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Playing With Fire - Burnouts

Gangsters, Guns, and Gasoline: A Guide to Drag Racing Photography in the 1970s

By Rick Voegelin, Photography by Car Craft Archives

Film may be dying in the Digital Age, but the images of drag racing's kaleidoscopic past that were captured on slides and negatives still endure. Long before the advent of digital cameras and magical photo-editing programs, getting one great shot on film was the overriding goal of a hardy band of itinerant drag-racing photographers. Burdened with heavyweight mechanical cameras and buoyed by cynical good humor, these merry pranksters lived like carneys as they followed the drag-racing circus from town to town. The vibrant images they captured tell tales from a distant past and places long-forgotten.

Along with lenses and exposure meters, a photographer's tool kit occasionally included gasoline, matches...and machine guns. The early '70s was an era of fire burnouts, models wearing nothing but body paint, and outrageous locations—from cemeteries to wild animal parks.

Drag racing has its share of colorful characters, but few lived a Technicolor life as vibrant as Billy "The Kid" Stepp. Photographer Don Green's rendition of gangsters in the graveyard that appeared in the Oct. 1972 issue of Car Craft played off Stepp's formidable reputation as an underworld figure in Ohio. Was it chutzpah, humor, or hubris that induced Stepp to pose in a scene straight out of The Untouchables?

When William Elias Stepp died of natural causes in November 2008, his obituary in the Dayton Daily News described him as "the most famous mobster, gangster, and notorious hoodlum the Miami Valley has known"—while noting that despite arrests and indictments, he had never been imprisoned for his alleged transgressions.

Stepp was a familiar and charismatic figure on the streets of Dayton with his mutton-chop sideburns and jet-black hair, driving an imposing sedan. He seemingly reveled in his reputation, lettering his race cars with Wanted and handing out hero cards titled "The Saga of Billy the Kid," a reference to William H. Bonney, the notorious gunfighter and fugitive of the Wild West. "Hanging around with Billy, there were some things you could never put into print," Green remembered.

Wearing a fedora and double-breasted suit in the style of '30s gangsters, brandishing a machine gun, and embraced by an attractive blonde dressed as a flapper, Stepp and his so-called gang posed for Green's camera with his Billy The Kid Pro Stock Demon amid the headstones in an Ohio cemetery. Stepp, driver Stuart McDade, and engine builder Paul Frost were pictured in accompanying mug shot–style portraits. Among the aliases listed under Stepp's mug shot was "The Entrepreneur."

"I called Stepp out of the blue, and said you know you've got this gangster reputation," recalled Green, who joined the Car Craft staff as photo editor in 1969 and was senior staff editor when he photographed Stepp in 1972. "I told him that we wanted to play on that." Green chuckled. I got the clothing sizes for him, the girl, the driver, the engine guy, went over to Western Costume, which supplied props for Hollywood movies, and rented all of the stuff. That's why it all looks legit."

While Stepp's business interests might have been shady, his racing operation was high profile. His race cars and rigs were always immaculate, and his roster of top-tier drivers included Bobby Yowell, Melvin Yow, Ronnie Sox, and others. While Stepp was a Mopar partisan throughout his Pro Stock career, he was fiercely independent, defying Chrysler's Pro Stock boycott in protest of the NHRA's weight breaks and experimenting with innovative small-displacement Hemi engines. Stepp later campaigned a Hemi-powered Colt in match races after the ill-handling short-wheelbase cars were banned from NHRA-sanctioned Pro Stock competition, thereby further enhancing his outlaw image.

A key element in the infamous graveyard scene was the Thompson submachine gun that Green hand-carried on his flight from Los Angeles to Ohio. With skyjacking much in the news in 1972 (31 were reported that year), taking a machine gun on board an airplane was risky business.

"The Tommy gun was the real thing," Green said. "It was a movie prop, with its barrel plugged and the firing pin removed, but of course, you couldn't see that. I showed up at the airport with it in a violin case and waited for everybody to check in at the gate. Then I walked over and set the case on the counter. I said to the agents, 'Now this is not real.' I opened the case, and here's this machine gun. The stock, the ammo drum, everything was fitted in little compartments.

"When I opened the case, their eyes got real big. And I said, 'This is for a photo shoot; I don't want to check it. It's rented, and I want to keep my eye on it. An agent said, 'Well, you can't take this on the plane. Tell you what, we'll put it in the cabin with the pilot. You can pick it up when you get there. So that's what happened. They handed me the violin case when we arrived, and when I got to the hotel, I opened it. Nothing was where it should have been, the ammunition drum didn't fit right in its compartment. It was obvious they had played with it in the cabin during the flight."

There was more risky business to come. The plan was to shoot Stepp's Demon doing a fire burnout for the cover photo. Green had to get the shot without torching the car or igniting Stepp's temper.

"Doing a fire burnout was a tricky deal, especially with a Pro Stock car," Green noted. "Stepp's guys took the gas tank out and installed a one-gallon auxiliary tank up in front of the engine compartment—just enough fuel to feed the motor. They plugged the gas lines and waxed the car really well to keep the flames from messing up the paint and lettering.

By Rick Voegelin
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