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.

Sad news: Hershey is canceled

It’s a combination of Woodstock, the greatest flea market you’ve ever experienced and the entire sweep of automotive history stretching back for more than a century. In the automotive world, it’s got a one-word name: Hershey. It’s a decades-old rite of autumn in rolling central Pennsylvania, attracting some of the world’s finest historic motor vehicles of every imaginable stripe, literally anything for a collector car you could ever hope to buy, and an annual crowd over its multi-day run that often approaches a quarter of a million eager souls. And this year, it’s being canned due to COVID-19. The Antique Automobile Club of America, which presents the extravaganza each year, announced that health and regulatory realities associated with the pandemic will make it impossible to hold this October, at least in its traditional form.

This photo was grabbed by Web Editor Daniel Strohl of Hemmings Motor News, which has a big annual presence at Hershey, during last year’s gathering. Here’s what we can learn from this image: First, this vendor space likely represents about 1/1,000th of what’s available to shoppers, everything from complete cars to every imaginable part for them to collectibles such as vintage cans of lubricating oil, among countless other things. Secondly, if you’ve never been to it, Hershey sprawls across multiple color-coded fields adjacent to the Hersheypark theme attraction. I’ve never attempted to guess at the acreage involved, but it’s huge. According to AACA CEO Steve Moskowitz, Hershey was in jeopardy from the moment the first restrictions on gatherings in Pennsylvania were announced. Even under the most rosy possible rules during the pandemic, events in Dauphin County, where Hershey is located, crowds of more than 250 attendees would have been prohibited, even in October. Officially known as the Eastern Division Fall Meet, Hershey is presented entirely by AACA volunteers that nearly rivals an army for sheer size. The distancing restrictions, and the huge necessary workforce, left the AACA without options. This will mark the first time in its 65-year history that the old-car blowout, which has endured lousy weather, recessions and even the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979, has been canceled outright. The AACA does still intend to present its annual Grand National up the road in Allentown, Pennsylvania, in July; a website has been established for announcing changes in the Hershey scheduled, since Steve said the week’s signature event, its annual car show on Hershey’s final day, might yet be salvaged. Regardless of all this, Hershey – and it will resume – should be experienced by every car enthusiasts at least once. At Hemmings, there’s a favorite phrase that captures exactly how unpredictable and vast the finds at this event can really be: “Only at Hershey.”

A Ford muscle icon is back

If you came of age in the late 1960s, you likely remember what a big deal it was when Ford first introduced the Mach 1 version of the Mustang in late 1968 as a 1969 model. If you were a performance fan and liked Fords, those were golden years, as no less than an even half-dozen go-fast variations on the Mustang (think Boss 302 and Boss 429) existed during that heady era. The Mach 1 blended muscle and appearance cues, the latter including a blacked-out hood with scoop (a shaker hood was optional) and dealer-installed backlight slats. At least initially, most Mach 1s were powered by the Windsor-block 351, but everything up to the Super Cobra Jet 428 was available for the asking. It was strongly popular, even surviving the Mustang II years, and briefly made a reappearance on the SN-95 platform in 2003. No Mach 1 was existed since, but that’s about to change.

Ford made a lot of Stangphiles happy last week when it announced that the Mach 1 will rejoin the Mustang lineup this spring, becoming the lead offering among 5.0-liter cars and according to some accounts, replacing the Bullitt option package. Dearborn disclosed its plans along with a teaser photo, which we’ve included, that shows the Mach 1 making moves on the proving ground. The prototype disguising, such as it is, shows circular openings in the grille that just might accommodate the fog lamps that were part of the original Mach 1 grille in 1969. The rear view shows a spoiler and a quartet of huge-diameter exhaust tips. Full details are still pending, but Ford did make clear that the revived Mach 1 will stand as a bridge between less exclusive Mustang models and the outrageously potent Shelby variants. It’s undeniably a development to cheer.

VW’s eight-generation Golf GTI goes all-in on digital driving

Volkswagen has always had pretty good grounding when it comes to determining the proper recipe for a hot-tempered hatchback. The Golf GTI is an evidentiary study. It’s been around for 45 years, at least in its home market, a riotous run that’s incorporated smart packaging, visceral kicks and for a while, a German-language jingle that channeled Ronny and the Daytonas performing Little GTO, circa 1964. Due to COVID-19 hangups, the anticipated launch of the eighth-generation Golf GTI has been pushed back; it’s generally expected that the car will debut next summer as a 2022 model. By all indications, it ought to be well worth the wait. Wolfsburg is laying claim to the argument that the new GTI will be the most digitally connected budget performance car out there, and will have some serious engineering cred to back up its dramatic, if evolutionary, lines and appearance.

9. Judging design in virtual reality.

There’s enough tech coming with this Volkswagen to keep even the geekiest buyer out there sated and entertained. The car’s digital display will burst into life as soon as the doors are opened. Instead of analog instruments, the driver will face a 10.25-inch screen that Volkswagen calls a Digital Cockpit, with driver-selectable displays. Alongside will be a standard 8.25-inch Composition Media screen, with a 10-inch Discover Pro display optionally available, with up to 30 configurable colors and functions selected by controls on the steering wheel. Every Golf GTI will carry driver systems including Lane Assist, Autonomous Emergency Braking, Pedestrian Monitoring and Cyclist Monitoring. Vehicle Dynamics Manager mapping and an XDS electronic differential lock is also included. As proof this isn’t just electronic whiling, the Golf GTI will produce 242hp from its 2.0-liter direct-injection turbocharged EA888 inline-four, mated to a standard six-speed manual or optional seven-speed automatic transaxle. Top speed will be electronically limited to 155 MPH, and the revised Golf bodywork has a drag coefficient as low as 0.275.

The definitive history of Chevy’s ascension in drag racing

This is a tale that’s been unfolding ever since the small-block Chevrolet, arguably the most influential and successful American auto engine design ever, forcibly shoved another legend, the flathead Ford V-8, aside during the 1950s. The small-block came to be a dominant powerplant in literally every form of American motorsports. In drag racing, its hegemony was nearly total. If you wanted to post quick times, and not go bankrupt doing it, you went with Chevy power. An entire industry evolved around supplying performance parts for this engine. And we haven’t even begun discussing the Mark IV big-block V-8 that came along later. Drag racing historian and journalist Doug Boyce has now completed a very important book that exhaustively maps Chevrolet’s march to quarter-mile immortality,

Chevy Drag Racing 1955-1980 will certainly be essential reading for anyone who’s a fan of Chevrolet performance or drag racing history. The author indisputably understands and venerates his material: Boyce is the author of a technological biography of Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins and an acclaimed history of NHRA Junior Stock, both topics that are relevant to the subject matter in this book. There’s a fair amount of tech in these 176 softcover pages, but the book is organized around the individuals whose names, like Chevrolet’s, became synonymous with success in drag racing. The expected names like Jenkins, Dave Strickler and Jungle Jim Liberman are here, but the real strength of this book is its close focus on the other guys who are less well-known today. If you grew up on the East Coast, I’m talking guys like Jack Merkel, Truppi and Kling, Bernie Agaman, Paul Blevins, Dennis Ferrara, Bo Laws, Larry Kopp and Malcolm Durham. It was especially gratifying to see an in-depth look at Jim Bucher, whose win with a steel-block Chevy at the 1975 Summernationals at Englishtown was the first Top Fuel win for a Chevrolet-powered dragster since the brilliant “Sneaky Pete” Robinson took the U.S. Nationals in 1961. If you’re into the subject matter, you have to buy this book. It’s that simple. The price is $36.95 and it comes from CarTech Books, which also stocks the author’s previous titles.

Corvette pulls out of Le Mans

We already knew that the 88th running of the world’s premier endurance race, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, had been pushed back to September from its traditional June date due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and its continuing fallout. It didn’t take very long for some consequences to make themselves evident. Perhaps the saddest came when General Motors disclosed that Corvette Racing will not be taking part in this year’s race, which would have marked an enviable string of consecutive starts by a GM-backed Corvette team at the Sarthe. This will be the first time Corvette has missed the race since the factory effort commenced in 1979. The Bowtie Brigade has a very stout record at Le Mans, Corvettes having won their class eight times in 20 years, with the most recent victory taking place in 2015.

French fans will thus have to wait until 2021 to get their first look at the mid-engine Corvette C8.R as a competition vehicle. In a statement, Chevrolet Motorsports vice president Jim Campbell said the ongoing pandemic, and the logistics of adapting to the new date, made it impossible for Corvette Racing to head to France while it’s also contesting the IMSA WeatherTech series stateside at the same time. The good news, therefore, is that U.S. fans of the new Corvette, which has been brooming up the accolades since its introduction, will at least get to see it on the track. GM isn’t the only automaker whose Le Mans program has been upended by the virus. CORE Motorsports, the South Carolina-based team that runs the Porsche 911 RSR in the IMSA GTLM category, has also abandoned plans to contest Le Mans this year, for much the same reasons that GM cited.

Tahoe answers the big 911 call

Everybody knows that police vehicles endure a hard life, and are called upon to handle a wide variety of jobs, from running after lawbreakers to idling for hours at a fixed assignment like crowd control. It ain’t easy being blue. That’s why law enforcement in the United States has increasingly embraced SUVs for use as a patrol vehicle. At Ford, the Explorer Police Interceptor is the current darling for this demanding marketplace. Chevrolet’s police portfolio has coalesced around the Tahoe, for which a police package has been offered since 1997. The boys and girls behind the badge are going to seriously enjoy its latest iteration, which, for 2021, adds independent suspension at all four corners with coil springs, robust anti-roll bars and a lowered ride height for working the mean streets.

The 2020 police Tahoe is offered in two versions: The Police Pursuit Vehicle equipment package that focuses on high-speed performance, and the Special Service Vehicle group that’s aimed more at off-road and towing capability. Regardless of package, the vehicle is powered by a 5.3-liter OHV V-8, now with rocker covers from the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 that improve both crankcase ventilation and top-end lubrication during high-g lateral maneuvers that are commonplace in police work. A 10-speed automatic transmission is standard. Brakes? Officer Friendly now has six-piston Brembo calipers at every corner. Around here, the Florida Highway Patrol, Daytona Beach Police Department and the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office are enthusiastic Tahoe customers. Don’t let one fill your rear-view mirror.