nascar photography

In My Viewfinder: Dale Earnhardt Sr.

In My Viewfinder: Dale Earnhardt Sr.

by Brian Cleary

It’s been more than 50 years since the first time I picked up a camera as a kid and pointed it at a race car, about 40 years since the first time I got paid to do it, and 25 years since I’ve been doing it full time. So in all those years, it stands to reason that there have been many driving careers that have taken place entirely within that time span.

The great Dale Earnhardt Sr. started racing at about the same time, or just before, I began my motorsport photography career, and he was one of those guys whose career I got to witness pretty much from start to finish.

Personally, I’ve always been a little on the introspective, quiet side, and as a young photographer I was a little timid about actually pointing a camera at the iconic racing heroes of my youth. I’ve always preferred the “fly-on-the-wall” approach to capturing candid images of race car drivers. In fact, if I could be invisible, I think I would almost prefer that in many situations.

It has always been interesting to me that a driver’s personality and often his driving style, can be reflected in the way he reacts to having a camera pointed at him. As most smart motorsport photographers learn there are times when it is best not to stick a camera in a driver’s face!

In this respect, it seems like Dale Earnhardt really was “The Intimidator”, even when it came to his role as a photo subject.

I remember the first time I came across Earnhardt while working the garage area in Daytona as a young wire service stringer. He was perched on the trunk lid of his Wrangler Chevrolet and was surrounded by reporters conducting an informal Q&A session, kind of like what would be termed a “media availability” today.

I raised my camera and prepared to snap a photo and Earnhardt, apparently sensing the movement in the group of people surrounding him, turned and started straight into my camera lens from a couple of feet away. Feeling a little panicked, I clicked a couple of photos and scrambled away.

In retrospect, I don’t think he really cared that I was taking his picture, and I came to believe over the years that he was a very direct person, who just liked to know who was around him and what they were doing.

In fact, I also think that Earnhardt was a photographer favorite because he possessed one trait I’ve noticed in many iconic athletes over the years: he knew what a good picture was, and he would almost hold a pose briefly when he was in the mood and a camera was pointing at him. In other words, he would give you a good photo, but you better be quick and take what he was giving while you had the chance!

Many drivers, when they discover a lens pointing at them, take a second to recognize what it is and on doing so, divert their eyes way from the camera. Some even go so far as to turn their backs. I actually don’t have a problem with that, as I imagine that preparing to drive a car at perilous speeds can be a rather personal thing, requiring a certain degree of privacy and concentration, and not necessarily a time when the distraction of a camera lens in your face is welcome. But I know there were times when I was aiming a camera at Earnhardt and he locked his eyes on my lens and continued to stare it down with his gunslinger eyes, almost daring you to click the shutter. These moments resulted in great portraits of the man!

Another cool thing about photographing Dale Earnhardt was that if he had a something he wanted to promote, he put it out there and made the photographers his partner in getting the word out, whether it was a straw “Darlington” hat for his friend, then track president Jim Hunter, or a souvenir t-shirt of his buddy Neil Bonnet, he put it on and wore it proudly for all to see (and photograph).

Finally, one thing that makes a person aa great photo subject is when that person’s emotions can be plainly read on his or her face. This was the case with Dale Earnhardt. When he won he was happy, when his son or team accomplished something, he was proud, when he lost a race he was angry, and if he lost a friend you could see the sadness in his face.

Dale Earnhardt was one-of-a-kind in terms of driving skill, that is undisputed, but his genuineness as a person was always reflected in photos taken of him. I think that this combination made it a joy to photograph his career and made him one of the most enduring American sports heroes ever.

A curated collection of some of my Dale Earnhardt images can be found on Getty Images at:

You can also browse my ever-growing online Dale Earnhardt archive at:


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Testing . . .testing . . .

A pack of primer painted NASCAR racers at Winter testing, Daytona, January 2008. Photo by Brian Cleary
For the working freelancer who covers big-time motorsports for a living, the off-season is not much of a vacation. You'd think that the time between the final checkered flag of the fall and the first green flag of the new season would be a time a sitting around the house watching TV with the kids and catching up on domestic chores. More and more, this is not the case.

First of all there's annual tour of the awards banquets. In 2007 I covered the following banquets: Grand American Road Racing Rolex Series (Las Vegas, September), Grand American Koni Challenge Series (Las Vegas, November) NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series (Hollywood, FL, November), NASCAR Busch Series (Orlando, December) and NASCAR Nextel Cup Series (New York City, December). So, after all of that, after my tuxedo was hung up for the winter and I gave up my standing spot in the long term parking lot at the airport in anticipation of a leisurely off-season, here came the annual parade of primer painted race cars into town for the ritual of winter testing.

Fortunately, this testing all takes place in Daytona Beach, where I live, so the assignments aren't as grueling as the year-long grind of chasing the racers from track to track. Still, as many race fans know, the drivers don't really look forward to these test session, which involve endless laps around the track punctuated by periods of standing around as crewmen work on the race cars, with very little excitement involved. It's not much better for the media and photographers, as the cars aren't painted, the driver's uniforms aren't updated for the new year, and the photos are of little use to anyone, other than just documentation of the test sessions for the track and teams.

First, in December, the prototype and GT sports cars of the Grand American Road Racing Series rolled into town for the first of their 2 test sessions. I work as the series photographer for Grand Am, so I'm required to be there. It's a fun assignment and a chance to see my friends in the series in a less stressful setting than the usual race weekend. It's also a chance to see the new teams and cars in their first warmup for the season opening Rolex 24 at Daytona, which runs in late January.

The ARCA cars roll into Daytona for their annual pre-Christmas test, followed by a few actual days off for Christmas and New Years.

On January 4 of this year, the Grand Am cars returned to Daytona for their final test before the Rolex, now just 3 weeks away.

After that there is a string of NASCAR tests, each 3 days long: The first group of NASCAR Sprint Cup cars goes first, then comes the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series followed by the second group of Sprint Cup cars(the above photo shows the cars of Scott Riggs, 66, Michael Waltrip, 55, and Sam Hornish, 77 in action at this test session) and finally the NASCAR Nationwide Series. As that session ends, I'll finally settle to the couch to really get into the off-season and then I'll realize that the Grand Am cars are just 3 days away from rolling into town for the following weekend's Rolex 24 Hour race. Oh well, here we go again. Maybe I'll have time to catch my breath next December!


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