Matt Griffith’s years behind the lens at the Indy 500 and other races
By Lindsay Owens
Matt Griffith has attended every running of the Indianapolis 500 since he was 10 years old. His vantage point for the Great American Race has changed quite a bit over the years, though.
“I was in high school, and Lee Holst got me up in the press box, and I took pictures of the cars. I loved the noise. I loved the energy and the speed,” said Griffith. “That was just the beginning.”
Often using borrowed camera equipment, Griffith continued to work on his photography skills. He took classes. He tested out different techniques, and each time, he got a little better.
“It was around 1989 when I really started getting serious about racing photography,” said Griffith, adding his passion wasn’t just for Indy 500 cars. “I’d go to the Action Track in Terre Haute and shoot and made trips over to Salem Speedway.”
On one trip to Salem, Griffith just happened to be at the right place at the right time.
“Salem is where I met Don Hamilton and his brother. They were both photographers and writers and had connections.”
The Hamiltons suggested that Griffith reach out to Speed Sport News. There Griffith found a connection with Rick Masters.
“Rick is also from Indiana. He actually went to Muncie Central, and we kind of bonded over our local connections. He even knew Vincennes was the home of the Alices,” said Griffith with a laugh.
His work at Speed Sport News sent Griffith to both dirt and paved tracks around the country. That’s also where he first ran into a young Tony Stewart who was building his own résumé winning one sprint car race after another.
Griffith also had a chance to shoot races for the then newly formed NASCAR Truck Series races at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, Georgia, and Kentucky Speedway, among other tracks. He’s also photographed races at Talladega.
“That was always fun,” said Griffith, adding many friendships were formed with the other photographers covering the races.
In 1996, when the Indy Racing League and Championship Auto Racing Teams, better known as CART, split, another opportunity opened for Griffith.
“That was the year they had two 500-mile races going on at the same time,” said Griffith, adding that meant larger media outlets like AP, UPI and Reuters had to divide and conquer to get everything covered. “Those groups had some photographers in Indy and some in Michigan. I had a bronze badge for Indy, and at the time, that was supposed to only be good for the garage area.”
Somehow Griffith was able to get the go-ahead and managed to shoot in Turn 1 for UPI.
“The wire services are pretty much only interested in photos of wrecks and passes for the lead since you never know if that pass could be the one that wins the race,” said Griffith, who said photographers would hand over all the photos they shot for that race, and someone else would decide which images were shared.
Once again, Griffith was in the right place at the right time when Lyn St. James and Scott Harrington crashed. Those images may have been the ones that launched Griffith to the next level.
Griffith learned from some friends that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was looking to hire some additional track photographers. He met with Ron McQueen, and much to his surprise, McQueen already knew who he was.
“He told me he’d try me out at Brickyard 400,” Griffith said, adding being an IMS photographer isn’t just about getting photos on the track. “They wanted some crowd shots and some human interest photos. It wasn’t just about getting photos during the race.”
One of Griffith’s favorite photos was taken in Turn 3, where he spotted a man in the stands with his young daughters.
“They were just having a fun father-daughter day,” said Griffith, who passed his trial run with McQueen and soon was shooting the Indy 500 as well as the Brickyard. “Sometimes I did the starting grid. Other times I was in the pits, and sometimes I was even up in the crow’s nest.”
Each location came with a different task, and Griffith was always up to the challenge.
Those challenges also often required different equipment.
“Since Canon was the official IMS photography equipment, I used Canon, and they would let you borrow different lenses and cameras to try out,” said Griffith, who made the decision a couple of years ago to start watching the races from out behind the camera lens and back in the grandstands.
With so many races under his belt, one would think it would difficult to have a favorite, but Griffith does.
“There have been a lot of great Indy 500s. This year we had the fastest field, and in 2014, when Tony Kanaan won, that was just really special. He’d been so close so many times,” said Griffith.
While his days of shooting racing photos may be behind him, Griffith now stays busy shooting for not only Boomer Magazine but also many Vincennes University events.