How I became a Stock Car Photographer
I have been interested in photography since my days at school. When I developed other interests I tended to use photography to record these events.
My father first introduced me to the spectacle of Stock Car Racing when he occasionally took me on a 'Yelloway coach excursion' to Belle Vue Stadium for the Bank Holiday meetings. This was around 1959 when the Wardropper brothers were racing and of course Wilf (Willie) Harrison!
When I was old enough to drive a car I was able to travel to most meetings at the Vue. During the early 1960's these were held usually once a month on the Saturdays that the speedway team were 'away'. Following the meeting there were the delights of the pleasure park with its fireworks displays and the funfair - here you could usually find the drivers busily settling a few scores on the dodgems!
Sitting up in the stand on the pits bend I photographed any action that occurred in front of me and if and when I managed to capture any good pictures, I posted them off to the Belle Vue Press Office. Occasionally these appeared in the programme - I had become a stock car photographer!
The Official Stadium Photographer was 'Wright Wood' who preferred to photograph
the speedway rather than the unpredictable and hectic stock cars. (Hardly surprising as
the cars seemed to spend more time on the centre green annoying the barrels or the inside
lamp posts than on the track!)
I was asked if I would like to take on the task (unpaid of course) and at the next meeting with fear and trepidation I took to the centre green. My action photographs went into the programmes but they also had to have a presentation picture taken for the meeting sponsors. Occasionally they would send their own photographer and that is how I came to meet up with Ray Liddy. At that meeting Ray, a professional photographer from Denton, 'got the bug' and subsequently joined me on the centre green at most meetings. We each took an end of the track thus ensuring that we caught most of the incidents. We became friends and occasionally got together to film some of the meetings on 16mm cine film. When sound striped film became more readily available I became the sound man to Ray's pictures. These films of the racing were viewed at the popular film shows held in one of the Belle-Vue dance halls during the closed season. These historic films are still bringing pleasure to the new generation of supporters when they are shown at the Veterans' Stock Car Association Northern get-togethers and other supporters groups.
Around that time, my home town - Rochdale - was a mecca for drivers ....Stuart Smith (391), Doug Cronshaw (396), Paddy Byrne (310), Ken Chapman (183), John Bunnell (240). When Stuart rolled his car at the Vue and I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time, I sent the pictures to our local paper, the 'Rochdale Observer'. The Editor at the time was quite pleased with the response to the pictures and asked if I would consider covering the sport for the newspaper (unpaid of course). The agreement we had was that if he had room for my report then it would go in - if he hadn't, it wouldn't!
I started to travel to other tracks and the fact that I was now covering the meeting for the local paper, allowed me to gain access to the centre green at those stadiums. A typical weekend would be:
Saturday afternoon leave home around 3pm and travel via Manchester, Stockport, Macclesfield, Leek, Ashbourne and Derby to Long Eaton Stadium (there were no motorways at that time) arriving at around 6.30pm.
Soup and sandwiches in the car park and then onto the centre green to photograph the racing. Between the races the results were recorded onto a small reel-to-reel tape recorder along with the finishing places of the local drivers. After the meeting it was into the bar for a chat and a bevvy - on to the chip shop for supper and then the long journey arriving home at around 2.30am.
Sunday morning and time to develop the previous night's film. Around midday it was off again, this time in the opposite direction through Halifax, Leeds, Wetherby and up the A1 to Newton Aycliffe arriving at around 2.15pm. Sandwiches in the car park again but this time I did not venture onto the centre green...I always thought that it was very small and I found that I could not concentrate on taking pictures without worrying about my own safety. I found the perfect position up a tree near the pit gate and many good pictures were taken from this viewpoint.
More chat in the bar and then, along with most of the drivers, it was back to the 'Clock Cafe' on the A1 for a 'fry-up' tea. ( The cafe was owned by Tony Neal (100) who later emigrated to New Zealand ) Then it was south down the A1 and back home for around 9pm.
The first job was to develop the film. ( for those with a technical bent, I used Kodak Tri X film which was rated at 400ASA. For the night meetings I used to rate it at 3200ASA and instead of developing it for the standard 8mins it was in the developer for 70mins!! This gave grain like golf balls but was accepted as racing dust. One night I fell asleep in the chair whilst the film was developing and I woke up two hours after... surprisingly the film was OK but with slightly more grain than usual) Whilst the film was drying it was time to listen to the sound tapes and compile my report on an old typewriter.
To the darkroom, peruse the negatives selecting any images that might be used, and then print the pictures. When they were dry all that was left to do was to travel to the Observer offices in Rochdale and post the package through the letterbox. Phew!!
Sometimes the report was published - quite often it wasn't!
Around this time under the Mike Parker Promotions banner more and more new tracks
were being built. Firstly he opened Nelson with the shale track around the football
pitch (it started off as a square with four corners and usually ended up as a circle!).
There were so many drivers wanting to race that the larger stadiums operated a rota system
for the lower grade drivers -the higher grades usually got a booking. Nelson was opened to
help alleviate this problem and the meetings here usually clashed with the overbooked
Coventry meetings. Nelson gave many white and yellow top drivers their first, and
sometimes only, chance to race. Following this success, tracks were opened at the
Albion Stadium Salford, Blackburn, Stoke, White City Manchester, Crayford, Newcastle, and
my 'local' track at the Athletics Ground in Rochdale. This track had originally been
constructed by Belle Vue and run by them for a few seasons. These tracks were 'rough and
ready' ( sometimes more rough than ready) but the racing was exciting and action packed.
For many years I had supplied pictures to the various magazines for the sport - Stock Car Magazine the 'official magazine' and Stock Car Supporter, the magazine that told it how it was! (This was mostly sold outside the stadiums having usually been banned from sale inside) Stock Car Magazine paid for its pictures but you had to buy a copy to find out what they had used, whereas the Supporter didn't pay, but gave you a copy, and ploughed their profits back into the sport by sponsoring races or meetings.
'Rods & Stocks', a posh magazine sold at WH Smith's, decided to feature stock car racing within its pages. I was asked to supply pictures of all the different Stuart Smith cars and I spent many hours searching through my negatives for these. (filing things away has never been my strong point and they were all over the place) I gained a lot of pleasure from looking at my old pictures and reliving the memories. I thought other people might like to see them and so I decided to produce a picture book 'Stock Car Nostalgia' priced at 40p! Unable to get backing from the magazines it had to be self-financed and I had to sell it between the races to eventually get my money back. Some of these pictures are reproduced on this site - I hope that you also get pleasure from viewing them.
Recently because of other commitments and the small number of cars racing, I have attended fewer meetings although I covered most of the Bradford and Bolton meetings. Hopefully this situation will improve during the coming years.
Thank you for reading about my exploits - see you around the tracks.
© John Smith 1999