On The Record: Tom Riles

From black-and-white to digital, from Bob Hannah to Ben Spies, Riles has photographed it all.

Nicky Hayden

Nicky Hayden 2002 AMA Championship

Motorcycling came before photography. At 16, I bought a Suzuki 80 "Street Trail" from my sister's boyfriend. The next year I got a Kawi 350 Samurai. I rode that thing hard and was lucky to survive. Then I got a CB750 the second year they were out. I also started riding dirtbikes and raced motocross for a number of years. I still ride dirtbikes from time to time.

For the photography, I have the U.S. Army to thank. I was drafted toward the end of the Vietnam War, and after training I was sent to the Army Photo Agency in the Pentagon with no photo training whatsoever. Most people were being sent to Vietnam, so this beat being shot at. They had a photo lab staffed with civilians, and they had one bad job they had a hard time keeping people in: processing color slide film in big tanks. It was a very sensitive process with caustic chemicals and a lot of it was in complete darkness. They got the idea to put a draftee in there, naturally, since we couldn't quit. I was happy to have that job. They told all of us enlisted men, most of who were draftees or avoiding jail, that if you screwed up you would be sent to Vietnam. This happened to guys. I made sure I did that film perfectly. I learned a lot about being careful and exacting in the darkroom. It turned out to be a great job. I had virtually no military supervision, and once I went in the darkroom, nobody could come in. If I didn't have film I would go in there, shut the door, and do what I wanted. I read a lot of motorcycle magazines and other stuff. Hey, it was the `70s. It had its sobering side, though. Some of the film was after-action photographs from the war, what weapons actually do to humans on the battlefield. It was pretty brutal. While you're thanking the military and veterans, don't forget the Vietnam vet. Nobody thanked them at the time. After I got out I finished college with an Urban Planning degree. My last semester I had an internship in the planning department of a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota. I was still racing motocross at the time.

I had a twin epiphany when it became apparent I wasn't capable of working in an office environment and I was also not going to be the next Bob Hannah. I had started shooting photographs to fulfill a college requirement, and I shot a lot of my friends racing. I used my Army experience to get a job in a custom photo lab. Then I got a job at a small newspaper and learned a ton there. At this time, my friends and I would go to pro races to watch. I started shooting the racers and then tried to sell the photos. This was the start. Roadracing was big at the time, and I enjoyed the technical challenge; there was no auto focus or auto anything.

Eddie Lawson - Freddie Spencer

Eddie Lawson - Freddie Spencer

Eddie and Freddie riding their tandem at Daytona. Lawson won the AMA Superbike title in ’81 and ’82, then left for Europe, where Spencer already was after Daytona, ’82. Battles like this one made Superbike the AMA’s premier class.

I was very lucky to be able to shoot Freddie Spencer, Eddie Lawson, Kevin Schwantz and Wayne Rainey as they went through our racing and on to Europe. That was a special time. I can't imagine our country ever producing that many championships and that amount of talent again. I always enjoyed the riders who believed that they should not just race but also entertain fans. Bubba Shobert on a mile was thrilling. Schwantz and Scott Russell rode with such flair. Perhaps my favorite was Rainey. He and Hannah were the pure toughest racers, both mentally and physically, I have ever seen. If you look at Rainey's early career, he went through a lot of setbacks on the way up. Hannah was the most fiercely competitive racer I have ever seen. Finally, the Mat Mladin/Ben Spies battles were really special. I have rarely seen two guys go after it that hard both on and off the track. Anybody who missed that, really missed something.

When I watch On Any Sunday, that sure looks like a great era. I just got the tail end of it. In motocross, I shot Brad Lackey's last two races in Europe when he won the 500 title. That was a great era, since I'd grown up with Europeans being dominant. I don't think people realize how difficult that was. The same for Kenny Roberts. Those two achievements rank as perhaps the most difficult any of our racers had to face in any era. You can't repeat being the first, so those two guys stand tall to me.

I judge my favorite photos more by the circumstances and the situation.

I have photographed two Presidents. I photographed the Motocross des Nations team of

86 or

87 being recognized by Ronald Reagan. I believe the riders were Ricky Johnson, Hannah, Johnny O’Mara and Jeff Ward, with Roger DeCoster as team manager. It was a simple grip and grin in the Oval Office, but when I was ushered in it took my breath away to be there. I looked over and remembered a famous photograph of John Kennedy that was taken there during the Cuban Missile crisis. For little Tommy Riles from Robbinsdale, Minnesota, to be in the Oval Office was so stunning I almost forgot to make the shot. I also photographed George Bush Sr. after he was President, in his compound in Kennebunkport, Maine. Kawasaki was presenting him with a Mule for his property. He gave me a short ride on it, and one of his aides took my camera and took a photograph of me in the passenger seat with him. Bush was extremely nice. I have many racing shots I like, but those two situations have always stood out for me. Go figure.

Kenny Roberts - Gary Nixon

Kenny Roberts and Gary Nixon at Daytona, early ’80s.

Kenny Roberts and Gary Nixon at Daytona, early ’80s.

I personally would go back to film because I spent many years perfecting the use of film. I started in the era when black-and-white was used more than color. A lot of my early success was because my black-and-white prints were better than most because of my darkroom experience. I enjoyed the craftsmanship of the darkroom. When it switched to all color, it was difficult because you didn't know what it would look like for several days until it was processed. When you shot a critical moment in a race, you had to have everything right; it made you really focus on your exposure and your shot. You also had a cost factor there; every time you dropped the hammer it was 35 cents, so you learned some discipline. With digital you can spray and pray, then fix it in Photoshop. The convenience of digital is great, as are the creative possibilities, so you can't complain. I'm glad I learned with film, though, because I think you learn certain things you just won't with digital.

Photography teaches you the exact same thing motorcycling teaches you. Be alert, observant and know how to handle yourself. I don't have to tell anybody reading this magazine how little attention car drivers pay to their driving. Both photography and motorcycling teach you to be fully immersed mentally in what you're doing in order to be successful. I am always impressed by how sharp experienced motorcyclists and photographers are.

Motorcycle people are absolutely different. They're a little out of the box, which I enjoy. The minute you make the choice to go from four wheels to two, you are stepping out of the box both literally and figuratively. I have encountered many creative and different people through motorcycling.

If you insist on talking about the Civil War again, I am very qualified to answer. I grew up in Minnesota, which is about as far north as you can get. It was a great place to grow up; the winters taught you to not make mistakes. I've now lived for many years in Virginia, which is very proud of its Southern traditions. I am married to the greatest wife ever, who is a Virginian and also proud of her Southern heritage. In the town where I live, there is a statue of a Confederate soldier in the middle of a main intersection. This is the point the local men mustered to march south to join Lee's army. I also shot NASCAR for many years, so I am familiar with Southerners and their viewpoints. What would I be doing if the South had won the war? I guess I would be crying in my beer, just like every Southerner I have to listen to. I am proud to be a Northerner because we are 1 and 0 in wars with each other, and that is all that counts in war…

Shout out to my wife Luci for being the greatest! And to Brady, Dustin and the boys in F Troop.

Mike Baldwin

Mike Baldwin, factory Honda, circa 1981.

Mike Kidd

Mike Kidd, No. 72, appears to want it bad. In 1981, he won the Flat Track Championship after years of trying.

Ronald Reagan

In the Oval Office with the Gipper.

Nicky Hayden

Nicky Hayden, Honda RC51 factory Superbike, on the way to the 2002 AMA Championship.

Nicky Hayden

At 19, Nicky Hayden?s not old enough to drink the champagne, but the Kentucky Kid is en route to Honda?s MotoGP team.

Anthony Gobert

Anthony Gobert

Not many Superbike riders were more fun to watch than Anthony Gobert, who rode a factory Yamaha R7 in AMA competition in the early 2000s. I think he was never the same after a rear tire exploded under him at a Daytona Dunlop test?
Wes Cooley

Wes Cooley was AMA Superbike champ in ?79 and ?80.

Cook Neilson

When Cook Neilson and Ol? Blue won Daytona Superbike, Riles was there.

Ben Spies

Ben Spies ascendant, circa 2006?

Motocross was a dirty business

Motocross was a dirty business.

Kenny Roberts - Gary Nixon

Kenny Roberts and Gary Nixon at Daytona, early ?80s.

Scott Russell

Scott Russell, the Chief!

Superbike, in the early days

Superbike, in the early days.

Jimmy Weinert versus Marty Smith

Jammin? Jimmy Weinert versus Marty Smith.

Eddie Lawson - Freddie Spencer

Eddie Lawson - Freddie Spencer

Eddie and Freddie riding their tandem at Daytona. Lawson won the AMA Superbike title in ?81 and ?82, then left for Europe, where Spencer already was after Daytona, ?82. Battles like this one made Superbike the AMA?s premier class.
Ricky Graham - Bubba Shobert

Ricky Graham leads Bubba Shobert on the factory Honda dirt trackers.

Josh Herrin - Danny Eslick

Josh Herrin on a Yamaha R6 versus Danny Eslick on a Buell XB9.