Occasionally I take leave of article writing and photography to attend to on-going journal entries, often pecked out on a favorite Olivetti Lettera 32 portable typewriter that I’ve had, and have used almost daily, for over forty years (it’s only about half as old as the Alfa Romeo Tipo B “P3” pictured above that Tazio Nuvolari drove for Enzo Ferrari to a staggering upset victory in the 1935 German Grand Prix).
Here are some of my journal pieces …
Road Medicine: “Getting out is hard to do.” You have to set your mind to it, put some things aside, perhaps work that is pressing and even nightmarish in its weight, and just do it. Get in, turn the key, drop it in gear (hoping you do have honest to goodness gears and manual shifter rather than, errrrr, automatic) and away you go. Or, get on. That’s in case you have a motorcycle. There have been lots of those over the years and, for the countless days and nights with gloved hands on the bars, there’s nothing like it. But this time it’s a car, a Tenth Anniversary Edition Miata with 6-speed stick and a totally NON-automatic top that unlatches and goes down in 4 seconds flat (take that, all you electric motors and sectioned metal fold-aways!).
This is wine country so there are vineyards everywhere, and the Russian River road, and those marvelous ribbons of narrow pavement that twist through hills and redwood groves to the Pacific coast. Note the date here is January, so wear a good coat and cap and watch for frost and black ice. That cold drink normally stopped for in mid-summer, so welcome in the shade with legs stretched out and crossed, is now steaming coffee or chocolate taken in a sort of huddled attitude. Then it’s on the way again, through the gears, trees and clouds blurring above.
This is good for the soul, leaving stuff behind. Focus on the road and clear the head, make room in the mind for other things. That’s not to say work can’t continue, and doesn’t. It slips in and starts to make demands regardless of where the road goes, how distant from the desk. But now there is a clarity that so often escapes the senses when confined to a room. This lucidity comes from the screen that has overtaken that of the computer’s, namely the windshield. Ever changing, the moving view brings to mind alternatives that might number in the millions.
Hours pass. Roads come and go. The sea, dark green and churning under white shoreline foam down on the highway’s drop-off side, has gone to the mirror, got small, framed, replaced by trees again, then stark winter vineyards all in brown rows running flat or riding the easy roll of hills. Actually, coming back from getting out is good. The best part of what is out there doesn’t go away, not quickly. Not until the next time when getting out, again, is hard to do.
Darkrooms: “We go to them for light.” Immediately a contradiction, or wisecrack to get your, the reader’s, attention. Don’t be silly. I’m serious here. I’m writing here.
The first darkroom I knew was our attic. You had to pull stairs down and go up that way. It’s where my father developed the pictures he shot of old barns and weathered fences, or a nude woman on top of a piano drinking a martini. The enlarger was huge, towering above me like a guillotine. I dreaded it, was afraid to touch it. Instead of working with the equipment, I helped my father mix chemicals, and it was there in the darkroom that I saw the light. Faintly at first, images ghosted themselves onto paper and soon there were clouds and trees and people, all the elements of the day swimming up from what he called “the soup.” Photography and what it held had found its way into me.
There were other darkrooms in other places. He always had one, no matter where we were, where we moved. The one in the closet was too small, and I didn’t like the smelly basement one on Western Avenue in Hollywood where he rented space. But I loved the new darkroom on the Sunset Strip, under his studio and across the driveway from the old Trocadero moldering behind bolted doors. “Eva Gardner and Tyrone Power and Robert Taylor and Betty Grable used to go to the Troc,” he told me, bringing in a fresh case of hypo, taking it through the light trap and into the darkroom, just next door but really thousands of miles from where the Hollywood elite used to play in their night clubs. Macombo, still open then, was right up the street. So was Ciro’s. But Las Vegas, that low-rent utopia, had done its number on them and they were on the way out.
In the darkroom’s red safe light I knew where I was, where everything for making the photograph was kept, nothing ever out of place. I knew each chemical’s scent, and the tick of the timer, and how to hang sheet negatives to dry. I still have his Kodak clock and film clips and enameled measuring cup, the wooden film holders, flashbulbs unfired and new after 60 years. And the cameras, oh, the cameras. That Speed Graphic with its Schnieder lenses and wire sport finder. The heavy Graflex D with its bellows and odd perfume of decay. But the big view cameras, his 8x10s with their focus knobs and rails, are gone. Gone, too, is the Leica M3 and Rolleiflex. And those darkrooms, now places of the past. I’m all digital now, with pixels galore. No more chemicals or dryers. No more dark sanctums where light fades onto paper as you move it back and forth in acrid fluids.
Now the scanner hums and light pops onto my screen. Darkrooms are just memories in their whispery fashion, as in a reverse of those images on wet emulsion paper that appeared magically from nowhere. I’m so glad I can still find them. It’s all in knowing just where to look.
Making Contact with John Bishop: “Every time I write an article I find myself in conversation with men and women whose names define the history of sports car racing.” It’s an amazing process, this bringing to the fore again what is on their minds, what they know about the sport and its players, what incredible insight they offer this present generation of readers and enthusiasts. Take, for example, John Bishop.
I caught John at home recently while I was writing a piece for Vintage Motorsport magazine about the life of Jim Busby, the IMSA California hotshoe who first made a real name for himself in Brumos Porsche 935 Turbos. Bishop, of course, was founder of IMSA and superbly ran it for twenty years during that period in American racing when the IMSA series was The Show, the best of the best. Today Bishop is Commissioner of the Grand American Racing Series, while at the same time a more private man living with his wife Peggy on an air ranch in Florida, where John, years ago an aeronautical designer at Sikorsky, flies his own Bonanza and aerobatic biplane.
What is so great about talking with Bishop is participating in his thorough respect for the history of sports car racing in the United States. Long before he became president of SCCA and developed Trans-Am and Can-Am, John Bishop came fresh to the sport while enjoying the ARCA era and the attributes of its president, George Rand, described by Bishop as “the perfect gentleman racer.” For all that followed in sports car racing in this country, “Rand kind of set the pattern, how this should be handled and how that should be handled.” While a fair amount has been written about George Rand, “there’s a lot more to be told,” says Bishop. “He was prominent in shaping racing after the war.” Which leads us to the SCCA and all that has sprouted from it.
There are moments in our pasts that beam like bright stars at midnight. One for John Bishop, lover of aircraft and flying, was at Elkhart Lake and had to do with Carroll Shelby. “Shelby had a French Paris business jet,” Bishop tells me, his voice filled with the essence of that time, “and he came up the straight at Road America and made a perfect slow roll over the crowd there at about a thousand feet or less.” Oh, yes, yes, yes.
It was a wonderful half hour I spent on the phone with John Bishop, talking about IMSA and Busby and Jack McAfee and Rene Dreyfus and David Hobbs and George Rand and Watkins Glen’s Bill Green and Jim Kimberly and Luigi Chinetti and Phil Hill and Ol’ Shel, indelible names and shared moments from our lives in racing and what this whole car thing is all about. Just the best.
The Eye: “When you have it, the world knows.” The Great Alfreds, Steigletz and Eisenstadt, have it. And Edward Weston. Ansel Adams. That they are gone doesn’t deprive them of present tense. The perfect photograph capturing the split second, that moment of decision, lives in its presence forever. Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose modesty urges him to say, “I have a camera and sometimes I use it,” has it. George Silk, one of the best of the LIFE photographers during WWII, characterized his aesthetic sensibility at the time he left school at age 14: “I had no knowledge of the classics or how painters used light and things like that. Maybe it was already in me.” Silk has the eye, there from the start. In our world of grand prix racing, Paul-Henri Cahier certainly has the eye. His color images of Formula One sweep us into a gallery open to but few photographers. See his blurs, pans, burning centers of focus, those caught instants of victory, despair, doubt, revelation.
In our sport, when in action, Louis Klemantaski and Tom Burnside and Jesse Alexander and Kieth Sutton have the eye. In his studio under massive softlights, Don Heiny creates salon masterpieces, having it. The eye. Walter Baumer has the eye. Kyle Burt’s got it. So does Winston Goodfellow. Bernard Cahier, father of Paul-Henri and guide for so many young Americans first coming to Europe in the 50s and 60s to drive, gives us that realm of men who raced through his Leica’s lens, through his eye, Bernard’s. Of course, there are many more. It’s not my intention here to list all with The Eye.
I don’t know what it really is or isn’t, or how you get it. My father, a large-format studio photographer before being absorbed with his sports car team, said it was something not many have; he thought that, perhaps, you are born with it. Maybe. Sometimes I have it, but it’s fickle. The Eye isn’t permanent, not something to rely on; it comes and goes. If you want to keep it, don’t think it’s easy. Exercise it. Still, it can let you down, destroy dreams, ruin lives, make you think of yourself a fool, useless. And some might say photographs, after all, are only pictures, images on paper, leaves in the wind. Most are.
The best, those not just leaves, are what life is, and the eye that sees it this way is the one we remember. It’s the one that remains present, never being past.
Overture: “I’m thinking it’s time to log some of my thoughts here.” Too often we just list and lable and let it go at that. And so my idea today is this: If you have that urge to find and get back into, say, the saddle of a 1948 hardtail Triumph Tiger 100 running half gas, half Benzol, maybe now’s the time to do it.
When I first started riding motors in 1948, I just wanted to go fast. But in the going-fastness of that initiation, I found a slowness. While the mph stayed high, my levels of awareness smoothed out, mellowed, became less rushed. It’s what Sam Posey told me once about racing, coming into the pits after a string of hard, fast laps. Stopped is when everything actually speeds up.
There is order and sense in what appears to be hyper motion, and often a whirlwind of confusion in being still, inactive, unmoved.
So move it!