Through the lens, from rock royalty to racing eminence

Imagine growing up in one of music’s greatest eras of artistic expansion, being a collegian and being armed with a camera. Try to fathom capturing that sort of greatness on film, while it was happening, from the front of a stage during a landmark concert. Then think of being into cars and racing, not just music, and having the shooting skills to participate in motorsports photojournalism during some of racing’s most acclaimed, consequential years. Do all that, and you’ll be someone like my longtime Hemmings Motor News collaborator John Rettie. Born in London, and now living near Santa Barbara, California, John has witnessed and photographed both rock music and racing at a close personal distance that most of us can only speculate about enviously. John is a second-generation car enthusiast whose father once owned a 1933 Aston Martin Le Mans, and had a article published in Autocar, the British motoring journal. His father’s grandfather was a highly respected Scottish editor of legal documents who once served in the House of Lords. So cars and journalism are both firmly planted in John’s DNA. In 1970, John was studying civil engineering at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom and was a photographer for the student newspaper, covering a variety of rock concerts on campus. He was one of just two photographers at The Who’s show on Feburary 14th, 1970, which was recorded live and released as the Live at Leeds album, which many critics still consider the greatest live performance in rock history. This is an image that John captured during that unforgettable concert. Note that the late Keith Moon is behind the drum kit.

By that time, John had already made his first trip to the United States, embarking with his photo gear on a one-month Greyhound bus trip across the country. He returned the following year, also 1970, and managed to get credentialed as a media member for the famed Can-Am and Trans-Am racing series. He sold his first racing image that year, a shot of Richie Ginther attacking the Corkscrew at Laguna Seca in a Porsche 914/6. He struck up a friendship with the British racing historian and motoring journalist Jeremy Walton, who helped him find assignments. Before long, John was a full-time motorsports photographer and magazine journalist living in the United States, having transitioned away from rock music, in part, due to the stultifying egos that dominated that world. At the same time, he operated a British-based business for performance Volkswagen parts and a Los Angeles-based public relations agency. John also served as technical editor for Hot VWs magazine, was West Coast bureau chief for Ward’s Automotive, and launched J.D. Power’s first automotive website. He is experienced in reviewing cars, photo gear and computers, and has served as president of the California-based Motor Press Guild three different times. But I know him best as a highly traveled racing shooter. One image he captured was this 1970 image of the great Dan Gurney pitting his Plymouth ‘Cuda during that year’s Trans-Am round at Riverside. It was the Big Eagle’s final race.

John, whose website allows you to peruse – and acquire – many of his famed images, which include any number of fascinating historical vignettes. For example, as we’ve noted, John did a lot of work involving high-performance Volkswagens, which led him to cover the Sports Car Club of America’s Formula Super Vee series, which was powered by water-cooled VW engines and was then a key part of the IndyCar career ladder. As a demonstration, John provided this 1982 image of a very young Michael Andretti working quick Super Vee laps at Riverside.

Around here, the next image carries even more weight, as great at Michael Andretti’s career has proven to be.

This photo, likely from 1978, shows the late Tim Richmond hot-lapping a Lola T620 Super Vee at the Milwaukee Mile when he was beginning a transition from Supermodifieds and USAC Sprint cars to his goal of IndyCar racing. Richmond won the Super Vee round at Phoenix. Richmond climbed the mountain, and was named Indianapolis 500 rookie of the year in 1980 after placing ninth in the race. But after several vicious crashes, Richmond jumped to NASCAR, where he became one of the 1980s’ great stars, winning 13 times in seven seasons, mostly for Hendrick Motorsports. I got to know him a little bit. Shared a couple of Old Milwaukees with him in the garage area at Pocono after one race. I’m fond of saying that if Richmond hadn’t been claimed by complications from AIDS in 1989, and had managed to finish his career on track, there’s no way that Dale Earnhardt would have won seven NASCAR titles. Richmond was that good, and racing is poorer for his untimely passing. The Eastern Motorsport Press Association inducted Richmond into its Hall of Fame in 1995, one of the few organizations to do so, likely due to the circumstances of his death, which is really unfortunate.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s