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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

The Rat Pack

The cemetery scene was not the first gangster-themed photo shoot to appear in the pages of Car Craft. Terry Cook's article on the Detroit Rat (Motor) Pack in the May 1969 issue portrayed Super Stock racers Wally Booth and Dick Arons as Motown hitmen. Cook outfitted the Booth-Arons crew with shoulder holsters, dark glasses, and overcoats before photographing them in a harshly illuminated brick building. Only the big-block Chevrolet engine in the foreground let on that it was a prank.

The original Rat Pack included Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., and other Hollywood celebrities of the 1960s. Cook cloned the idea and bestowed the Rat Pack name on a group of Detroit racers who'd been successful with Chevrolet big-block engines—aka Rat motors. Booth subsequently adopted the Rat Pack nickname for his Pro Stock Camaros before he switched allegiance to AMC in 1972.

"I told Booth and his guys, 'We're going to do an article on you guys, and we're going to make you stars,' so they went along with it," Cook recalled. "Here's their opportunity to be in the limelight. You throw crazy, creative ideas at them because we need something to make it colorful or fun."

Credit Cook for bringing lead shots to Car Craft. Taking a cue from non-automotive journalism, Cook adapted the concept of an eye-catching opening photo to CC's hands-on content. Visual puns and tongue-in-cheek humor played a role in many lead shots. Before Cook, an article on rebuilding transmissions would typically begin with a shot of a...transmission. Post Cook, a transmission article might lead off with a female production editor dressed as a nurse and cradling a Chrysler gearbox.

Car Craft's proximity to Hollywood movie studios provided easy access to costumes and props. For an article on AMC's Pacer—dubbed "The Car of Tomorrow"—Editor John Dianna and Art Director Albert Esparza donned NASA-style space suits. An editorial about the threat to racing posed by the Energy Crisis and restrictive legislation saw a coffin delivered to the Car Craft offices, to be posed alongside staffers wearing fire suits. Cop cars, armored cars, gas masks, model cars doused with lighter fluid and set afire, and a Funny Car sandwiched inside a hamburger bun were among the props used to illustrate Car Craft articles.

"We had a staff that had incredible chemistry in terms of being able to brainstorm ideas and kick concepts around," Cook said. "One guy would say something and somebody else would take it and turn it sideways, and all of a sudden we had a great idea for a story or a lead shot. It was an unbelievable pool of creative energy where the guys were doing what they loved.

"Back then it was as if every issue of Car Craft had an electrical charge," Cook recalled. "When a guy touched the latest issue on the newsstand, it was like he got a jolt that ran up his arm. He knew he was tapping into a couple of hours of bliss, seeing all of the wacky, fun things that we did."

Sometimes clever, sometimes inventive, and occasionally just silly, lead shots played a central role in defining Car Craft's distinctive look and irreverent character through the decades.

By Rick Voegelin
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