Inside The Archives Of A 40 Year Motorsport Photographer
Photography by Kurt Oblinger
Up on the shelves in my garage are boxes, the kind you buy at Staples or Office depot for keeping your tax records in, or maybe your kids drawings from kindergarten. I have about fifteen of theses simply labeled “slides”. In 1972 I attended my first car race, the 1972 Times Grand Prix Can-Am race at Riverside. I took along a Pocket Instamatic camera I borrowed from my sister and took some snap shots. That was the beginning of what would become a lifelong hobby, a near obsession, with photography and cars. By 1978 I had a decent full-time job and could afford some better equipment. My calendar was marked with milestones like Long Beach, Riverside IMSA, or Monterey. In between the big milestones were SCCA Regionals and Nationals. I always took my cameras, I almost always shot slides. I was lucky and got some recognition, a few shots published here and there. I got second place in a reader photo contest in Formula Magazine. In 1983 Porsche had a contest for amateur photographers to submit shots for their annual racing calendar. They chose one of mine and it appeared in the 1984 calendar.
Despite these successes I never tried to make the jump to doing it full time. A good paying job in aerospace offered security and enough income to buy good cameras and lots of film. Long Beach switched to Indy cars in 1984 and after a couple of years of that I kind of lost interest. Then in 1988 Riverside Raceway was finally shut down to make way for a shopping mall and tract houses. There were still The Historics at Monterey and Pebble Beach but after 9/11 and the downturn in aerospace and the oncoming wave of digital photography I decided to give it a rest.
Now 44 years on from the Instamatic at Riverside I have about 25,000 slides stored in dusty boxes in the garage of car and races and drivers. A few years ago I bought a scanner and started posting first to “The Nostalgia Forum” at Autosport.com and later to some Facebook racing groups. As fun as Facebook can be at times, I get a little disappointed at the constant harvesting and regurgitating of random images off the net posted with no background or context. So, lets dust off some boxes and fire up the scanner. Hope you enjoy the ride.
Peter Revson in the Team McLaren M20 headed up the hill to Turn 6 at the Riverside Can-Am, 1972. Photo shot with a Pocket Instamatic I borrowed from my sister. Everybody starts someplace.
Jackie Ickx in the Haas-Hall Racing Lola T-333CS exiting Turn 6 at Riverside, 1979. I met Ickx at Pebble Beach this year (2016) and asked him to autograph a print of this shot. He looked at the photo and slowly shook his head “This was a fantastic car! Beautifully prepared. Just the best! This was the last time I drove that car and we won the race and the championship.”
I always loved the old IMSA GT Series. Fantastic variety of cars and top drivers and of course, turbo flames. This is the Mustang GTP from Riverside 1984. The car was built to compete in the mew GTP prototype class against the new Lolas and Marches. For some reason designer Bob Riley went with a front engine design using a 2.1 liter turbo from Zakspeed. The cars were fast but fragile and a whole lot of fun to watch.
The details on cars have always fascinated me. At Long Beach in the F1 days they would have a car show the Thursday before up on Pine Ave in downtown. Each of the teams were supposed to bring a car to display and have a driver on hand. It was a sort of kickoff street party for the weekend. In 1977 I was standing at the Ferrari tent waiting to try and get a photo of Reutemann. While I waited for him to turn around I looked down and saw the little cloisonne’ Ferrari badge on the wing and though it was a cool little detail, so I snapped a shot. It was only later that I saw how the colors of the tent reflected in the wing. Later that year Formula Magazine had a photo contest and I entered this photo. I won 2nd place in the amateur category. It was the first photo I ever had published and started me down a long and interesting path.
IMSA at Riverside again, 1984. Late in the race and Derek Bell crests the hill before Turn 7 in the Porsche 962 he shared with Al Holbert. The car wears number 86 instead of Holbert’s usual 14 because it was the very first customer 962 and was delivered to Bruce Leven. Holbert leased the car from Leven for the first few races of 1984 until his own 962 was delivered. I like this shot because you can see the dirt and grime of the race on the car and the late afternoon sun lighting up the interior.
This is one of my favorite photos. Gilles Villeneuve rounds the Queen’s Hairpin at Long Beach in 1979. Gilles scored the triple that weekend, pole position, fastest lap and race win. He was one of my favorite drivers of all time. I shot this photo from a general admission crowd area, standing on top of a 55 gallon drum to get above the chain link fence using a 600mm mirror lens handheld. I had to pre-focus on a spot on the track and then wait (and hope) for the car to get to that spot. I would usually get 4 or 5 shots out of a roll of 36 that were any good and once in a great while, something like this. I was able to get Gilles to autograph a print of this photo for me. It’s one of my prized possessions.
I first went to the Monterey Historics on a lark in 1977. But that’s a story for another time. Monterey during the Steve Earle years was a magic experience. There were cars and drivers there that you had only read about or seen in old films. The race groups were like curated exhibits at a gallery with the cars selected to tell a story. By the ’90s I was able to score photo passes on a regular basis and had learned who to talk to to find out about the unique photo ops. In 1998 Porsche was the featured marque and the Thursday before the event they had a track day for drivers who had never been to Laguna before followed by a large group photo of all the Porsches entered. After that photo op I noticed some other photographers wandering over towards the north end of pit lane. I tagged along and came upon this gathering of 917s. I just hung around and took my turn on the lift to get the photo. I probably shot a full roll of 36 and another of 2-1/4 just on this group. After all, when was this ever going to happen again?
I was always playing around with techniques to try and convey the speed and motion of the cars. Here I used a slow shutter speed while changing the zoom setting on the lens. This is Bobby Rahal at Long Beach, 1985.
Here’s another one of my favorite photos. Randolph Townsend in his Lola T-333CS single seat Can-Am cresting the hill at Turn 2, Sears Point 1980. This is actually the same car Ickx drove in 1979 that’s in the photo I have above. I have a background in graphic design and illustration and have always appreciated a well designed color scheme on a race car. The bright colors, asymmetrical design and lack of sponsor logos make the whole paint scheme look really sharp. The driver, Randolph (always Randolph, never Randy) Townsend was a pretty interesting guy. I first saw him when he showed up at an SCCA National at Riverside with an ex-Penske turbo 917/10 Can-Am car. He was a big guy and someone said that he had been an amateur boxer. One thing I noticed at Riverside was that his fingernails were painted and striped to match the color scheme of the car. That was pretty avant-garde for the mid ’70s. He was active in politics and later was elected to the Nevada State Senate.
The IMSA cars at Riverside almost always ran the long course that used Turn 8 and the full backstraight. One of my favorite photo spots was outside of Turn 8 at a little left kink at the exit . The fast line always hit a certain spot right at the kink and the morning light was behind me and usually was softened by the morning haze. This was a perfect spot for a pan shot and I could usually hit 9 out of 10 shots here at 125th of a second panning which is “the rule of thumb” shutter speed. But to get that extra feeling of motion I would sometimes dial the shutter speed down to a 60th of a second. Thats what we have here with the photo of John Fitzpatrick in the Porsche 935K3 he shared with Dick Barbour to win the 1980 5 Hours of Riverside.
This was taken at Long Beach in 1986. That’s Mario Andretti in the Newman-Haas Racing Lola T8600. Mario had won Long beach the two previous years but this time it was son Michael who took the checker first. Mario is rounding the hairpin at the top of Shoreline Dr. The cars were so close here you could literally reach out and touch them, but that would be a very bad idea.
The 1997 Monterey Historics honored Carroll Shelby and his career. I missed out on the high shot for the group photo but when the cars started to be moved back to the paddock I caught these two Cobras off on their own. The 289 in the foreground has the hardtop that was developed for the 1963 Le Mans.
Giampierro Morretti was a stalwart of IMSA racing. He was well known for his immaculately turned out red and yellow cars, and cooking pasta in the garages for his team, competitors and friends. Here he is in 1981 at Riverside in his Porsche 935/78-81. The long tail “Moby Dick” version of the 935 was developed by Porsche for the 1978 Le Mans race where it proved very fast but was a DNF due to an oil leak. Porsche retired the car after the race but the privateer team of Joest Racing built two replicas one of which Moretti bought to campaign in IMSA. The late afternoon light at Riverside was tailor made for red cars and Kodachrome.
David Hobbs powers out of Turn 6 at Riverside in the John Fitzpatrick Racing Porsche 935K4. Despite those huge rear tires, managing the power when the turbos spooled up was a bit like dancing on the edge of a razor blade. Fitz and Hobbs won the race with help from Derek Bell. But here was little to celebrate as their team mate Rolf Stommelen died in the crash of the other team car at the entrance to Turn 9.
Lone Star JR, Johnny Rutherford in Jim Hall’s Chaparral 2K on a qualifying lap at Ontario Motor Speedway. The 2K was pretty much a copy of the all conquering Lotus 79 and proved to be just as fast taking Rutherford to six wins and the Indy Car Championship. I made this shot from the infield panning with my 600mm mirror lens.
This is another great color scheme. The GTU BMW 320 driven by Boy Hayje and Roberto Moreno at Riverside, 1983. I often wonder how the conversation went and imagine it to be something like this:
“What color should we paint the car guys?”
“I don’t know, red, blue, yellow? By the way, how do you like my new socks?”
Here we have Elio de Angelis at the “Linden Leap” at Long Beach, 1982. The original layout at Long Beach had a first turn that went steeply downhill after a 90 degree right. The turn is still there and it is imposing even in a street car. Elio was an interesting fellow. He came from a wealthy family and was a classically trained pianist, sometimes described as the last of the gentlemen drivers. Elio was killed in a testing accident at Paul Ricard in 1986.
The Bob Akin – James weaver Porsche 962 heading down the back-straight at Riverside, 1986. The 962 was one of those car that looked good from every angle.
This is another shot showing the great variety of cars in IMSA. Peter Gregg’s Porsche 935/79 entering Turn 6 ahead of the Ferrari 365 Daytona of Joe Crevier – Pete Halsmer.
You could make a pretty good HBO mini-series out of IMSA racing in the ’80s. Some people joked that IMSA stood for International Marijuana Smugglers Association and the Whittington Brothers were a big part of that. Don and Bill both served prison sentences related to drug smuggling, tax evasion and money laundering. Here they are in one of their 935K3s in turn 8 at Riverside, 1980.
And that concludes a small sample of my stuff from the past. If you like what you have seen let the folks here know and I’ll dig out some more.