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Thursday, April 9, 2020

Kay Presto - NASCAR Racing Writer and Photographer

I have pulled this interview from my archives to honor the passing of this lovely lady. She was a great mentor to me and I wanted to let you hear her story.

Kay Presto was involved with auto racing for decades whether it was Formula 1, NASCAR or the Indy Racing League as well as AMA Motorcycle and Motocross. She was a photographer, sportscaster, producer, and writer. Her writing credits include everything from major racing magazines to a racing photography coffee table book and stories in Chicken Soup for the Soul: NASCAR. She won over 60 awards for television and radio broadcasting, photography and journalism.

How did you get started in writing for car racing?
In 1971, my daughter Deb was chosen as Queen of our new local Ontario Motor Speedway here in California. I had just quit work with an idea to write a book to help working mothers like myself, and she would invite me to the track to help her with her sash and other things. While there, I would also sit in the bleachers and ask questions of others around me.

I took notes so I could understand the IndyCar (USAC in those days) race coming up, and the sports editor of the local newspaper, the Daily Report, asked me what I was doing. When I told him, he said, "Write about the races, and I'll publish your articles and pay you." I told him I knew nothing about racing. He said, "Write it from your viewpoint," so I took him up on it and started learning about the races and drivers and submitting them for publication. After a motorcycle race at the track, I even found a "scoop" that the other reporters missed.

How did you add taking photos to go with your stories?
As I wrote stories for the newspaper, I would see the perfect photo opportunity to go with it, but there was often no cameraman from the newspaper to take the photo. I did not own a 35mm camera, so I bought a new one. It was a Minolta camera with two telephoto lenses. There were no instructions with it, so I went to our local camera shop and they showed me how to load the film, attach the lenses, and focus.

The newspaper began to buy my photos to go with my articles, so I became a professional photographer without ever having a lesson. I soon purchased two more Minoltas, with various lenses, like a fish-eye and longer telephotos, so I could create more unique photos. That way I could have the film ready at all times, so I did not have to stop and re-load and could get close-ups and long shots. I still have all that equipment today, in perfect condition.

What tips do you have for those who might want to add photos to their stories?
I recommend taking a good photo class in the very beginning. Many community colleges provide these classes. Learn composition, unique camera angles, use of light, flash, etc. With the new 35mm digital cameras, you get higher pixels for sharper photos, and the cameras even include video.

I did not take a class until several years after I started doing photography. By that time I was doing photo-journalism for national magazines and was not pleased with the prints the local labs were turning out for me, so I took photography courses and learned to do my own in their photo lab. I'm currently using a new high-tech Canon T2i digital camera with various Canon SLR telephoto lenses that feature Image Stabilizing.

How has your writing and photos for racing evolved over the years?
Since I photograph race cars, I have to catch them racing at high speeds, which seem to get faster every year -- as much as 330 miles per hour in drag racing -- so I must "pan" smoothly (move the pre-focused lens along with the speed and direction of the car as I snap the photo) with one flowing movement to get a nice sharp image of the car and its' tiny sponsor labels. You can see some of my photos in the Gallery section of my racing website --

In writing my articles, the rules in racing, and the race details, change very often so I have to keep up with new information all the time. That, and doing the technical articles is a challenge -- but an interesting one -- to write accurately about all the new changes to the cars, etc. I learn new things every day, and also love to do in-depth features about the drivers and their crews, so it never gets stale or boring. It definitely keeps me on my toes.

Give me an example of an "aha" moment you had in your writing that inspired you?
When the drivers told me that I asked questions that delved into their true personalities. They said I asked them questions that no one else did, and they appreciated that. They also thanked me for not misquoting them, and for not putting my own "spin" into the story instead of theirs.

For that reason, I've received many letters of thanks from drivers and teams, even from Janet Guthrie, the first woman ever to race in the Indianapolis 500. In her letter, she said my article about her "set some sort of record for accurate quotes, and certainly put it all together beautifully. I was really excited about it." I took that as the ultimate compliment.

A famous drag racer sent me a commemorative cup with his team logo and a thank-you note. I treasure all those letters and that cup, as that lets me know I'm doing my job to the very best of my ability.

What tips would you give to other writers in doing interviews?
First, know a lot about your subject before you interview them. Get background facts, find out their interests, what makes them come alive, search for those little nuances that make them "tick." Then create interesting questions to ask them about all that.

Try to create an article that delves into the psyche of that person, what makes them special in their work and their lives, what makes them different from anyone else. Show them that you really care about doing a unique story about them, and be courteous during your interview. You can get real gems of usable quotes that way. Also -- tape-record your entire interview, and don't distort their quotes. One of the comments I get from the people I interview is that they appreciate my doing articles about them because I never -- repeat never -- misquote them.

Be sure to have fresh batteries in your tape-recorder, and plenty of audiotapes or you can also use the new electronic tape-recorders. When I started forty years ago, I was the only reporter using a tape-recorder; the custom was to write notes on notepads. Now the majority of journalists use tape-recorders, too.

You've won over 60 awards now and counting. Is there anyone award that means more to you than any others?
Yes, I received it many years ago, when I was still new to the auto racing profession. I had written a magazine article, with extensive quotes from various race sponsors, on what qualities they look for in a driver before they sponsor them. I got in-depth quotes from team owners like Roger Penske and many sponsors.

That article won the special national Sears award, which was new that year. When I accepted it, I realized that I had won over all the men, who were all excellent at their craft. That really meant a lot to me, especially when the official from Sears personally presented the plaque to me at their company banquet. That was the only year that contest was held, so that award is truly one-of-a-kind.

You've written about racing for years, now you are drawn to writing for children. Tell me how that began?
While raising my four children, I would make up stories while I played with them, dressed them, fed them, just to make them laugh, and create some fun. But I just wrote those down and kept them in a drawer. I had already been published in a Catholic newspaper when I was in sixth grade, but never considered myself a writer, as I've never had formal journalism training of any kind, so I did not consider having those stories published.

Then -- about ten years ago -- I was sitting on the couch, a children's story idea suddenly came to me, I rushed and typed it into my computer in about ten minutes, then realized I had a complete story, written with a full plot and everything. This continued to happen, until I had ten stories, and realized that each one had a great moral woven into the story.

I always say I did not write these stories; they came from a higher power, as they came in such a rush. Finally, I began to realize they had commercial potential as children's books and was advised to join SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators), which is how I found our critique group, CHAIRS. CHAIRS has been a great help to me, as children's book publishing is completely different from magazine writing.

Thank you, Kay, for the inspiration and encouragement you offered me through the years. You will be missed by many. 

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