Thursday, June 1, 2017

Sato Takes Indy 500 Win - We Head to France

2017 Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato
What a month of May this has been. I turned 60 the last day of May and as my fiance likes to say, "The Month of Jay" concluded with another highly entertaining Indy 500 race which was won in the last few laps by hard charging Takuma Sato. Taku became the first Japanese driver to win Indy and he did it with a Honda engine behind him that was stronger (and lasted longer) than all the rest. The Chevy powered teams were just no match for Honda this year at IMS and it was a joy to watch Takuma get his first 500 win after a near miss in 2011 when he crashed trying to pass Dario Franchitti on the last lap. This year, there was no denying the man whose motto is stitched onto his caps: "No Attack, No Chance" and I'm sure his fans in the far east were partying in the streets after their hero took the checkered flag. And that after the buzz all month had been about Fernando Alonso skipping the Monaco Grand Prix to race at Indy! It was amazing to see how happy Sato and his Andretti Autosport team was in Victory Lane as he chugged the milk and then poured it on himself. He bore a smile that just wouldn't quit.

Fernando Alonso  clearly enjoyed Indy
As for me, I was happy too since I have provided Indy 500 photos for Autosport Japan magazine featuring Takuma the last several years and began thinking excitedly that this could generate a nice payday for me, or maybe even a cover shot! How crazy it seems to think that this Hoosier with a yen for Indycars and racing could get a cover photo in a magazine in the land of the rising sun! For now, we'll just have to wait and see. In the meantime, I provided a month's worth of coverage in photos for my friends in France who credentialed me at Vision Sport Agency (VSA). I also managed to get photos used through VSA in French and German publications after Sato's win. As if that international exposure wasn't enough, next week my fiance and I head to France where I will get the chance to shoot my first 24 Hours of LeMans race and I will have credentials to do it. One bucket list item after another seems to have been ticked off the last few weeks and I'm sure I will be feeling the immense distance between little Salem Speedway and the famed Circuit de la Sarthe once I am there.

Sato is a hard charger and calculating racer
I knew heading into May that my schedule would be packed with activity and the month seemed to fly by as I worked my teaching job and went to the Speedway every day I could, often doing both on the same day. Everything came together on race day as I got tremendous cooperation from the IMS staff on the access I wanted, including a Victory Lane pass for race day, all month long. I think that bodes well for the future for VSA at Indy and I hope they continue to use me as their Indianapolis representative. Trust me when I say I understand how fortunate I am to be doing these things but I also know that opportunities like this aren't just handed out. I know my work is good and it's an incredible feeling to have it get recognized in the form of a trusted assignment.

Which leads me to LeMans: ever since I met the guys from VSA at the 2016 Indy 500, I have hoped and planned to go and shoot the race. I only found out this past Saturday that credentials had been approved for me and that was after submitting about two dozen PDF's of publication proofs for the event organizers to review. Twice. Once we set plans in motion to go last summer, I never backed off, buying plane tickets last November and booking rooms and other travel connections "as if" I would be working. We decided long ago that we were going even if it was just as spectators so I just did the legwork and left the rest up to others. Getting that LeMans confirmation on the Saturday morning of Indy 500 weekend was a sure sign of good things to come.

Scott Dixon led from the start but his race ended spectacularly
And there were other signs of good fortune as well. I had asked a trusted photographer friend for advice on how to raise the profile of VSA with the IMS staff the previous week and had emailed information to the IMS photo director with no real hope of a reply. But lo and behold, come race morning I got the vest I needed to shoot outside by the wall and my name did not get crossed off the Victory Lane list. To top it off, I got to the winner's trophy shoot on Monday and found a chair reserved for "Alley" in the front row which was totally unexpected. Another race day sign involved a photo of my Mom at the track (who passed away in July 2015) I had decided to take with me in one of my lens pouches. Unbeknownst to me, it fell out on my way to the Penthouse roof. High on the Penthouse walkway, I hear a woman holler "Number 38! Hey!" which was the vest number I had been given, and she handed me the photo which she had seen me drop. I could hardly believe it but I knew I was going to have a great day shooting once that happened. And I did. Not only that, the predicted thunderstorms held off until well after the race was over which made for a nearly perfect day on the job.

I have a lot to be grateful for right now and it starts with my fiance Julie. When I decided to change careers in 2009, I told her I wouldn't be able to do it without her and now it's surreal to look back and see all that has happened since I decided to become a teacher and really concentrate on my motorsports photography. There's another list of people I'm grateful for in my life too but I'll save that for the next post. But if I've said "thank you" to you lately, you know who you are. I couldn't have done this without you either. Next stop, Paris, then Tours and LeMans. See you there!

To see a few of my photos from the 500, then click here to follow this link. If you want to see more, then please click here to visit the Vision Sport Agency website. And then tell all your friends!

Honda personnel at Indy had their hands full with blown engines but Taku's went the whole 500 miles
Michael's Andretti Autosport team fielded six (6) cars including the winner
Fernando Alonso proved to be quick and Indy fans loved him

Saturday, May 20, 2017

ARCA, Alonso and Alabama

ARCA raced at Salem for the 101st time on April 30th
Since the last I had the chance to write, I've been kind of busy! You may wonder what the heck ARCA, Alonso and Alabama have in common and why I used these in my title. On the last weekend in April, I made two trips to Salem Speedway in southern Indiana for the 101st ARCA race at the old high banks. Then Wednesday May 3rd I went out to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to cover the first test session for two-time Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso on the IMS oval since the news came out that he was skipping Monaco to run the 101st Indy 500 instead.

ARCA teams turned out in force for Talladega 
Then the first weekend in May I did a banzai trip to Talladega, Alabama, driving through torrential rain Thursday night, to shoot the ARCA, NASCAR Xfinity and Monster Energy Cup races, before returning home to Indy at 2:45 a.m. Monday morning so I wouldn't miss any work that day. The Alabama weather was miserable on Friday when we were supposed to have run the ARCA race as it was cold and rainy, although we did get on track for 30 minutes of practice. as a result, the race got postponed to Saturday afternoon once all of the NASCAR track activities were completed so I ended up shooting the Xfinity Series race for AP and the ARCA race for ARCA that afternoon. The night before we had gone to a Mexican restaurant on Cinco de Mayo, which probably wasn't the best decision, but we had fun and I was ready to just relax Saturday night.

Four wide at Talladega is the new normal
I was still dealing with a credential snafu that night for the Cup race and I wasn't sure it would get worked out at all, but I went to sleep trying to trust the process and hope for the best. The next morning I not only got into the track with the right credential to shoot for AP, I got assigned to the Turn 1 tower so I had a great view of the pack racing which made for some interesting photos. Even though I didn't sell any pictures to AP from the Cup race, I left via the "secret exit" as soon as I turned in my photo vest and was happy with the work I had done as I headed back to Indianapolis Sunday evening. The common thread is racing of course, and I nearly set a mileage record for the week!

Will Power won on the road course at Indy again
Fast forward a week and I've done another race - this time a little closer to home - at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway where Indycar ran on the road course in its Indycar Grand Prix to kick off May track activities at IMS. Now that the Indycar GP is over, practice has started for the 101st Indy 500 and Alonso has gotten some real track time under his belt, and he has really seemed to enjoy it. He has adapted well to solo and pack running since his limited number of laps to pass his rookie test on May 3rd. Fernando has also seemed to enjoy the close contact with fans and I have been surprised that photographers and fans alike have allowed relatively easy access to him, even in the pits. He ran as high as 4th quick on Fast Friday so he may yet be a real threat to win the 500 next weekend, but there's a host of Indycar regulars who stand between Fernando and the Borg Warner trophy.

Will Power was unstoppable on Indy's road course
Although it is a bit disappointing that there are only 33 cars entered for this year's 500, the quality of the field is high and three crashes during practice (veteran Josef Newgarden, youngster Spencer Pigot and rookie Zach Veach) is about normal for the first week at Indy. I have had a blast shooting for Vision Sport Agency (VSA) and adapting to their more sophisticated techniques in Adobe Lightroom for processing daily images. It has also forced me to be more critical of my own work so I am trying to do hard edits each day as I cull through my photos looking for the 4- and 5-star images.  It's nice to see the results of my work immediately on the internet and I hope it generates more interest for the series and for VSA's involvement both now and in the future, especially here at Indy since this is my home race.

Penske, Ganassi and Andretti drivers made the Indycar GP podium
Will Power won the Indycar GP again this year leading 61 of 85 laps to get his second win at Indy, albeit not on the oval in the big race. Michael Andretti has six cars entered this year for the 500, including Alonso's so on sheer numbers alone, an Andretti driver has the best chance of winning this year at 18.18%. Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi both have four cars entered so they will certainly have much to say about who wins this year's race. In any event they will have to fend of the Andretti phalanx of cars which may get an additional technology boost with the involvement of the McLaren braintrusts from Formula One. Since I'm a numbers guy (I teach Algebra after all) the odds of an Andretti, Penske or Ganassi entry winning the 500 stand at 42.42%. That's a number I would bet on. So as the late Sid Collins used to say, "Stay tuned for the Greatest Spectacle in racing." I will do my part to bring it to you in photos so be sure to check the Vision Sport Agency website on a regular basis.

Fernando Alonso seemed quite comfortable on his first laps on Indy's oval 
Spencer Pigot found the wall in practice but is expected to be ready for qualifying

Friday, April 28, 2017

Race Photography Adventure Begins

Salem Speedway will host the ARCA series for the 101st time this weekend
And so it begins: a race photographer's heaven full of events starts this weekend with a road trip to Salem Speedway to work the ARCA race for the series. The weather forecast isn't great for either Saturday or Sunday but ARCA knows how to get an event in so I am pretty sure the 200 lapper scheduled for Sunday afternoon will get run sometime before I have to be back on my teaching job Monday morning. Those old Salem highbanks drain fast and the track workers know how to get it dried off. There have been numerous times where it didn't look like racing was possible there but it happened despite my prediction, so I am going to stay out of the weatherman business and just go with the flow. I will have pictures to make regardless.

Dega is one monster of a racetrack: I love it
This Salem weekend begins a stretch of racing unlike anything I have ever experienced before. Next Wednesday May 3rd is Fernando Alonso's test on the big oval at Indianapolis Motors Speedway (IMS) so my plan is to get out there for a couple of hours in the morning to get some photos for Vision Sport Agency. Then Thursday night May 4th I hit the road for Talladega as soon as I get out of work, which usually means I get there about midnight Indy time. Friday is ARCA's day on track at Dega so I will be there shooting for the series as we practice, qualify and race all on Friday. Then Saturday and Sunday I will stay over and shoot the NASCAR races for Associated Press, which should be interesting since Dale Earnhardt, Jr. announced this week that he intends to retire from NASCAR at the end of this season. The Alabama fans absolutely love Junior so I will be trying to get some candid shots of him at one of his best racetracks. Then I drive home Sunday night to be back at the head of my class Monday morning.

Simon Pagenaud won the 2016 Grand Prix
The following Friday May 12th action picks up on the road course at IMS for the Indycar Grand Prix event which includes support races for the Indy Lights series. I will be there both days for VSA and hoping that Simon Pagenaud or Sebastian Bourdais can snag a win as those pictures would go over well in Europe for VSA. I will be a one man gang for VSA at Indy this May so I will probably end up setting some steps records by the time the month is over. After the Grand Prix May 13th, I get Sunday off but I will probably still be doing some editing as the track time far outweighs the editing time for the road course event. The rest of that week I will be teaching all day and trying to zip out to IMS for Happy Hour any day the weather permits for Indy 500 practice and more photos of Alonso and all the rest of the Indycar regulars who will be getting ready for the 101st running of the 500. I will also keep an eye on Takuma Sato for Autosport Japan magazine which has used quite a few of my Indy 500 photos of Taku in its publication the last few years. Keeping up with international and domestic relationships has become a major goal of my photography work in motorsports. I am grateful for every opportunity.
There's nothing like the start of the Indianapolis 500

Saturday and Sunday May 20 and 21st are qualifying days for the 500 so I will be working at IMS both days. Then it's race week and after teaching Monday through Thursday I will be at IMS for Carburetion Day Friday May 26th, covering the final practice session for the 33 qualified cars, plus the Freedom 100 Indy Lights race and the pit stop competition. I have always considered race weekend my birthday weekend since my birthday is May 31st, so we will be celebrating my 60th the day after Carb Day. Then 300,000 or so people will join the celebration the next day at IMS for the 500 on May 28th. So between now and the 500, I will have one day off where I am not teaching or working a race event. And I couldn't be happier about that.

Then life calms down for a few days as we wrap up our school year and make final preparations for my biggest travel adventure ever. We leave 10 days after the 500 for Paris, France and the 85th 24 Hours of Le Mans. My fiance and I are going together and while I am unsure what kind of access I will have for the 24 Hours race, you know I will bring back pictures. That's what I do.

So stay tuned race fans! Follow me on twitter @alleygroup to read all about it!

Salem Speedway is a historic track which used to test the best that Indy had to offer
Talladega is a high speed crapshoot to see who can miss "The Big One"
Running clockwise at Indy during the Grand Prix still seems a bit odd to me
Indy 500 pit stops are choreographed mayhem where the quick and precise prevail