The Alexander Report speaks with photographer Hunter Barnes about his new book The Spirit of the Southern Speedways documenting the people and culture of NASCAR racing
by Andrew Alexander
November 18, 2019
Featured image: Pit Stop
(All images courtesy Hunter Barnes/Reel Art Press)
Hunter Barnes grew up on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where his father operated the area’s first skate park in the 1970s. A careful observer of people and their pastimes–and an avid photographer since the age of 15–Barnes has spent his career traveling the world photographing everyone from carnival operators and Oregon ranchers to evangelical snake handlers and the Tamil people of Sri Lanka.
His latest collection The Spirit of the Southern Speedways leads viewers into a culture that seems simultaneously foreign and familiar, warmly welcoming and forebodingly dangerous. Featuring more than 60 images shot in 2017 at some of the sport’s biggest tracks around the South, the book documents Barnes’ encounters with the fans, racers, crews, and culture of NASCAR.
The Alexander Report caught up with Barnes to discuss the new images and his experiences creating them.
Growing up in North Carolina, were you a big NASCAR fan?
Hunter Barnes: NASCAR is something I was always kind of interested in, but I grew up near the beach. It was surfing and skating for me. I never really had the opportunity to witness NASCAR until this project came about.
What motivated you to begin? Was it clear from the beginning it would be a book?
Barnes: A really good friend of mine who had collected some of my work asked if I had ever been to a NASCAR race. I hadn’t, but I told him I’d always wanted to. He invited me. We had dinner the night before the race with his family and some his family’s friends. I didn’t know his family and friends were involved in NASCAR. I met Jack Roush [Roush Fenway Racing founder] that night. I had no idea who he was, but he liked my work.
We went to a race the next day, and I just thought it was incredible. The first thing I saw on the way were the parking lots. For about two miles outside the track, people were camping out. They were flying the flags of drivers that they loved. I was blown away by the sense of community. From day one, I had all the media credentials, but I started out in the parking lot and worked my way back in. At the end of the day, when everyone asked if I was interested in photographing this, I said “Oh, yeah.” I got on the road pretty soon after that.
A viewer certainly gets a sense of the spirit of the Southern speedways from the images, but how would you describe that spirit in words?
Barnes: The spirit of the Southern speedway was just this common love that people had for the sport and for racing. Everybody was there for the same thing: the love of it. That’s what the story was about for me.
Many people who aren’t fans of NASCAR carry around certain ideas and stereotypes about what the fans are like. Did you find your own ideas confirmed? Contradicted?
Barnes: When I’m taking pictures, it’s about where I’m led and what’s happening. I’m not trying to put anything into any particular box. Everybody’s got stereotypes, but everyone there was really kind and giving. They were nice people … I try not to have too many preconceived notions about things. I try to show where I am at that moment. I try to show what I see.
Did you find that being a Southerner yourself helped you in gaining people’s trust?
Barnes: Yes, probably, a little bit. But people were very giving of their time, and they were so hospitable. I think they would have been like that for a lot of people.
There’s certainly a convivial, communal feeling in the images. But there are other things that suggest a different tone. We see Confederate flags. There are Trump banners. Do you have any comment about that seeming contradiction?
Barnes: I’m not someone who comments too much on politics. I never have been. It was more about finding the common thread of why people were there. I was really interested in the story of people who kept coming back year after year again. I met families that had been camping out in the same spot for two or three generations.
In the process of creating the book, you visited several different speedways across the South. Can you tell me about that? Were there different ‘spirits’ at different tracks?
Barnes: Yeah. I did feel that. Have you ever been somewhere, when you start approaching, you can just start feeling it? A lot of it has to do with the fans and their excitement. Daytona definitely has a very distinct feel to it. I thought Bristol, Tennessee, was just incredible, and Darlington, South Carolina, that track held so much history. Every place I went was new to me, and every one had its own special feeling.
It’s hard to imagine NASCAR emerging anywhere else in the world other than the South, and it’s hard to imagine the modern South without NASCAR. Why do you think the pastime is so central to Southern culture?
Barnes: I feel it’s part of the roots. It’s part of the origins. It’s something that came to life down there. It brought a lot of people together. But it’s pretty big everywhere now. It’s expanded way past the South.
Were there any big surprises along the way?
Barnes: The surprise for me was how big those tracks are. If you’re there for several days, it’s a lot of ground to cover. Sometimes I could hitch a ride on a golf cart, but a lot of times I was on foot. I totally wore my shoes out and drank what seemed like a hundred waters a day.
Are you a NASCAR fan now? Do you keep up with the races?
Barnes: I traveled with Ganassi [Chip Ganassi Racing], so I always want to see how Kyle [Racer Kyle Larson] is doing, having traveled with the team and the driver. Those drivers, it’s incredible what they do. When you travel with a team, you realize how tight-knit they are. You realize how important everybody’s role is together.
You’ve photographed so many different types of people throughout your career. Is there a common thread through all of them?
Barnes: I’ve always said there’s a common thread between everybody. People are people. There’s a common thread of community and family. I try to tap into that.
Andrew Alexander is an Atlanta-based writer and founder of The Alexander Report.
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