Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Done With The Dirt: ARCA Championship at Stake

Christian Eckes was in control at DuQuoin and won
Christian Eckes grabbed another win for the Venturini Motorsports gang last weekend on the dirt at  the DuQuoin State Fair and crept just a little closer to teammate Michael Self for the ARCA Menards Series championship. Now that the Southern Illinois 100 on DuQuoin's "Magic Mile" is in the books, everyone will focus on finishing this season strong with just three races remaining. Now if we can just get these young guys to climb out of their cars and face the series photographers in Victory Lane to begin their winning celebrations, my life would be complete! Seriously though, I don't blame these young guys for wanting to celebrate and recognize their teams in the process since the drivers are only as good as the people who prepare the machines. And this year, the Venturini machines have been the class of the ARCA field, winning 12 of 17 races so far, so it's clear they have great people supporting their drivers. If Christian hadn't had to miss the spring race at Salem, the points chase would be much closer than the 70 points it is now in Self's favor.

The Brothers Alley (me on the left and Steve) got to work DuQuoin together
This was the fifth straight season that I've shot ARCA's back to back dirt races at the two  fairgrounds in Illinois and this year my brother worked with me at DuQuoin which made it even more fun. It was special too since he lives in Tucson and we don't get to spend that much time together these days so making a race together outside the Indy 500 is a real bonus. Next season I will be headed out his direction in March when ARCA races at Phoenix and I couldn't be more excited about that. I expect we'll have an Alley family gathering out there since my brother's kids and their families all live in Arizona. These dirt track races are quite unique and even though he had been to the ARCA race at Springfield with me in the past, the one at DuQuoin is a different animal and it was his first time actually working rather than just enjoying the show as a spectator. I'm sure he had fun but it's still different when you've got a job to do.

DuQuoin is unique - there's a lake in the infield!
There are two big differences between the Springfield and DuQuoin tracks for me. The first is that DuQuoin  has a lake in the infield that takes up most of the inside of Turns 1 and 2. Second, and this is huge - Springfield has tunnels to get back and forth between the outside and the inside during the race. At DuQuoin, with just two photographers we have to stay inside since there's no way to get back and forth. This year's Southern Illinois 100 was over in record time too so there wasn't much time to get the kind of variety I normally like to provide. I still followed my "10 laps and move" strategy that I normally use but the laps went by awfully fast and there was no late yellow to create a green-white-checkered finish like we had at Springfield. I was able to shoot from the outside during the sole practice session in the afternoon but for the race I worked inside exclusively.  I still haven't been able to successfully predict where to go to get a good photo of "Big Bill" Venturini when he plants "the kiss" on his winning drivers though, so there's always room for improvement.

Getting any closer to the action is just about impossible!
Since I started this blog in 2007, I have often wondered how many words I've written to describe races or events I've covered and I suppose I won't know until I compile everything for the book I want to write about my experiences in motorsports photography. One thing is certain, I have a lot of people to thank and I've probably taken a half million photos over the last 12 years as I've pursued this dream. Having the chance to shoot for the ARCA Menards Series is a true blessing as there are only a few jobs like it and I understand how fortunate I am to be in this position. I've also worked damn hard to get here and learned so much from so many great people in the process. I was telling my brother this past weekend about how I have studied (and continue to study) the work of other photographers in order to continue learning. I trust that will never stop and you may hear me say more than once that a bad day at a racetrack still beats good days at lots of other places. Mind you I love my teaching job so don't take that the wrong way, but when you're involved in something you have a passion in your soul to do, it's just different somehow. Photography is like that for me. Sometimes I wish I had come to that realization earlier in life but then I wouldn't be who I am today so I have no regrets.

Michael Self leads the season points standings but it's still a close fight
The way this year has gone has been special in so many ways - from shooting the ARCA opener at Daytona in February, then undergoing lung cancer surgery 10 days later, then getting back on my feet with races that stretched 10 consecutive weeks from the end of April through June, through this past couple of months when a new granddaughter joined the fold, to this past weekend with my brother. I never saw this coming last fall when I committed to doing all the ARCA races in 2019. Next year promises to be even bigger and better so get out to an ARCA race this year to see what all the excitement is about. You only have three more chances this season to see who will be crowned champion: Salem Speedway in southern Indiana later this month, then Lucas Oil Raceway west of Indianapolis and the finale at Kansas Speedway in October. Look me up if you make it to any of these. And by all means keep clicking on the ARCA Menards Series website for more of our photos! Here's a few I shot last weekend to tide you over.

Carson Hocevar is another up and coming driver in the series - he's only 16!
The ARCA Menards Series has been racing on dirt for more that 50 years and we'll be back next year!
The two dirt races in Illinois bring out local fan favorites like Ryan Unzicker to challenge series regulars
Ageless Kenny Schrader became the oldest pole winner in ARCA history in his Federated #52
Overheating from dust accumulation is a common problem on the dirt
Teams come up with some creative ways to keep the Illinois clay from gumming up the works

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Doing It In The Dirt With The ARCA Menards Series

The State Fairgrounds in Springfield, Illinois is a classic dirt track
Last weekend, I got the pleasure of photographing ARCA stock car racing on dirt for the fifth straight year at the Illinois State Fairgrounds mile in Springfield. Michael Self put "Dino" into the makeshift Victory Lane  last Sunday and got another kiss from "Big Bill" Venturini. "Selfie" maintained his lead in the season points standings over Christian Eckes in the process and now there are only four races left in the season. The series is off this weekend but next weekend we go to southern Illinois to complete the dirt double Saturday night on the Magic Mile at the Duquoin Fairgrounds. I can't wait to get dirty again and this year my brother, Steve Alley, will be there helping me out with photography for the series so that's an added bonus.

This angle from under the guardrail is one of my favorites
The ARCA series has been racing on dirt since the 1950's and while lots of people make a big deal about the Gander Truck series racing at Eldora the last few years, these two mile dirt tracks have been on the ARCA schedule for decades. It's so much fun to be able to work these two races back to back as they are quite unique and each track is different even though they are both a mile in length. There is no place else where I can get get closer to the racing surface. The experience of feeling these 3000 pound stock cars roar by me mere inches away on the other side of the guardrail is a rush of the first magnitude. It has to be felt to be believed. I also have a signature photo I try to shoot at these tracks from under the guardrail. I got my inspiration for that photo from horse racing, believe it or not, and it's fitting since they still race horses on these tracks when the fairs are going on. I've written about this experience before but every year at this time it still hits me how much fun it is to get to do what I do for ARCA.

Illinois driver Ryan Unzicker is a fan favorite on the mile dirt
It was fun also having a friend tag along at Springfield and show him the ins and outs of what we do to support the series at the racetracks. Occasionally I am able to invite a guest to a race like that and it's always fun to hear their reactions once the race day is over. I look at those invitations as part of spreading the word about the series. I still think word of mouth is one of the best promotional techniques - the six degrees of separation theory in real life. If every person I invite talks about how much they enjoyed the racing to their friends and followers on social media then it will attract even more interest. When I tell people what I do for ARCA, I still am surprised when they ask me what kind of cars are used in the series or they say they aren't familiar with the series at all. I know I am biased since I'm neck deep in the series, but I still think it's some of the best racing around.

This image is straight from the camera and has been used by the Venturini team
A big reason that I love shooting for the ARCA Menards Series is that it has made me a better photographer. When you shoot as many races per year as I have the last few seasons, it's almost inevitable that some improvement would occur but my feeling is my improvement has been exponential and noticeable. The first area I notice is in my vision: I know the shot I am looking for even before I press the shutter release and I am not hunting around or just snapping photos to be taking pictures. The second area is in what photos I accept on the spot as I am much more critical and know that it has to be right when I take the shot. The third area is in editing as I must go through 700 or more photos from a race in less than an hour once the race is over and there's no time for lots of tweaking or fancy Lightroom editing. This makes area #2 even more important since in quick editing mode, if it isn't right in the camera, I won't use it. A photographer friend told me back in the '80s when I was first starting out that the difference between a pro and an amateur is you never see a pro's mistakes. Of course I do some experimenting and I still make plenty of mistakes when an image doesn't come out quite like I want it to, but no one will ever see those and I learn something from every single one.

You know you're at the State Fair when you see the ferris wheel
The Springfield race was on Sunday afternoon August 18th and I knew going in that I wouldn't get home to Indy until after 9:00 p.m. or so, but the evening got interesting as I approached Brownsburg on I-74 from the west. I had to hit a rest stop near there and as I walked inside the totally dark facility, I said to a man leaving the bathroom with his cell phone flashlight on,"What happened? Did the State forget to pay the light bill?" We laughed but I didn't know that storms were knocking power out all around the area. Soon after I got back onto the interstate, my fiance called and told me our power was out, a tree in the yard was on fire, and we had a power line lying across our street. I was seeing lightning in distant clouds to the east and I was still about 30 minutes from home when she called. It was a helpless feeling knowing there was nothing I could do. When I got there, power was out on our whole street and the fire department was finishing their work while the power company addressed the downed power line. We decided to wait it out and finally got power back about 1:30 in the morning. 

A shower would have been nice
The funniest part of the whole ordeal? I was filthy dirty and sweaty from the race and I was looking forward to taking a shower but since our house is on a well, without power we had no water! I had to bring out some water jugs to wash up and get the top layer of sweaty grime off before going to bed, so it was a crazy ending to a day that had started with a 4:00 a.m.alarm on my phone so I could make the 5:00 officials meeting at the track. That's the sort of thing that happens on the road sometimes and Labor Day weekend we do it all over again with the series at Duquoin in southern Illinois! If you come out to the fair, then be sure to say hello. I'll take a selfie with you! So until next time, here's a few more of my photos from Springfield. Be sure to visit the ARCA Menards Series website at this link to see lots more and read about the great racing action.

It felt really good to get drenched in Victory Lane - it was worth it for this reaction shot of Michael Self
Alabama native Bret Holmes has really been coming on strong this season
Dirt track ace Logan Seavey has been a terror at the ARCA dirt track events this year and last
Christian Eckes could not make it two in a row at Springfield

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

On the Road (Again!) with ARCA Racing Plus Back to School

Youngster Chandler Smith Picked Up Another Dominant ARCA Win  From Pole
The last two weeks bounded by three weekends have continued my whirlwind summer with classes starting again at the Excel Center Noblesville where I teach. On top of that I had three long drives for three straight weekends to shoot races at three very different tracks in the ARCA Menards series. First there was the 3/8ths mile in Elko, Minnesota, then came the 7/8ths mile Iowa Speedway and fiinally the 2.5 mile superspeedway at Pocono Raceway. I started writing this post on Saturday evening July 20th while sitting in the media center at Iowa Speedway waiting out a rain delay for the NTT Indycar Series. At the beginning of that week, school had resumed where I teach and after four days of teaching, I had left Indy for Iowa right after work Thursday July 18th and arrived at about 11:00 pm local time after a seven hour drive to Newton, Iowa to work the June 19th ARCA event.  I stopped at the I-80 truckstop on the way for the first time and it was a hoot - the world's largest truck stop so they claim. Friday turned into a grueling 17 hour day in conditions unlike any I'd ever experienced at a race before, in dangerous heat that felt like more than 110 degrees. It was still 85 degrees at 11:30 pm when I got back to our hotel after the race! It was crazy how hot it was - it just pressed on my chest every time I left the media center that day.  On race day July 19th, I got my second (or third) wind before ARCA's "Friends With Benefits" 150 and loved the chance to work this cool little track again for the fifth time since 2015. I know everyone felt wiped out Friday evening in Victory Lane as Chandler Smith picked up another dominant ARCA win for Venturini Motorsports. I told team principal Billy Venturini afterwards that their teams were killing it this season and they continue to rack up pole positions and race wins with a variety of talented young drivers. Their team has clearly been the class of the series this year.

Iowa weather seemed almost as fickle as Indiana's!
Ever since it was announced last year that ARCA would race Friday night and Indycar on Saturday night at Iowa, I had planned to shoot both races and return to Indy on Sunday. The weather forecast for Indycar's race day (July 20th) promised a bit of relief from Friday's oppressive heat and we did get some relief but the timing was awful. The track was hit by a ferocious rainstorm complete with lightning just as the Indycar grid was supposed to be forming. For a race that was supposed to start at 6:00 p.m. Central Daylight Time (CDT), that rainstorm was very unwelcome, since it sent everyone's plans into a blender and no one knew if (or when) the race would be run. A couple of hours later came word that Indycar would shoot for a 10:30 CDT start if the track could be dried and no more rain fell. But there was another storm cell to the west so everyone was a bit nervous since no one wanted to deal with a postponement to Sunday morning for an 11:00 a.m. start. At about 10 o'clock, they started rolling cars to the grid and it looked like we were going to get the race in so everyone was relieved. I especially enjoyed having a lot of time to walk the whole Indycar grid and get driver photos. I'm pretty sure I got at least one decent shot of every Indycar driver in the race. The highlight for me was talking to Conor Daly who is from Noblesville so that was cool making a connection with him even though we have been social media acquaintances for years.

Josef Newgarden was on a mission at Iowa
I wrapped up my Indycar  shooting of winner Josef Newgarden in Indycar Victory Lane about 1:30 local time, went back to the media center to download my images and then sort out what I was going to do next. Since I had not made a hotel reservation in advance and it was closing in on 2:30 in the morning in Iowa (3:30 a.m. back in Indy), I decided to drive awhile and see how I felt. I got almost to Iowa City before the need to sleep started hitting me so I pulled into a rest area and slept for a couple of hours before a tour bus full of giggling and chatting high school girls behind me work me up. Back onto I-80 east I went and drove a few more hours before stopping again at another rest stop somewhere in Illinois for an hour more sleep. I finally finished the drive home at about 1:30 p.m.  in Indy. What was normally a seven hour drive became an exhausting ten hour drive with just enough sleep mixed in to keep me from crashing my Civic Si. I don't think I've ever been so glad to home; a nap followed almost immediately!

Chandler Smith also won at Elko
The weekend before Iowa, I had driven to Elko Speedway just south of Minneapolis, Minnesota for ARCA's 250 lap race there on July 13th. That was a 10 hour drive on Friday followed by the race on Saturday and then a return trip to Indy of another 10 hours on Sunday. I had never been to Elko before and I really loved working that little bullring. I worked the entire race photographing the action from the flagstand and along the outside track wall. Seventeen year old Chandler Smith picked up another impressive win for his Venturini team which set the stage for Iowa the next weekend. The Monday following Elko, we started the first day of our new school year and it was quite an adjustment. I have to admit I was feeling some travel fatigue as I had not done a drive that lengthy since going to Charlotte in May.

Christian Eckes continued the Venturini sweep of July ARCA races
The week following Iowa, I left Indy Thursday evening after school for another long drive - this time to Pocono in far eastern Pennsylvania - for another one day show where we would practice, qualify and race all on the same day. I got to our hotel after 2:15 Friday morning and had to be up early to go to the track, so I was one tired puppy after the Pocono race was over. At least this time I had somewhere to stay (unlike Iowa) so I didn't try to drive home until Saturday. I have been called crazy for keeping this kind of schedule but I am not the only one doing it. In a span of 15 days, I drove about 3,650 miles to shoot four races in three different states, plus I sandwiched my regular teaching job in between the race dates with eight days in the classroom! It was another stretch where I felt like I was working two full time jobs. Don't get me wrong, I am not complaining! I love to drive and motorsports photography is a huge creative outlet for me.

Christian Eckes celebrates his Pocono win
Part of the reason I committed to doing all of the ARCA Menards Series races this year is because hardly anyone is certain what is going to happen in 2020 when NASCAR takes over full control of the series. The schedule for next year is not available yet but races at Phoenix in March, a rturn to Iowa in July, a single June race at Pocono, plus Talladega in the spring and the annual pilgrimage to Daytona in February have already been announced. I will definitely be going to Phoenix when I hope my brother and his family will be able to come up from Tucson. There's a newer addition to my niece's family I haven't even met yet and he's already two years old so it will be good to get together with all of them. The rest of the 2020 ARCA schedule is still up in the air and my plans to return to Le Mans for the 24 Hours next June will hopefully not have too great an impact on my ARCA photography. I love working for the series as I have a lot of creative freedom, I know I am contributing to making the cars and drivers look good, and the series attracts some of the best young talent in stock car racing, so next year promises to be very exciting. Stay tuned for more as we get into the final stages of 2019 with only five races remaining. I will have more to add another time as more information about next year's ARCA schedule becomes available. In the meantime, be sure to visit the series website by clicking here to see more photos and the latest news about the series. Until then here's a few of my photos from Elko, Iowa and Pocono for you!

It seemed like we were racing on the sun at Iowa
Josef Newgarden had the Indycar field covered once the race finally got underway.

Known as the "Tricky Triangle" because it only has three turns, Pocono is a unique track to work.
Local fans really came out to support the series at Elko which made it that much more fun.
Excellent pit work like this at Iowa for Chandler Smith has helped Venturini's drivers all season long
Since I teach in Noblesville, I had to include one of local product Conor Daly, who I talked with during the pre-race delay.