Like any other high-octane, gasoline-fueled NASCAR fan, Tom Whitmore has his fair share of racing memorabilia. Covering the walls and floors of his “office” are photographs, magazines, and posters of the sport’s greatest legends – Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty among them.
And as any other fan does, Whitmore, 59, a Chester resident, loves to experience a race firsthand; the roars of the American muscle car; seeing the South’s tiniest men driving supped-up car-jets at ungodly speeds for hours at a time, the crowd bellowing after every left turn.
But Whitmore rarely sees a race from the grandstands – he’s tends to be a bit closer to the drivers, snapping thousands of photographs a weekend for what has become his career of choice. Some of what covers those same office walls are photographs he himself took that have also ended up in some of the sport’s most renowned publications.
In 1994, after being laid off from his job of 22 years, then in his early 40s and a training instructor for Bell Atlantic (today’s Verizon), Whitmore hit a crossroad.
“I sat around for a couple months,” he said. “And then I said, ‘I’m going to try to do what it I’ve always wanted to do – and that was photography.’ ”
Born in Farmville, and raised in Crewe, Virginia, Whitmore grew up loving NASCAR, and the same man he once grew up idolizing, Richard Petty, later came to know him on a first-name basis. Whitmore once waited eight hours for an autograph at the famous driver’s home when Petty hosted fans for a Richard Petty Fan Appreciation Day.
According to Whitmore, for fifteen or so years the free-lance photographer has visited every single NASCAR racetrack in the country, his big break first coming in South Boston during the mid 1990s, where he met the right people at the right time.
“It was luck; it was pure and simple luck,” he said. He then started taking shots and working rather cheaply, he said, for a newspaper out of south-western Virginia, Inside Motor Sports.
When the time emerged for Whitmore to move on, his work got more exposure in the motorsports magazine National Speed Sport News before making his way to head photographer of Fastrack Publishing Co.
Whitmore’s NASCAR photos have shown up in a number of widely-read publications: Sports Illustrated, USA Today, Boston Globe, Business Week, and Motor Trend. He has also taken photographs for a number of corporate clients including General Mills-Cheerios: Racing, Toyota, Chevrolet, Coca-Cola, Lowe’s Racing, and Budweiser.
“It is truly a dream come true. …my life’s been very lucky, I’ve been lucky to make a living off having fun,” he said.
Many of his photographed images have even reached the cover pages of various publications as well: Business Week, Fastrack Publishing Co., National Speed Sport News, Inside Track, and Inside Motorsports. Even published books have used his work: “Wide Open” by Shaun Assael, “Rebel with a Cause” and “At Speed,” both by Monty Dutton.
“I used to say this was a great job if the racing didn’t get into the way,” said Whitmore, who returned home to Chester Sunday from Darlington, South Carolina, where he captured the NASCAR race at Darlington Speedway. There he shot over 2,000 pictures for Getty Images, the official journalistic source covering NASCAR, some of which could end up in publications unbeknownst to him.
However, overtime, Whitmore has become accustomed to taking pictures, not seeing where they end up.
“I’m sure I don’t have them all. There’s no way I could find them all. I’m serious. When you go through Getty, those photos go everywhere. They could be in London, you just don’t know,” he said.
Whitmore, who last year shot 15 NASCAR races, is predicting this year to cover the same amount. At race-related events, Whitmore has both met and shot photos of presidents, actresses/actors, and even rock stars like Gene Simmons from Kiss. Also, packed away in his man-cave office are toys that have on them photos he once took.
Looking back and remembering the lifestyle change, Whitmore commends his wife, Jackie, who he’s known since 1990.
“My wife … she’s a race fan, a big-time race fan, and she loves NASCAR. And that’s the only reason I was able to actually go through all this,” he said. “When I wasn’t making all that much money, if she wasn’t a race fan, I know darn well she would have said, ‘Uh uh, this is going to stop.’ So bless her heart, she has been more than kind to me and really was the breadwinner.”
Once, he needed her help at a race, and got her press credentials to be there. He put her on the front stretch of the race track, and she took a few pictures. One of the ones she took was of the start of the race; it was later used on the cover of a publication.
“Like I tell people, anybody can push a button and anybody can be a photographer. It’s no big deal,” he said. “What really makes the difference between photographers is how they compose the photos.”
Though they together used to attend and cover races together years ago, NASCAR’s rigid policy for obtaining credentials now presents the couple a challenge in doing so, he said.
Jackie describes Whitmore as “laid-back” and tender-hearted. “He’s had a pretty decent life [considering] the fact that he wound up getting to do what has always been of big interest to him.”
Most weekends, this time of the year, Whitmore can be found roaming a NASCAR race track, and will soon be covering the NASCAR inaugural events in July.
With only a few photography courses under his academic belt, Whitmore puts emphasis on experience.
“My school is the ‘school of hard knocks.’ And I tell people this all the time: [with]photography, you could go to school all your life, you’re not going to learn what it is you need to learn until you go out there and do it day in and day out,” said Whitmore. “That’s how you learn photography – it’s the experience and you just don’t know what you’re doing until you do it."