Mike Arthur— From Old School Vol. One
While other kids were learning to “color inside the lines,” Mike Arthur found his creative niche early, as he stepped outside of the preverbal box and began a study of the art and beauty of racecars.
Growing up within the sport, Arthur’s parents were not only race fans; his father took on the role of mechanic, assistant flagman and eventually a starter for the San Diego Racing Association (SDRA) at the now defunct Cajon Speedway.
Like so many kids that were shucked around from racetrack to racetrack, there was never a question that racing would become a staple in Arthur’s daily life.
Drawing racecars and making scrapbooks from photos cut from racing tabloids, was the first outlets that Arthur found for his artistic talents. He spent many hours in his room with a well-worn pencil in hand, laboring to duplicate the lines and angles of his favorite cars and commit them to drawing paper.
It wasn’t until high school that he got his first cameras, which were a Kodak Brownie and a Polaroid Swinger as a back up. He would stand on the spectator side of the racetrack and in the parking lot of Cajon Speedway to capture racecars and history with his amateur cameras.
While not quite the “big league,” Arthur says he still has some of those early photographs, and is thankful to have that connection to his early beginnings. As humble as those early shots were, they were the foundation of what would become a photo career that has spanned over four decades, and continues today.
The cameras were put down for a short time after graduating from Hilltop High School in Chula Vista, CA, when Arthur picked up a set of flags, acting as an assistant starter to his father. He spent a season in that position, but missed not being trackside now that he was old enough to enter the pit area.
In 1970, traveling with a friend, and with a borrowed camera, Arthur went to his first two races as a photographer. Attending events at Phoenix International Raceway and Manzanita Speedway, Arthur captured the events and published his first photograph in Racing Wheels, a popular racing newspaper at the time.
That same year also included a trip to Ascot and Clovis, but the final event of that season was at the old mile fairgrounds track in Sacramento, CA. Arthur was again able to obtain trackside credentials, but this time he had borrowed an old, broken camera that was mostly a prop to get him closer to the track.
When several drivers died that day, a track guard tried to have Arthur moved off of the turn, but super star photographer Jim Chini came to his aid and convinced the guard to let him stay.
With the Viet Nam war in full force, and “winning,” a low draft number, Arthur was spurred into joining the Air Force where he found himself stationed in Mountain Home, Idaho for a stint. He also found himself with a lot of time on his hands.
With so much idle time, Arthur’s artistic talents were put to good use. He used that time wisely and sketched what would become the California Racing Association’s logo, shortly before acquiring his first “real,” camera. That logo was in place until shortly before the group folded and SCRA took over.
While the military wasn’t a preferred career choice, it did afford Arthur the opportunity to buy his first 35mm camera. The Mamiya wasn’t anything fancy, but many steps ahead of the Brownie and the Swinger.
Attending races at Meridian Speedway, in Idaho, Arthur began learning how to frame, pan and expose film with the local faire of stock cars, street stocks, super modifieds and midgets. It was a good training ground and he learned how to process and print color photos, which he would then sell to the drivers for a whopping $3.00, courtesy of the U.S. Air Force’s darkroom.
Spending a year long tour in South East Asia, left Arthur longing to get to a racetrack, and his first destination after arriving home was El Centro, CA for the Mid-winter fair with the CRA. In tow was a brand new Pentax 35mm camera. The better camera took Arthur’s photography to a new level.
Upon leaving the Air Force in December 1974, many firsts took place for this nova of a lens man. Among them was his first Knoxville Nationals, where he, like so many at that time, slept in a car, showered in the community bathrooms, and fell to sleep to the sounds of card games and bench racing stories.
Publishing more and more of his photos in tabloids, and weekly programs was tribute to his growing photographic talents. However, it was the cover of the first Open Wheel Magazine, with Dick Berggern at the helm, which was a milestone for Arthur, and it was the first of many.
Not only was Open Wheel Magazine the bible for sprint, midget and super modified racing, it was also the catalyst for the marriage of Arthur and his wife Nan Kené, who had her first story published in that same, first Open Wheel Magazine.
It was that publishing coincidence that ultimately brought Arthur and his wife together.
The published photos grew in numbers over the years in different magazines, tabloids and currently with a series of books that Arthur is self-publishing. The year-by-year books are titled, “Old School,” and feature Arthur’s memories and photos spanning the years of his racing photography. He is on Volume #5 (1982) with many more to come.
In addition, Arthur has been the on-going editor for the annual Paul Oxman Publishing Sprint Racing Calendar, and has done graphic cover designs for Perris Auto Speedway, Manzy, the Copper World from 1985-2002, and many more.
When asked about which have been his favorite tracks to shoot, Arthur includes, the now defunct Ascot, West Capital, Manzanita, Terre Haute, Winchester, Knoxville, Devils Bowl and Perris Auto Speedway.
Coincidently, Ascot was also the track where Arthur had one of his closest calls when a car came off of turn one, bounced and a right-front wheel careen over the head of the squatting photographer. “I felt the air of the tire on that one,” he said.
Arthur’s favorite drivers are a Who’s Who of several generations, and include AJ Foyt, Parnelli Jones, Dean Thompson, Bubby Jones, Jan Opperman, Levi Jones, Robert Ballou, and Daron Clayton, to name a few.
Stepping out of the box, standing on the edge of a racetrack with his now favored Nikons, and waiting for that perfect shot, has earned Arthur the nickname, the “Deer Hunter,” as he conserves in the number of shots he takes, jokingly saying, “I only need one shot.”
That is in direct contrast to most of the photographers today that never had to conserve film and know their craft so well that they could trust that what they shot would be what they intended. Digital cameras make it easy, Arthur claims.
Asked if he plans to retire anytime soon, Arthur replied, “As long as I’m able, and I still enjoy it, I plan to keep going.”
Old School, vintage photos and graphic design is what I do.