Four decades ago Gurney and I struck a similar pose, but the film didn’t develop properly. Now, thanks to pixels and other nontangibles, not to mention a photographer who knew what he was doing, I get my 15 minutes of fame with the man who should be president.
Believe it or not, this photo of Dan Gurney and me took nearly 40 years to develop and process. That’s about as long as Moses spent leading the Israelites to the Promised Land.
(Photos by Brian J. Nelson, courtesy of American Honda)
The genesis of this 40-year tale begins at the inside of turn 9 at the now-defunct Orange County International Raceway in Irvine, California. I was a starving college student attending Cal State University, Fullerton, working on an assignment for my photography class. The subject was action photography, so being a gearhead it made perfect sense to go to the local AFM (American Federation of Motorcyclists) race at OCIR to get a pan shot of some hotshot bike racer.
So I ventured out to turn 9, the hairpin corner at the end of the straightaway that also served as the return road for drag racers. Joining me for the day was my brother Alan and two friends, Brad Von Grote and Tom Alderson. Approaching the turn, I spotted two young boys and a man, all wearing very distinct dark-blue windbreakers with yellow/orange/red stripes on the upper sleeves. “Those are All American Racers jackets,” I said to my entourage, “and that’s Dan Gurney!”
All American Racers is about racing cars. Fittingly, Gurney reserved a portion of the facility to serve as a mini-museum for some of his landmark Eagle race cars. The yellow Indy car qualified second for the 1981 Indianapolis 500.
Freeze-frame for a second while I explain the significance of Gurney. During the summer of 1967 I bought my first Road & Track magazine and the cover photo showed Gurney driving his Formula 1 car to victory during the Belgian GP at Spa-Francorchamps. The story inside about the Eagle-Weslake hooked me on road racing, and from that day on I wanted to be a racecar driver.
OK, hit the “play” button again. I approach Gurney and I boldly say, “Enjoying the races, Mr. Gurney?” Exact words, but I’m sure my voice cracked and quivered with each word. I was talking with my hero.
Dan Gurney, owner of All American Racers, and one of America’s greatest racecar drivers.
Gurney was beyond congenial, and the four of us spent the next 20 or 30 minutes talking with him, and at one point he inquired about the 35mm camera dangling from my neck. “Oh, taking some action photos for a photojournalism class at school,” I told him. Without even a blip he smoothly shifted the conversation to the importance of school, and he even suggested, “You know, the sport needs some good reporters, too.” No way, Jose, I told him in so many words. I was destined to be a racecar driver, and that was that. He only smiled at my naiveté, and I can only assume that he thought to himself, How many times have I heard that one before?
As we wrapped up our conversation I politely asked if we could take a group photo with him. He obliged, my brother on one side of him, me on the other. I handed Tom my camera and he snapped the shot. Just to make sure it turned out, I asked him to fire off another frame, which he did.
Our merry band of journalists and PR people join Gurney alongside the new Shadow RS for the obligatory firing-squad photo. We visited the shop long enough for Gurney to share more than a few race stories with us.
Now you’re going to learn why I’m not a photographer: I didn’t load the 35mm Tri-X film properly so it didn’t thread through the camera body. Result: no picture of Daingerous Dain with Dan Gurney. When I processed the film every frame was blank. The film, in effect, never saw the light of day.
Gurney’s racing career dates back to the 1950s, so naturally there are more than a few photographs documenting his achievements. Both walls of the hallway leading to the race shop are lined with photos that help tell the story.
I lived with that gaffe for 40 years. It’s not like I haven’t had second chances to pose alongside racing celebrities, either. Indeed, my tenure as a motojournalist has placed me in company with some big-name racers. Perhaps the most memorable was the shot of Kenny Roberts and me on Cycle Guide’s April 1986 cover. I was riding a Yamaha FZ750 beside Kenny Roberts and his TZ750. Trust me, the bonehead under the silver Bell helmet with dark faceshield was mine, and the photo, taken by my friend and ace photographer David Dewhurst, was part of a track day we spent with KR and Wes Cooley. The assignment was to compare yesterday’s racers—the TZ750 and Cooley’s Yoshimura-Suzuki GS1000 superbike—with two then-current sportbikes, the FZ750 and a Suzuki GSX-R750.
DG vs. KR. Guess who won that round.
Looking back on that day at OCIR with Gurney, I realize now that he had a bigger impact on me than I imagined at the time. See, his advice to pursue journalism somehow made it past my thick skull to sink into my pea-brain. Other than my father and Jesus Christ himself, I have to say that Dan Gurney has been the most influential person in my life.
Forty years later I finally get to explain to Dan Gurney how I blew my photo assignment. My good amigo Scott Rousseau (Motorcycle Consumer News) and Honda’s PR guy Jon Siedel (second from right) paid close attention.
And now, 40 years later and with American Honda’s help, I was able to do a retake of that miscued photo. Jon Seidel, Honda’s PR guy, had arranged for a visit to All American Racers in Santa Ana during the press introduction of the Shadow RS, for which I attended on behalf of RoadBike magazine. And you know what? Mr. Gurney—and I use those two words with full reverence and sincerity—hasn’t changed a bit in the past 40 years. For about an hour we talked bikes, we talked cars, we talked racing, and we even talked about how I finally learned to properly operate a camera. —Dain Gingerelli
(Thanks again to Jon Seidel for arranging the AAR visit; to AAR’s vice-president, Kathleen Weida, for her hospitality; to photographer Brian J. Nelson for getting this photo right; and of course, to Dan Gurney for taking the time to host a group of journalists.)