James Ibusuki’s drag art – interview

When he tired of drawing vacuum cleaners for adverts, James Ibusuki decided to paint what he loves

Photographers: James Ibusuki

James Ibusuki. Not many Australians would know that name, let alone associate it with a guy who loves drag racing so much that he’s made a career out of painting it.

Born and raised in California with five brothers and one sister, James followed his eldest brother’s interests, through the hot rod magazines that he would bring home.

First published in the November 2007 issue of Street Machine

Like most car-crazy kids, James was building models of his favourite dragsters before he ever got to a strip but when he eventually saw the real thing as an impressionable 12-year-old, he wasn’t disappointed. Out of the six Ibusuki boys, James was the only one to retain his fascination with drag racing — just after we spoke he was on his way to Indy to soak up the colour at the US Nationals.

Have you had any formal training?

I used to draw cars as a kid but after high school I got into music. I didn’t begin art college until I was 27 because I was too busy playing drums in a disco band! I graduated [with honours] when I was 30 from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.

A few well-known people graduated from there …

It’s the same art school where Chip Foose went but he was just a punk kid when I was graduating [laughs]. I am truly amazed at how much he has achieved — much more than any of us thought a car designer could back then! While Chip, Thom Taylor and Larry Erickson were all Transportation majors, I was on the other end of the college in the Illustration department. A few of us were fortunate to attain some high profile assignments in Hollywood upon graduation.

One of my fellow students illustrated the film poster for the Schwarzenegger film Predator, while my best buddy ended up doing everything for Dick Tracy, the Warren Beatty/Madonna flick. I painted the poster for Little Shop of Horrors, the movie with Steve Martin and the carnivorous singing plant. A lot of people don’t know this but Levi Stubbs from the Four Tops was the voice of the plant, little bit of showbiz trivia for you.

Several years later I tired of advertising and decided to take a crack at my favourite sport, instead of illustrating carpet cleaners and medicines.

Do you use any special techniques to create your art?

They’re all paintings done on illustration board using traditional methods and a good amount of airbrushing. I often joke that I use one to hide the other but what it really means is that if it looks too airbrushed I can add more brush work and vice versa.

How much research do you do for each painting?

Quite a bit! Most automotive artists concentrate on painting the cars and tend to not devote much energy to the background settings. I’ve always had an interest in architecture and history and like to make the backgrounds as accurate as possible. For instance, I’ll make sure all the people I’m painting are wearing clothes suitable to the era, much the same way support vehicles should fit within the depicted time-frame. Also, every drag strip had unique landmarks and I try to make them historically accurate.

A car is like an oddly shaped mirror — it reflects everything surrounding it

So is there a bit of artistic licence with the match-ups?

No, the match-ups are all real but a lot of the old photos of the races are kind of boring. Many artists will just copy familiar photos from old magazines but I try to challenge myself to come up with a fresh composition and tend to move things around and compress a scene so there’s a lot more to look at in my paintings. It’s an old trick the movie studios have practised for ages in set design.

Did you see any of the cars you paint actually race?

Oh yeah! The most personal painting would be The Manufacturers’ Final because I was there with my brothers. I actually painted all of us in the front row of the grandstand, with the same clothes we had on that day. I could do that because my uncle had taken a photo of us standing next to Bruce Larson’s USA-1 Funny Car.

The motors, that wild paint — how do you get those details right?

It’s a matter of intense observation and understanding how reflections work. Whether you’re painting a glass of champagne or candy paint, you need to know what attributes make it look like it does. A car is like an oddly shaped mirror — it reflects everything surrounding it. But I see quite the contrary every day, like paintings of cars with daytime reflections in a night scene.

Do all your paintings have a personal touch?

I try to put some kind of visual joke in the background. If you look at Between Heaven and Hell, there’s a hill in the background and the horizon is broken up by a couple of stands of trees. I painted the trees in the middle to look like Godzilla coming up over the hill. It kind of goes with the good vs evil theme, doesn’t it? [Laughs.]

There are so many great cars, how do you choose which ones to paint?

It may come as a surprise to you but the best-looking cars are not necessarily the best for popular lithographs. You have to go with the most famous cars in order to sell the painting. What do people really remember? They tend to recall the champions and unique characters more than stunning paint jobs. But it’s perfect if all three of those attributes can come together in a single car. The toughest thing is getting people to think: “I’ve got to have that!”

I don’t have enough walls to hang all my posters.

I hear that from a lot of guys. What I tell them is to be like a real museum and rotate the artwork every three months, that way you won’t get bored, either.

Most of your prints are signed by you and the racer — how hard is that to organise?

It’s quite difficult — not too bad if they live in California but I don’t like to ship hundreds of heavy lithographs unless I really have to. It’s a big hassle handling the prints as it just increases the chances of them getting dog-eared or smudged.

It also depends on the person signing it. Big John Mazmanian held the pen really tight and he would tire after signing 100 or so; very few did the whole lot [usually 850 prints] in a single day. I once flew Jungle Pam in from Pennsylvania to sign prints. She had a light touch, so what was planned as a two-day session was completed in half the time.

I guess you’ve met a lot of your heroes through painting their cars?

I’ve always been a fan. I’m not the most outgoing person but doing the paintings has allowed me to meet many of my childhood heroes and now I know many of them by first name. It’s been quite a thrill to hear their amazing stories!

Some of James’s drag art in detail:

The Manufacturers’ Final
James rates this as his most personal paintings since he was there on the day. “The painting that kicked my ass!” he says. “I had a picture of the wheels being lit up but they were different style wheels and I had a picture of two Funny Cars, but not those two.” Recreating the candy apple paint of the Big John Mazmanian Barracuda and the gleam off those polished Halibrands took some work. Again, it’s not all about the cars: the octagonal tower identifies the location as Orange Country International Raceway and the glow from the lights and the blue sky lets you know it’s one of those cool, clear nights that supercharged cars love. You might spot James and his five brothers in the front row of the grandstand, wearing the clothes they wore on that day in December 1968.

Duel at the Beach
Lions Drag Strip, though most called it The Beach. James has captured two of the most beautiful and recognisable Willys Gassers of all time — the candy apple red car of Big John Mazmanian and the equally stunning Stone, Woods and Cook machine. If you knew the layout at Lions, you’d notice that the walkway behind the start is too close. James uses various techniques to compress images — making lanes narrower to bring the cars together or moving telephone poles so that they don’t detract from the image.

Night of the Altereds
2oomph Fuel Altered action! Wild Willy Borsch in the Marcellus and Borsch blown Hemi-powered T roadster takes on Sash Matsubura’s blown-427 Chev-powered ‘Purple People Eater’ ’48 Fiat. Pictured at the now-defunct Irwindale Raceway, this is one of James’s most popular paintings and it sold out in record time.

Snake v Mongoose, Chapter 1
You can almost hear the roar of the blown Hemis as they launch off the line! Two of the greatest names in drag racing, Don ‘The Snake’ Prudhomme racing the Hawaiian, and Tom ‘The Mongoose’ McEwen in the Yeakel Plymouth Special, light ’em up at Lions Drag Strip. James Ibusuki paintings always have something interesting to look for in the background. In this piece you can see legendary Lions manager CJ ‘Pappy’ Hart on his trusty Honda scooter watching the action unfold. These days the Hawaiian is on display in Turin, Italy, at the Museo dell’ Automobile, unrestored with all the battle scars from its last race.

The Winternationals of 409
Dyno Don Nicholson and Dave Strickler fight it out at the 1962 Winternationals at Pomona Raceway. James admits he used a little artistic licence here “but it’s okay because I renew it every January. It would have been an overcast day but I made it sunny and bright because it would have looked a bit dull otherwise.” With the factories painting most of their drag race specials plain white, the painting risked being almost monochromatic but in this case history was on James’s side: he found an album cover showing a bright yellow sweeper on the sidelines — no licence required this time, just intense research!