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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Wednesday, Oct. 22, 2014

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In Sports

Russ Lake has been a racing photographer for 56 years. (PHOTO: Russ Lake)

In Sports

Lake snapped this shot of AJ Foyt and friends race at the Milwaukee Mile in 1965. (PHOTO: Russ Lake)

In Sports

Lake took this picture of the NASCAR Busch race in 2005. (PHOTO: Russ Lake)

In Sports

This race at Cedarburg was captured by Lake in 1967. (PHOTO: Russ Lake)

Passion for racing keeps photographer in focus


If you want to catch up with photographer Russ Lake at his home in the quiet suburb of North Prairie, you might as well wait until winter. When spring flowers bloom and the roar of racing engines cuts through the peaceful air, Lake and his camera are off to the races.

One weekend might find Lake at the famous Daytona International Speedway in Florida. On another, he might be practicing his craft at the high-banked oval at Talladega, Alabama. Warm summer racing days may take Lake and his lens to race tracks in Michigan, Texas or Arizona.

Then again, he may frequent the local venues in Madison or Rockford. But one thing is for certain; whether it be at the quarter-mile track at Slinger or the hallowed ground of the imposing Indianapolis Motor Speedway -- where there is racing, there is Russ Lake.

The 71-year-old grandfather and official photographer for the historic Milwaukee Mile race track in West Allis shows no sign of slowing down.

Samples of Lake's work can be observed in various local, national, and international racing publications. When the photographer is at home working with his negatives and images, of which he conservatively estimates that there are some 500,000 in total, he's in his element.

"I'm in my glory," Lake confesses.

In a career that has spanned more than half a century behind the camera, Lake has rubbed shoulders with some of racing's elite. Former Indy winners, including the late Roger Ward, AJ Foyt, Johnny Rutherford, and Arie Luyendyk are just some of the many drivers Lake has come to know personally over the years. The people associated with auto racing are, "the neatest people in the world," says Lake. "You can have a dollar or a million dollars and you are on the same level (with everyone)."

Lake's photographic portfolio boasts of work highlighting five decades of various stock, midget, sprint and open-wheel action. He admits that while, "Being in the right place at the right time," has much to do with taking a quality photograph, professional skill is still critically important.

Once the photographer is in position, "You've got to know what to do with the camera," he says. And Lake has been in position on a wide variety of tracks, including super speedways, short ovals, quarter-miles, and road courses.

"I have a fear of heights and of flying, but I'm not afraid to stand thirty feet from the racetrack," Lake says.

Getting Started

Lake's career in racing photography began at an early age. As a boy, he had the opportunity to travel to a variety of racetracks throughout the country with his father, Ted Lake, who was a Deputy Chief Observer with the United States Auto Club, the former sanctioning body of the Indianapolis 500.

Occasionally the young Lake would get to accompany his father and learn the business of racing photography from veteran Wisconsin-based racing photographer, the late Armin Krueger. "Armin taught me an awful lot," admits Lake.

Lake's long-time association with the Milwaukee Mile began at the age of 15, when his duties included sweeping out a small shack located just outside the track which was used by drivers, racing crews and media for obtaining passes and proper credentials.

When Lake took his first action pictures at the facility, he was truly an outsider looking in. During the annual Wisconsin State Fair, the animal barns would be cleaned and the manure would be piled on the outside of the track between Turns 3 and 4. Lake used the mound as a photographer's stand from which to obtain quality shots. "It was me and the flies," remembers the photographer about those early days.

The Greatest Spectacle in Racing

Lake saw his first Indianapolis "500" race as a spectator in 1952, and since the mid-1960s the photographer has been credentialed to take pictures of the race the Wisconsin-based periodical Midwest Racing News.

Excluding the years from 1956-'58, when he served in the U.S. Army, and in 1975, when his duties as a new owner of a George Webb restaurant franchise in Oconomowoc, caused him to miss the race, the photographer has made the annual May trip to Indianapolis 51 times and counting.

"Did you ever see a grown man cry?" Lake asks when recalling how he had no option but to listen to the '75 race over the radio in a rear-area storeroom at his restaurant.

In May, 1960, after the opening weekend of Indianapolis qualification time trials that Lake first went out on a blind date with Karen, the woman who would turn out to be his wife of more than 40 years until her death from cancer in 2002.

Lake recalls that they went to a movie together but not much else. "I went to sleep," Lake confessed. A second date produced the same result on Lake's part. The third time around, though, the photographer was determined to stay alert, and succeeded. "She figured three times and done," he said. But Lake was clear to his bride-to-be early on in their relationship that auto racing was to be a non-negotiable part of his life. "If you don't like racing, don't marry me," he said. The photographer need not have been concerned, however, as his wife grew to love the sport so much that she became upset on the occasions when she could not accompany her husband on his racing journeys. The couple was married in October 1961, and had two children: Linda, born in 1967 and Douglass, born in 1969. Page 1 of 2 (view all on one page)

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Talkbacks

jlagina | May 31, 2007 at 7:39 p.m. (report)

Whata wonderful article about a man who has helped raise more money for charitable organizations thru his passion for a sport such as motorsports. Russ is one of the most humble gentleman you would ever want to meet. OnMilwaukee.com congratulations for a timely article just as the Indy Racing League and the Busch and Truck series are coming to invade the Milwaukee Mile.With Craig Stoerr in the mangement seat and the likes of Jim Tretow at the PR helm there Milwaukee can feel blessed that we have this caliber of folks running our racing venue.Keep on Shooting Russ!

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