George Brainard felt the same way when, in 2002, he first started serving as the official photographer for the annual fall and spring events, which are organized by his friends at the Austin, Texas–based car club, The Kontinentals. At the Day of the Drags, which is held in October, racers gather at the historic Little River Dragway in Holland, Texas, and go head-to-head along the strip for a chance at small winnings and a whole lot of bragging rights. At April’s Lonestar Round Up, car owners drive in to the Travis County Expo Center in Austin to show off their cool rides and enjoy time with like-minded gearheads.
But eventually, Brainard felt he’d photographed the cars in every way possible, even as the number of autos coming in ballooned from 100 in his first year to nearly 2,000 a few years later. Meanwhile, as more and more visitors started flocking to the events from around the world, Brainard started to realize that the most interesting sight to see was not the cars but the people.
That’s when he started setting up a makeshift studio at the events and asking racers, car owners, and other attendees to strike a pose. Since 2008, he’s shot more than 900 portraits, a small portion of which will be in his upcoming book, All Tore Up: Texas Hot Rod Portraits, which will be published in March by University of Texas Press.
“It’s the most amazing people-watching in the world,” he said. “When you study this many people within a culture, you start to see patterns. You see the old guys with overalls, the biker types, the pinup girls, the rockabilly guys, the European tourists, the tough guy—all these different types. They’re all there.”
Brainard shot against a white background in black and white, stripping away all distractions so that viewers could focus solely on the individual personalities and styles of his subjects.
“The important thing for me was to try to get the best picture of these people I possibly could in the few minutes I was with them,” he said. “My job was in some ways more psychology than anything. I wanted to get people really comfortable so they’d open themselves to the camera and just be honestly themselves.”
For the first time last year, Brainard went to the events purely as a spectator. And even though he himself is not a classic car owner—he drives a 2008 Subaru—attendees, as always, treated him like part of the community.
“Being a part of this scene for many years now, people kind of assume I am a car guy. I get lots of conversations with people who are talking in great detail about their engines, and I just smile and nod politely because I don’t know what they’re talking about,” he said. “The cars are gorgeous, and I can’t help but be into them. But I’m more of a people guy.”