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Drag Racing Story of the Day!

Steve Reyes: Through the Lens of a Natural

By Brian Wood

Photos Courtesy of and Copyrighted by Steve Reyes

As the sport of organized drag racing rode the crest of its growing popularity into the decade of the 1960’s, the rapid evolution of performance, cars and classifications kept enthusiasts around the world clamoring for news from ground zero - the West Coast of the United States. If it happened first in California, and in those days, it nearly always did, racers and fans wanted to see it and read about it.

Therefore, it was the job of the motor racing press of the day to give them what they wanted, race coverage from the fabled old ‘strips, as well as news and photos of the top stars and their latest big horsepower ground-pounders. It was the heyday of cars like the original factory hot rods, the high-flying Super Stock cars, but the sleek front engine Top Fuel digger was king, and people couldn’t get enough news on the awesome machines that were then pushing the seven-second, 200 mph barrier.

It was up to the talented professional lensmen of the day to insure that the publications were kept well stocked with the latest action images, and perhaps one of the best known of them all is Steve Reyes. How he came to be one of the most recognized and celebrated drag racing photographers in the world over the course of his 30-year career is an amazing story of dedication, sacrifice, and unbelievably hard work.

You see, Steve Reyes was not a professional photographer when he went to his first drag race. In fact, the fifteen-year-old didn’t even own a camera. "I remember that first race like it was yesterday," he recalled with a chuckle. "We lived in Northern California then, and one day in 1963 I picked up a copy of the Oakland Tribune, and there was an ad for Fremont Dragstrip. ‘Come See the Nitro-Burning Rail Dragsters’ the headline screamed, and I convinced my dad that we just had to go and see what all the excitement was about. I had a great time, and mesmerized by the smoke, noise and nitro fumes, it didn’t take me long to fall in love with drag racing. We had an old 8mm movie camera at home, and I thought it would be cool to come back again, and get some action movies of the dragsters. Before we left that day, I had my dad talk to the track manager, and he convinced him that I was old enough to be up on the line filming.

So for the next year, young Reyes stood at trackside with his trusty 8mm, and preserved drag racing history one reel at a time. Eventually, he started packing his dad’s Kodak 620 Brownie along and grabbing some still shots as well. You have to remember that in those days, there were no guardrails or concrete walls. It was just man and machine, and with the hopped-up nitro missiles blowing up or launching into uncontrollable wheel stands on a regular basis, it took considerable courage to stand your ground in order to get the best angles. Or, maybe it just took being fifteen and bulletproof. Whatever the case, Steve’s talent behind the lens soon began to emerge, and before long people would take notice of the self-admitted "pit rat" who became a fixture at Fremont.

Displaying some of the innovative thinking that would serve him so well in the future, Reyes made up some brackets, and persuaded drivers to let him mount his movie camera to their car’s roll cage, thereby helping to pioneer the shooting of on-board action footage. One of the first racers to allow the intrepid teenager to bolt a camera to his rail was Frank Bradley, who was just starting out, and driving a Dragmaster injected Chevy car at the time. Eventually, Bradley would boost Reyes’ budding career when he became the first racer to buy photos from him. "I had bought a Kodak Instamatic camera by this time," Steve remembered, "and it had a wind-up feature that would act like a motor drive. I had taken a sequence of Frank smoking the tires and hanging the wheels high one weekend, and at the next race, I showed them to him.

"He flipped out when he saw the photos, and he and the Bailey brothers, who owned the car, bought everything I had. All of a sudden, I had ten or twelve bucks in my pocket, and realized that maybe I was onto something good. From there, the whole thing just evolved. I started walking around the pits with a box full of photos from the previous race, and eventually a lot of the racers would watch for me in order to get their latest shots. I also started sending my blurry black and white photos to Doris Herbert, who owned Drag News, and eventually she arranged to have credentials for me at one of the ‘Bakersfield Smokers’ events at Famoso Raceway in 1965.

"I begged, borrowed, and stole to raise the money to get to the event, only to find there had been a snafu, and I had no credentials. I ended up paying my way in, but when I got to the line, it was elbow-to-elbow photographers, and again, being a kid, I had to take what I could get. I soon got fed up, and went down to the far end of the track and sat in the bleachers. Low and behold, I had an unrestricted view, and more action than I could handle - all kinds of cars blowing up, launching the superchargers into space, that kind of stuff. When I got home, I sent a bunch of shots off to Mike Doroughty at Drag Racing and Drag Strip magazine, and he published them in the 1966 Drag Racing Almanac. From then on, thanks to Mike, I had credentials wherever I wanted to go.

"A little later, I patched things up with Doris Herbert," Reyes noted, "and in the end she helped me a lot with my early career, teaching me the tricks of the trade, and we ended up working together on a regular basis. Because she needed me to cover events and get her the photos as quickly as possible, I used to set up a portable darkroom in a motel room or wherever I happened to be staying. I would process the film at night and send it out the next morning. At two-day events, I took a lot of the stuff I shot on Saturday to the track on Sunday, and sold prints to the racers. They loved it that they could look at how their cars were leaving the line and so on, and that was how I made my living. I was on my own by then, living away from home, and that was my sole source of income.

With youthful exuberance, Steve set out to expand his horizons, and as his sales to racers, as well as to the magazines, increased, he began to travel in ever-widening circles, hitting the national event circuit, and becoming the NHRA’s Division 7 photographer in 1967. He covered all their events, not only doing the photography, but writing race coverage as well, and making sure it all got to National Dragster the first thing Monday morning.

Logistics eventually forced Steve to relocate to Los Angeles in 1970 so that he could be closer to the magazine publishing houses, and the California racing scene in general. Now armed with a large format Hasselblad and a new motor-driven 35mm Nikon F, he continued to struggle up the ladder to the top of what had become his chosen profession. Predictably, due mostly to his hard work and enthusiastic self-promotion, recognition wasn’t long in coming. "Soon after I got to LA, I got a call out of the blue from Revell, "he said. "They had just gotten into the sport, and were sponsoring Art Whipple and Ed McCulloch. They said ‘we hear you’re pretty good with a camera, would you be interested in doing some work for us?’ I met them at Fremont, and did the shots they used on the box tops of the model kits that came out a while later."

In due course, Reyes did quite a bit of promotional work for both Revell and Mattel, shooting the cars of Gene Snow, Tony Nancy, Jeb Allen, Don Prudhomme, Tom McEwen, and many others. Making friends with the gang at Don Kirby’s nearby shop opened even more doors for Steve. Many of the name racers of the day would bring their cars to Kirby for paint and lettering, and his buddies would call him whenever a new car showed up. He’d run down and introduce himself, and then offer to shoot the car. In this way, he soon met, and became friends with, anybody who was anybody in drag racing.

On October 31, 1973, Steve’s career took a significant turn when he decided to abandon the freelance world and go to work for Argus Publishers. In their view, it was cheaper to put him on the payroll than to continue to pay him ‘too much’ as a freelancer. By this time, Argus had become a major user of Steve’s work, which regularly appeared on the covers of many of their dozen or so titles. He estimates that in the early ‘70s, 70% of the cover photography, and 85% of the inside color work, was his. Offered a salary, plus benefits and expenses for traveling to races, Steve considered the deal to be a good one, in light of a weakening market for freelancer’s material, and joined the Argus team.

In twenty years with the company, Steve traveled to every state in the Union, every province in Canada, toured England twice with Raymond Beadle and the "Blue Max" team, went to Australia and New Zealand twice, and joined the "Bigfoot" monster truck team on a tour of Japan. He covered the Indy 500, traveled with the "Boston Strangler" Funny Car team, and spent several years on the World of Outlaws and Sprint Car circuits. Between 1981 and 1985, through an assignment to shoot New York Yankees star Reggie Jackson’s car collection, Steve spent many of his weekdays working in major league baseball stadiums. Through Jackson, Steve had carte blanch access to any stadium in the country, a ball fan’s dream come true. And it just gets better. At a Dodgers game, Steve met the curator of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY, and before long, he was working for them, too.

A little later, after his wife had dragged him to his first hockey game in LA, Steve found himself with another choice sideline assignment - covering the stars and games of the National Hockey League for NY’s Bruce Bennett Studios. He eventually shot much of the photography that appeared on magazine covers and trading cards of the day, and did many special shoots with stars such as Wayne Gretzky and Brendan Shanahan. Remember, he’s still doing all his Argus work as well during this time.

In that capacity, Steve was responsible for the majority of the material published in all the company’s magazines, as well as covering Super Chevy, Popular Hot Rodding and Muscle Car events. In addition, he did the photography for all twelve of the Argus titles, covering such diverse subjects as skateboarding and CB radios. And he was doing it all by himself. So to say he was shocked when he was unceremoniously turfed from his job in 1994 would be a huge understatement. But that’s exactly what happened, as Steve recalls, "one day the owner of Argus, Don Warner, walked into my office, said ‘we’ve decided to make a cutback, and you’re it’, and that was that. They gave me a cash settlement, the van that I had put a zillion miles on traveling to racing events, let me buy my camera equipment at ten cents on the dollar, and said ‘see ya!‘ End of story after twenty years."

Gathering himself up, Steve once again hit the road as a freelancer, still providing material to Argus, and covering the NHL, but adding scantily clad models on Harleys and tattoo conventions, among many other strange and wonderful things, to his repertoire. When the NHL launched their own photo service in 1996, Steve‘s days at the rink were over. Never one to let grass grow under his feet, however, he soon went to work for Playing Mantis/Johnny Lightning Toys. The photos that he had taken so many years earlier now serving as blueprints for the company’s extensive line of nostalgia die-cast Top Fuel dragsters and Funny Cars.

Moving first to New England, and then to Ocala, Florida, doing this type of work now occupies most of the 54 year-old master‘s time. He still works with Revell and Mattel from time to time, and has recently done a box top for a Shirley Muldowney model that will be introduced at the U.S. Nationals in Indy. Steve laughed as he noted that while the model is of a Top Fuel car, Shirley insisted that a favorite Reyes shot of her Mustang Funny Car from 1973 be used on the box. He also shoots numerous street car and street road shows, and a variety of other non-race-related events.

In fact, Steve has only been to one drag race in seven years, this year’s Mac Tools Gatornationals at nearby Gainesville Raceway. For a variety of reasons, he has for the most part become disenchanted with the sport that launched his career. The never-ending political wrangling has a lot to do with it, but strong competition from an army of photographers make it a buyer’s market for those in need of images, and the money is simply no longer there. "I’m not trying to put down drag racing," Steve said, "because it did a lot for me early on. But economically, it’s just not feasible anymore. If you’re trying to pay the rent, you have to go one way; if you’re just piddling around, then you go the other way. It’s unfortunate but true that I can make more money shooting a ‘Rambler Scrambler’ than I can shooting John Force, or whoever, leaving the starting line.

"Besides, it doesn’t really bother me that much because I’m just too beat up to do the traveling anymore," he admitted. "Covering upwards of fifty events a year for as long as I did just took its toll on me. I have a bad back, and lots of aches and pains that can make a weekend at the track a less-than-pleasurable experience nowadays. I loved it when I was doing it in my younger days, and I wouldn’t have wanted my career to go any other way. But I’ve still got plenty of work to do, and I’m quite happy to be able to stay closer to home after living on the road for all those years."

What an incredible journey for a determined young kid from California. No one can deny that he paid his dues in full on the world’s quarter-miles, and thanks to his dedication and talent, the "glory days" of the sport of drag racing have been archived for posterity. Racing fans everywhere owe Steve Reyes a huge vote of thanks.

Brian Wood


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