Drag racing photographer Jon Van Daal – interview

Jon Van Daal is a rarity in the magazine business, having been a major player on both the creative and commercial sides of the game

Photographers: Jon Van Daal

As a photographer and journalist, Jon has contributed to countless magazines, including Australian Hot Rod, Street Machine, Performance Street Car, Street & Strip, Dragster and Drag News. He also edited both National Drag Racer and The Drag Racing Yearbook. In 2014, Jon was awarded an Australian Nostalgia Fuel Association Pioneer Award. As an ad guy, Jon led the commercial charge during the golden era of HOT4s and Auto Salon. He has also penned three books: The History of the Summernats, Traction Action and The Boss: The Brett Stevens Story. Jon is currently working on a biography of his father. We sat him down to spill the beans on a crazy career.

What was your first exposure to drag racing?

In 1970 I was on school holidays from Sydney up in Brisbane. My brother-in-law took me to Surfers to see US Top Fuel racer Steve Carbone. I had my dad’s Kodak 126 camera and took some not-very-good photos. But it really fired up my interest.

What was your first published image?

That was a shot of John Lumb’s ‘Panic’ Torana Funny Car at Castlereagh in December 1974. A mate lent me a Nikon F2. The windshield posts on the Torana broke and the roof collapsed down over the rollcage. It was published in some Aussie mags and it won a photo competition with Car Craft in the US. I thought: “This is a piece of piss!” and bought my own camera. And the Torana did the same thing the very next meeting!

This is easy!

The funny thing is, in 1978, I was standing in exactly the same spot with (Street Machine founder) Geoff Paradise. Angelo Palumbo’s car pushed the crank out and rolled 10 times. I was looking through a 200mm lens, so it looked far away to me, but I’m only here to tell the tale because Geoff pulled me out of the way.

You knew Geoff pretty well?

I met him at school, and he was married to my sister for a while! We went to the second Street Rod Nationals and the first Street Machine Nationals together and had a lot of fun. He was editor of some of the early mags I contributed to at various times as well. He was a big influence on the direction I took in life and we ended up working with each other again before he passed away.

Where were you getting your work published?

Drag News, Australian Hot Rodding Review and Australian Hot Rod. I had a day job at the Department of Agriculture.

Did you have any training?

Not initially. A big change came when I went to the US on a trip in 1977 and did the NHRA World Finals and the final meeting at Irwindale. I got to meet some of the top drag racing photographers and journos, including Bob McClurg, Steve Reyes, Richard Chute and Jon Asher. They were all using 6×7 Pentax cameras – medium format, which is what you needed to shoot in if you wanted to get your shots on the cover. I ended up buying one from Bob McClurg. When I got home, I found out that the Department of Agriculture also had the same type of cameras, with all the good lenses, so that was handy! Then I started a part-time tech course in photography.

When did this stuff turn into a real job?

In 1983 I went to work full-time with David Cook at Dragster Australia Magazine. That was a complete education in publishing. We’d start by writing the stories and developing the photos. We’d chase ads and do the bromides. We made the ads up, did the typesetting, the pre-press and the layout. And we mailed them out. Every two weeks!

The 80s were a real boom time for magazines, yeah?

For sure. Dragster became a part of Mac Douglas’s Performance Publications for a while, which also included Street & Strip and Street & Custom. I took over as ad manager, which was the start of 30 years selling ads full-time, with photography and my own mags on the side.

It must have been awesome when Eastern Creek opened for drag racing in ’91?

Yep, that was a good time for drag racing, but the four-cylinder scene was also starting to be a thing. By 1995 I was at Express Publications and became the ad manager of HOT4s. It went from a bi-monthly mag to 14 issues per year with up to 178 pages.

How did that impact your drag photography?

Initially I was editor of National Drag Racer for Express as well. I did 10 issues of that, but it was too much. One January-February I worked 39 days in a row!

Auto Salon was the hot thing for a while.

Yep. It started as an indoor show series and expanded out. I got the arse from HOT4s in 2001 and became the publisher of Auto Salon mag. I sold print ads, show advertising and event sponsorship with them, as well as doing photography. The Drag Combat event was the first event at WSID; the official opening race was a week later. Auto Salon was the first local car mag to be shot and laid out all on digital. We set up a photo studio inside the show and shot all the debut cars there and then. That way, we had all the best cars shot before our rivals could get to them. Punters got a copy of the mag with their ticket, which drove up our audit. We did a lot of direct marketing via email and text to get people through the doors. It was quite ahead of its time.

That was a crazy era. Where did you end up after that?

Heaps of different stuff. I worked for Lynx as the sales manager. Worked for Chevron Publishing on Australian Muscle Car and helped organise the first Muscle Car Masters. Went back to Dragster under the new owners and even back to Express. I’m effectively retired now.

You’re still shooting, though?

Hell yeah. Until a couple of years ago, I’d been the Australian correspondent for Drag Racing Online since 2000 and more recently for Dragzine. And I’ve been doing a lot of concert photography for a long time now.

How did you get into that?

I shot a lot of rock ’n’ roll in the 70s, just for fun. I shot Lou Reed, Eric Clapton, Frank Zappa. I gave it away when the kids came along. In 1999, my son Kiel started working in a drum shop where they had a lot of drum clinics. I started photographing those and it really kicked off.

How so?

Kiel and I are really into progressive metal. A lot of those bands have really amazing relationships with their fans and the fan clubs. Those connections have been crazy for me. I got to shoot Dream Theater’s first tour of Australia, and have shot bands like Ayreon at massive festivals in Europe.

Rock ’n’ roll and fast cars. Pretty awesome combo!

The best thing in my life has been enjoying those passions with my sons. My older son Joel followed me into the publishing business and loves the cars. Kiel and I love the music. He had his own band called Marlow that did pretty well and toured all over the country. We were lucky enough to see Tool this year before COVID shut everything down. That was dead-set the best concert I’ve seen in my life.

What was the best era of drag racing for you?

That’s a tough one. People say the 70s and 80s were the best time, but I love the variety we have now – nostalgias, imports, radial. I love seeing an import car run a five-second pass or seeing the Moits guys run the fastest speed in the world. I love the technology.

What keeps you coming back after all this time?

Nitro. There is something about standing three feet away from a Top Fuel car launching. Your stomach is in knots, your eyes are watering and the ground is shaking. The other thing is the drivers themselves; I’ve made some amazing friendships at the track, just talking to the guys and mucking around.


Ash Bailey’s nitro funny car lights up the night at Willowbank Raceway

Jon did six days at the US Nationals at Indianapolis in 2018. “It was full-on – 1200 entries,” he says. “Shooting 16 hours a day. It is like a 12-course degustation meal – you can’t take it all in at once”

Richard Caval had a spectacular crash at the Nitro Champs in 2014

A razor-sharp panning shot of Peter Anastasopoulos’s Pro Sportsman at Sydney Dragway. Shot on a Canon 7D II with a 100-400mm, f/4.5-5.6 lens

US racer Glenn Mikres had his Top Fueler fold under him through the traps at ECR, but walked away. Shot on a Canon F-1N with a 400mm, f/2.8 lens

Jon almost came a cropper capturing this pic of Angelo Palumbo’s AA/Gas Hemi-powered Torana. “The entire bottom end exploded at half-track,” he recalls. “The car turned sideways and barrel-rolled. The body came away from the chassis and was headed towards me. Geoff Paradise pulled me out of the way”

Ever the showman, Bob Shepherd loses it in the burnout at Eastern Creek. Shot on a Canon F-1N with a 35-105mm, f/3.5 lens

Jon lights up Po Tung’s Supra with five separate Yongnuo flash heads – check out the detail on the passenger-side rear slick

Rock photography is Jon’s other passion (Ben Gordon of Parkway Drive pictured above, Mike Portnoy of Dream Theater below).

“When I started shooting concerts, it was on film and standing in the pit,” he says. “Now I’m on stage with the guys, with remote-control flashes. It’s totally different”

“The AA/Gas tribute cars were probably the highlight of the US Nationals for me,” says Jon. “Crazy cars doing big smoky burnouts”

The late, great John Boskovich at Calder in his ’57