Through the lens with a hero of drag racing photojournalism

Maybe you don’t know Steve Reyes by name, but if you’ve followed pro-level drag racing to any degree during the past 40 years, you’re certainly familiar with what he can do with a camera. Steve is one of the most accomplished, prolific and honored photographers in the history in the sport. His work has historically been so much in demand that during the 1970s, he held the unofficial title of the nation’s most-published motorsports photographer of any kind. I got the opportunity to know him when we cooperated on photo essays on drag racing from the past, in all kinds of competition categories, in the pages of Hemmings Muscle Machines. I’ve also owned and enjoyed several gatherings of his work in book form. Steve is one of the very best at what he does, and I jumped at the opportunity to feature his work here.

Steve is a native of the Bay Area in California, and saw his first race when his father took to the legendary Fremont Dragstrip in 1963, at the zenith of California’s great wars in Top Fuel. He soon noticed there were no photographers to record the action. While still a youngster, Steve armed himself with a movie camera and started shooting at tracks around his home. He soon embraced still photography instead, first with a 620 Brownie and then a Kodak Instamatic fitted with a motorized film advance that was powered by a metal spring. He got his first serious camera, a 35mm Kawa, in 1965 and followed it up with a Hasselblad. By 1970, he was toting a premium Nikon F with a motor drive. Not long after, Steve moved to the drag nirvana that was Los Angeles and was going on the road. A partial list of the publications that have carried his work included Drag Racing, Drag News, Super Stock & Drag Illustrated, Cars, National Dragster, Popular Hot Rodding, various Argus Publishing titles and even Esquire, the last for shooting Reggie Jackson’s collection of muscle cars. Besides drag racing, he’s photographed IndyCar, along Sprint cars from the California Racing Association and the World of Outlaws. He is enshrined in the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame.

Steve has captured every conceivable type of incident at drag strips, but is arguably best known for his uncanny ability to capture all sorts of, um, unexpected component disassembly such as this, which is Larry Bowers scattering the clutch, flywheel and bellhousing of his Top Fuel car at Orange County International Raceway in the early 1970s.

Drama in drag racing is literally anywhere you look. The Warlock AA/Fuel Altered, guzzling copious quantities of delicious nitromethane, uncorks a tire-smoking wheelstand leaving the line at Fremont in 1967.

When they talk about heated competition in this kind of racing, you’ve got to take it literally. Around 1984, during the U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis, Ron Dudley shed the bodywork of his nitro Funny Car after booming the engine.

In other forms of motorsports, there’s talk about losing an engine. Then there’s this. At Tulsa, Oklahoma, circa 1972, a big bang has tossed the whole shebang, block and all, completely clear of Bob Dumont’s digger during Top Fuel action. Steve’s compiled this sort of craziness into a series of books that CarTech Books has in its catalog. You’ll never go wrong by acquiring them.

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