Wow, look at that Nova. Whoa! Look at that wheel-standing Challenger with wrinkle walls and fire bubbles blowing out the pipes! I am craned over a photo matrix burned on glossy slick contact sheets that lead like a treasure map to the images themselves. I follow image 55912 to a numerically ordered phalanx of cold, gray-steel filing cabinets reminiscent of a WWII movie set. I can feel the weight as I tug, then give a good two-handed pull to open the gate to thousands of tiny 35mm negatives wrapped inside waxy sleeves, yellowing with more than 60 years of roots. All that's missing are the sounds of the drag race as the smell of chemical mildew and the imagery sends me back to place and time. Staring into the loupe is a time funnel in more than one sense. Minutes smear into hours until everyone has gone home and I'm alone in the dim, with the voices of a half-century of the best racing and automotive photography in the world. It's quite an honor to pocket the keys.
I am talking about the Petersen Publishing archives. It contains an estimated 8.5 million images with detailed archival information going back to 1955 and many thousands of loose images going back to 1948, when Robert E. Petersen started Hot Rod magazine and kick-started automotive publishing. Valuable as it is, it has seen its share of abuse as time and shrinking real estate pushed it into an ever-shrinking spiral. The legend goes that at one time, some of the images went into a Dumpster outside the Sunset Blvd. offices. When I look through the complete set of '65–'72 Winternationals images and color photos of Funny Car, Top Fuel, and the U.S. Nationals, I can see that, despite the seemingly uncaring violations of the archives, it is ultimately in the hands of car guys. And car guys know what they are looking at. The editors of the past have squirreled away the best tidbits for you to enjoy.
Today, the Car Craft archives are fiercely protected by Thomas Voehringer and Ryan Ono, who spend 37.5 hours a week holed up in a windowless room sorting and scanning these treasures. If we want a photo of a '70 Duster up on the cam at Lions in '71, those guys can get us there.
We benefit because we get to ogle killer historical photos of drag racing; you benefit when you pick up a copy of Car Craft and see bits of the stash in every issue. Enjoy.