The June 1997 "Flaming Turbo Issue" is one of the most recognizable covers in the history of Turbo magazine. To this day, people still want to know, "how did you do that?" Some are quick to point a finger at computer enhancement, and that's where I get out the whoopin' stick. The only computer enhancement on the cover was the addition of the SPI boost gauge.
I had wanted to put something other than a car on the cover for some time. We were doing an article on Rick Head's 9.05-second big block 'Vette that used a huge "Big Thumper" turbo from Turbonetics. The crew at Turbonetics went on and on about how big it was and I said, "if it's that big, send me one so I can shoot it for the story." It just so happened, we were also planning an article on basic upgrades for turbo powered vehicles. The story would outline the benefits of upgraded exhausts, high-flow intakes, boost controllers as well as the importance of fuel enrichment. Big Thumper was all it was pumped up to be. It weighed 48 pounds, was 9.75-inches in diameter on the compressor side and had a whopping 5-inch inlet. The tumblers had aligned-use the turbo upgrade story as an excuse to shoot the turbo for the cover. But how do you shoot it? When I told publisher Kipp Kington about my plans to put a turbo on the cover I was met with skepticism. I assured him we had a car cover in the can and told him I wanted to take a shot at it.
I knew I needed color and contrast. I wanted action too. Action meant long exposures, which axed our basic studio lights. I set up a table with black background paper in the shipping area. The shipping area had a sliding door that happened to be in line with the arc of the sun. The door could act as a shutter regulating the amount of light in the shot. The time of day would determine what kind of light, direct or diffused, would hit the turbo. Color was added to the compressor housing by taping yellow construction paper to a dolly and positioning it just off camera. The dolly's red handles also added color to the shot. The red glow in the inlet and on the compressor wheel is from a "police-sized" Maglite that was a Christmas gift I had received from Michael Ferrara the previous year. The flashlight had a red filter taped to the lens.
What about spinning the compressor wheel? Can you say ShopVac? We had an industrial sized ShopVac and I cupped my hands between the nozzle and the turbine discharge and turned the vacuum on. It worked...it worked really well. To get it all together in our makeshift studio, we cut a hole in the background paper directly behind the turbo and ran the vacuum hose to the turbine discharge. A Big Gulp cup turned out having the exact step up we needed to mate the vacuum and the turbo. A couple windings of duct tape and we were good to go. Carl Calvert was on the ShopVac, Michael Ferrara was on the Maglite. We were shooting with my old-school Pentax 6x7 and we fired off a few rolls with varying amounts of light.
At this point the set-up of the shot had taken three days with a nay-saying publisher and other Doubting Thomas' jokingly belittling us every step of the way. Undaunted, we continued because we had a vision. During the initial photo sessions, we were impressed with how much air the turbo was moving. Somewhere along the line, someone likened the Big Thumper to a rocket engine. Somehow the idea of adding fire to the mix was born. Being tech editor, Michael was moved to pyrotechnic engineer, Carl was moved to flashlight duty and Shaun Carlson was called into action throttling the ShopVac. Mike experimented with mineral spirits, gasoline and lacquer thinner before settling on acetone. Paper towels were used as wicks and Mike discovered the folding of the towel was a key element in the process. Day four was spent perfecting our technique and keeping an eye out for the fire marshal. We were excited, we knew we were on to something. When Kipp began giving tours of the "pyrotechnics lab," I knew we had really turned a corner. I never did tell him that there was no car-oriented cover shot waiting in the wings. I was on a mission and working without a net was pretty much the norm in those days.
The rocket engine analogy proved quite accurate. Once the wick was lit and inserted in the compressor volute there was a warm up time of about 5 or 6 seconds. Then Shaun brought the 'Vac up to speed slowly. Once at full throttle the turbo would hiss like a rocket and shoot out a stream of flame exactly like a rocket. This would last 20 to 45 seconds. Then the thing would do what we called a "flame out" where the rocket effect gave way to a traditional flame, like in a campfire. Shortly after this was "ejection" where the turbo would spit out the remnants of the towel, which had to be hurriedly pushed to the floor and extinguished. We did care about the fire alarms, as we pushed the towel to the floor to keep it out of the shot. The trick was timing the exposure to encompass the correct mixture of rocket flame and traditional flame. A shot used on the "Table of Contents" shows a rocket flame and the wick after the turbo suffered a premature ejection. There was a lot of pressure to make this shot work, as we had to overcome the adversity from those within the company, but I do remember how well we worked as a team and how "challenging" it was to get an issue out the door. Hopefully people will now know the truth and our hands-on creativity and photographic skill will no longer be written off as piddly computer-generated graphics.