I don't have what most people would call a risky job. I take pictures of cars, boats, planes and motorcycles and write stories about them. Not a very dangerous line of work.
But as I look back, I begin to see a pattern of shadiness and criminality associated with certain sectors of the automotive business, a sort of violence I simply assumed was part of the car culture. I guess you could refer to it as the "dark underbelly" of the car world, that seedy place you've heard about but prefer not to visit.
I had barely gotten my feet wet at Argus Publishers when an editor asked me to photograph a man named Mickey Thompson and his new line of race tires. My cousins had worked for Mickey Thompson and his off-road racing venue. I knew he was important and I was nervously excited for the opportunity, the same way all young people are. It went great and I found Mr. Thompson to be a very inspiring, no-time-for-bullshit guy.
Just a few months later both he and his wife were murdered, and most likely the two triggermen as well. My cousins shrugged their shoulders like that's just the way it is.
And then there was the gentleman accused of stealing a competitor's carburetor design. He took a shotgun blast to the back of the head. Greg Brown, my former editor had me writing a piece on this gentleman's fuel induction system. I only had to finish it if the guy survived (he did).
I've photographed more than a few cars whose owners who were "unavailable".
"Oh, he's on vacation for the next 12 to 16 months (snicker-snicker)." Some were in jail, some had simply "disappeared." And these were nice cars too, Yenko Chevelles, slantnose Porsches, Pro-street Mustangs. Why didn't these guys want to be with their cars? Oh, because they're in Folsom or under the ground somewhere.
A certain part of the car business carries a stigma that both repulses and intrigues me. Perhaps it's simply the by-product of being around prestigious, high-value items. Or maybe not. A few years ago I found myself on the border of Canada and the U.S. I was doing a feature on the ultra-high performance VWs that seemed to flourish up there. I asked if we could find a wide-open area for photography. No problem, they knew the perfect spot. I'm pretty sure we were taking the same routes these guys used to ferry large quantities of "agricultural" products-trails bereft of border guards, passport checks and those cute dogs with a penchant for sniffing out hidden weed. Folks were doing the same thing in the in the 1940s with hopped up flathead Fords and homemade liquor.
New York was interesting too, especially during the import heyday of the late 90s. A few of these new "tuner shops" were most likely used to launder cash. There was a guy who kept a loaded Uzi sub-machine gun behind the counter "just in case". In case what, there's a run on lowering kits? I couldn't get out of there fast enough. If I'm gonna die, it's not going to be over a set of Honda springs.
I've been in shops where most of the hardware has been "borrowed", the serial number ground to the floor like so much dust. In fact, right down the street from me, a bent Porsche tuner rolled over on his longtime, best employee, sending him to San Quentin for three-to-five. This was the same guy who flat-out robbed me on a VW Bus engine rebuild. I shouldn't have been surprised. The guy's got no character, not even bad character. If you're going to be a thief, at least be honest about it.
In truth, I believe the car business as a whole has cleaned up its act. The internet and its inherent connectivity has done a great deal in helping to separate the bad guys from the good. We still have the odd lunatic crashing Ferraris in Malibu and slimy Lamborghini salesman selling their entire stock and skipping town with the proceeds (only to be caught two weeks later). But for the most part the air is much cleaner.
Are there still crooks in the car business? Probably. I'm just in no hurry to hang out with them, no matter how nice their ride is. There are far more good guys with great cars. And they don't need to wear ankle bracelets or Kevlar dinner jackets.