When Henry Horenstein revisited a series of old black-and-white photos dating back to his grad school days, what he found was more interesting than he remembered. Centered around the sport of modified stock car racing, the collection of images captured the sparks of a fascinating subculture as it existed half a century ago. Now, those photographs have been assembled into the book Speedway 1972, published by Stanley/Barker.
The catalyst for the series was Horenstein’s brother-in-law, an amateur stock car racer who helped him land a part-time gig shooting for Illustrated Speedway News, New England racetrack Thompson Speedway’s weekly program. For a “historian-with-a-camera in training,” Horenstein writes in his preface, “what better than an old-school sport that would certainly be extinct one day?” He then notes with some irony that Thompson Speedway is still in operation—and their operations have grown substantially.
Nevertheless, Horenstein’s images tap into the unique car culture of the era and evoke a way of life portrayed in classic 1970s movies like Two-Lane Blacktop. Horenstein places the greatest emphasis on the people, whether on the racetrack or in the stands. The various portraits of racers reveal a heavily male-dominated recreational pursuit, while those of the spectators feature a more balanced mix of men and women. There are families, teenage couples, old timers, and young children. Their enthusiasm is contagious, the rough-around-the-edges ethos is alluring, and it’s hard not to get caught up in the daredevil bravado of the participants.
The mechanics’ engineering expertise is also impressive, but thankfully, Horenstein avoids becoming overly preoccupied with the more technical side of things. His square-format photographs provide just enough of a glimpse under the hood to give viewers the gist of how these machines are rebuilt and augmented for racing, while keeping the focus on the more human elements.
One of the most effective images offers a nice view of a racer sitting in a modified open-wheel stock car. There’s not much else, aside from a steering wheel, a gearshift, and a driver’s seat. Large dirt-encrusted tires, a primitive roll frame mounted to a rebuilt chassis, and a large number 28 posted on the side round out the image. Yet, the viewer’s attention quickly gravitates toward the driver: His tense but focused expression, his hand on the gear shift, a bandage on one finger, his goggles resting on his forehead as he gazes out to the left, ready to let loose.
A portrait of a mechanic standing in front of a wrecked husk of an automobile similarly draws the viewer in. The vehicle’s wear-and-tear gives a sense of the intensity of the races and the risks involved – as well as the skill needed to rebuild these machines into racing shape. Still, the emphasis is on the individual standing front and center, first and foremost.
Many of the strongest images were taken at night. Horenstein’s use of flash is highly skilled and helps provide an aesthetic consistency to the work. (Even early in his career, he exhibits a great deal of technical aptitude.)
The sequencing is another strong point. Generally, each two-page spread features one photo that showcases drivers and crew members, and one that focuses on the spectators and fans, in ways that enable them to complement each other.
One such spread presents, on the left side, a photo of two young boys in the stands, clad mostly in denim, an illicit cigarette in hand. On the right, two men that could be their older doppelgangers tool around the track in a banged-up racecar.
Similarly, a portrait of a racer posing confidently, one hand on his hip and the other on his racecar’s windowsill, pairs nicely with one of two young female spectators, both of whom are awkwardly figuring out where to place their hands as they try to project a similar confidence.
An abundance of comparable portraits causes the work to sag a little in the middle. Still, there are inherently interesting elements even in the images that don’t quite “get there”—whether it’s something as simple and graphic as a checkered racing flag, an expression, or an article of clothing.
There are no captions, nor are they really necessary. The book’s title provides enough information: what year the images were made—and, generally speaking, where. After reading the preface, if I was a betting man, I’d guess that the opening photo is a portrait of Horenstein’s brother-in-law, the guy who introduced him to this world. Unlike the others, it has a snapshot-like quality to it, and one can sense a close kinship between photographer and subject. What follows is a mix of people and machines, racers and fans, metal, dirt, and exhaust fumes. It’s nice to get lost in the cacophony of it all and just immerse oneself in the scene.
Recently, it seems that a number of established photographers in the later stages of their careers have been reassessing their early work and finding greater value in it than they did initially. Speedway 1972 represents one of the more successful examples of this. It’s a work imbued with nostalgia and a celebration of a specific time and place, photographed with an eye towards history and memory.
Speedway 1972 by Henry Horenstein. Stanley/Barker, 2022. 88 pages. Hardcover.