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.
Suspended in a cherry picker above the flaming Brand X Camaro at Orange County Internation
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."
The acknowledged king of Funny Car fire burnouts was wild child Jungle Jim Liberman. The l
"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.
Sein and Lankford’s Brand X appeared on multiple magazine covers in the early ’70s, highli
"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.
"So the car is sitting there with the rear tires in a puddle of gasoline, and somebody throws a match and runs out of the picture. Then the driver nails it, the tires vaporize the gas, and boom! That's where you get the fireball." (A word from our lawyers: Do not attempt this! Fire burnouts can cause serious injury and death. So don't do it! Now back to our story.)
While a Pro Stocker performing a fire burnout was a novelty in 1972, flames and smoke had become staples of the Funny Car and Top Fuel shows. Green photographed the Brand X Camaro in an inferno for the cover of the Feb. 1971 issue. Suspended in a cherry picker above the car and shooting with a manual Hasselblad camera, Green had one chance to get the shot.
"We figured that an overhead view was best way to get a shot that would fill the cover," Green said. "The basket wasn't very high, just enough to allow the car to go under me, and the upturned exhaust headers tossed the basket around a little. It was a bit of a thrill from that angle, very different than standing beside a Funny Car." Not to be outdone by its sister publication, Hot Rod ran a cover photo of Gene Snow's Dodge doing a fire burnout in the Apr. 1971 issue—and one year later, came roaring back with the Brand X Mustang performing a prodigious fire burnout on the cover of the Apr. 1973 issue.
"I want to see the fire burnouts stopped right now, before someone gets seriously hurt," declared Car Craft Publisher Sal Fish in a stern editorial in the Feb. 1971 issue. "Let's limit drag racing to drag racing and forget the circus freak shows."
Shooting the Brand X Camaro fire burnout at ground level, Car Craft Feature Editor Fred M.
Unfortunately, Fish chose the wrong time to take the high ground. The same issue that carried his hard-hitting column had the Brand X Camaro fire burnout on the cover, a Jungle Jim Camaro fire burnout in the centerspread, and a second view of the Brand X burnout in a Funny Car feature. The fact was that fire burnouts were hot on the newsstand.
"How can you top a fire burnout?" asked Terry Cook, who moved from the editor's chair at Car Craft to Hot Rod in 1972. "I had two Gene Snow cars doing fire burnouts, side by side. And that sold 420,000 copies on the newsstand." Racers were willing participants in this madness. Drag Racing USA ran a section under the banner "Flame Burnouts! Latest Sensation in Drag Racing!" that depicted a dozen Top Fuel dragsters, Funny Cars, and Fuel Altereds with tires ablaze. While the NHRA had prudently banned fire burnouts at national events in the interest of safety, gasoline-fueled burnouts were frequently staged at match races and non-NHRA events.
"Fire burnouts were big, showy, and incredibly dangerous," said Jon Asher, who joined the CC staff as competition editor in 1973 after a distinguished freelance career in the Midwest. "Many of them really were dangerous fiascoes. That's the only way to describe it. If you knew someone was going to do a fire burnout, you had to warn everybody in the area to get back out of the way in case something went wrong. Fortunately, I never saw one go really wrong.
"Tommy Ivo taught me to smear the back of the car with a thick layer of Vaseline," Asher explained. "We'd send somebody to a drug store to buy a case of Vaseline, and then coat the back half of the car. The paint colors showed through the grease clearly enough for photos. When the gasoline ignited, the Vaseline melted instantly and absorbed the heat. That trick usually worked to perfection.
Petersen Publishing shooter Gerry Stiles captured the Blue Max Mustang in a fire burnout f
"When we shot the Brand X Mustang fire burnout at Orange County, the first one just wasn't good enough," Asher recalled. "The fire only blew up on one side of the car. So Terry Cook walked out with a wastebasket filled with gasoline and threw it under the car. Luckily the motor was already lit, because the gasoline torched instantly, and the driver, Cecil Lankford, nailed the throttle. It was a killer burnout, but the heat was so intense that it blistered the paint on the back of the car and singed both parachute packs." Cook later recalled the wastebasket incident: "I didn't want the guy to get hurt, and he didn't, but we were pushing the envelope."
"Several photographers were shooting the burnout, but the fireball was so bright that it simply overwhelmed their camera settings," Asher continued. "I was so excited that I opened my camera before rewinding the film. I slammed it shut, and I thought I'd ruined the film. When the film came back from processing, the light leaks were just on the edge of the frames, so everything was salvageable.
"I got about eight shots in the sequence, as fast as my Nikon's motor drive would fire," Asher noted. "In the first frame, the fire was already big, and then by the third one it was huge. Cecil was thrilled—he didn't care about torching the car because his partner owned it!
"I also shot several fire burnouts with Don Garlits, who really knew how to engineer them," Asher added. "Connie Swingle was driving Garlits' dragster at Bristol. Garlits walked out to the starting line with a big can of gasoline, and he said to the photographers, 'How do you like your Swingle? Rare, medium, or well done?' Naturally, we all chose well done!"
Gallows humor and gasoline were a volatile mixture, especially when spiced with a dash of bravado and a dollop of testosterone. By 1973, the fire burnout fad had burned itself out. In truth, the dangers of staged fire burnouts paled in comparison to the perils of high-speed engine explosions and fiberglass-fueled infernos that Funny Car drivers routinely faced, protected only by the rudimentary safety equipment of the period. Saner heads and insurance underwriters ultimately prevailed, and fire burnouts passed into drag racing legend—along with gangsters and Tommy guns on the pages of Car Craft.
McDade lit up the Ohio sky with a scorching fire burnout for the cover of the Oct. ’72 iss
Car owner Stepp, driver Stu McDade, and engine builder Paul Frost played up the gangster a
Despite the obvious dangers, fire burnouts became popular with race promoters and magazine
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.
Cook carried through the gangster theme with mug shots of the race team, complete with gag
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.
Inspired by Cook’s article, Booth christened his series of emerald-green Pro Stock Camaros
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.