“It was always fun to give photos to the riders. That’s what it’s all about for me.” – Geoff Nickless
“That’s all it was back then, just a hobby. I’ve never sold a single photograph. I’ve just given them away.” Such is Geoff Nickless’ passion for motorcycle racing and photography that he would capture and store some of the sport’s most priceless work of motorcycle art, and just give them away.
No two forms of art blend so wonderfully as photography and the beauty of the sideways motorcycle. Difficulty in properly capturing the elusive bike in the passing drama makes motorcycle photography equal parts technical challenge and craft developed over time.
With over four decades behind the lens, Geoff Nickless blends modern technology with old school artistry to create mind numbingly beautiful photographs that roll back time to the golden age of American racing. In his teens Geoff saved up money from his paper route and purchased his first camera, a Minolta SR-T 101, and started shooting his first race at Golden Gate Fields where Kenny Roberts was racing. Thus began a life lived behind the lens with a passion for capturing racing in all its forms and glory.
I tasked Geoff with the impossible: rifle through his decades of photo archives, thousands upon thousands of racing memories captured in dramatic black and white and vivid color and pick out seven of his favorites. The photos he chose from nearly half a century’s worth of archives speak to the two wheeled soul in of all of us.
One photo in particular, a picture of Kenny Roberts captured in breathtaking shades of grey, has lived in his archive for decades, never seen by anyone but Geoff and his wife. Not even “King Kenny” has seen it.
Geoff has graced Road Dirt with access to that rare, never before seen photo of King Kenny and the rest of his best. Here are the seven as described by Geoff Nickless himself.
Geoff loves all forms of racing, road racing, motocross and dirt track. Living in Sacramento, he is a frequent visitor to the famed Sacramento mile dirt track races. “This is Jared Mees at the 2019 Sacramento mile. He’s backing it in to turn 3 and it was one of those shots where you just go,… wow. You zoom in on his steel shoe and it’s sharp.”
“I actually shot this picture of Jorge Lorenzo from the stands at turn 15 at Circuit of the Americas in 2017. It’s a slow, very tight turn and the fences are so tall it’s difficult to find a spot where you are not shooting through a fence, so I kept stepping back until I had a good angle from the stands. I shot this with a 100mm-400mm lens with a 1.5 teleconverter and you can zoom in and see his eyes.”
“My photography teachers in college, Andy Delucia and Dick Flemming, always told me that if it adds to it (the photo) by not shooting at the 5’6” to 6’ height that everybody sees day in and day out, don’t do it. Go for a low angle or a high angle, something different than the usual eye level point of view.”
Geoff climbed the flag tower at the apex of the Corkscrew during this year’s MotoAmerica races at Laguna Seca to look directly down on Travis Wyman and his BMW S1000RR. “If you look closely,” he said, “you can see his lap timer.”
“This is Laguna Seca in 1978 during the Formula 750 race. Skip Askland is on the number 27 bike, Rich Schlachter on the 48 and the 303 is Patrick Pons. I sent this photo to Skip. Two years later, Patrick was killed at a race at Silverstone.”
“That is the old turn 8 at Laguna and you can see how close I got. You can see the hay bales at the bottom. There was only the hay bales then maybe two feet of space and then the armco barrier and I was standing right behind the armco. It’s much safer now, but much more difficult to photograph. It’s not what it used to be. I ran into Skip at this year’s MotoAmerica races at Laguna Seca and we talked about the old days.”
One of Geoff’s first photo shoots was at his hometown track at Sacramento.
“This is Gary Scott on his factory Harley Davidson XR750 at the 1975 Sacramento Mile the year he de-throned Kenny for the grand national championship. Gary and Kenny had butted heads and gone back and forth since they were junior and rookie experts. Gary Scott wanted that championship so badly. Gary won that race.”
“After this I was hooked on shooting motorsports and I went to every race I could go to, mainly to watch Kenny Roberts.”
“Wayne Rainey in 1983, exiting the bottom of the Corkscrew at Laguna, turning right getting ready to bend into what is now Rainey Curve.”
“That one really turned out nicely. I made two large prints of it and gave one to Wayne in 2019. He signed the other one and gave it back to me. He saw the photo and said, ‘That was one of my favorite championships. That brings back good memories.’ It was neat to hear that from Wayne when I gave him the photo, but it was always fun to give photos to the riders. That’s what it’s all about to me.”
“This was in 1981 at Laguna Seca when Kenny Roberts was going for his 4th in a row world championship. His season was not going well and he was just sitting on the back of the box van. I got probably ten or twelve different photos. Nobody has ever seen this photo except my wife Barb, me and now you. Not even Kenny has seen it. It was one of those that I liked but it wasn’t really good enough to give to Kenny. I didn’t want to bring back those kind of memories, but I think he is over all of that by now.”
“I like the behind the scenes types of photos. I took a lot of photos of Kenny because he allowed me get places that most people could not get to, so I concentrated my lens on Kenny a lot on the track and the paddock.”
This picture spoke to me because most photos of Kenny Roberts show the glamorous trophy hoists and world championship celebrations. Few pictures dare show the frustration racing causes, especially when displayed by a three time world champion. I noticed that no one else is in the photograph, giving King Kenny a wide berth to be alone with his thoughts.
Geoff releases current photos along with pictures from his archives on his Instagram account (@nicklessphotos). “I love some of the positive comments the old stuff brings out on Instagram,” he said. “There is so much more of the story we haven’t even come close to covering about Kenny Roberts. People are telling me that I should do a coffee table book”.
If Geoff completes that book, it would be the first time in his life behind the lens that he has not given away his cherished works of art for free.