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Local photographer rubs elbows with racing’s finest on pit row

Courtesy Photos The pit crew for Michael Waltrip rushes to refuel, change the tires, and make adjustments to the #15 Napa Auto Parts Chevrolet in a photo captured by Kathleen Asheton, who was a photographer at the track. Ashton now has a home in Alcona County.

ALPENA — From the mid 1990s until 2005, Alcona County resident Kathleen Asheton had a job many sports enthusiasts would sell their soul for.

She was a pit-row photographer covering NASCAR races around the country and captured images of some of the sport’s legendary drivers and the memorable paint-schemes on their cars.

The story of how she landed the gig is one of luck, determination, and adventure.

Asheton said she became a fan of the sport thanks to a friend. While attending her first race at Michigan International Speedway, she inadvertently walked into the garage area and began to take photos, not knowing the area was not open to fans.

She took photos of some of NASCAR’s most famous faces and then went out to her car, but when she tried to return, security at the gate she had entered earlier denied her access. The experience motivated her to do what it took to become a familiar face behind the scenes on the circuit.

Dale Earnhardt poses next to his car in a photograph taken by Kathleen Asheton when she was a photographer covering NASCAR.

“It all started from being a fan and I went to the Michigan race and waltzed right into the garage area and started taking photos of Rusty (Wallace) and the guys,” she said. “It was that day that I became determined to get credentials so I could do it all the time.”

Asheton said she went to other race tracks such as Pocono, Daytona, and Talladega and others, and continued to pursue her dream by doing whatever it took to get on pitroad.

She said drivers and pit crews became acquainted with her over time and eventually she was approached by the photo editor for the Winston Cup Scene publication who requested some of her photo work. Editors were impressed and soon she received the credentials she craved.

Asheton said Rusty Wallace was her favorite driver and was able to capture photos of him and many other Hall of Fame drivers. There was one driver though that took some time to get in the viewfinder and capture his image.

That driver was the legendary Dale Earnhardt.

Rusty Wallace, left, chats with Kevin Harvick in a photo taken by Kathleen Asheton. Harvick replaced Dale Earnhardt in the GM Goodwrench Chevrolet after Earnhardt was killed in a wreck in 2001.

Asheton said she built relationships with members of The Intiminator’s team and Dale Sr. would often say hello and acknowledge her in passing.

Little did she know Earnhardt was going to make sure she captured a once-in-a-lifetime photo.

One day, while reporters and photographers were conducting business near the car beginning in the pole position, she stayed back by the famous No. 3 black Chevrolet. Unexpectedly, Earnhardt arrived and made it possible for Asheton to take his photo.

“All of a sudden this body jumped over the wall and it was Dale,” she said. “I went over and stood by the car and posed just for me. All of the other photographers began running down, but he jumped into his car and took off. Dale was a little elusive, but he got to know me from me just hanging around. It was a big deal for anyone to get the eye of Dale Earnhardt.”

In 2001, Earnhardt was killed on the final lap of the Daytona 500. Asheton said she had been in Daytona for Speedweeks, but was not on pitroad the day of the race. Instead, she was at home when the wreck occurred and she knew quickly that the outcome of it was not going to be good.

Michael Waltrip, left, visits with Dale Earnhardt Jr. during some downtime from racing.

“When Kenny Schrader pulled over and went over to Dale’s car and started waving for help I knew,” he said. “It was a huge loss that I have never gotten over.”

During her time at the racetrack, Asheton was able to capture action shots of pit crews racing to get their driver’s car back on the track quickly, and more intimate shots of drivers. She clicked photos of Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr, Mark Martin, Dale Jarrett, Bill Elliott, and many others.

She said in 2005 she gave up her photography job because her mother had fallen ill and needed to assist her. She still loves taking photos however, especially at rock concerts, parades, and other events.

The crew of Dale Earnhardt walks alongside his car as Earnhardt sits in the driver’s seat waiting to race.

Bill Elliott, left, plays with his son Chase as Jeff Gordon looks on. Today, Chase Elliott is a NASCAR driver and has 17 career wins.

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