Backmarker: Dan Mahony’s Photographic Ephemera

MotorcycleUSA Staff | December 10, 2015
Backmarker Dan Mahony
Oh yeah, baby, I remember the ’70s! Dan channels the photographer from the Netflix series ‘Red Oaks’ in this undated photo.

Every now and then, I need a great photo from the Golden Age of the AMA Grand National Championship.

It used to be that when I had such a need, I’d just send an email to Dan Mahony. Dan would root around among his 300,000 negatives, scan a few and send them to me. No matter what I needed, he usually had several sharp, well-exposed images to choose from. In fact, it often occurred to me that I should write a story about Dan and his archive.

A few weeks ago I was talking to Larry Lawrence about a project, and I casually said, “I’ll just get some pictures from Dan Mahony.”

“Haven’t you heard?” he replied. “Dan had a fire. He lost everything.”

I felt physically sick.

Dan Mahony’s dad literally built the famed Ascot Speedway in south L.A. In the late ’50s, Mahony senior finally knew he’d made it to the big time when his track hosted its first NASCAR race. One catch: his business partner fled to Mexico with the night’s cash. After that, J.C. Agajanian took over the track, and Dan’s dad became the official photographer.

“By the time I was 16, I could pass for 18, which was the minimum age to be in the AMA pits,” he told me. “So I started helping my dad; he’d stand in one turn and I’d stand in the other.” In those early years, he shot on 120 roll film, using a Rolleiflex. After that, his dad took over the Trackmaster frame business, leaving all the picture taking to Dan.

“I was standing in the corner, taking pictures every Friday,” Dan said, “and I thought, I can do that.”

Since his dad owned Trackmaster, getting a good frame was no problem. He put in a built 250cc two-stroke Single (a motor pulled from a Yamaha DT250 trail bike.) Back then, all Novices raced 250s. The first 250 Twins were showing up in the class, using motors from X-6 ‘Hustler’ Suzukis or even Yamaha TD production road racers.

So, Dan was a little outgunned. But the real problem was that Kenny Roberts and Gary Scott were AMA Novices that year, too. He had an informal agreement with the AMA officials, so they’d put him in the first heat. Since he was usually going to be eliminated anyway, he wanted to be eliminated as soon as possible. As soon as he failed to make the cut, he’d ride his bike down to one end of the pits, and run out to shoot pictures. Sometimes he’d shoot the next heat race while still wearing his own leathers.

Since his dad had actually built the track and brought in the dirt, I thought he might have some ideas about why Ascot was so stinkin’ fast. He told me it was close enough to the ocean that, late in evening, fog would roll in and bring the moisture back up in the clay. (That wasn’t the only thing that settled over the track; the cloud of marijuana smoke was legendary!) Whatever the reason, even two or three years after the AMA made rear brakes legal, there were riders who didn’t use them at all at Ascot; there was that much grip in the corners.

Besides shooting virtually every Ascot race until the track closed in 1990, he followed the whole GNC tour for a few years in the early ’70s. He sold images to major sponsors and manufacturers for advertising, but most of his money came from simply printing pictures and selling them to racers themselves. “When I started out, an 8×10 was $1,” he said. “By the end, they were $10. I told racers, tires aren’t $10 a piece any more, either.”

For his money, Mark Brelsford was the best rider he ever saw. What clinched it for Dan was watching Brelsford slide a Yamaha road racer under Kel Carruthers at the old Loudon track. “Carruthers was a World Champion,” Dan said. “I thought if the kid can do that to a World Champion, he’s really something. If he hadn’t been hurt, I think he would’ve been even more successful than Kenny Roberts.”

Backmarker Dan Mahony

This is the kind of amazing photo Dan Mahony provided when editors wanted pictures. In this case, Kenny Roberts (I think this was his rookie expert year) chases TT specialist Eddie Mulder in the Houston Astrodome.) I’ll be returning the hi-res version of this photo to Dan, in the hope that he can rebuild a virtual archive even 1/10th as good as the old, flammable one.

Dan Mahony was also some kind of photographic savant when it came to his own negatives. Although the cataloging job was nowhere near complete, there was a huge amount of knowledge in his head; who that was, what bike he was on… without the photos to look at, much of that knowledge is also lost to people like me who would have loved to write it all down. He did some of his own writing, too. In fact on a couple of occasions he was offered editorial jobs at Cycle News, but all he really wanted to be was a shooter.

Dan’s dad retired in southern Missouri, in the Ozark region (think: The Beverly Hillbillies’ first home). In the early ’90s, Dan came out to visit. By then, Ascot had closed and L.A. was at a low ebb. Missouri was green, and quiet; people were friendly; there was no graffiti. He bought a double-wide mobile home, determined to be a hermit and pass the time cataloging his negatives.

Unfortunately, the ’70s-era mobile home had cheap aluminum wiring and turned out to be a real fire trap. The local fire chief says it was probably an electrical fire; totally common in such homes. Mice chew the insulation and… poof.

Dan and his wife, Vickie, and Dan’s mum, were all fast asleep when the fire broke out. He got them outside and then ran back in. He emptied three of those small ‘home’ fire extinguishers, but each time it flared up again. He even ran out to his car and emptied that fire extinguisher to no avail. While the flames spread, he ran back in again; not for the negatives, but to get several dogs and cats out.

He and Vickie basically operated a no-kill shelter, and had over a dozen dogs and cats. Some of the dogs got out and ran off into the woods in all the chaos, but quite a few died. I changed the subject quickly. Dan managed to tell me about losing his life’s work without breaking down, but the thought of his animals burning up was too much for either of us.

“They’re still trying to decide, whether to take the bolt cutters to one of my big toes,” he said, describing one of his own burns. He told me that his doctor had given him some kind of experimental ointment for his burns, which he is sharing with one badly burned dog that’s being treated at a local vet.

Backmarker Dan Mahony

Dan Mahony lived so far out in the sticks that it took fire trucks 45 minutes to arrive. I know this fire scared Paul Carruthers and Larry Lawrence, who immediately took steps to ensure that the important Cycle News image archive was better protected.

When I last spoke to him, he was making daily trips back to the site of the fire, poking through the ashes looking for negatives. For the time being, he and Vickie and a few dogs are living in a motel in Buffalo, Missouri. He comes back every afternoon with any negatives he can find and cleans them in bath tub.

“Some of them are OK,” he said. “But most of them are gone, including all my best stuff. My image of Kenny Roberts riding the four-cylinder flat tracker… I used to sell that a few times a year; it’s gone.”

He’s begun the long procedure of digging through emails to find all the magazines he sent hi-res images to over the years. He’s asking them to find those files and send them back to him, so he can rebuild a virtual archive.

For his sake, I hope he succeeds in getting a lot of images returned in digital format. I remember an email exchange I had with him a few years ago in which he wrote, “This is my retirement fund; this is all I’ve got except for Social Security.”

It’s hard to fathom Dan Mahony’s personal loss. But here’s the thing about the history of motorcycles and motorcycle racing: the bikes will almost always survive. They’re cool, and beautiful, and inherently valuable and there will always be someone who’ll protect them. But all the other stuff; the posters, the pictures, the race programs… Museum curators have a word for that stuff; they call it ‘ephemera’.

A lot of it just proved ephemeral. The loss for the history of American motorcycle racing is profound.

Go Fund Me logo

Instead of spending five bucks buying and mailing a Christmas card to someone you don’t even like, why don’t you click this logo, and contribute that money to Dan and Vickie’s emergency fund? You can’t undo the damage done by the fire, but you can help to pay Dan’s vet bills, to say nothing of help him rebuild his life