“It was me and all the guys.”
That's how longtime Redondo Beach resident Nina Murphy described the Long Beach Grand Prix in the mid-1970s.
When the street race began in 1975, Murphy was the only female photographer covering what was then a Formula 500 race. She also photographed NASCAR and the National Hot Rod Association races.
But when Murphy was behind the lens, gender didn't matter.
“I was neither male or female," she said. "I was a photographer—that defined me.”
As the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach returns April 12-14 with a new sponsor, Murphy said the location stood out from the pack.
“Long Beach was one of the prettiest tracks because it runs all along the water. Not that the drivers have time to really admire the view, but that makes it nice and the air is cooler ... physically, it was a pleasant track,” recalled Murphy.
The freelance photographer said determining where to position herself for the best photo was a challenge.
“You had to really study the map to figure out, ‘Okay if I stand here: dead solid at me. Queen’s Hairpin is going to be a sweet shot,' and then stay there.’”
Finding the right position was always an issue at racetracks, said Murphy. It was especially challenging, because she could waste precious shooting time lugging around a 25 to 30 pound camera bag.
At the 1976 Grand Prix, for example, she tried to land a spot that positioned her to photograph the cars coming at her head on. But, another photographer would have nothing of it.
“This clown was a shooter, but he had a scout, a spotter and the spotter was about 6 feet 7 inches tall and I’m not,” Murphy said.
Murphy politely asked the male photographer to move and let her share his space. No dice.
"I have a right to be here too," she told him.
"No, we got here first," he replied.
Murphy came back with: "Most people are obliging enough to move a little bit."
The male photographer's retort: "Well not for you."
That incident, fortunately, was the only time in 20 years in the male-dominated field, where Murphy said she was "crowded out."
She learned a lot from that.
“If the old boy’s club is not going to let you in, find a better spot ... and I would,” Murphy said, who added that most male photographers were very friendly, but very territorial.
“This became a test for me to be smarter than they were and find a better spot," she said. "Being a girl was an advantage in that I conned a TV cameraman out of Pomona to let me up on his platform with him.”
Murphy didn't have many interactions with the drivers, but one in particular she'll never forget.
“I’m walking to the pit in Long Beach and here comes Emerson Fittipaldi walking toward me,” she said. “He saw clearly, I’m a photographer, press pass, camera bag. He stopped dead and he gave me the nicest smile ... ever since that minute I have been an Emmo fan, big time.”
Career in photography
Most of Murphy's career in photography was in the 1970s when she was also a regular working at the Manhattan Beach Open tennis tournament when legends such as Long Beach-native Billie Jean King ruled the courts.
Murphy had been interested in photography and was enchanted with Polaroids when its popularity swept in the country in the 1970s.
“Then I got a French boyfriend who was over here shooting for a motorcycle magazine over there,” Murphy said. “He didn’t have a car, I did. He was too cheap to rent one, so I saw a lot of motorcycle races that summer. It was intriguing.”
After the boyfriend left for Brazil, she attended a race at Laguna Seca in Salinas and became intrigued by motorcycle racing. It was there she realized she could pursue photography as a profession.
Murphy married in the early 1980s and transitioned to writing when she discovered she could make more money writing a caption and a story.
“I'm a mercenary, I make no bones about it,” she said.
She has since published three books, including her latest, a book featuring a collection of her blogs. “And The Best Blog Is: Word of Mouth,” which is available on Amazon.com. She is currently working on her fourth book, “All My Rowdy Friends.”