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Twenty-five down: A Hemmings editor reflects on his quarter-century in the car-magazine business

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Hemmings file photo. Remaining photos by author.

Today is an auspicious day for your intrepid West Coast editor: August 16, 2018, marks the 25th anniversary of your author’s entry into the weird business of car-magazine writing.

It is not lost on me that I was not chosen for my first car-writing gig; I went in and busted the door down. After two decades, it is increasingly clear to me that in this business, and in life in general, it’s who you know, not what you know. Problem was: I didn’t know anyone. As a lowly minimum-wage factchecker/intern at New Jersey Monthly, I was advised by the plucky, bull-by-the-horns editor about how to go about getting an interview and (if I was lucky) a job at what was the only car-magazine publisher in the state. There was no job advertised. That didn’t stop me. I sent the publisher a resume, and in a week, I followed up on the phone; it took a couple of calls before I got an appointment to stick. Clearly it rubbed the publisher the wrong way: Before the interview (I was later told), he stuck his head in everyone’s office, told them to be nice to me and give me the nickel tour, then kick my monkey butt out on the street.

Once I was in the door, I yammered away with the editors of the half-dozen or so titles they published. Now, the usual MO at that place was to hire guys who lived and breathed old cars, who wrenched so often they just lived with grease under their cuticles–then teach them to write and shoot pictures. Admittedly, I barely knew which way to point my Kodak Disc camera. I could write, however, or so I was told by people who paid me to do so, and I could figure out where to learn what I didn’t know. The editors, I was later informed, were all in agreement: Hire this guy. And so they did.

1972 Oldsmobile Cutlass 442

My words about – and photos of – this 1972 Oldsmobile Cutlass 4-4-2 W30 graced the pages of Hemmings Muscle Machines issue 1, October 2003.

My learning curve was a steep one. Thrown into an editorial bullpen full of guys who had forgotten more about hot cars than I’d learned up to that point, they helped me accumulate knowledge as I helped them with the task of putting it on paper. We all learned from each other and improved vastly. I wrote my first car feature for Richard Lentinello, who was then editor of Musclecars magazine; newbies generally took a week to get something in shape, and my piece was more or less ready to go in two days. (Later in my career, I could knock out something that light before the Pizza Hut buffet beckoned at noon.) A few weeks later, I found John Z. DeLorean somewhere no one thought to look for him – the phone book – and called him up to chat about Pontiac GTOs and most definitely not cocaine. Things got nuttier from there. I ended up being responsible for 50-60 written pages a month (and who knows how many photo shoots) between the multiple titles.

From there, I got lucky (luckier?). I was at Detroit Dragway with a ’95 Mustang Cobra R, another staff grunt, and freelancer/automotive writing legend Jim McCraw, who wrote a news column for Muscle Mustangs & Fast Fords in the ‘90s. We were hanging around the bleach box, working to get a 12-second time slip out of the car and shooting rolls and rolls of Kodak Tri-X in those pre-all-color days, and I said to Jim, for reasons I cannot possibly fathom now, “I don’t see my career starting and ending at this magazine.” He laughed, and when I was dismissed from the company that spring, Jim was quick to call and tell me that a pal from his late-60s Car Craft days–Ro McGonegal–had just been named editor of Hot Rod. Later I’d suss out that this happened in no small part because the infamous and imperious John Dianna was the big boss there, Ro had worked with Johnny Junior Stock at Car Craft back in the day (and again at Motor Trend in the early ‘80s), and Ro wouldn’t cower in fear at JD’s mere presence as so many others did at 6420 Wilshire.

1971 Oldsmobile 442 W30

February 2004: My first cover for Hemmings Muscle Machines was this 1971 Oldsmobile 4-4-2 W-30. Part of it, anyway – the shot was cropped behind the front tire.

It took a while to get in the door–the first sale of Petersen Publishing had been announced in the fall of 1996, just as he was coming on board–but I turned up in Los Angeles in time for the 1997 Power Tour and to crank out a few features for the August issue. For four-and-a-half years I occasionally wrote about cars, shared an office wall with Gray Baskerville, yukked it up with Steve Magnante (now of Velocity Channel’s Barrett Jackson auction coverage and his web series Junkyard Gold) and Terry McGean who followed me out from Jersey, butted heads with publishers (one of whom got drunk on a Power Tour and told Ro he wanted to fire me “just for fun”) and learned the bulk of my good-photography tips at the knee of master shooter Scott Killeen and others.

Then I suffered a crisis of confidence. At the end of 2001, I split the magazine scene – very much of my own accord, thanks – and moved to the Midwest to make toys for a living. While languishing in South Bend, I did lots of freelance work; living two hours from Chicago, three hours from Detroit and three from Indianapolis put me at a central point for any number of interesting events that East Coast- and West Coast-based magazines didn’t have the budget to fly a staffer to. One of those titles I worked for was the long-since-passed Hemmings Rods and Performance, headed by one Richard Lentinello. Long story short, when I once again decided that my life was better lived under the California sun, it dovetailed with Hemmings’ expansion plans (starting with Hemmings Muscle Machines, itself fifteen years old this month); they sought to bring me on as a writer and shooter who lived in a place where, unlike Vermont (Hemmings’ home office), it didn’t snow half the year.

1969 Chevrolet Camaro

Success! This 1969 COPO Camaro was my first full-car cover for Hemmings Muscle Machines. It graced the March 2004 issue.

Today, I work with many of those that I started out with in New Jersey in 1993: Lentinello, who had a hand in hiring me twice and likely only regrets it once, runs Hemmings Classic Car; Terry McGean has now surpassed my position at three different publishing companies despite me being hired first at each of them, and Tom DeMauro, who started a few months before me and camped out at High Performance Pontiac for fifteen years before coming to Hemmings, is holed up somewhere in Western Pennsylvania.

It wasn’t that long ago, I thought, that the old farts needed to be cleared out to make room for a younger, more vital generation. I am now one of the old farts that the kids whisper need to be cleared away to make room for them. No one’s more surprised than me that I made it this far, that I’m even able to say such a thing after a quarter-century of scribbling about cars. I’m very lucky. Thanks for putting up with me all these years.