By DAVID GREEN
Grand Prix, Formula 1, Cheever, Andretti, Senna, Rosberg, Newman—words that just don’t belong with another word: Detroit.
But all of that fit together for seven wonderful years—wonderful for area race fans, not so much for those who worked in downtown Detroit—when the Motor City was a stop on the Grand Prix racing circuit.
Morenci native Roger Hart witnessed the event each year from 1982 to 1988, working as an Associated Press (AP) photographer. Three years ago he started sorting through about 4,000 frames of film to create a book titled “Postcards from Detroit: Remembering Formula I in the Motor City.”
Detroit became a Formula 1 stop in the 1980s through an effort to revitalize the motor capital during an era similar to conditions now. With a downturn in the domestic automotive industry, rising gasoline prices, increasing competition from Japanese car makers and an economic recession, Detroit needed a boost to show it was a world-class city capable of staging a world-class event.
It was a good idea, Hart says in the introduction to his book, but logistical problems soon became obvious in running the 2.5 mile course through downtown Detroit’s busy, bumpy streets.
In the end, the premiere race was a success and six more followed before Formula 1 left the city for good.
Hart recounts how his entry into race car photography began a year earlier than the first Detroit event when he was fresh out of Central Michigan University and working for the Tuscola County Advertiser in Caro.
He was invited to join an AP crew for the Michigan 500 CART race at Michigan International Speedway and as a rookie, was given one of the less glamorous jobs. Luck was on his side. The event was rained out, and when it ran a week later, several other free-lance photographers couldn’t attend, so he was moved to a prime location.
He got a shot of a safety worker dousing driver Herm Johnson with water when a pit fire broke out and the photo was published widely in daily newspapers across the country.
With that photo he became known as a “racing photographer” and he landed a good job at the first Detroit Renaissance Grand Prix the next summer.
Creating a book
In his current job as managing editor of AutoWeek magazine, Hart sees a lot of motorsports books and many of them focus on events from the past. The work of David Bull Publishing of Phoenix, Ariz., has impressed him over and over.
The possibility of a book about Detroit’s races was in the back of his mind when he bought a film scanner and began looking through negatives he hadn’t seen in 20 years.
“Most of them were stored in the original film envelopes that I had turned in to the AP for processing,” Hart said, and they included notes made at the time of shooting.
He contacted the publisher, they talked about how it might come together and a contract was signed.
“The first three years I shot everything in black and white,” Hart said. “The last four years were in color, but I convinced David to print the book all in black and white. I love black and white photography.”
Hart’s book includes several photos of race action, but the bulk of the photos he selected are of the drivers, their crew members and a variety of other personalities.
“To me, it’s always been the people who are interesting at races,” Hart said.
Besides, that’s the sort of shot AP was after and Hart’s goal was to have photos published.
He found it easy to go beyond the racing action. He learned in college that when you cover something, treat it like an event and look at every aspect.
“It’s not just a race,” he said, “it’s everything that goes on at a race.”
Focusing on “everything” came with a qualification, however. The AP wanted tightly cropped, clean photos without a lot of background distractions. Hart likes the tight crops, himself, but now he sees what’s missing from many of his photos.
“Now I wish I would have widened it out a little and gotten more into the frame,” he said.
Banners, buildings, clothing, glasses, photographer’s equipment—there are a lot of details that weren’t preserved.
Detroit’s Grand Prix era is but 20 years in the past, but already it’s become history.- Oct. 25, 2006