Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Racing COVID-19

Dawn at Indy in 2019
arch 13, 2020 was a Friday when they shut down the school where I teach. At that point, the whole world changed as Indiana went into a lockdown quarantine for the coronavirus COVID-19. Now nearly four months later, my son has lost his maternal grandmother (my ex-wife's mother)  and paternal grandfather (my father) to the coronavirus and the world is still in the grips of the worst pandemic in my lifetime. Social unrest over unfair treatment of minorities and police brutality against African-Americans has only added to the anxiety that many people are feeling over the state of society. Even my hometown of Indianapolis experienced rioting and destruction of property, which is highly unusual for this sleepy Midwestern capitol city.

In the grand scheme of things, the erasure of my 2020 racing schedule is a small matter, but I had big plans for this year which all got scuttled with the global shutdown. The Indycar Grand Prix which normally kicks off the Month of May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) is being run this weekend with NASCAR's Xfinity Series on the IMS road course but fans will not be allowed and media restrictions are in place so I will be unable to photograph the race. The Indy 500 which is normally the centerpiece of May and spring in Indianapolis has been postponed to August 23rd and fans will be limited to 50% of capacity. Media status for the 500 is unknown but I hope the fact that I will represent a French media company and the defending 500 champion is French will mean something. At least I know I will have seats for the race if all else fails.

By this time last season, I had been to Daytona, had lung cancer surgery, then went to Salem, Talladega, Nashville, Charlotte, Toledo, Pocono, Michigan, Madison, Gateway and Chicagoland to shoot races for the ARCA Menards Series in addition to the Indycar Grand Prix and Indy 500. This year I haven't even taken a single race car photo or been to any tracks because of the coronavirus. I don't know if I will even get any ARCA assignments at all this season after working 19 of 20 races on the ARCA schedule last year. The only good things about that situation are I haven't hardly put any miles on my car this year and I've only put gas in her twice since the lockdown in March.

I should also have been to LeMans, Paris and Marseille in France and Athens, Greece this month if my original plans had held up. I made plane reservations the first weekend in March for that trip which was planned to take more than three weeks in June. Barely a week later the global shutdown hit so I had to cancel those flights. I still hope I can make it to LeMans this Septemeber on its rescheduled date but the remaining trip for my Lilly Endowment project will just have to wait until June 2021. The airlines have been helpful by giving credits for the flights I reserved that are good for up to two years. Even LeMans has announced it will reduce the number of fans allowed at the race and I still have no idea if I will get a photo credential for my second LeMans or not.

Life is full of uncertainty normally anyway, but it feels like it's all piling on now. With my school year set to resume next week, I don't know what to expect so perhaps the best advice I could give to myself  is to just live today. Another good thing about the coronavirus shutdown is I have finally been able to get my manuscript 90% complete of a story I have been working on for most of my adult life but never had time to really focus on before now. I will have much more to announce on that score soon, as I intend to pursue self-publishing of the book. When that will happen, I don't really know, but it will happen come hell or high water. Or Coronavirus pandemic.

Stay tuned race fans. And stay safe - wear a mask.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

WTH? No Indy 500 Memorial Day Weekend?

Happier days lie ahead
My, my. How quickly things change. Two weeks ago when I last wrote, I was feeling pretty good about getting through this coronavirus pandemic and planning for Europe. In the last few days, the 24 Hours of LeMans has been postponed to September and today the Indy 500 was postponed to August. My plans just went kablooey and now I have plane flights, lodging and train reservations to change or cancel. I suppose I was like a lot of other people in the United States who treated this virus as no big deal, but recent events have turned out to be anything but that. It has turned into the biggest deal of my lifetime and I have paid attention to the warnings and the "shelter in place" editc here in Indiana.

Technically, this is my Spring Break week from teaching and our building is shut down until at least May 16th since my school is in a facility owned by Ivy Tech. When school does resume the week after next, we will be teaching remotely utilizing online curriculum. That will be a major shift for our Excel Center staff and students, but that's probably the easy part of this situation. My fiancee works in health care and I hear her every day working on procedures and discussing preparations for the expected onslaught of COVID-19 patients in Central Indiana. I am thankful that right now she does not have direct patient contact but everything in her world is in such a state of flux that it's hard to know what tomorrow holds, let alone next week or the week after.

I had said in my last post here that I was not that concerned about some flu-like bug but I have changed my tune as the numbers of infected and dead continue to mount. What does all of this have to do with racing? That is normally what I write about here and my plans for 2020 have been totally upended by this virus. I am in a high risk group so my plans have become the least of my concerns. Over the last 48 hours, I have only gone out of the house to take a walk, to work in the yard, and today to ride my bicycle. It is just so strange not being able to plan anything for the weeks and months ahead. None of that matters if I get sick. Not only did I have part of my right lung removed in March 2019 because of lung cancer, I was diagnosed with emphysema which puts me squarely in the high risk category. I wasn't concerned two weeks ago when I said the virus wasn't going to keep me from living my life, but that is not the case anymore.

Thanks Helio!
The good news in all of this involves the time I suddenly have had to organize at home among other things. I've been working on a book project for quite some time and I've been able to do more writing on it this week than in the previous six months put together, so that's a real blessing. I've also had time to use the Google Scan app on my phone and scan a huge number of photos that I shot on film which had never been digitized before. That makes me very happy and came with an unexpected side benefit of posting photos on social media: I got a digital autograph on one of my scanned photos from Helio Castroneves! I hadn't even requested it, but there it was in my Twitter notifications. So for now, I will leave you with a few more of those old photos that I've recently digitized. You're seeing them here before I can get them posted on my website but stay tuned for more. Here's hoping we can get back to racing soon.

Al Unser Jr.'s team celebrates winning the Indy 500 pit stop competition in 1989
Sports car racing on the streets of Columbus, Ohio 1985
The late Scott Brayton was always quick at Indy
Lewis Hamilton
Emerson Fittipaldi on the streets of the Motor City in 1989

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Stay Calm: Plan for France

Me: dressed and ready
Another month in 2020 has gone by and the ARCA Menards Series has now run two races this season without my contributions as a photographer. Of course the series doesn't need me - I know there are lots of talented photographers around who can do the work. While it's not really surprising, it is disappointing. I love the work, I think I did a pretty good job and I was really hoping that my work as Chief Photographer for the series over the last five years would lead to more and bigger opportunities under NASCAR ownership this year. So far this year that hasn't happened but I remain hopeful that as the series starts to race in the Midwest, perhaps then I will get some opportunities.

Ron Drager and Jim France shake on the ARCA sale
When NASCAR announced at Talladega in 2018 that it would be acquiring ARCA, I suspected there would be plenty of changes. I've been listed on the ARCA website as Chief Photographer for the last couple of years but that will probably be changing too since it does not appear that I will be serving the series in that role. I was never a full time staff member anyway - my profession is teaching after all - and I know how changes naturally follow business acquisitions. The fact that this acquisition involved two racing series doesn't change the usual process of evaluating operations for duplication of services and seeking economies of scale to save money and create efficiencies. On top of that, inevitably new people get involved who have their own philosophies and often have their own people in mind that they plan to use.

I took this photo at LeMans in 2017 just before the start
All of that is just the nature of big business these days where oftentimes growth is achieved through acquisition. Having worked in real estate and utilities for 30 years prior to becoming a teacher, I understand how the acquisition process goes, which is why I can't get too upset about the prospect of not getting any, or maybe only getting a few, ARCA assignments for this season. As the saying goes, this could be one door closing so another one can open. "Endings come before beginnings", as I've also heard, so maybe this run had to end so that something new could begin. Life is all about change anyway and how we react to it. Many times in my adult life when something has ended, that ending has created space for something new to enter so that's why I'm at peace with the changes in my photography career. Beyond that, I already know I will be working two of the biggest races in the world this year - the Indianapolis 500 and the 24 Hours of LeMans - not exactly consolation prizes! So those two races are my primary targets now as well as finding other opportunities as a photographer. I am excited about the new Canon photographer matching service in which I've been approved to participate. I also expect I will work the 8-hour sports car race this October that is coming to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. While I may not have as many events on my calendar this year, I have some big ones!

The biggest issue right now that could effect my plans for this year is filling all the news reports: the coronavirus. A lot of the coverage seems to  me to be nothing more than click bait and hyped mass hysteria, especially on social media. When you've been through a cancer diagnosis and had part of a lung removed like I experienced last year, why worry about a bug when there are so many plans to make and so much life to be lived? I'm not going to worry or be scared, and I'm not changing anything I do except perhaps being a little more diligent about washing my hands. I leave for my trip to France and Greece in less than 3 months now and I'm confident this whole virus scare will be resolved by then. I have continued to make plans and reservations for flights, hotels and train travel. As I wrote in my last blog post, I am acting "as if" everything will work out. I am trying to trust the universe and I am not going to let the fear mongers win. In some ways, today's atmosphere doesn't seem that much different than after 9-11 when people were panicking about terrorism and it kept some from living their normal lives. It makes sense to take some reasonable precautions in today's world, but paralysis due to fear is out of the question. At least for me it is, but then maybe I'm being naive or just in denial.

"Doc", Rich and I at Salem in 2018
As for the ARCA Menards Series, I know it will continue and thrive under NASCAR ownership. I met a lot of great people during my time working with the series and made some great friends in the process. I am grateful for the help and support I always got from Doc Hunter and his dear wife JoAnn who passed away in December. I was fortunate to have other photographers like Rich Corbett to work with so we could expand the photo coverage for the series. The ARCA marketing staff with whom I worked closest are some of the best in the business as far as I'm concerned and I already miss Mark Gundrum asking me: "Did you have a big day?" I often wondered if Charlie Krall wrote until his fingers bled and I was glad he appreciated the work Rich and I did for the website so his stories could be released in a timely fashion. Casey Wagner jumped into Victory Lane responsibilities with aplomb and I always enjoyed his sense of humor. I can't forget George Mergen who first gave me the chance to do multiple races in 2014 and then subsequently moved on to greener pastures in his career that involved far less travel! Tom Legeman and Don Radebaugh are two other men from marketing with whom I worked closely and were always supportive but are now in different roles elsewhere in motorsports. I have to say thanks to Mike Hewer too, for calling me on the pre-race radio check even when he didn't need to! Thanks also to Grayling Call for the technical education and for approving my timesheets so I could get paid. Of course the man at the top was Ron Drager who deserves a special thanks:  Ron had the hardest job of all - keeping everyone together during the transition period when there were still a lot of unknowns.

In the flagstand at Pocono
There are so many other great people at ARCA I worked with whom I will miss dearly but it would be impossible to name them all: Rocky, Denise, Stu, Bobby T., the list goes on and on. Working more than 80 ARCA races as I did since 2013 has been fun and exciting, but it's the people I will miss the most. I can't begin to tell you how many drivers, team owners and public relations people I've spoken to over the years when they needed photos. I will definitely miss those interactions, the selfies in the flagstand, the lunches with other officials, and so many other moments. But I have my memories.

And most importantly, I got photos because that's what I do. Call me if you need some the next time you're headed to a race.