Tuesday, October 1, 2013

INTERVIEW: Robert Taylor Shows Perseverance, Attention To Detail In Motorsports Artwork

What I’ve enjoyed most about covering racing’s smaller teams is the opportunity to get to know the people involved.  I’ve had the good fortune to talk with Joe Nemechek about the plight of owner-drivers, with Max Papis about what drives him to compete, and with Marty Burke about what it was like working with the late J.D. McDuffie.

Today, I have a drawing of the car McDuffie drove in his 653rd and final Cup Series start.  It was drawn by Robert Taylor, a motorsports artist and longtime race fan.  Though few photos of the McDuffie car exist, Taylor accounted for every detail, all the way down to the contingency decals.  It’s a meticulous approach that has come to define Taylor’s work.

“I know the STP sticker is that red oval with the white border with the blue corners around it and it says ‘The Racer’s Edge’ underneath it in 1974.  So there’s no reason for that sticker to be on Red Farmer’s car that was done in 1978,” he told me in our interview.  “That’s what they used to say about me, they said I was a detail freak, I would get carried away with it.  But it’s there, so put it there.”

Like his other drawings, Robert Taylor drew this picture of J.D. McDuffie's #70 Pontiac entirely by hand.
(click pictures for full size) 
It’s also a point of pride that Taylor does these drawings without the use of a computer.  Every detail - no matter how small - is done by hand.  Taylor does this both by preference and on principle, as a commentary on the state of modern-day racing.

“Even though racing’s a lifestyle now,” he said, “it’s more business, it’s more corporate, it’s more manufactured.  It’s not raw, it’s not by the grit of your teeth anymore.  And that’s why I like doing these drawings.  Because I’m not pumping out this picture on a computer image, scanning it and sketching it. . .It’s like ‘this is how I drew back then, and that’s how I draw now.’  It isn’t duplicated by computer, it isn’t phony, it is what it is. I put it there.  I didn’t tell a computer to put it there.  You can teach an artist how to use a computer, but you can’t teach a computer how to be an artist.”

Taylor lives in Niagara Falls, Ontario, a short drive from the New York border and two hours south of Canadian Tire Motorsports Park, where the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series raced in August.  He became a racing fan at age six back in 1973.  At a time where NASCAR was still perceived as a regional sport on the other side of the border, the Red Cap Brewery brought two NASCAR show cars to his local mall: the #52 Chevrolet driven by Earl Ross, still the only Canadian to win in NASCAR’s top division, and the #92 Mercury of Larry Smith.  A vendor handed Taylor a sticker saying “Red Cap Racing.”

“And after I put that sticker on my red wagon,” said Taylor.  “I was hooked.”

Larry Smith (top) and Earl Ross (bottom).  The Ross drawing was signed by Junior Johnson.
Four years later, he was on a trip to Florida with his parents.  He still remembers where he was - sitting in the back seat of a 1977 LTD station wagon - when he heard a car like Ross and Smith’s at full song.

“And I remember hearing this one car just come crankin’ around the corner, all these metal bleachers and stands - I couldn’t see it, but I heard it.  And I’m like ‘Dad, what the hell is that?’ and my Mom got mad and said ‘What’re you swearin’ about?’ And I’m looking for what made that noise, looking for a car to pass us on the highway, and my Dad says ‘That’s Daytona Speedway.  That’s where those cars whip around there for hours and hours for no reason.’  And I’m like ‘Can we go?’  And he’s ‘No.’  And I was so, so mad.”

Taylor went to his first NASCAR race on August 22, 1982, the Champion Spark Plug 400 at Michigan.  Bobby Allison won that day in his #88 Gatorade Buick, holding off Richard Petty by just two car lengths.  By then, Taylor was a full-fledged racing fan, looking for a way to get involved in motorsports.  He found work with a local racing paper, then later paid his admission to the track by drawing a car every week during the racing season.

Then came the opportunity to work with the subject of one of his first drawings - Canadian dirt track legend Pete Bicknell.

“I worked with Pete Bicknell, he’s a big time modified dirt guy up here, he builds his own race cars, he owns a racetrack up here now, a dirt track.  He’s probably where I got my start in everything.  I was just a teenage kid around the dirt track, you know a mudscraper, the kid who would sweep the shop.”

Pete Bicknell's dirt modified, one of Taylor's first drawings.
Taylor did the artwork for this Stroh's ad when he was only fifteen.
Taylor credits Bicknell both for the practical experience he gained as well as the enthusiasm with which he enjoys motorsports.  Bicknell’s car was one of the first he ever drew.

“When you’re with the guy and the guy wins?  There’s nothing like it.  I remember the first time I was with that race team with Pete Bicknell and he won the race.  It was amazing.  It was so amazing.  You just felt like you were something, you have life, you know?  That’s what drives me to do it.”

Taylor started airbrushing when he was twelve.  Armed with a kit attached to an old refrigerator compressor, he painted everything from clothing to murals.  At fifteen, his work got noticed by the Stroh’s Brewery.  “And here’s the kicker,” Taylor added.  “I’m a Canadian I live twenty minutes from Niagara Falls in the states and here I am working in an American track for an American beer company and I’m fifteen - how much better can life get?”

Examples of Robert Taylor's airbrush work at Pulp Comics (top) and Maxximum Motors (bottom).
Things did get better.  Taylor continued his work in airbrushing, branching out into painting nightclubs, project work with rock bands, and set painting at his local theater.  He continued drawing as well, and for five years his artwork paid admission to the races.

But, barely in his thirties, Taylor nearly lost it all when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease.

“Parkinson’s is a difficult disease to pinpoint because you have it or you don’t because there’s so many symptoms. . .For me it’s what I have is more muscular and nerves and spasms and stuff.  It’s not where my hands shake all the time.  I’ll get upper body twitches at times, my legs.”

Not only was Taylor unable to draw, but his first round of treatments only made his condition worse.

“I was 230 pounds, I went down to about 159 pounds.  In the meantime I was in the process of losing my house because I couldn’t get disability.  I was fighting with my doctors - they said it wasn’t Parkinson’s because I was too young and I had certain chemicals at acceptable levels, not to be written off.  My eyesight got really bad and I gave up on everything.”

But, with new treatments available in Canada, Taylor was able to get his life back.

“One day I just said I had enough, like what’s the worst thing that can happen to me in my life if I stop taking these things because I know they’re making a mess of me.  And sure enough in six months I was a new person. . .Since then, I’ve put my weight back on, right now I’m about 190 pounds.  My seizures and my (spasms) stopped.  I’m more calm.  I’m more relaxed.”

The World Touring Car Championship rides of Charles Kaki Ng (top) and James Thompson (bottom).
Ever since then, Taylor has tracked his progress through his ability to draw.  Though he still does airbrushing, he is currently compiling an extensive collection of drawings from multiple racing divisions.  He is also a quick study.  I commissioned him to do a pair of drawings for the FIA World Touring Car Championship in Sonoma, and though he hadn’t drawn such cars before, every detail was there, all the way down to the Chinese characters on Charles Kaki Ng’s BMW.  All the while, he has maintained a carpe diem attitude with his work.

“People are so happy to see me again and I’m actually doing something that, you know what, I might not be able to do tomorrow.  I might not be able to do this ten years from now.  But you know what?  While I can do it, I want to do it and I want to do it for people who appreciate it because there’s nothing worse in this world then getting taken for granted.  When you start taking something for granted people who would appreciate something that you don’t see will take it away from you and you’ve got nothing.  So you can never take nothing for granted every day.”

Michael Waltrip's 2011 NAPA Toyota (top) and 1986 Pontiac Grand Prix (bottom).
Taylor has also had the chance to share some of his artwork with drivers.  A few years ago, he did a drawing for Michael Waltrip.  Looking to stand out, he drew both Waltrip’s NAPA Toyota from the 2011 Daytona 500 as well as the car Waltrip raced as a rookie in 1986:

“I did the very first Cup car he ever drove, the red 23 Pontiac - it was before Bahari when he had the Hawaiian Punch sponsorship. . .So I pull this one out and say ‘Hey, you remember this one?’ and he said ‘Yeah, no big deal.’  And I’m like ‘That was your first car,’ and he’s like ‘Yeah, no biggie,’ so I don’t know if I ruined the mood by showing him that car.”

Davey Allison's 1989 Ford Thunderbird.  The photo is Taylor with Robert Yates, holding his drawing "like a big check."
One of Taylor’s most treasured experiences was a chance meeting with Robert Yates.  When he heard Yates was in his area, he did a drawing of the late Davey Allison’s #28 Texaco / Havoline Ford and brought it with him to the shop.

“So I get there and for whatever reason I show him this picture.  He just looked miserable it was like nine in the morning, and as soon as he’d seen the picture - I never met the guy in my life until then (but) he just cracked this huge smile it was like I gave him a bottle of Crown Royal.  He was just so happy to see it.  Nothing else mattered, we started to talk for like ten minutes.  And I didn’t think he was gonna give me the time of day, (but) here I am with Robert Yates, and I’m thinking this is the best thing I’m gonna get to other than getting a Davey Allison autograph because I loved the guy.”

“So when I had Robert sign it, there were all these photographers around and I’d never even thought of it, but all these people are taking our pictures for trade magazines and Robert’s like ‘Hold that picture up.’  So I’m like ‘Do I hold it up like a big check?’ And he started laughing like it was the funniest thing.  And that was it.  But it was the coolest thing, I’ll never forget the look he gave when I showed him the picture.”

Taylor's watercolor of Kevin Harvick's 2001 #29 GM Goodwrench Chevrolet.
Today, Taylor still draws and strives to get his art more exposure.  Having seen his work for myself, I can say it is absolutely deserving of it.  His technical proficiency and artistic skill, particularly in spite of his condition, are inspirational.  And his decision to stick with NASCAR while many other longtime fans have lost interest, is something to be acknowledged and rewarded.

“You know what I would really enjoy?” he told me.  “It would be really cool if I saw a phone number on my machine and I call it up and someone, say, Clint Bowyer or Kevin Harvick just called me up ‘cause they forgot my number and just go over to their house and airbrush whatever on their garage wall.  That would be the coolest thing to me in the world.”

Taylor can be reached by e-mail at hairball474747@gmail.com.

**More Art By Robert Taylor**
(click images for full size)

Cale Yarborough
Donnie Allison
Earl Ross (top) and Buddy Arrington (bottom)
Eddie Hill
Jason Leffler
J.D. McDuffie
Junior Johnson
Ken Schrader
Rusty Wallace
Ryan Newman
Brad Keselowski
Bobby Allison, 1988 (top) and 1983 (bottom)
Kyle Busch
Ron Fellows

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