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.
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.
Danger Behind the Lens
While racing photography can be glamorous, it can also be dangerous. And at no point in Lake's professional life was this more evident than at the start of the 1971 Indy "500". Lake, along with approximately 35 other photographers, was positioned on a photographer's stand located at the end of the pit exit apron. Lake and others were abruptly sent tumbling when pace car driver and local car dealer, Eldon Palmer, lost control of the Dodge Charger pace car and collided with the stand just before the race started.
A multitude of injuries resulted from the accident, with Lake suffering a badly broken left hip. Flown by helicopter to Methodist Hospital in downtown Indianapolis, Lake began an approximately five-week stay in the facility, followed by an additional week of hospital recovery in West Allis. But on that afternoon in Indiana, not even broken bones could deter the injured photographer from following the race that he loved. "Before I got up to my room," says Lake, "I made arrangements with the head nurse to have a radio to listen to the race."
While recovering in the hospital, Lake recalls having two highly notable visitors. One was Tony Hulman, the late owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The other was pace car driver Eldon Palmer.
"I learned two things about Tony," Lake says. "He liked golf and he was hard of hearing." According to the photographer, when Hulman saw that there was a golf tournament on the television in Lake's hospital room, the Speedway owner wanted to sit down on the bed and watch. It was then that Lake learned that Hulman may not have had an ultra-keen sense of hearing when Lake repeatedly warned Hulman to watch where he was sitting, and the track owner, despite Lake's verbal protests, nearly sat on the photographer's injured left side.
During his stay, Palmer, offered to pick Lake's family up in Wisconsin and drive them to Methodist for a visit. Not trusting his family's safety in a vehicle with Palmer at the wheel, Lake stared at his visitor for several moments and then declined the car dealer's offer, preferring to make other arrangements to bring his family to the Indiana hospital.
When the Lake's son, Douglass, turned three years old, the family discovered that he suffered from developmental problems. Douglass was diagnosed as being non-verbal and severely retarded in addition to having mild cerebral palsy. Lake, an automotive chemical salesman at the time of the Indy pace car mishap, and his wife, decided that the family would have to upgrade its income if their son's special needs were to be addressed. Lake eventually chose to open the George Webb restaurant in Oconomowoc, because he said that Waukesha County was the most progressive in meeting the needs of those individuals with special challenges.
As for his restaurant acumen, Lake confesses, "I didn't know what I was doing, but I learned awful fast." Indeed, he learned enough to open a second Webb location in 1990 in Watertown.
Douglass Lake died in 2003 at the age of 34. One of the facilities that provided him with quality care and assistance during his lifetime was Ranch Community Services based in Menomonee Falls. In 1991, Lake formed Wisconsin Motorsports Charities, Inc., with the intent of holding a charity banquet. Seeing as Douglas Lake had been a client of Ranch Community Services for over a decade, the charity board decided that proceeds from the event would go to support the Ranch effort. Starting in January 1992, and extending for 15 consecutive years through 2006, Lake held a charity racing banquet at a hotel facility in Waukesha.
Hosted by former Indy driver and Milwaukee-area car dealer David Hobbs and Milwaukee Mile Vice-President of Media and Communications Jim Tretow, the event featured prominent drivers, car owners, crew-chiefs, writers, and commentators from the world of motor racing on both the national and local level.
Lake's effort was based on a model he observed for a Chicago-area charity event designed to benefit local boys and girls clubs and directed by former 1983 Indy-winning co-owner Dan Cotter. "I think I can run something similar to that," Lake recalls thinking to himself.
By the time the photographer retired from charity work, his efforts had been responsible for colleting some $425,000 for Ranch support. When asked what made his charity dinner so successful, Lake says simply, "I worked my (expletive) off."
Looking to the Future
In 2000, Lake sold his Watertown restaurant and in 2001 he parted company with his Oconomowoc location. With his charity banquet ended as well, the veteran photographer still has racing to keep him going strong. "I feel in pretty good (physical) shape" Lake says when discussing the future.
He plans to stay involved with the Milwaukee Mile, and has begun to market some of his older racing photo collection. Lake intends to someday create a book about racing using his photos but remains undecided as to the exact direction he wants to take with the project. As for what racing has given him, Lake, after thinking hard, says, "I'm proud of my work, proud of running the banquet.
For Lake, successful racing photography is a challenge. "And I've lived up to that challenge."