In 2020, esteemed drag racing photographer Richard Shute celebrated his 50th year of professionally pointing the lens at drag cars and archiving the history of the fastest accelerating machines on the planet. Shute, a longtime Southern California resident, first shot drag racing at close range with a simple 126 Instamatic. It only took a small taste of nitro and burnout smoke for Shute to know he had found his home.
“My uncle, who was four years older than me, asked me if I wanted to go to Fremont,” he recalled. “I said, ‘What’s Fremont?’ ”
As soon as his uncle explained that Fremont was a drag strip, Shute agreed that it was a worthy adventure. They jumped in a ’57 Chevy and set out for quarter-mile heaven at Fremont Dragstrip.
“I just fell in love with it,” said Shute, 55 years later. “We were standing right next to the fence as the cars would push start and come onto the road. You were literally within 8-12 feet of cars rumbling by on nitro. It got my attention, and I thought, I have to find a way to make this part of my life.”
From that point on, he ventured to the strip as often as he could, and the walls of his bedroom were adorned with torn out pages of centerspreads shot by famed drag racing photographers like Jere Alhadeff, Jim Kelly, Steve Reyes, Tim Marshall, and Bob McClurg.
“Those guys were all my heroes,” said Shute. “I just kept going and shooting from the sidelines whenever I could. Eventually, my parents moved to Mission Viejo [California], down the street from Orange County International Raceway, and I started going to the drag races all the time.”
The move was fortuitous in that Shute’s neighbor was Dave Emanuel, a writer for Car Craft magazine. Shute credits Emanuel with truly giving him his start because he provided his photo pass for the ambitious photographer to gain access to drag racing events. He began shooting with Emanuel’s help in 1971, and from there, he was picked up by Lion’s Dragstrip’s publication, Drag Scoop. C.J. Hart became the manager of Orange County International Raceway and hired Shute as track photographer, and there he stayed until the late 1970s.
The course of Shute’s fate changed one day at Orange County Int’l Raceway when eccentric promoter – and Shute’s boss – Bill Doner was in the midst of one of his legendary Fox Hunt events (oh, there is so much to speak of on this. Perhaps in another story).
“It was a case of ‘wrong place, wrong time,’ and Bill walked in the tower and asked me what I was doing there,” recalled Shute. “I told him I was trying to stay out of the way, and he said, ‘Well, get out of here. And as a matter of fact, you’re fired.’ So, I got my stuff and left, and then March 2nd of 1979 I started Auto Imagery.”
Doner’s dismissal prompted Shute to set out on a new path, one of his own carving, and he began photographing all of NHRA’s national events. Shute and fellow photographer Dave Kommel would work together; Kommel mailing the proofs and managing customer relations and Shute printing the photos.
Shute still provides professional quality photographic reproduction and film services out of his lab in Carlsbad, Calif., and his North Coast Photographer Services clientele extend well beyond drag racing. The state-of-the-art full service digital and traditional lab is utilized by professional and non-professional photographers across the nation.
It was never a straight road to the top, however, and Shute faced many challenges. One of them was quite personal.
“I was a disappointment to my family, a lost soul,” said Shute. “Your parents want you to aspire to do better than them, and my father didn’t recognize the passion I had for photographing drag racing until much later. He flew out of Ontario, California for business quite often, and frequently he flew up front of the plane with NHRA’s Wayne McMurtry.”
McMurtry, who retired from NHRA as the Vice President of Facilities Operation and Development, developed a friendship of sorts with Shute’s father, and it was McMurtry that pulled back the curtain on what the younger Shute’s role actually entailed.
“He explained what part I played in NHRA drag racing, and my father called me after one of these trips,” said Shute. “He told me how proud he was of me, and that what I did for a living made a difference in NHRA eyes. That was full circle for me, from his disappointment to finally being proud. It was really nice.”
The most pivotal relationship in Shute’s career, though, was with AHRA photographer and editor Jim Kelly, who dished out common business sense as it would apply to a drag racing photographer.
“He taught me about picking my backgrounds and things like that, but he also taught me that yes, the racer would give me a t-shirt for a photo he liked, but he’d also give me a 10-dollar bill,” explained Shute. “He taught me to treat it like a business, and that if I did that, I could do this for a living. It was an important moment when I realized that people were willing to pay me to do what I loved.
“I’d have done it for free, that’s why I was there – because at that point I was doing it for free – but when you walk up to someone like James Warren or ‘Jungle’ Jim and show them an 8×10 and they pull a 5-dollar bill out of their pocket, it’s like, ‘wow. They think that much of me that they’re willing to pay for it.’ I went from a wannabe to – what I hope at this point is – a respected photographer.”
Auto Imagery has grown to house over one million photos, archiving each NHRA national event and all of the racers that participate. The searchable website allows drag racing fans to purchase prints in various sizes with ease, and their extensive archives stretch back all the way into the 1970s.
“I was extremely fortunate that Leslie Lovett and Wally Parks helped me formulate a way for Auto Imagery to exist in a world where commercial photography hadn’t previously been welcomed,” said Shute, paying respective homage to NHRA’s first photo editor and the founder of the sanctioning body, both now passed on. “We weren’t recognized as ‘media,’ but we had found a niche. Wally Parks and Leslie Lovett allowed me to be the backup for the NHRA photo department in 1979, as long as I allowed them to use my services as backup. [Auto Imagery wouldn’t exist today if it wasn’t for Leslie Lovett and Wally Parks. They changed everything.”
Photographer Les Welch was given the same allowances as a means of checks and balance in order to eliminate one photographer or entity being a sole provider, and over the years, many other photographers have come into the fold. Auto Imagery, though, was the first, and Shute has worked to pass on his knowledge of the business, his way of relating to the racers, and his years of photographic knowledge to the next generation.
“I’d like to slow down, settle in, and do things with my wife, Liz,” said Shute. “The last 10 years or so, I’ve been trying to teach others what I know. It was through the efforts of others that I learned, and I would like to pass that on, teach others, and have them take the ball and run with it. I’ve had some incredible people come along, and they do a great job. My theory is that if you die with knowledge you haven’t shared, it was a waste.
“I’m not done yet, though. I still want to be creative, and I want to be at any event that allows for that. Once the passion and the vision are gone, I’m gone. But I don’t think I’ve shot my best shot yet.”
Richard Shute, on the next generation of photographers:
“So many times, new photographers have asked me, what do you want me to shoot? I don’t ‘want’ them to shoot anything. I want them to shoot what they see. I don’t need a clone; I need a new vision.”
On being the boss:
“I’m arrogant. I’m demanding, but that’s because my clients deserve the best. Yes, I’m difficult to work for. A lot of people think I’m an a-hole. Generally, those are people that try to use me, though. I won’t let myself be used.”
“I don’t think I’m inherently a good businessman, but I’m tenacious and willing to take a risk. Thankfully, my bad decisions didn’t kill me.”
“Early on, my personal life got away from me. I was not a good businessman back then at all. I was single, partied a little too much, and I paid for it. But I learned from all of that.”