“I have the sickness,” he said with a smile, pushing his beer back and forth across the polished wood table at the restaurant we met for lunch. “My first Sprint car race was at Terre Haute a long time ago and I was like: ‘WOW, This is really cool.”
The sickness he speaks of is an affinity for racing. Ask a true race fan and they will tell you that the sport gets under your skin, you become addicted to going to the dirt track, the drag strip or anywhere they drop a green flag. Renowned motorsports photographer John Mahoney takes that passion to another level.
Mahoney, a Indiana native, discovered dirt track racing first then graduated on to his first Indy500 in 1955. “I have not missed a ‘500’ since” he states proudly. You might know his name, you might not- but if you follow American open wheel racing at any point in the last 40-odd years, you have undoubtedly seen his work.
Mahoney has photographed the stars of USAC, long before they become stars. He graduated from Indiana University with a degree is psychology and went to work for the state of Indiana. During his studies, he met and befriended an equally well known and talented would- be motorsports photographer Gene Crucean.
“I got my first Press Pass by pretending to write for a fake newspaper.” Mahoney admits wryly. “We called it Northwest News.” It was the mid sixties and he and his first wife had moved to southern California. “We reached out to the track in Sacramento, asking for passes but got no reply. I just wanted to get into the pits for free!” He had Crucean pose as the pretend editor for Northwest News and kept sending in requests. “The weekend of the race I was out in southern California, I was at a hotel- they were always having parties in the hotels- and I ran into JC Agajanian, you know, the promoter for Ascot Speedway. I thought to myself: ‘its now or never’ and walked up to him, saying that I was a writer for Northwest News and we never heard back about credentials. JC said that he had never heard of Northwest News but pulled out a pass from his pocket and gave it to me!” Later on Mahoney got hooked up with a couple legitimate racing publications, his photography flourished and the rest is history.
The camera was merely a means to an end. In order to get in the gate, being a member of the press was an easy and fun way to be close to the action. For John Mahoney, it was his golden ticket. His ex father-in-law was a master in the darkroom and quickly taught young Mahoney the tricks to developing film and printing his own pictures. Many years later at a pivotal point in his career with the Indiana Employment office, Mahoney decided to take make his ever-growing weekend hobby and turn it into his sole career. “It was a risk” he admits, “But it was the right choice.”
Dirt track sprint car and midget racing was, is, and will forever be his favorite. He has had the privilege to work with some of the biggest names around. From Foyt – his personal favorite-, Andretti, Rich Vogler, Bryan Clauson, Tony Stewart, and many more. In the handful of best races he has seen, the Hoosier will list big, local, Indiana races over the decades at the top.
“Some guys says that the ‘good ol days of racing was better- BOLOGNA! Some of the best drivers and racing is happening today!” Though the sport has changed, Mahoney loves it the same as ever. “Yeah the money aspect has changed racing, but the on track skill is as good as it always has been.” He cites the talent of Jeff Gordon, Kyle Larson, and Christopher Bell as reference. “THESE at the good ‘ol days!”
Mahoney is constantly asked for photographs for varying projects. Trying to obtain credit for his images is a never-ending battle. He has helped put together a few books on the history of USAC racing and is currently working with Dave Argabright and Pat Sullivan on another. His personal photo collection is featured proudly in “FULL TILT: The Motorsports Photography of John Mahoney” and on his website johnmahoneyphoto.com.
Mahoney, unlike most professional artists- is about as humble as they come. He refuses to admit how influential and important his vast experience is. He also jokes that he has yet to make a good portfolio of racing pictures. His wife, Martha, made a point to pull me aside after our lunch meal. “He is one of the best, no doubt. He will never say it but – if you have seen his work, you know.” Between portraits, actions shots and details of the track — John Mahoney is one of the best visual storytellers in racing. For a career made through the lens of a camera, Mahoney has managed to live his life at the place he loves best and the manner he loves best: at Full Tilt.