot Rod and other great titles, and eventually became the official photographer for the AHRA and, eventually, editor of its magazine, Drag World.

In the article, Kelly credited Asher for their partnership in those AHRA days as being the guy who put the words with his photos, and, fittingly, it has been Asher who kept us all up to date these late few weeks on Kelly’s condition, and it is Asher who kicks off the memories here. (You can find the full text of his remembrances, as well as some great photos, here.)

“James E. Kelly,” Asher wrote, “was so much more than ‘just’ a photographer. He was a friend to so many people both in and out of our little world of drag racing. He was thoughtful in ways both big and small. If you were among his inner circle you’d long since lost the ability to be surprised at the little unexpected gifts he’d send, because those gifts would arrive sporadically and seemingly out of nowhere.
 
“We met on Aug. 13, 1966, at Capitol Raceway Park outside of Baltimore. The event was billed as the 1st Annual King of Kings Funny Car Invitational. I thought I was hot stuff because I was shooting for Dodge (covering the Gary Dyer-driven Mr. Norm’s Grand-Spaulding Dodge altered wheelbase ‘65 Coronet), but in actuality, I knew nothing. Kelly sensed that, and so did the guy he introduced me to, Jeff Tinsley (who would go on to become a photographer for the prestigious Smithsonian Institute). They and every other shooter on the scene made fun of me because I not only didn’t know what a strobe light was, I was shooting with flashbulbs, dropping the dead ones on the ground after each shot. I’m embarrassed even thinking about it, but Kelly was cool, even taking me aside to ask some pointed questions about what I was doing and what I knew about photography and drag racing. My lack of knowledge was more than obvious.


Wherever Jim Kelly went, he was surrounded by friends and fellow photographers, many of whom owed their careers to him. (Above) In Gainesville, circa mid-1980s, from left, are Tim Marshall, Jon Asher, Kelly, Leslie Lovett, Steve Reyes, and Bob McClurg. (Below) Kelly made it out to the starting line one last time at the recent Las Vegas event. From left are Kelly, Richard Brady, Asher, and Ron Lewis.

“Just by observing how Kelly dealt with the AHRA managers, and how he approached things when selling photos to the likes of Super Stock & Drag Illustrated, Drag Racing, Drag Strip, Popular Hot Rodding, Hot Rod Magazine, and too many others to list here taught me volumes. As much fun as Kelly was having, he always treated photojournalism as a business. He taught me that as much as I might love drag racing, there was no point in spending the time and effort it took to do it if it didn’t produce enough revenue to make a living. He was the first one I heard say something like, 'The bank isn’t going to accept a photo credit in place of the house payment. You have to get paid for what you do.' He was oh so right.

“He loved to laugh, and he loved practical jokes. Mike Brenner, who was then shooting for SS&DI (I think), shared a room with us at the Holiday Inn in Bristol in 1969. The mirror in the bathroom was surrounded by screw-in 100-watt bulbs, but when I left the room (a mistake I rarely made again), Kelly and Brenner replaced every bulb with giant screw-in flash bulbs. They then conned me into turning on the lights, but luckily for me, I was partially turned away when the lightning struck. Every bulb went off with a bang -- and every light in the hotel went out. The power surge literally melted a huge junction box that was located right behind the wall of our room. Within seconds the flash bulbs had been replaced with regular bulbs, and the three times the hotel staff knocked on our door asking if we’d done anything with the power, we played dumb. Power was restored some six hours later. Kelly spent most of those hours quietly chuckling.

“In some ways it’s unfortunate that so many of today’s younger drivers never got a chance to meet Kelly, or witness the artistic merits of his sensational photography. I’m sure that Jack Beckman, who is a true historian of the sport, knows who Kelly was and what he did, but sadly, few others of the current generation are likely to know his name. What Kelly did was to chronicle history with a series of Nikon cameras. None of us thought we were doing anything that meaningful, but in reality, Kelly really was. He was creating images that would help spread the word about drag racing. His photos of West Coast competitors found their way into East Coast publications and vice versa. His memorable images of the AHRA Grand American Series helped make drivers like Hall of Famers ‘Mad Dog’ Don Cook and ‘Kansas John’ Wiebe into nationally known racers. He did the same for his close friends ‘TV’ Tom Ivo and Tom ‘the Mongoose’ McEwen. Not intentionally, probably, but nevertheless, Kelly helped make those racers familiar to fans from coast to coast. And, when he went to Europe with a team of American racers, he produced the first really meaningful international media coverage the sport had ever received.

“Kelly made a surprise visit to the spring race in his hometown of Las Vegas in April, where he was warmly greeted by the older shooters and ignored by the younger group -- until they found out who he was. It was nice to see how many of them asked to be introduced. It just demonstrated how important to drag racing his work had been, and the younger guys knew it.

Even the broken leg that Asher mentions couldn't slow down Kelly. Steve Reyes took this great photo of Kelly shooting a car feature on Don Cook at Lions.

“We shared everything on our journeys -- until the fateful day 45 years ago when Kelly and his gorgeous companion were cruising down Vermont Avenue in Los Angeles on his motorcycle and a car turned in front of them. They hit the car and flew over it, Kelly ending up with a broken leg and his companion with painful scabs in the most uncomfortable of places. That ended the 'sharing.' For the next three months or more I not only had to carry all my gear, I had to carry his, too. That also meant loading and unloading everything from the Cadillac and carrying it into the hotels we stayed at. Kelly always did the check-in, and I swear he asked for upstairs rooms just to watch me struggling up to our room.

“When Pat Minick and the Chi-Town Hustler Dodge Charger began doing the monster burnouts that made them famous, I called Kelly from my place in Chicago and told him how they were going to knock ‘em dead when they came to the coast in October. I was there when they ran at Orange County for the first time, and after the first burnout the announcer told the crowd that I was the one who’d 'invented' the big burnouts. It wasn’t even remotely true, but it was just one of those things that Kelly did for people. He wanted everyone to be famous for something, even 'inventing' a burnout.

“When Kelly is mentioned to drag racing’s most well-known competitors and builders, his name brings a smile to their faces. That he built lifelong relationships and friendships with the likes of Tom Ivo, Shirley Muldowney (who he introduced me to in 1969), Tom McEwen, Drag Racer Magazine editor Pete Ward, parts manufacturer Sid Waterman, and so very many others should come as no surprise. His outgoing personality, professionalism, and obviously sincere love of drag racing was evident to everyone he came in contact with. And he never forgot those friendships despite the passing of years or career changes. He remained close with his old high school buddy Don Gregory – who took him to his first drag race (slightly after the invention of the wheel), just as he did with Don Prieto, who got him into the car hustling business, providing vehicles for media evaluations, about three decades ago. If you were Kelly’s friend, you were friends for life. And, when you really think about it, the best of all of those little gifts and goodies Kelly was always sending your way was that friendship. It’s something I’ll never forget."
 

Bret Kepner, right, with Kelly and his wife, Suzy, who for years also contributed to the sport as a social columnist.

Bret Kepner also wrote a wonderful piece on Kelly, which, again, I will only excerpt here -- you can read the full version here – but, as always, Kepner nailed it.

“Within the drag racing mainstream, Jim Kelly will forever be known for his amazing photographic work. For those deep within the sport, he will live forever in the careers of the many to whom he gave guidance, wisdom, and purpose. Kelly’s legacy was not defined by color center spreads or circulation numbers. Possibly more than any other person, Jim Kelly was responsible for the rest of the drag racing media.

“While he held the ear of most important individuals within the industry, Kelly also had an eye for new talent. When he found somebody whom he believed could better serve the sport, Kelly nurtured their skills and often even became a father figure to help them develop spiritually and intellectually. If their work deserved it, Kelly would either hire the newcomer for his own use or send them to other businesses where they could perform to the best of their abilities. These ‘students’ included other photographers, journalists, technical writers, salesmen, and even drivers and mechanics. Jim Kelly was the sport’s 'headhunter.'

“When Jim Kelly eventually retired to Las Vegas in the last decade of the 20th century, he bore witness to the sport’s evolution from its earliest days to its modern entertainment principles. Throughout the metamorphosis, however, the sport grew and improved because of people Jim Kelly found and brought into drag racing. Moreover, Kelly maintained a relationship with virtually everyone he ever knew. The loyalty of his friendship was renowned.

“In that same half-century, it would be nearly impossible to find a photographer, writer, or adman who didn’t owe Jim Kelly a debt. In many cases, it would be difficult to find people in those same lines who didn’t owe Jim Kelly their livelihood. In the end, there were a surprising number of folks who simply owed Jim Kelly their entire existence. Most of the biggest names in drag racing media were simply 'made' by Jim Kelly. His own contributions to the sport, as well as those he made through his mentoring of others, were finally recognized in 2003 when Kelly became one of only a handful of drag racing media members inducted into Don Garlits’ International Drag Racing Hall of Fame.

“Jim Kelly will be mourned throughout the sport of drag racing. Many will extoll the loss of a true artist. Even more will remember his relentless pursuit of excellence for the manner in which the sport is reported. Within the group enduring the loss, however, will be hundreds to whom Jim Kelly gave the greatest possible gift, a direction in life."


 

(Above) Kelly with wheelstander great "Wild Bill" Shrewsberry. (Below) Doing a little light reading in an unusual place.
 
Kelly, center, with longtime pals Don "the Wavemaker" Prieto and "TV Tommy" Ivo

Dave Wallace Jr., whose father himself was a drag racing photographer and who followed Dad into the reporting biz, remembered Kelly’s earliest days at the track.

“Kelly was already a celebrity the first time I saw him at San Fernando Drag Strip, circa 1962. It must've been wintertime, because famous photographers almost never came to The Pond unless one or more of the bigger L.A. strips got rained out. Kelly never big-timed anybody out there. He was always friendly and complimentary to my father, who might've been the only published track reporter-photographer shooting Polaroid film (enabling Monday delivery of 'instant' B&W photos to the drag weeklies in time for that week's editions). Kelly knew the rules and obeyed them, getting great shots without demanding special access. I never saw him big-time anyone, but you knew he was someone special by the way other photographers reverentially clustered around him between runs, sucking up the stories. That scene repeated itself wherever Kelly appeared for as long as he shot photos. ‘Diamond Jim’ owned every photographers' area.

"Kelly was in the center of one of those circles the Sunday I finally worked up the courage to introduce myself, soon after Dave Jr.'s byline succeeded Dave Sr.'s in Drag News and Drag Sport Illustrated. Big, big mistake; the experience was so painful that it seems like a year or so ago, not a half-century. The last thing a skinny, insecure 15-year-old writer needed or expected was needling inflicted by one of his journalistic heroes, let alone in the company of other, older photographers. My youth and inexperience were easy targets. Seeking only to blend into a club I desperately wanted to join, I became its punching bag. The joke was on me. Everyone laughed. It seemed like forever before the action resumed and I could slink away. I tried to hold a smile through the whole ordeal, but one of the other guys, a stranger, must've felt my pain. Whoever he was tracked me down in the trophy room to say something like, ‘You must be OK with Kelly; he doesn't break balls unless he likes a guy, you know.’ I learned a lasting lesson that Sunday about the man, and about life.

"Most of the memories we shared were made in the mid-'70s, in Jim Tice's employment. He was pulling double duty as AHRA photographer and Drag World editor. I was OCIR's PR guy, second in command, and backup announcer. Whenever Kelly returned to California to cover AHRA's back-to-back Grand American meets at OCIR and Fremont, he sought me out during and between events for more ball-breaking, along with an occasional meal away from the madness. One day in my ground-floor office in OCIR's tower, he pulled a fresh stack of Drag World issues out of his briefcase, handed me one, and asked my opinion of his work. When I turned to a spread showing jam-packed bleachers down both sides of some AHRA track, shot from behind the starting line, he stopped me and asked, 'Do you notice anything unusual about these two photos?' Hard as I tried, I did not. Finally, he reminded me that this strip had grandstands along one lane, only. By printing a second crowd shot backwards, Kelly created the impression that AHRA had put twice as many butts in the bleachers.

“He was the Ansel Adams of drag racing photographer, a gentle giant of our sport, and one of the best friends I ever had, on or off the track.”

Reyes was another of Kelly’s traveling buddies and shared a few memories with me.

“We drove together and shared motel rooms, food, cameras, film, and sometimes women,” he wrote. “Kelly and I drove together to Gainesville in 1974. We drove 54 hours straight in Kelly’s van from L.A. I would also tour with Asher, and we would hook up with Kelly at the racetrack. At West Marion, Ohio, we got rained out, so I showed Asher and Kelly how the game of eight ball is played. Neither Asher nor Kelly would ever play pool with me again. Kelly was a big-time NFL football fan, and when he found out I had been attending NFL games (49ers and the first seasons of Oakland Raiders) when I was 3 years old to 14 years old, he thought that was the greatest thing since sliced bread. He liked hearing about all the Hall of Fame players I saw play; his eyes would light up when I began one of my NFL stories.

“He and I did a few goofy things, including setting a motel room on fire while trying to cook on a mini barbecue in our room. When I wasn’t touring the match race circuit, we all at one time traveled together -- me, McClurg, Marshall, Asher, [Don] Gillespie, [Norman] Blake, [Richard] Brady and, of course, Kelly. None of us were making big money, so we kind of traveled as a unit from major race to major race. We all (except Asher) processed film and did prints in a motel bathtub. Kelly did it for Drag World, and I did it for Drag News and sometimes National Dragster.

"Kelly paid me the best compliment I ever had early in my career. He told some of the early California drag racing photographers (including Lovett) that he hoped I never discovered color film or they would all be in trouble.

“Yeah, I cried when I heard he had passed; he was a mentor to me and a friend.”

Wrote Alhadeff, "Kelly was a spark in the life of everyone who knew him. He made it look so easy and encouraged all of us to do our best. I learned that we were all in this together and that WE SHOULD HAVE FUN! This photo is Kelly at San Fernando showing off the latest Polaroid and teasing us that with it he would put us all out of business! I will always smile when I think of him."

"About 40 years ago, I was two months into my four-month hospital stay after an accident. I hadn't heard from Kelly in a while and was surprised one morning when he walked into my room eating from a bag of potato chips. He told me that he had to come see me because I was the only one who visited him at home when he was recuperating with a broken leg after a motorcycle accident in the late 1960s. We both laughed, and then he crumpled up the potato chip bag and lifted up the mattress on my hospital bed and placed the bag underneath it. I explained to him that the last thing I needed in my hospital bed was ants! We both laughed some more, and he removed the bag and took it with him.

"In the early 1970s, Kelly was working at AHRA as their press guy and was determined to increase their professionalism. He mailed me one of the first AHRA press cards and explained that all I had to do was show it at an event to get press/photo credentials. Fremont, in the San Francisco Bay area, was at that time AHRA and was holding an AHRA national event. Following Kelly's directions, I showed up at the event and flashed my AHRA press card at the press gate. The guy at the gate looked at both sides of the card and asked if I had an NHRA press card. I asked him why I would need an NHRA press card at an AHRA event? I knew at that moment that Kelly had his work cut out for him if these people didn't even have credibility with themselves. When I later told Kelly about this encounter, all he could do was shake his head.

“Kelly was a great soul. He was unique and deserves praise and thanks from every drag race photographer he preceded.”


“This was when Kelly was the track photographer at OCIR," Alhadeff remembers. Shrewsberry was doing wheelies and suddenly stopped next to where Kelly was shooting and motioned him to get into the L.A. Dart. Kelly quickly set down his camera and got in. He then smiled at me from the passenger window as they flew by. He was ever the showman.”

Jim McCraw, who has written for just about every car magazine out there as well as many high-profile magazines outside our universe, called Kelly “a legendary figure in the art of drag racing photography, a funny, stylish man with a heart as big as California, and a great friend.”

McCraw posted the funny photo of Kelly at right on his Facebook page and forwarded it and his comments to me for inclusion here.

“I wasn't going to show this photo, because I've always considered it private and personal,” he wrote, “but in Jim Kelly's honor, and to show just what kind of wonderful nut he was, here is Jim Kelly in a photo, obviously shot by someone else, standing on the passenger pegs of his Honda 750, riding down Ventura Boulevard in the Valley, with a grease pencil notation in his own handwriting saying, ‘World's Fastest Sissy Bar.’ He gave me this print, I hung it on my bulletin board at Hot Rod magazine, and the next time he came in, he grabbed a grease pencil and rewrote the notation, rather sloppily, to read 'World's Fattest Sissy Bar.'
 
"I loved him, and I'm going to miss him for a long, long time.”
 

Shute took this neat photo of Kelly with Don Schumacher, for whom he had once served as a public relations guy back during Schumacher’s driving days.

Richard Shute, owner of the prolific Auto Imagery empire that today services many racers in the way that Kelly did, remembers his first meeting with Kelly, at Orange County Int’l Raceway in the early 1970s.

“I had not been shooting very long at trackside,” he remembers. “I was sitting on that big white utility box in the little triangle area by the tower. I think it was a PDA or Grand American event, and I had really no experience shooting fuel cars. So I saw Kelly -- I knew who he was, as did anyone that followed our sport back then -- walking from the staging lanes along the guardrail, stopping, turning around looking back towards the bleach box, walking a little further downtrack, stopping , looking back, and continuing down to maybe 300 feet. Then he walked back along the same guardrail towards the tower. I jumped down to go introduce myself, and I asked him what he was doing. This was to be my first lesson in shooting drag racing correctly. He explained that he was picking out backgrounds that he wanted, and that he would come out with the lenses that created the scene he wanted, incorporating those backgrounds. He taught me the importance of what is seen behind the cars. Lovett summed it up later for me: long glass on Thursday and Friday, wide angles on Saturday and Sunday to show off the crowds. Kelly gave me his business card and told me if I had any other questions, to please just ask or call. At the bottom of his business card, it stated, ‘Over a decade of Drag Racing Photography.’ As I walked away and thought about what he just told me, I couldn't help but think to myself, 'How the hell do you do this for a decade?' Kelly and I spoke often back in the ‘70s, and he continued to teach me that this is a business, and to treat it as such.

“Much of what I do today and how I do it goes back to that dumb kid walking up to Kelly that day, decades ago. He was a mentor, a business advisor, a hero, and most of all, a friend. Wiggins and I had a nickname for him; we called him ‘National.’ I saw him as my ‘National Hero.’ My words cannot convey how much I owe Kelly and what a profound loss I feel. Thank you, Jim Kelly, and may you rest in peace.”

The loss of Kelly is just the latest of many I’ve seen in my years in the midst of some of the most fun and dedicated chroniclers of our sport. Of course, the losses of our own Leslie Lovett and Bill Crites are among the more painful, but the list is long and filled with great talents, including others with whom I worked at National Dragster or in their time after they left here, most notably my mentor, John Raffa, as well as guys like Dick Wells, Steve Evans, and Eric Brooks. In the last few decades, we’ve lost great drag journalists and photographers like Steve Collison, Woody Hatten, Eric Rickman, Gray Baskerville, Les Welch, and Pete Pesterre; electronic-reporting pioneers like Ed Dykes, Mike Hollander, and Darryl Jackman; and industry leaders like Robert E. Petersen, Tom McMullen, and Tom Senter, most of whom I knew to some degree and all of whom I greatly respected.

We’re still a tight bunch, those of us today who travel to and from events by air instead of in someone’s van, and at every race, it’s great to see the same faces along the guardwalls and in the media centers, all carrying on the tradition, and all doing our best to keep alive the torch passed to us by the guys I’ve mentioned. I’m proud to be in the club, that’s for sure.