Saturday, November 30, 2019

A Different Kind of Racing Photography

More than 250 runners competed in  each of the men's and women's races
Last weekend, I got the chance to photograph the NCAA Division 1 Cross Country National Championships at the Lavern Gibson championship course in Terre Haute, Indiana. I have photographed a lot of different sporting events over the years but this was one of the coolest for a number of reasons. First, the weather was cold and rainy with the temperature never cresting above 35 all day. Second, I got an inside look at the culture of top level collegiate cross country racing for both men and women. Third, I was amazed how many fans showed up with flags, wearing school colors, clanging cow bells and using all sorts of noise makers on a thoroughly miserable November day in little Terre Haute. After the men's race, I said to one of the finishers, "You guys are crazy!" and his response was "Yeah. It should be illegal!" That alone summarized my experience of the unique culture of this sport and how much it meant to each of the competitors who splashed through the mud and rain to the finish line last Saturday. One of the coolest things I saw was the "shoe tree" off the back of the course where athletes have created a tradition of "retiring" one's cleats by throwing them up in a big tree. Like the twisted cypress tree oceanside at the Pebble Beach golf course, the shoe tree has given this facility a unique trademark image.

The shoe tree near the course
So how did I get this opportunity? It's a testament to the power of social media. A Twitter contact had referred a competing school's athletic director to me and also shared my contact information with the event staff. Out of nowhere I started getting emails from schools wanting to know if I was available to photograph their athletes. I ended up with university clients with individual runners in the both the men's and women's races. I have photographed a lot of sports over the years so I was pretty confident I could do a good job, but I didn't want to get in over my head. I actually had to turn two other schools down so I wouldn't get overloaded. That Twitter contact, Dave Wegiel (@pinolaphoto), was the person who had helped me connect with the ISC-Purdue website last year which led to an opportunity to shoot the Purdue football team's Music City Bowl game against Auburn and a home basketball game for the Boilers against Minnesota early this year. It was extremely gratifying to be the recipient of that sort of support and it gave my confidence a real boost going  into what would be a most unusual event for me as a photographer. It's nice to know people have faith in my ability to deliver photos even when the event is a bit out of the norm for me.

The woman's winner  Weini Kelati 
Since the mid-80s, I have photographed football, basketball, soccer, team handball, boxing, track and field and a boatload of auto racing, but no cross country since taking pictures of my younger brother racing when he was in high school. No matter what event I shoot, I always have a plan and go into a shoot with a strategy. I was able to do a lot of internet research into the sport of cross country in general and the Lavern Gibson course specifically, so I knew the course and felt comfortable with what to expect. I was hoping for good weather for the race as good lighting always makes for better photos but I didn't have any control over that so I just packed all my rain gear and went into the day as prepared for the elements as I could be. That turned out to still be a learning experience which will help me in the future. I learn something every time I have a photo assignment and this one was no different in that respect. I knew the start of each race would be dramatic and I was hoping to get photos at the finish, but I knew getting photos in the middle section of each race would be a challenge. The women's race was 6 kilometers and would only take about 20 minutes while the men would race 10k in about 30 minutes, so I knew I would be on the move. I also expected it would take a bit of luck to find my runners in the packs since there were about 250 runners in each race. I'm not quite sure how I merited it, but the event organizers selected me to get one of the special NCAA photo vests that allowed me access to the finish line chute where the runners finished. There were only eight (8) of those vests given out so I felt very fortunate to get one and it made my job so much easier.

Race finishers came in exhausted in both races
That finish line area not only gave me a chance to get good photos of the winners in addition to the runners I was covering, but I saw another aspect of the culture cross country racing that thoroughly impressed me. Much like an auto race, I could feel the excitement building as the start times grew nearer for each race. With legs instead of horsepower propelling these collegiate runners to the finish, seeing their effort and exertion at the finish line was very different than the racing I am most accustomed to photographing. I saw runners collapse, some were puking, others could barely walk on rubbery legs, and all the while event officials were yelling at them to keep moving through the finish area so it wouldn't be blocked! I've felt that level of exertion as an athlete when I played college basketball at the University of Chicago, but I was never involved in anything with the stakes as high as these athletes experienced.

Teams raced away from the start together 
Overall, the event was a really great experience. Even though I had a lot at stake as a photographer, I knew it was going to be a good day even before I got to the Lavern Gibson course. On the drive over to Terre Haute from Indianapolis that morning, I had said a little prayer and asked God to guide my efforts. Within 30 seconds of saying amen, a large redtail hawk flew up into a tree along the highway as I drove past. Hawks have been a personal spiritual totem of mine for years, so anytime I see one I know everything is going to be alright. The whole day I kept thinking of advice I had gotten over the years from other photographers I had worked with and the main thing that stuck with me was "Go make some freaking pictures" and that's what I did. It reinforced the belief I have that I am a photographer, not just a motorsports photographer, although I consider that to be my specialty. I can't wait to do more sports and other unique events like this one. And in this season of Thanksgiving, I am extremely grateful for the trust people have put in me to deliver photos they can use. Thank you all! If you want to see more of my photos from the event, then please click here for a photo gallery.

Despite the cold and rainy conditions, most runners didn't seem to feel it
One of my runners was from Kenya so I was hoping he would win. Alex Masai (589) was strong early.
Many teams took their morning warmups on firm ground since the course was muddy.

Friday, November 8, 2019

Penske Buys IMS in Blockbuster Deal

The "Captain" Roger Penske is the new boss at Indy
This past Monday November 4th, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway stole all the headlines in the motorsports industry with the announcement that the most successful team owner in Indy 50 history, Roger Penske, was going to buy the assets of Hulman & Company which included the Speedway, the NTT Indycar series and other racing related enterprises. Arguably the best kept secret in racing perhaps ever, that announcement sent shock waves through the Indycar community but once the dust settled, the purchase was almost universally lauded as a positive development for IMS, the Indy 5000 and Indycar. I happen to share that view as there is no one better suited to run the show than Roger Penske who, as many people have said, has basically "owned" the Speedway and the 500 for decades by virtue of his 18 Indianapolis 500 wins.

Tony George can ride off into the sunset
The press conference which covered the announcement was quite interesting to watch although I had to do so in segments due to my teaching commitments that day. I wish I could have been at IMS to take photos of that historic event! Tony George was noticeably emotional during many of his remarks as the Hulman family had decided to part with an institution that had been in the family since 1945. People talk about racing being in someone's DNA and no truer words could be spoken to describe the Hulman-George family's connection to the 1000 acre facility at the corner of 16th and Georgetown in Speedway, Indiana. One of the things which struck a chord with me was Tony's comment that "everyone has a story" who comes to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. My story with IMS is perhaps not that different than many other Hoosiers with a few exceptions - and I'll get to those in a minute - for I was bitten by the racing bug at an early age.

Mark Miles has done well in a tough job
My first 500 was in 1970 when my Dad took me to the race as a 13th birthday present. I remember riding with Dad out to the old museum on 16th Street where the ticket office was located the week before the race and buying our tickets. We got seats in the 3rd Turn infield bleachers and during the race I think I spent as much time watching the drunks in the infield behind us as I did watching the race. There was a big crash right in front of us late in the race and I remember watching the race fuel run down the track and ignite every time another car would drive through it. I recall being scared for the firemen and safety officials who seemed oblivious to their near death existence as they worked to get the track cleared. At the same time I was thrilled by the entire experience, from the early morning race day drive into the infield to the trip home and excitedly talking about everything we had seen.

With my Mom and nephew at another 500

The previous year, I had another birthday experience that revolved around the 500, but then I've been having those my whole life. My birthday is May 31st and I was born the day after Sam Hanks won the 500 in 1957. For most of my childhood the race was run on May 30th and I have so many memories of being at the lake in Warsaw, Indiana at my grandparents' house, going swimming, eating Penguin Point fried chicken and watermelon and listening to Sid Collins describe the 500 on the radio. My 12th birthday in 1969 was right about the time the movie "Winning" came out starring Paul Newman, Robert Wagner and Newman's wife Joanne Woodward. I remember it like it was yesterday since Dad and I went just before I turned 12 and it was the last time I was able to see a movie with the "kids" discount for children 12 or under. I was already a pretty big kid at that age so it took some convincing at the ticket window, but Dad wasn't going to pay full price if he could avoid it. After all, he was a Methodist minister and Mom was a school teacher so you can imagine money didn't grow on trees for our family!

Jay Shue - my grandfather and my namesake
My late mother was a huge race fan and used to take us to Indy 500 practice on a regular basis. Our family moved to Indianapolis in 1968 shortly after my 11th birthday, and I was already certifiably smitten with racing by then. From an early age, I loved building plastic models of race cars and there were plenty of kits out in the 1960's by companies like Monogram and Revell. Mom got the bug from her father Jay Shue who I am named after. Grandpa Jay had the house on the lake in Warsaw and he was involved with getting a quarter mile dirt track built at the Kosciusko County Fairgrounds near their house shortly after World War II. As long ago as I can remember, summers in Warsaw involved going to the County Fair where they raced something every night of the fair: stocks, midgets, sprint cars and even flat track motorcycles. Grandpa would take me down to the pits off the third and fourth turns and he seemed to know everyone as we walked though. I have vivid memories of checking out the cars and hanging on the board fence in the pits watching the races. I loved the sounds and smells as much then as I do now. So my Mom and I came by our love of racing naturally and our whole family is connected in some way or another to racing - my uncles and cousins all race motorcycles and the rest of us fell for anything on wheels just as hard.
Mom loved being at the 500 with us

I found out during my childhood that Grandpa Jay had a connection to the 500 and IMS as well. Mom used to tell us stories of Grandpa barnstorming with Eddie Rickenbacker flying airplanes in the 1920's. That led to Grandpa making many visits to Indianapolis when Rickenbacker owned the track and we have family photos of women and men posing with Indy 500 legends like Peter de Paolo from those days, so it's obvious that Grandpa was bitten by the racing bug too. Mom talked about coming to the 500 after World War 2 when she was a little girl in a school bus with a farm trough full of iced beer in it where they would sit on top of the bus and watch the race from the infield. I'm sure that's what led to his involvement with the track in Warsaw after the war. Mom was still going to the 500 with us even up to a year before her death from lung cancer. Her last 500 with us was in 2014 but she wanted the whole race day experience that year like many years before. Since I'm a credentialed photographer, that meant going into the track before dawn and having breakfast at the Alley Cafe shortly after the bomb went off that signals the opening of the public gates. I will be forever grateful for the Speedway's yellow shirts who gave Mom a golf cart ride to our seats in Stand B that day so she didn't have to fight the crowds. She made it through the whole day and we talked about that race day and many others numerous times over the next 14 months of her life before her health finally failed her in July 2015. I still have many of her ticket stubs, autographs and collectibles from the 500 that she saved so those memories are not going away anytime soon.

I shot this photo of Simon Pagenaud this year - he's the most recent Indy 500 winner for Penske
I've been to every Indy 500 since 1976 and have been a working photographer for all but four races since 1984 and now I'm a member of the Indy 500 Oldtimers which is pretty damn cool for someone who is just a "fricking Hoosier", as a college friend from the Bronx used to say. When I was in college at the University of Chicago in the late 1970s, I would bring friends back to the race every year and we partied hard with the infield crowd for many years. I often tell people I came for the party but stayed for the racing and photography has enable me to be a part of something that is so much bigger than myself. In 1982, I was dating a young lady who was selected as a 500 Princess and we sat right above Victory Lane while getting the royal treatment for the whole race weekend, from the black tie gala to the police escort and pace car ride on race day. I've been very fortunate to see the 500 from many different perspectives and I know I will continue to be involved as long as I am physically able. When I can't, I'll go sit in our family's seats and enjoy the spectacle just as much. Having Roger Penske now taking the helm as the owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway ushers in a whole new era for my beloved Indy. I trust Roger and know it's in good hands.

That's my story for now - I look forward to hearing yours. See you next May on the westside. Let's take a photo together!

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Eckes and Venturini Team Snare ARCA Championships

Christian Eckes celebrated two wins at Kansas
What a year this has been in the ARCA Menards Series! It's also been a roller coaster ride for me both personally and professionally so pardon me if I take a moment to unwind and reflect on all that has happened since the beginning of the year. This past Friday, the ARCA season concluded with the Kansas 150 at the 1.5 mile Kansas Speedway and Christian Eckes completed his comeback with a race win that clinched the driver's championship for him in the #15 Venturini Motorsports entry. Meanwhile, the Venturini team picked up the owner's championship for its #20 car and Michael Self took second place in the race and the season championship in the team's #25 car. It was a glorious finish for the Venturini gang who dominated this season like no other. It was fun to watch and an absolute pleasure to photograph all season long.

Rich Corbett (right) and I worked together again
As I enjoyed the last day of racing I had scheduled to photograph in 2019 at Kansas last Friday, my thoughts often went back to January 4th of this year when I heard news no one wants to hear: I had a spot on my right lung that was cancerous and surgery was needed. I wasn't sure what 2019 would entail for me then and my immediate thoughts were would I still be able get to Daytona for the season opener and what was going to happen to my plans for shooting all the ARCA races this year! As it turned out, I only missed one race out of 20 and was able to plan my surgery for right after Daytona in February so it all worked out. My most recent CT scan shows no signs of cancer now so I am looking forward to living life and doing more traveling for races in 2020. I count my blessings every day for early detection so if you smoked like I did, go get a heart scan and quit using tobacco products! Thankfully when the diagnosis was made, I had already been smoke free for nearly three years. I turned 62 this past May so I know how fortunate I am that my cancer was detected early. I've been an athlete my whole life so my overall physical condition is pretty good and working the races actually became a huge part of my recovery. I would routinely walk 15,000 to 20,000 steps a day carrying 20 pounds (or more) of camera gear on race days so I got a great workout every time I went to the track. You ought to try it - come on out and see if you can keep up with me. But I digress...

Getting to shoot from the flagstand is a huge thrill
The people I work with at ARCA have been fantastic to me throughout this whole year and I love seeing everyone at the track. The series includes a hard working bunch of people who have been very supportive of what I try to do creatively for the series. I've also found the drivers to be excellent subjects for photographs and they've all seen me around enough by now that they know I won't create images that aren't flattering or that make them look bad. With the 2020 schedule already out and featuring some new races, I am extremely excited about next year already and can't wait to find out which events I will be assigned to work. The way things sound right now, it doesn't look like I will get to do all the races like this year. There are some new people getting involved from NASCAR marketing since who will be overseeing the ARCA series which it purchased last year. From what I've been told, lots of decisions still must be made so stay tuned! In any case, I won't be available next June since I'm going back to LeMans. I thought this year was going to be my best ever in racing photography (and it has been) but next year could be even bigger!

ARCA President Ron Drager meeting with Christian Eckes after the race
If you've read my blog before, then you know I'm a math teacher and a numbers go so you should expect what I'm about to report. I drove 13,360 miles this year to get to 18 ARCA races which is an average of 742 miles per racing trip. I flew to Daytona in February or my mileage total would be even bigger. I had six road trips longer than 1000 miles, three of which were over 1300 miles round trip, plus I had another that was over 900 miles. My shortest trip was to Lucas Oil Raceway last month since it's just west of Indy. I did every trip except one solo. Before I drove to Daytona for the first time in 2011, I never imagined that I'd be able to handle long drives like these by myself but now a seven or eight hour drive seems routine - I know I will have to stop twice and it's no big deal. With the ARCA series extending from Minnesota to Florida and from Pocono to Kansas, I cut a wide swath across America by car to chase race cars and pursue my passion for photography. I hope to keep doing it as long as I am able and as long as people are willing to pay me to do it.

Christian (left) and Michael seemed to enjoy being teammates
The Kansas finale was an extremely interesting race to photograph, knowing that two teammates were vying for the season championship. I knew going in that I'd need to get a lot of photos of both Christian Eckes and Michael Self as there were a number of possible scenarios that could play out where either could have won the title since Christian started the weekend only 15 points ahead of Michael. The two hour practice session at mid-day was uneventful but qualifying was another story as Christian had an engine problem and didn't qualify well at all. With only a couple of hours before the race was set to start, the team had to change the Ilmor engine in Christian's #15 machine and it was quite a scene with all hands on deck. Guys from all the Venturini teams were pitching in to complete the change and even though Christian would have to start from the back of the field, he didn't seem worried about it at all. Talk about a cool customer! He defined that phrase which was pretty amazing for an 18 year old kid. I expect he will do well as he continues to move up the ladder in NASCAR so keep an eye out for him.

Billy Venturini and his wife Emily had reason to celebrate at Kansas
The scene in victory lane was unreal afterwards as the confetti flew and the Venturini teams all gathered to celebrate the individual and team championships. I've never been around a series where one team had so much success across all its platforms. The 20 team won the owner's title with several different drivers scoring wins, Christian won the drivers title in the 15 car and Michael Self ended up second overall in the 25 car. Add in the occasional appearance of the 55 car for rising star Hailie Deegan, you had a juggernaut of an organization that could not be denied in 2019. Our efforts to capture a photo of "Big Bill" Venturini giving his winning drivers a big smooch became almost comical. We knew it was coming every time they won a race but Bill would always seem to have his head turned the opposite way we expected, so catching a good shot of that moment became a recurring challenge.

Nice burnout by the new champ Christian Eckes!
Now the only thing left for my racing season is the ARCA awards banquet in Indianapolis this December and I look forward to photographing that again event this year. I have to remember to get a photo of myself with the new champ! In the meantime, click here to go to the ARCA Menards Series website to see more photos from Kansas and albums from the entire 2019 season. I have a separate Kansas photo gallery on my Google page (click here) as well so check it out. In the meantime, I hope you like these photos I shot last Friday. Keep following me on Twitter @alleygroup and if you see a blue Honda Civic Si coupe coming up on you from behind, please slide over the right lane. That would be me heading to a race somewhere. Let's go! See you at the track.

I've been to Kansas Speedway five times now but never to the casino!
These guys have been great to work with all season - Michael Self (left) and Christian Eckes
It's been interesting watching these young kids mature at the race track - Christian has what it takes!
Michael Self played the role of the grizzled veteran this year
Congratulations champ!