The first time Leifer saw the fabled spires at Churchill Downs, he was surprised that they really weren't very large. They were just magnificently placed. His photo of the 1965 Derby (left) shows the spires standing tall against the bluegrass sky, a pair of gracious sentinels watching o'er the start of Lucky Debonair's race. But by this year the beautiful spires had been pinched by phalanxes of luxury boxes--that bountiful box-office innovation in most every sport that has made our stadiums and arenas less a shared community than a stratified society. This year Leifer showed in a single picture (above) how commerce has trumped perhaps the most famous architectural signature in American sport.
The most unpleasant venue for photographers in sportsdom, Leifer believes, is the Brickyard, for its ear-shattering noise. He can take consolation, then, in the fact that the only real sea change in major American sports has taken place in automobile racing, where the Indianapolis 500 (above, in 1962) has been replaced in esteem by the Daytona 500. When Leifer started shooting, Indy cars owned U.S. racing, while NASCAR was a regional sideshow, dismissed in sophisticated sports circles as a hillbilly carousel. Since then NASCAR has grown to be generally accepted as the fourth major American sport, after football, baseball and basketball. Of course, as Leifer found this year on his first trip to Daytona (left), auto racing by any name is still noisy.
See more photos from Neil Leifer's 2005 odyssey at SI.com/leiferpix.