Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Rain, Rain, Go Away: Don't Come Back Until After May

Working for the series has its advantages - flagstand access!
This past weekend was a wild one in racing with "moisture" (I hate using the "R" word and I always get blamed) effecting races throughout the Midwest. It was also a weekend of firsts for me. It was my first time shooting the ARCA race at Toledo Speedway and of course our race was shortened from 200 laps to 152 by weather. It was the first time in memory that I had missed Indy 500 qualifying and it turned out weather had an impact on the proceedings at IMS as well. Now it's one of the biggest race weeks of the year where I get to go to Charlotte for the first time to shoot the ARCA race on Thursday. and then the Indy 500 on Sunday here in my hometown. Finally, the best racing week of the year is here.  I never would have imagined working three races in a span of eight days just a few years ago and the 103rd Indianapolis 500 will cap it off this Sunday.

Frenchman Simon Pagenaud won the Indy Grand Prix and then took the 500 pole
I have not missed an Indy 500 since 1976, this year's edition will be my 46th overall and it will be my 32nd shooting the 500 as a media member. When I say this is the best week in racing, it may depend on what discipline you prefer but for diehard motorsports fans, having the Indy 500, Formula One at Monaco and NASCAR at Charlotte for the 600 all this weekend usually makes for an epic 24 hours in gearhead heaven. Now I've added two more ARCA races this week so it's even bigger for me. That's another first! As my fiance says, this is the "Month of Jay" and it's HUGE with all the racing activity and my 62nd birthday just 10 days away. I am feeling stronger every week now that my lung cancer surgery is 13 weeks behind me and I am going to keep pushing to get the most I can out of life. I couldn't do any of this without her support so I am forever grateful for that.

We had to work around the moisture on Sunday in Toledo
This last week has been great for me as I have been working my regular teaching job and then rushing out to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) to try to get some photos in the late afternoon, but it doesn't always work out. Driving to the track on Indy's westside from Noblesville at 4:00 pm is no easy task and it usually took close to an hour to get to IMS since there is no simple way to get there. Last Thursday in fact, I got there just as the yellow flag flew for lightning and then it rained shortly after that so I never saw a car turn a wheel that day. One thing I've learned about racing is you have to show up at the track no matter what the forecast is and my experiences at ARCA continue to reinforce that. I've been burned in the past (remind me to tell you about my Brickyard 400 in 1995 one of these days). Last Friday I worked the afternoon at IMS and then drove to Toledo where the forecast was supposed to be hot and humid all weekend. Saturday was beautiful but Sunday morning was wet and we were lucky to get 152 laps run before the monsoons hit and stopped the ARCA Sioux Chief 200 short. My checkered flag shot at the top of this article was a bit lucky but I got the shot and got out of the flagstand before getting drenched. Driving home to Indy Sunday night through torrential downpours was quite an adventure and I swore the wall clouds looked like they might drop a tornado at any moment, so it was a wild end to a very busy 72 hours.

Fernando Alonso will not race Indy this year
I tried to keep tabs on Indy 500 qualifying via Twitter over the weekend and was happy to hear that Simon Pagenaud had won pole position, especially since I am shooting the 500 for a French media company, MPS Agency. I hope his success will lead to more exposure for the photos I am providing for them to distribute to other European media outlets. I was disappointed to learn that McLaren was not able to put Fernando Alonso in the 500 but I honestly can't say I am surprised. Alonso crashed in practice last Wednesday and when I got to the garage area Thursday at around 5:00 pm and the track was under yellow for weather, the team was still putting their backup together! Their lack of experience showed and they just never caught up. There are quite a few good stories on the internet which detail the problems they encountered but I was very impressed by how the McLaren principals handled the disappointment of missing the race. Maybe they were still in shock, but they were classy and professional all the way whereas it would have been very easy to be angry and throw a fit, but there was none of that. Bravo to Zak Brown, Alo and everyone else at McLaren. I sure hope you come back next year.

Gotta love those big military jets
Meanwhile at Toledo, we were just hoping to get to lap 101 for an official race as the skies were threatening throughout the pre-race ceremonies which featured an awesome flyover which we rarely get at an ARCA race. Toledo Speedway is a "home" track for ARCA with the corporate offices nearby, so the flyover was a big thrill for everyone involved.  Once the weather intervened, the Victory Lane celebration was moved into a trackside hospitality tent and it was completely chaotic but I loved it! Shooting in close confines with a makeshift backdrop and fans crowding in to get out of the weather was a blast, but I have had enough of the liquid sunshine for this season already. We barely got to 101 laps at Salem Speedway in April then Nashville was postponed overnight by "moisture" so this was the third race out of five I've worked for the series this season that has been effected. Enough already! Charlotte is supposed to be quite hot so I am looking forward to that. Congratulations to Chandler Smith and Venturini Motorsports on its dominating win at Toledo. This kid has got some serious talent so get out to an ARCA race soon to see these young guys get after it. You won't be disappointed.

Chandler Smith is a proven race winner already
On a side note that maybe only other photographers will appreciate, I am a Canon guy and each May get my cameras cleaned and checked by Canon staff who support the media at the Indianapolis 500. I had both my camera bodies looked at on Friday at IMS and I always ask about the shutter count as it is a key component and tells you how many photos have been taken since the camera was purchased. On one camera the count was 203,300 but that body is about 10 years old. My newer camera is less than 4 years old and already has over 141, 400 shutter releases! That's almost 350,000 images snapped and the vast majority of those have come at racetracks. If you add in the other camera body I have as a backup, I'm sure the count would be close to a half a million. No wonder I have trouble with file space! Oh well. I am going to keep shooting and you should too. Look me up at the track or follow me on Twitter @alleygroup to see what else I will be photographing in the months ahead. Thanks for reading! Until next time, here's a few more photos from Indy and Toledo. You can find all my galleries online at my website, and be sure to check on ARCA's website each week this season for more photos of the young talent in the series.

Michael Self put the Sinclair car on pole but only led a few laps before Smith took over
The first day I got to IMS for practice was Tuesday and the lighting was perfect
The next generation of race fans has to come from youngsters like this boy
I was looking forward to seeing Alonso race at Indy again but it was not to be this time
Lots of good things are happening in the ARCA Menards Series so  you need to check it out!

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Christian Eckes Tops Nashville Cats; It's Pagenaud at Indy

Christian Eckes won the rain delayed Music City 200
Now that the merry month of May is here, life is about to really get crazy -  as if everything else this year wasn't already nuts! We had an extended stay in Nashville the first weekend of May for the Music City 200 ARCA Menards Series race as the weather Saturday only cooperated long enough to get a practice session in so a Saturday night race became a Sunday afternoon race. None of that mattered to youngster Christian Eckes who got his first win of the season for Venturini Motorsports and really had the field covered for more than half the race. The last fourth of the race, I kept checking his front wheels to see if I could detect glowing brake rotors from overusing the brakes, but I never saw it! I love those kinds of photos on short tracks but Christian had his Toyota on cruise control. He did an impressive little burnout in the tight confines of the narrow front stretch at Fairgrounds Speedway before going to Victory Lane.

Mother Nature hit 2 weekends in a row
Shooting night races is a special challenge so it is always nicer to shoot day races for the simple reason that the light is just better, but the delay to Sunday afternoon meant getting home much later than I had originally planned. I just about set a record with my post-race editing and for sure set another personal best on the drive home to Indy, so it wasn't too late after all and I felt great knowing I had done some good work. So Nashville kicked off May with a bang; now comes the craziness. Over the rest of the month, my schedule is as follows: I worked this past Friday at the Indycar Grand Prix at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and then shot my niece's Sweet 16 party on Saturday instead of the Grand Prix. This coming Friday night, I will be driving to Toledo, Ohio for a two-day ARCA showat one of ARCA's "home" tracks, then the following Wednesday I will drive to Charlotte, North Carolina for an ARCA race the Thursday before Memorial Day weekend, and driving back to Indy on Friday so I can shoot the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday, the day before Memorial Day. The Indy winner's photo shoot is on Memorial Day morning then the following Thursday, I drive to Pocono for another ARCA race, which in this case is on my birthday May 31st. Oh and I forgot to mention working Indy 500 practice each weekday afternoon this week when I will race from my school in Noblesville to IMS after work each day to photograph Happy Hour. I figured out that for the month of May as a whole, I am either traveling to or at a racetrack 17 days. Never mind the fact that I still have to manage my teaching job and close out the school year while all of the above is going on!

Team Penske's Simon Pagenaud prevailed in the Indycar Grand Prix
Trust me, I am not complaining, especially since I am just now 12 weeks past my lung cancer surgery. I feel like I've been given a new lease on life and I'm so grateful for the opportunity to shoot the Indy 500 again for my friends in France at MPS Agency in addition to my ARCA series work. The ARCA race at Nashville was another perfect segue for my recovery since it's only a half-mile track and it's not quite a five hour drive from home, neither of which is too daunting. And lately when I am at a racetrack, I start to feel like a spinner at a Grateful Dead show as the joy wells up inside me while doing what I love. I hope the people I work with can see that and I really hope it comes through in my photos. If any of you out there have an opinion on that, then I'd love to hear it.

I like road racing but the 500 is a special race
I was not able to work the Grand Prix on Saturday and it's the first one I've missed since they started this event at IMS a few years ago. The race has become a Penske playground and the rain near the end added some drama, but I was not disappointed to miss it since I got to photograph my niece's Sweet 16 party. She asked me months ago to be her photographer before she even had a date for the party and I was not about to back out after the year she's had. It was so much fun seeing her enter womanhood ceremoniously and I was thrilled to be able to document the event for her. I know she will remember it for a lifetime and for me, it was a chance to put family over racing in the month of May which has rarely happened for me. I would make the same decision in a heartbeat. But please don't schedule anything over the Indy 500 - I can't imagine missing that! Be forewarned!

This week they start going the "correct" way on the track
So now practice for the 500 begins and I will be hustling out there as much as possible after work this week and then working late to upload photos to the MPS Agency website. Friday evening I travel to Toledo, Ohio to work that ARCA Menards Series race for the first time and will be there through Sunday evening. I am looking forward to another short track race with my ARCA friends and the experience of working a new racetrack is always fun as well. At IMS last Friday I logged nearly 19,000 steps walking around the Indy road course so that exercise helps with my physical recovery and increases my stamina. I am going to need it for the next several weeks as I will be working races somewhere every week through the end of June. This promises to be the busiest stretch of my career as a motorsports photographer and I can't wait to get into it. Not only that, I still have my Hoosier Cemeteries photo book to complete in June to wrap up my Indiana Arts Commission grant so there's no rest for the weary. Or is that no rest for the wicked? Either way, I am going to have some creative fun and hope you find me at a racetrack down the road to tell me how I'm doing. Thanks for reading! Until next time, here's a few more photos from Nashville and the Indycar GP.

The Nashville ARCA winner gets a guitar trophy every year which has become quite coveted
Rookie Felix Rosenqvist put his Ganassi machine on the pole for the Indycar Grand Prix
ARCA points leader Michael Self's day was ruined by another driver's mistake
Will Power was the odds-on favorite to win another GP but couldn't get it done this time.
The old Petty STP colors were out in full force at Nashville with the King's grandson Thad Moffitt at the wheel

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Talladega For The ARCA Menards Series Win!

Todd Gilliland and father David enjoying the spoils of  a Dega victory
Today's blog title is for both myself and for Todd Gilliland, who led more than half the laps at Talladega Superspeedway last Friday and snagged his second career ARCA Menards Series win! For me, I made my longest drive so far this year since my lung cancer surgery in February and set a new personal best time on the return trip after shooting for the ARCA series at the biggest and fastest oval track around! The race itself was a blast. It was my third this season and it had its share of surprises, including having Brandon Lynn jump into a Venturini Motorsports Toyota and take pole position in group qualifying. He ran an excellent race but couldn't get around Riley Herbst in second or Gilliland who had the field covered most of the second half of the race. The top 10 finishers included other one-off entries like Ty Majeski and Gus Dean and they, along with the ARCA regulars, put on a good clean show right to the finish. And then Todd did himself proud afterwards with a very nice burnout! The ARCA Menards Series website has all the details on the race along with photo galleries so click here to check those out.

Brandon Lynn took a surprise pole position at Talladega
I love Dega and I love the drive on I-65 from Indianapolis, especially the section through Nashville as the road bobs and weaves through the city. This coming weekend will seem like deja vu all over again since I follow those same tire tracks south for the next ARCA race which is at Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville. For the Talladega weekend, I left Indy Thursday night and came home Saturday afternoon so I drove 1080 miles in three days. The one track day I had was Friday and I shot over 2200 photos on the day which started at 6:00 a.m. and ended about 10:00 p.m. when I got back to the ARCA hotel east of Birmingham. I was a tired puppy when I got home to Indy Saturday afternoon since I barely got 5 hours of sleep Thursday night after working 8 hours at my teaching job and then driving 8 hours to Birmingham. Then Friday was a 16 hour day at the track followed by another long drive home on Saturday. But it was all worth it and I still think this gig is a helluva good deal. Plus I am feeling better each day as I get stronger and am able to renew something close to my regular physical activity. The month of May will be a real test of how my physical recovery is going!

Sean Corr led quite a few laps
The weather on Friday and Saturday was a massive improvement over Thursday and I had daylight to work with. Driving down on Thursday, I hit alternating periods of heavy rain and spray pretty much all the way from Indy. Then I got to Birmingham very late and discovered the interstate was closed in downtown. Getting to the hotel was a challenge as the detour signs weren't very helpful and I drove around in circles in downtown Birmingham for awhile before I found a side street I recognized and took that to I-20 and then to the hotel. I drove through some interesting neighborhoods around midnight that night so I was happy to get out of there as I saw a lot of old, abandoned industrial sites, quite a few boarded up houses and the street lights often didn't seem to be working, so it was kind of sketchy. Thankfully I have been going to or through Birmingham since 2011 and I felt like I knew my way around or it might have been scary. I guess that's one benefit of traveling a lot by car - I am very confident I can find my way no matter where I am.

Michael Self leads the driver's points again
It might seem a little crazy to some people to make a banzai round trip of more than 1000 miles to photograph just 200 miles of racing, but that's what I'm called to do for ARCA and I am happy to have the opportunity. Through the years, I've made some good friends in Alabama while shooting for Associated Press (AP) so I look forward to seeing my "Alabama Gang" whenever I go down there. Many times I have shot for ARCA first and then stayed to shoot for AP for the Xfinity and Cup races, but I didn't think I'd be able to handle that physically barely 9 weeks after surgery so I had planned all along to blitz home on Saturday. I also wanted to get home to my fiance who was recovering from her own even more recent cancer surgery. She's one of the real stars of this road show as she supports my passion for racing photography and I send her photos or texts from the road or the racetrack to stay connected. I've tried to talk her into coming to Dega with me - she's been to the Indy 500 dozens of times - just to see how big and crazy Talladega is, but she won't do it unless I stretch the trip out a bit more. Maybe one of these days I can add a couple of extra days off to do the trip in a more leisurely fashion. She used to go racing with me quite a lot when we first started going out in 2008, and it helped her understand how passionate I am about what I do. But now with deadline pressures and specific responsibilities to address for ARCA, it's not as much fun for her. But we do love to travel together. After all, we did LeMans together in 2017 and hope to do it again next year.

Fast and wide - that is what makes Talladega great
Having made the drive to Talladega now more than a dozen times since that first trip in April 2011,  the long drive seems rather pedestrian now whereas I used to be scared to try it on my own. But that was only because I had never done it before and didn't know what to expect. Now a drive of eight hours or more is no big deal and I will have several more this season, but thankfully Nashville is relatively close - about five hours from Indy. So it's back to short track racing this weekend and ARCA is teamed up with the super late model teams from CRA and the Southern Super Series, so there will be some great racing on that storied old half mile. And another blog post to write next week after taking a couple thousand more photos. Until then, please check out the photo galleries on the ARCA website and my own at this link. Here's a few to tide you over! Thanks for reading. See you at Nashville, Or Indy. Or Charlotte. Or...

The 26 car field was full of competitive equipment with multiple potential winners
2016 ARCA champion Chase Briscoe (left) walked the grid before the race and spoke with drivers like Thomas Praytor
Todd Gilliland did a dandy burnout all along the Talladega tri-oval
Christian Eckes bounced back after missing Salem but go caught up in someone else's wreck
Grandson of "The King" Richard Petty, Thad Moffitt, ran a very reminiscent of the STP glory days