A conversation with Craig Howell
If you’ve been to most any motorsports event in Alta California, Craig Howell was probably there snapping photos. He is the official photographer for some events and the unofficial photog for many more. His pics are numerous, his interests are wide, and his enthusiasm is contagious. Pic subjects vary from Nash Metropolitans to 1920s’s wedge tank BSA’s and 60’s sports cars to the random man-on-the-street or a small dog with great big eyes.
His photos can be viewed at his old site: http://craig.howell.net/events which is still in use and is at 1.6 million hits to date. Due to bandwidth issues, he has now created a new Flickr site, which is already at over 1 million hits. He no longer takes photos as a professional, only for fun. By sharing his work with all viewers via the web, we can all inspect every little bit or byte of each 12 megapixel photograph that he takes. As he says “I have spent so much time online looking at other people’s photos, so it’s fun to thrown some more out there for people to enjoy. I really like sharing them, and keeping them free means I don’t get any complaints. 🙂 “
All photos in this article are copyrighted by Craig Howell 2010.
Talking Heads, 1982
My mother took a lot of photos throughout her life. She wasn’t a photographer, she was a picture taker. Growing up around that, taking pictures of things you do and people you like, it’s just what you do, like putting on pants before leaving the house. When I was 15 I joined the Jehovah’s Witnesses to meet chicks. I knew there were some repressed honeys there that were looking for fresh meat. I knew. I was right, too. Never underestimate church as a fertile garden of earthly delights. A Witness friend’s Dad was a pro photographer, and he lived for it, spoke about little else. His son on the other hand, hated it. His Dad had pushed it on him for years and he wasn’t having any. Since I came from a picture taking family, I was interested and became the protégé of the photographer. I went to their house daily and hung out with Witness Dad and learned. Witness Dad taught photography classes at the Community College, and he pulled some strings and got me enrolled officially in two semesters of classes before they caught on that I was 15 and still a sophomore in High School. They were going to kick me out, but Witness Dad was a master of spin and got a friend to do an article on me as “the youngest college student in Texas”, which went on the front page of the local paper. They let me stay. At 16 I got a chance to work as a “lab rat” (darkroom tech) for a successful commercial photographer. Soon I was assisting, then shooting on my own. We shot 4×5 and 8×10 format, mostly catalog work for the likes of Pier One Imports, Nieman Marcus, Stripling & Cox, and also annual report photography for big corporations, health care and the like. Lots of food work as well, which is incredibly interesting, as it’s almost all fake. Real food photographs terribly without “makeup”, which means having a food stylist on set to do all sorts of tricks (soap bubbles in ice tea to make “beer”, slivers of plastic to simulate cheese, cooking a turkey with baby oil rubbed into the skin for the most beautifully browned skin, etc) all this fakeness to make the food look uh… normal.
After a secret 2 year affair with the head virgin, I ditched the witnesses and went indie. After a few years I found myself married (A shotgun wedding, actually, but that’s another story) to a makeup & hair stylist, and we made mad money shooting head shots and backstage glam shots for the pageant industry, plus doing modeling & fashion work . That was a whirlwind, let me tell you. Or maybe I shouldn’t. In 1986 our home and all of the photo equipment was lost in a fire. Nothing was insured. We decided to be like the Clampitts and move to Californee instead of rebuilding in Texas. We landed in the bay area, and I quickly found that a wealth of art students meant that photography jobs did not pay. To put food on the table I took a job in my hobby, which was playing with computers. That lucked me into a growth industry, but it’s just work. For fun, I much prefer bikes and cars and cameras.
When digital cameras became decently affordable around 1997 I got one, and a copy of Photoshop, and I was able to go back to “picture taking.” I am not a photographer, although I have been one in the past. Now, I just take pictures. It’s something I like to do, it’s a part of my life and history, and with the Internet I can share photos and get instant feedback on this thing that I like to do. My favorite subjects are simply “day in the life” photos. They’re the things I’m drawn to in old photography. The snaps that weren’t meant to be art, but that show what things were like. I always shoot with an eye to the future, for an audience of the curious that 50 or 100 years from now will enjoy the photo that I just shot.
My motorcycling story would have to start with my Dad, who bought a “big Indian motorcycle” in 1930 at age 16 with part of his huge 7 dollar a week salary as a soda jerk in Fort Worth, Texas. As he rode away on his new bike, not having a clue what he was doing, he crashed while crossing a set of railroad tracks. As he told it, “the throttle was stuck on full and the rear wheel was spinning so fast I could see daylight between the rim and the tire.” I always rolled my eyes at this obviously tall tale, but now that I know about more about old style “clincher” tires, hell it may have been exactly what happened! Before he could get his bearings and pick the bike up, a train came by and smashed it into a hundred pieces. This moment set off a distaste for motorcycles that I had to hear about every time I said that I wanted one, which was on the order of 27 times per day from about the age of seven.
In truth, that first mantra was actually “Minibike! minibike! minibike!” after a kid around the corner produced a set of motorcycle trading cards he swiped from his wannabe 1%’er brother. The cards mainly featured hippie chicks in bikinis on coffin-tank choppers, but there was one glorious card that set our souls afire, featuring a crappy no-suspension, 2 hp lawnmower-engined minbike. After that, it was a race to see who could get one first. My friend won, and he and I rode the thing daily in the back of the huge cemetery across the street from his house. Eventually there were a fleet of them owned by all the neighborhood miscreants, and we had daily flat track races out back. When the twist throttle broke, we disconnected the brake and used the handle as the throttle. It completely prevented you from wussing out during a race and letting off the throttle. My friends bike was fastest around the track as we’d broken one side of the frame, giving it a sort of torsion bar “suspension” that actually worked well on a bumpy graveyard flat track, or at least it did until the other side broke too and put paid to that.
In 1972 I was lucky enough to go with a neighbor to the AMA National MX races in Lake Whitney, Texas, in the days when European makes like Maico, Husqvarna, & CZ were in charge. Despite having never smelled Castrol R before that day, I was in love with it before the day was out, and still am now. This experience helped me decide that my next target was going to be an MX bike. I somehow talked my parents into getting me a kitted Yamaha MX 100, a foul handling imp of a bike with a powerband like a razorblade. If I rode illegally on the street for a few blocks, I could get on a trail and take it all the way to a huge public motocross park just a mile or so away. I could not get enough of dirt riding and daydreamed my way through years of classes, dreaming of one-handed peace sign flipping wheelies, massive roosts and even bigger air. I went through a succession of evil handling, hand grenading Japanese dirt bikes during this period, chalking up hundreds of crashes and finding out that boots, helmets and gloves were very good things. I’ve been burned, battered, smashed and crushed on dirt bikes more times than I can count, and I pretty much gave them up at 21 because I was “too old” .
The hot set up at 15 years of age was to get a BIG 175cc bike and put 100cc factory graphics on it, in order to fool the cops into thinking it was really a 100, which a 15 years could ride on the street. Believe it or not, this strategy worked, so at 15 years old I was flying around on a bike of almost double the capacity that I was allowed to legally ride. I felt like a super badass.
My first Euro bike experience was with a Benelli 90 that a friend’s Dad loaned me so he wouldn’t have to fire up his car and take me the 10 miles back home. It was cold and damp, but I was so happy to ride that funky looking bike he had in corner of the garage that I didn’t care. It was the first bike with right hand shift that I’d ever been on, and it provided some exciting moments while I jabbed the brake when I wanted the shifter, and vice versa. Fucking Italians.
In 1976 I got my fist FAST bike, a new Yamaha RD400. Sporting the obligatory DG expansion chambers, I out dragged ( I had not discovered corners yet) every bike I could find. I had friends with Norton 850’s, CB750’s, Suzuki 750’s and even an XS Eleven Yamaha, and none could beat the mighty RD in the sprint. Despite regular tank slappers that set the bars flapping faster that you’d ever think possible I was never spit off that bike. I did suffer from post ride traumatic stress though, from of all the near death experiences I’d just had.
Another thing I learned about bikes around this time is not to ride on the back of one with a crazy person. While on the back of a friend’s 250 Suzuki, we passed a guy standing on side of the road, who whipped out a pistol and began shooting at us. We dodged and weaved and flew around a corner to escape, only to slide out right under the bumper of an old lady’s gold Cadillac. My friend ran off, leaving his bike stuck under the Caddy and the old lady and I dumbstruck in the road. As I tried to pull his bike out from under the car so the old lady could go, my friends came back and showed me the bloody through-and-through hole in his hand made by a bullet that had hit him. I asked “What the hell was wrong with that guy with the gun?” My friend’s response was “Oh, he caught me in bed with his wife last night, said he’d shoot me if I came back around.” I walked home.
In the late 70’s I discovered BMW of Fort Worth, which dealt BMWs, Laverdas, Morinis and other exotica. The owner Perry Bushong had a stable of Horexs, MV’s, Hoffmans, Laverda racers and two Munch Mammoths, besides his inventory of new bikes for sale. My friend Les and I would go down and leave nose grease on the windows as we drooled over the bikes. They didn’t mind us hanging around, and eventually I bought an ’81 Morini 500 from them. One thing led to another, and I followed that with a ’76 Morini 3 ½ Sport, a BMW R65LS and an ‘81 Laverda 1000 Jota.
The Jota led to a number of great high speed adventures, such as the time I got on a seemingly deserted freeway to do an “Italian tune up”, ie run the bike through the gears and blow the soot out. I ran through all the gears, fully tucked, all the way to redline in top gear, somewhere around 135, 140 MPH. As I got off at the next exit and slowly approached the corner, I heard a loud noise behind me and looked back to see cop car coming up fast with all four tires smoking and squealing as he slid out of control to a stop. The cop jumped out of the car and threw his ticket book down so hard it broke. He chewed me out for a few minutes and went and ran my license, which came back clean. He had just come on shift and he said if he wrote me up for the speed I was going he’d be required to take me to jail, and he didn’t feel like going back, nor did he fell like writing me up for a lesser offense, as I DESERVED to go to jail! With that, he let me go, no ticket. I also once passed a DPS (CHP) officer while on the Jota at near 140 MPH on a country highway, who flipped his lights for about 1 second and then went back to his book. I also holed a piston two up at over 130 and rode the 50 miles home on two cylinders.
Around this time I also acquired a new FJ1100, the fastest bike available at the time, and then a 1984 Yamaha RZ350 in the yellow and black Yamaha racing colors. My garage was pretty varied – the Morini 3 ½, the Laverda, the FJ and the RZ all lived there at the same time. The FJ was the fastest, but the Laverda got ridden the most.
Beginning in 1982 I would come out to the bay area every year for the Laguna Seca AMA “USGP”, which was a 200 mile race with the likes of Randy Mamola, Freddie Spencer, Kenny Roberts, Eddie Lawson, et al. I saw Freddie crash in the corkscrew, right after I shook his hand in the pits (I was a Roberts man, and I hexed him), I saw the famous Mamola vs Roberts battle, the Lawson vs Roberts battle, and I saw Bubba Shobert receive instant karma for trying to do a burnout while racers were still on the track. I still think of the Laguna Seca infield turns as “the new section”.
I moved to the bay area in 1990, bikeless. I didn’t get another until 1998, a new 1999 Buell Cyclone. A torque monster that would wheelie from 10 mph through the gears to 100mph and chirp the front tire like a landing jetliner when it came down. I had a great time on the Buell, and didn’t realize how good it was until I traded it in on the most boring bike I’ve ever had, a 2002 Aprilia RSV Mille 1000. Riding that bike was like watching a video of someone else riding a motorcycle. Speed, but no soul. I traded the Mille for my first Laverda twin, which was much slower but much more fun.
In 2003 I heard about this “Moto Melee” thing and bought a a ’74 Suzuki T500 to ride in it, but that year the rules changed and the Suzuki was too new to participate. I then bought the ’59 BMW R50 I still have and went on my first Melee in 2004. I lost a cylinder on my less that perfectly prepared bike and struggled back on quickly oil fouled sparkplugs, given to me by the handful by an accommodating Ducatisti, Rob Diepenbroek. I wonder if he remembers that?
In 2005 I bought a ’54 Gilera 150 to ride in the inaugural Giro d’ California event, and have now ridden that bike in 5 consecutive Giros, WFO the whole way without a breakdown. Highly recommended.
Over time my motorcycling tastes have become defined by events that I like. I have a bike for the Melee, a bike for the Giro, a bike for the Rigid Ride (despite never making it there), a modern sports touring bike touring bike for long fast rides, a bike for the Funduro, a bike for the So Cal Norton Club rides. Despite motorcycling being a solitary affair, I enjoy it most when I ride with others. I rarely take a bike out on my own unless I am testing or repairing something. Part of that is of course that on and old bike, alone without cell signal, you’re pretty well hosed in case of trouble, and most of my bikes are old. Shit happens, as they say.
Deb & Harley Welch and their 1954 Goggo scooter.
49 Mile Ride, near Baker Beach. the famous SF fog…
RZ350 and check out the Shriners in the background. Please support your local Shriners; the favorite charity of Occhio Lungo.
Craig Howell. “I am not a photographer… I just take pictures.”