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By Bret Kepner
July 9, 1938 – May 18, 2015
Within the drag racing mainstream, Jim Kelly will forever be known for his amazing photographic work. For those deep within the sport, he will live forever in the careers of the many to whom he gave guidance, wisdom, and purpose.
Jim Kelly wasn't drag racing's first professional photographer. He was, however, one of the original "shooters" to be recognized as such and was the first to present the sport in a national scope encompassing all political affiliations.
The man most often known only as "Kelly" first appeared on Southern California's budding drag racing scene in the late 1950s. His exceptional photographic talents (all self-taught) drew interest from every racing periodical based on the west coast and soon his coverage of local and major events was appearing in dozens of publications.
A friendship with "TV Tommy" Ivo led to Kelly's inclusion as a member of Ivo's first national tour in 1960. Not only was Ivo's season-long undertaking a first for any drag racer, it took Kelly (and, simultaneously, millions of magazine readers) to dragstrips big and small, renowned and obscure, sanctioned and unsanctioned. At a time when most books covering drag racing were affiliated with a single organization, Kelly brought the entire sport, above and beyond its petty association feuds, to light in a unified presentation.
The unparalleled quality of Kelly's camera work brought him instant recognition in a business in which few excelled. Kelly was the first to sell action photos directly to fans through advertisements in nearly every drag racing book. In the early 1960s, he created his own newspaper, Drag Sport Illustrated, which covered the action as a pictorial rather than a news source. While the majority of sport's media focused on NHRA tracks and events, Kelly realized the majority of drag racing was comprised of everything BUT the NHRA and he developed a reputation as a defender of both "little guy" racers and "little guy" associations while still maintaining strong friendships with every one of the sport's major stars.
Kelly's endeavor to offer coverage to everybody in the sport led to an agreement with Jim Tice, the president of the American Hot Rod Association, to produce photographic and journalistic coverage of the AHRA series for distribution to all outlets within the industry beginning in 1968. The relationship was expanded in 1973 to give Kelly editorial control of the AHRA house organ, "Drag World". In 1977, Kelly accepted the editorship of one of the sport's leading titles, Super Stock & Drag Illustrated magazine, where, as always, he strove to present unbiased coverage from every corner of the sport.
Yet, in the twenty-year span of his rise to head one of the sport's most significant magazines, Kelly's legacy was not defined by color centerspreads or circulation numbers. Possibly more than any other person, Jim Kelly was responsible for the rest of the drag racing media.
While he held the ear of most important individuals within the industry, Kelly also had an eye for new talent. When he found somebody whom he believed could better serve the sport, Kelly nurtured their skills and often even became a father figure to help them develop spiritually and intellectually. If their work deserved it, Kelly would either hire the newcomer for his own use or send them to other businesses where they could perform to the best of their abilities. These "students" included other photographers, journalists, technical writers, salesmen, and even drivers and mechanics. Jim Kelly was the sport's "headhunter".
When Jim Kelly eventually retired to Las Vegas, Nevada, in the last decade of the twentieth century, he bore witness to the sport's evolution from its earliest days to its modern entertainment principles. Throughout the metamorphosis, however, the sport grew and improved because of people Jim Kelly found and brought into drag racing. Moreover, Kelly maintained a relationship with virtually everyone he ever knew. The loyalty of his friendship was renowned.
In that same half-century, it would be nearly impossible to find a photographer, writer, or ad man who didn't owe Jim Kelly a debt. In many cases, it would be difficult to find people in those same lines who didn't owe Jim Kelly their livelihood. In the end, there were a surprising number of folks who simply owed Jim Kelly their entire existence. Most of the biggest names in drag racing media were simply "made" by Jim Kelly. His own contributions to the sport, as well as those he made through his mentoring of others, were finally recognized in 2003 when Kelly became one of only a handful of drag racing media members inducted into Don Garlits' International Drag Racing Hall of Fame.
Kelly's final appearance at a drag race came at April's NHRA national event in Las Vegas for which he was secured press credentials by (and surrounded throughout the event with) many of those whose careers were assisted or, in fact, created by Kelly. Jim, who was stricken by cancer, was cared for throughout his decline by his daughter, Carol. Jim considered his time with Carol the best moments of his life.