Rick Mears and the Nikon shirt

mearswebAuto racing, and Indy car racing in particular, was a big deal when I got to The Californian in 1980, thanks to a fellow named Rick Mears , who had a knack for winning a little race called the Indianapolis 500. One day, when I was working as a sports writer, I came to work and sports editor Larry Press gave me an assignment to call Mears and ask him about some kind of new change he had made to his car for the upcoming season. This was Mike Griffith’s beat, but Mike was off that day. Problem was, I knew noting about auto racing, even less about cars. So I was honest. I told Mears I was filling in for Mike and I really had no idea what I was even talking to him about. He couldn’t have been nicer, and guided me through the interview. Later in my career, when I would be covering him in Indianapolis as a Californian photographer, he reached out from the cockpit of his race car and pulled me out of the way of another car that was being pushed through the pits and headed right toward me. We even played a round of golf together once. In August, 1982, I would go to Riverside Raceway with Griffith to photograph Mears for the first time, an Indy Car race called the AirCal 500.

A few months earlier, he and Gordon Johncock waged one of the greatest auto races in history at the Indy 500, with Johncock holding off Mears to win what was the closes Indy 500 ever. It was so thrilling it made me a racing fan. I had never shot an Indy car race before. Several people told me that “the spot” for photos on this road course was Turn 6. It was a tight turn that the drivers would head into, tricky to navigate, and yielded great pictures. I got to the track early and found a spot in Turn 6, on a slight incline right over the track. It was perfect! Shortly after the race started, a track official came running over to me. “You can’t shoot from there,” he said. “You need to find another spot.” I didn’t know why. “But I was told this is open to photographers.” “It is,” he said. “It’s your shirt. You can’t shoot here with that shirt.” I still didn’t understand. I was wearing a bright yellow Nikon shirt that I was given when I bought my Nikon F3 camera a few months earlier. Like I said, I didn’t know much about auto racing. “What’s wrong with my shirt,” I asked? “It’s yellow,” the guy replied. “The racers are coming into the turn and seeing it. They think it’s a caution flag.” What a moron! I left, found a souvenir stand, bought a blue t-shirt and returned to Turn 6 to shoot most of the race. The top picture was from one of Mears’ pit stops in a later race, after Pennzoil joined the Penske team as top sponsor. I don’t remember where, I think it’s Phoenix, maybe Long Beach. I learned from my Riverside experience that if you’re going to shoot an auto race from the track, don’t wear a yellow (or red) shirt.

Turn 6 at Riverside was the best place on the track to shoot, so long as you weren't wearing a yellow shirt! That's Rick Mears leading the way through the turn.
Turn 6 at Riverside was the best place on the track to shoot, so long as you weren’t wearing a yellow shirt! That’s Rick Mears leading the way through the turn at the AirCal 500 in 1982.

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