Part 2: The pivotal year that was 1955.
> Everything went Chevrolet’s way this year. V8-equipped, The all-new, hot-selling Chevy was selected Indianapolis to pace the 500, and the superstar was nicknamed “Miss Indy’s most famous Chevrolet” race queen ever. If your set or even a radio house had a TV in the 1950s, there was singing, “See no escaping the USA/IN Dinah Shore your Chevrolet ….” Starting sang the so-called in 1951, she “Chevy Jingle” to a loyal at both the audience of millions beginning and end of her show, Emmy-winning NBC variety the first network show hosted by a female. Backed the Purdue University Band, here by she belted out “Back Home before the race, inviting in Indiana” the crowd to sing along and gamely stuck to a second chorus, around to kiss Bob Sweikert in the winner’s circle.
A year that opened brightly with unprecedented prosperity, new-car horsepower, and interest in auto racing closed darkly in the wake of James Dean’s fatal highway crash and a rash of on-track tragedies. Newfound concern about vehicle safety would shape the American automotive industry in general, and motor- sports in particular, in ways unimaginable before two-time-defendingchamp Bill Vukovich died while leading the Indy 500 and a Grand Prix car mowed down more than 80 fans two weeks later in France. Future installments of this series will recall scrutiny by politicians and law enforcement, an industry-wide racing ban, secret factory skunkworks, and other effects felt well into the 1960s.
Magazines published by Trend Inc. had been documenting high performance on black-and-white film since Robert “Pete” Petersen and Bob Lindsay hatched HOT ROD in January 1948, followed soon by Motor Trend. Not until this year, though, did Pete—by now a sole owner—ask photographic director Bob D’olivo to start retaining and organizing employees’ negatives after developing. The company’s early 1955 acquisitions of competitors Motor Life and Hop Up and absorption of their respective photographers instantly spiked the volume of incoming film. The simple logging-and-filing system D’olivo implemented on March 27, 1955, grew into the vast photo archive that uniquely enables HOT ROD Deluxe to serve up so many milestone images. Oftentimes, we’re afforded the additional luxury of choosing an outtake to the published shot that some editor with the same choice—but far less time—picked, instead, in the heat of the moment and a deadline.
How telling that the first batch of film ever entered into the photo lab’s handwritten log book, director D’olivo’s work at an amateur sports-car race, included four action frames of a Porsche Speedster that rated no picture or mention in Motor Trend’s event coverage. It would be another half-century before company archivist Thomas Voehringer came along to wonder, investigate, then confirm that the young driver smacking a hay bale in his competition debut was a little-known actor awaiting release of his first feature films, East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause. Countless such surprises are sprinkled amongst approximately 3.5 million black-and-white needles in Robert E. Petersen’s photographic haystack. Unknown numbers of worthies will be discovered or rediscovered as our archive research progresses through the 1950s and into the ’60s. Whether by lucky chance or dogged digging, to unearth some previously unpublished image of lasting significance is to strike gold. We’ll be sharing that ore as we shovel it up, one year per episode.
Backstage Past follows the pictorial-heavy format of HRD’S preceding historical series (Golden Age of Drag Racing, 2014’15; Power Struggles, 2015-’17), with some added value: personal snapshots taken by and of Petersen staffers roaming America with cameras, free film, and virtually unlimited access. Adult beverages might’ve been involved, too. Readers of a certain, ahem, maturity who followed their journeys once before will surely enjoy the shenanigans. You kids will want an app for traveling back in time. Don’t leave home without the magic Trend Inc. business card that seemingly opened every gate and door.
> Below: Eric Rickman tripped his shutter just as everyone turned to check out the chopped coupe rumbling into the classic scene. The Drag Safari’s Deer Park, Washington, NHRA regional meet brought Petersen’s imbedded photographer into Spokane and the original Thrifty Auto Supply. Magnifying the background of this scan revealed two bystanders to be Safari leader Bud Coons (right) and announcer Bud Evans. > Besides being a brilliant engineer and technical writer, the late Racer Brown possessed a photographer’s eye. The relatively few rolls cranked through his futuristic 35mm Leica after D’olivo started the archive contain clever compositions like this illusion of two guys working inside the engine compartment vacated by a severely set-back engine. Racer exposed three rolls on this July day at Paradise Mesa Drag Strip, near San Diego, but we’ve seen no magazine coverage.