My father may be a pro at this, but I obviously am not. I fumble when asked for my pit pass, can’t find the bathrooms in the media center, and get queasy when I get up on the roof of the grandstands with him. But I quickly learn that if I get a suspicious look, mumbling something about being Mark Sluder’s daughter usually gets me where I need to go.
As the senior photographer for NASCAR Illustrated and NASCAR Scene magazines, my dad practically lives on the racing circuit. He has covered NASCAR for more than 25 years, starting out at The Charlotte Observer as a general assignment photographer. With his work featured in national magazines and best-selling books, he’s won numerous awards for photojournalism and been on two Pulitzer Prize-winning news teams. But as we stand on top of the Atlanta Motor Speedway grandstand, it’s clear that it’s the experiences, not the accolades, that make my dad tick.
The Allure of Racing
In what promises to be the quietest moment of the day, race fans clutch their Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt, Jr., hats to their chests as they stand for the National Anthem. Soon the track will swell with the roar of car engines and cheers from some of the most passionate fans in sports. This passion is in part what attracted my father to NASCAR.
“There’s a lot of pain associated with it, but there’s also a lot of joy too,” he explains. “It’s very emotional; it’s very visual; it’s very exciting. You never know what’s going to happen.”
The thin line between life and death makes NASCAR larger than life. For my dad and others who have followed racing closely, the sport’s dramatic storylines have been all too real. “Very seldom does a basketball player go out on the court and wonder if he’s going to come back alive. Motorsports racers face that every time they go out on a track. So it’s a little bit more than a sport. There’s always that possibility of disaster.”
No matter what happens as the race unfolds, Dad and his team of photographers seemed poised to capture the action. As I listen in on my headphones, it’s apparent that my father is the wild card on the team.
“People ask me where I’m going to shoot from, but I usually don’t decide until 15 minutes before the race,” he tells me. “I walk around and absorb everything, and then I just sense where the best spot may be. It’s not necessarily where the biggest wreck is going to happen but where the turning point of the race will happen. It could be in the pits or on the track. It could be in the turns.”
Chasing the Story
Even as Dad unpacks his camera and adjusts his lenses like he does almost every weekend of the year, nothing seems routine about his approach. He is chasing the story here just as aggressively as he chased news when I was growing up to the sounds of police scanners and his car speeding out of the driveway toward the next breaking event in Charlotte.
As he sees it, NASCAR and the news aren’t that different. “The news prepared me for NASCAR,” Dad says. “You have to be ready for anything, anytime.” Frenzied pace and ever-changing circumstances are things Dad has become accustomed to. But it’s the pushing-the-boundaries experiences that have the greatest payoff, and he has had rare opportunities to chronicle history unfolding. “When the Berlin wall came down, Billy Graham gave a speech in front of the Reichstag, which is where he held a rally while they were putting the Berlin wall up,” Dad tells me. “I had the opportunity to go to Berlin with him and cover the rally and cover the wall coming down. That’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
For most photographers, one Pulitzer prize is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. My dad’s been on two teams that won Pulitzers for Public Service, a staff award that’s considered the highest Pulitzer honor. “One was in 1981 for a series we did on brown lung, which was a problem in the textile mills at the time,” he recalls. “And the other one was in 1988 for a series we did on PTL and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker and their diverting of funds and contributions to other things. I even wrote a couple of the stories and did the primary photography for the series.”
But he took his favorite photograph while covering the U.S. intervention in Haiti. “It was 1994, right at the beginning of the fall of General Cédras,” he explains. “I went down for the Observer as a guest of the 82nd Airborne Division. I woke up the first morning and walked outside. The first thing I saw were two Haitian boys walking arm in arm past soldiers who were mounting up on Humvees fixed with 50-caliber machine guns. The first thing that came to mind was ‘Blessed are the meek because they shall inherit the earth.’ Only a few times in my career have I looked through the viewfinder and knew that I had a sparkler, but that was one.”
Growing up, my friends all had family photos from the church directory on their walls. We had portraits of Jimmy Carter and Whoopi Goldberg and images of graveyards and rock formations. “You see a lot of unusal things while traveling--a lot of pretty things and interesting things,” Dad says.
As we stand on the speedway rooftop sharing stories about the road, it amazes me that my father, who knew he wanted to be a photographer at age 14, remains endlessly enthusiastic about what he does. “Photography is my job, my hobby, and my passion,” he says. “I thought I would have gotten tired of it by now. But it gets more and more exciting every day. You’re documenting life.”
A NOTE TO OUR READERS
"Life and the Fast Lane" is from the September 2008 issue of North Carolina Living: People & Places, a special section of Southern Living for our subscribers in North Carolina.