Silver Shutter’s Golden Image: Bert Shepard
By Scott Rousseau
This Archives edition is reprinted from issue #38, September 28, 2005. CN has hundreds of past Archives editions in our files, too many destined to be archives themselves. So, to prevent that from happening, in the future, we will be revisiting past Archives articles while still planning to keep fresh ones coming down the road -Editor.
Race photographers are weirdos—at least the good ones are. Face it, you kind of have to be a weirdo to spend your whole life watching races with one eye closed while the other eye strains to peer through a little tiny lens finder, hoping to catch the action in that split-second instant of focus. In the same split second, a shutterbug’s brain has to fire a signal to his or her finger, which in turn squeezes the shutter button, hopefully capturing an image that serves as more than just a photograph—indeed, as a fragment in time.
For over 30 years, photographer Bert “Silver Shutter” Shepard has been capturing dirt-track memories, although the 59-year-old Shepard of Middletown, Ohio, can’t remember the exact date he started.
“I think my first National was in 1971,” Shepard, a retired eighth-grade history teacher, recalls. “I’ve been riding my whole life. I was once a Novice up in Pennsylvania, New York State—up in that area. Dirt track was the deal, but I was never any good, and I figured that the only way I could ever make a dent in the whole thing was to take some pictures instead.”
Shepard more than made a dent, ascending within the ranks of dirt-track photographers—at a time when dirt track still mattered in the big picture of top-level motorcycle racing—to become one of the best.
“I actually landed a job with RJR [Camel] for a few years, so I shot all of their stuff on pavement and dirt, and I did everything for Cycle News back when there was an East and West edition. The way that worked was that I would use two cameras and shoot alternate laps, and whoever [East or West] got the cool shot got the cool shot. Between 1975 and 1990, I probably did 35 races a year.”
And through all the countless thousands of images that Shepard has captured during his career, this one is his favorite.
“It’s from Plain City, Ohio,” Shepard says. “In the old days, they had what was called the Ohio tripleheader. They would race Belle Fontaine on Friday night, Dayton on Saturday night, and after Chuck Jordan was killed, Plain City became known as the Chuck Jordan Memorial, on Sunday. The cool thing about it was that it was an off weekend on the National schedule, so you’d have guys like Ricky Graham and Randy Goss, [Ted] Boody; everybody rode all three of them because there was a lot of money there, and there still is at Dayton.”
Shepard says that the shot was taken in turn one of the main event.
“It has to be from ’79, because Scott Parker was a rookie,” Shepard says. “He was 40X, and 65D was Billy Labrie from Florida. Number 91 is Scott Drake from Ohio. Number 62 is Corky Keener, but with those leathers, I don’t think he was on the [Harley] factory team anymore. Then 42 is [Steve] Morehead, and he was on the factory team. I think he was on it either one year or two years. Number 96 is Billy Shaeffer, and number 98G is Ronnie Jones. That’s Ricky Campbell behind Hank Scott , and Gary Scott is number five.”
Being as that the Plain City race was a cushion, Shepard also notes: “You can see that some people have Goodyears on the front and some people have Pirellis on the front. It’s the first lap, first comer of the race, and Parker is feet up, going like hell as usual.”
Shepard recalls that Parker won the race.
“Parker was really everybody’s favorite because he was just a kid, barely old enough to be there,” Shepard says. “Then you’ve got Keener who is kind of the old sage. And Morehead went on to win about a zillion races in Ohio. He pretty much owned Ohio on a bike that was called ‘Old Paint.’ And Gary and Hank were from Ohio.”
One thing that Shepard notes hasn’t changed is the rural nature of the sport of flat track and its top riders. You don’t hear of any races taking place in Chicago, Los Angeles or New York City, nor do many riders hail from those bustling metroplexes. That’s really part of the sport’s charm rather than a mark against it.
“Even today, all those kids, like Jared Mees, that are running today are from out-of-the-way places,” Shepard says. “This is a sport that started at fairgrounds. In Ohio, we have 88 counties and 88 county fairgrounds, but I think we’re really only allowed on about five of them because of the horse people. I think that it’s an old homeboy kind of thing, and I wish there was more of it.”
Shepard says that out of all the miles of film that he has clicked his way through, this frame, shot on plain old Tri-X black-and-white film, is his signature shot, capturing a golden age of dirt-track racing.
“For me it says a couple of things,” Shepard says. “One, it’s the good old days. I hate to use that term, but it was a time and a period when National stars rode in Ohio. This was a time and a period when everybody came and everybody rode [non-Nationals].”
What’s number two?
“It’s pretty much in focus,” Shepard jokes.CN