Saturday, August 12, 2017

Winchester Dominated by Kyle Benjamin

Kyle Benjamin dominated at Winchester
The ARCA racing series paid its annual visit to the "World's Fastest Half Mile" last weekend and despite 200 laps of close door to door action, former series regular Kyle Benjamin took a dominant win. This year's race was moved to the first weekend in August after being the last weekend in June the last few years. As an ARCA series photographer, I like the two day format as it gives me more time to experiment and edit. Plus I get to sleep in my own bed since the track is only 70 miles from home! Getting to see all the historic race cars is an added bonus, although I still wish we would race under the lights on Saturday night. I guess I will have to wait for Salem in September for that. 

Zane Smith (55) fought Benjamin hard to keep the lead
The MDM team that Kyle Benjamin drive for has turned into quite a force this year in the select few races they have run. Kyle put that 28 car (which reminded me a lot of the old Havoline paint scheme run by the late Dave Allison in NASCAR) on the pole and was the fastest car all weekend. Even after dropping back to 7th following a late pit stop, there was never any real doubt that he would get back to the front. He was passing people high and low, with an occasional nudge from the chrome horn, but never enough to spin anyone out or get them too out of shape. He absolutely stalked Zane Smith who did everything he could to keep Kyle behind him but his efforts were to no avail. I imagine Zane's 55 car used up his tires trying to use all the track while he was mirror driving to hold off Kyle's 28. And the fateful final restart was just too much for the 55 as the transmission broke under Zane to solidify his heartbreak over running so well once again with little to show for it.

Christian Eckes ended up second after Zane Smith broke
Behind those two was a battle royale for the rest of the top 5 spots as Christian Eckes wound up second, points leader Austin Theriault stayed clean to take third ahead of the WVU Mountaineer Travis Braden at the wheel of A. J. Fike's 27 car. Gus Dean fought everyone off for fifth after several close calls while running the high line. For anyone who's been to an ARCA short track race, none of this should surprise you as the racing is always close and positions are hotly contested among the first ten finishers. What I find different now compared to a few years ago is how clean the races have become on the short tracks. It used to be a battle to see who could win with the most bear bond tape but the level of talent and equipment has risen so much that those days appear to be long gone. I'm sure the teams are glad to see that since it costs them less!

One of my experimental photos made Winchester look like a road course
There's no ARCA race this weekend but the next six weeks will be crazy busy, starting at the mile dirt in Springfield, Illinois next weekend which is a one day show. Then in succession are Road America (three days), DuQuoin mile dirt (Labor Day), Salem Speedway (a Saturday night race), Chicagoland Speedway (the Thursday after Salem) and then Kentucky Speedway 9 days later. This means six races over 33 days spread across the Midwest. After Kentucky there's a four week break before the season finale at Kansas Speedway in October, so the time for teams to make a push for points is now. I am blessed to be able to work all these races and it means I will be on the road a lot with hardly a day off from shooting or teaching between now and September 22nd. So I plan on enjoying this weekend at home, riding my bicycle, writing a grant application, and trying to get my house in order, both figuratively and literally. You can bet I will have much more to share before it's all said and done, so stay tuned. Or come on out to the races. It's a lot more fun being there than watching on television. Until then, here's a few of my photos from Winchester to tide you over.

Green, green, green!

That's some close racing between Zane Smith (55) and Kyle Benjamin
Veteran Bobby Gerhart lost in thought before the start of the race
Series points leader Austin Theriault is all business during practice

Thursday, August 3, 2017

ARCA Season Diversity on Display

Dalton Sargeant got a calculated win at Lucas Oil Raceway
The ARCA racing series just finished a superspeedway race at Pocono Raceway last weekend, the 12th race of its 20 race 2017 schedule, and now enters the most diverse phase of its schedule over the next few weeks. This weekend the tour goes back to the high banked bull ring at Winchester Speedway which bills itself as the world's fastest half mile. Two weeks later the series races a 100 lapper at the historic mile dirt track at the Illinois State Fairgrounds in Springfield, Illinois.  The USAC Silver Crown series also races on the mile the same weekend. The weekend after that, ARCA returns to Road America in scenic Wisconsin for a 100 mile road course race alongside the NASCAR Xfinity series. After three days on the Elkhart Lake natural terrain road course, ARCA celebrates Labor Day at the other mile dirt track on its schedule at the DuQuoin State Fairgrounds in southern Illinois. At that point the series will be down to four races remaining to settle the 2017 season championship. The diversity of the series is one of its hallmarks as a battleground for proving driver talent and no other national series contests a schedule anything like it. I know it is something the series is very proud of, and rightfully so in my opinion. It allows the stock car crowd a way to stay connected to its roots on the dirt tracks while preparing the up and coming future stars of stock car racing for every circumstance from flat short tracks like Lucas Oil Raceway, to superspeedways like Pocono, to the high banked bullrings like Salem and Winchester and even to the mile-and-a-half tracks that wrap up the season in September and October.

Austin Theriault is the overall points leader with 12 Top 10s and 3 wins
If you haven't been to an ARCA race, you really need to go. It's excellent racing and you can get close to the drivers and teams - much more so than any other major racing series that I know of. And you can see the stars of tomorrow today. Not only is ARCA's diversity reflected in its schedule, but its driver lineup is constantly changing. So far this season, a total of 101 different drivers have scored points, so you are guaranteed to see someone new at every race. It might even be a local short track driver you've followed! The roster of winners keeps changing too as only two drivers have won as many as three races:  Austin Theriault and Dalton Sargeant and they are at the top of the season points chart not surprisingly. Justin Haley has won twice in his only two starts this season while four other drivers have each won once. As it stands now, that means 7 different winners in the 12 races so far and with 8 more races to go, that number will certainly grow. No doubt someone will get their first win in their first ARCA start as well since that seems to happen at least once per season.

Austin Cindric put his composite bodied Ford on pole at Lucas Oil Raceway
I know this may sound like musical chairs among drivers or that anyone can come into the series and win, but that is a reflection of the quality of the available equipment with the newer Five Star composite bodies and Ilmor 396 engines becoming more and more prominent. At Lucas Oil Raceway two weeks ago, it was obvious the field was divided into two camps - the drivers wheeling composite bodied cars broke away from the pack of steel bodied cars early. Next season everyone will have to race the composites, so this is another good benefit provided by the series to ensure close competitive racing regardless of who's racing or where.

The prettiest car at Lucas Oil Raceway was the Sinclair sponsored machine of Michael Self
I've been working ARCA races as a photographer for more than 10 years on a regular basis and I have personally witnessed the rising caliber of teams, equipment, drivers and sponsors. There are lots of other stock car series around for teams to choose but I think ARCA is the one most well suited for advancing a young driver's career. Why else would so many young drivers we see week in and week out have driver development contracts with the big NASCAR teams like Roush Fenway? Now we've even got a team with a direct link to Joe Gibbs Racing in the series and that 18 car has a win this year with young Riley Herbst. There's an old joke that asks "Do you know how to become a millionaire in racing?" with the punchline "Start with 10 million." Thankfully you don't have to do that in ARCA as there is also still a place for the weekend racer in the series and for teams run by people who just love to travel and race. I hope the series doesn't lose that quality when the steel bodied cars go away as I really admire how hard the lower budget teams at the back of the field work every race weekend even though they must know their chances of winning are slim. They are racers and that's all that matters.

This weekend I will be back at work at Winchester. The stretch run of the season begins now and I will be working all the rest of the races this season so come out and say hello. Or let me take your picture and help you create some memories at the racetrack. See you down the road! Until then, here's a few photos I shot at Lucas Oil Raceway where Dalton Sargeant got his third season win.

Dalton Sargeant has been hot lately in his Cunningham Motorsports machine
The "King" of stock car racing Richard Petty was at Lucas Oil Raceway to watch his grandson Thad Moffitt race
The composite bodied cars always put on a good show of close racing
Seasoned veterans like Booby Gerhart show up about every week to challenge the youngbloods

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

From Le Mans to Iowa Speedway

It was a gorgeous night for a race at Iowa Speedway
Needless to say, Le Mans, France and Newton, Iowa are worlds apart in so many ways. While they are a study in contrast, they also host races so they have that in common. Driving to Iowa from Indy took me about 7 hours and oddly enough, I was struck by some similarities about the Midwestern and French countrysides. We had traveled to Le Mans from Tours, France by car and by train, so we saw a lot of the area. The Le Sarthe and central Iowa regions both contained lots of farmland and numerous small communities, plus I saw corn and beans growing in both. Even the weather was similar: hot and humid. Both circuits also had exciting races with interesting finishes. But that's about where the similarities ended as ARCA's "Fans With Benefits 150" was over in less than 2 hours compared to 24 hours to run Le Mans.

Youngster Dalton Sargeant  won Iowa
An obvious contrast between Iowa Speedway and the Circuit de la Sarthe is size. Iowa is a purpose built 7/8ths mile banked oval which takes a stock car about 24 seconds to lap. On the Le Mans road course, which is comprised mostly of public roads, a lap is more than 8 miles long and takes a prototype sports car over 3 minutes to complete. The sounds you hear are completely different as well, but racing is still racing so I love them both. In case you were wondering, I am already thinking about how I can get back to Le Mans and if ARCA keeps going to Iowa, then I expect I will be back there next year too. I have to say I went through a bit of culture shock last weekend as I arrived at Iowa Speedway to shoot the ARCA race for the series. It was great to be back on the ARCA trail since I hadn't seen my friends and colleagues in the series since Talladega at the beginning of May. It was very cool to have so many people ask about my experience at Le Mans and I had a blast telling stories about our 17 day trip to France and Italy. It was nice to be back at a racetrack, especially since the Iowa race marked the end of my summer break from teaching and I had to go back to my school life on Monday following the weekend.

Helio Castroneves finally got a win after 54 races
Last year my brother met me at Iowa and we stayed through Sunday so we could work the Indycar race also. As much as I wanted to stay again this year, I just couldn't justify it. Last year I got home at 3:15 Monday morning because the Indycar race started so late Sunday afternoon and I remember being exhausted that first day back at school so I headed back to Indy Sunday morning this time. I was safely ensconced on my couch for this year's Indycar Iowa Corn 300 but it sure seemed weird watching the telecast from a track where I had just been less than a day earlier. I did manage to grab a few Indycar photos Saturday in between my ARCA duties, but I probably spent less than 20 minutes trackside to get those since ARCA was my first priority.

Every ARCA weekend starts with an early morning officials meeting
And Saturday had been a very long day at the racetrack as I got there a little after 6:00 a.m. for our 6:30 officials meeting and didn't leave the track until close to midnight. In between, I shot about 1600 photos for ARCA, got over 18,000 steps on my pedometer app, shot a sunset and the full moon rising over the track. This ARCA season has seen its share of wins by young drivers and the series has become known for that. It was fun standing in Victory Lane after the race talking with winner Dalton Sargeant, second place finisher Austin Theriault and third place Sheldon Creed in between photos as I really feel like I get to know these guys n ARCA. I have nine more races to do for ARCA this season and I'm sure that familiarity will come in handy. At one point Saturday, Austin had come into the ARCA marketing trailer where we work up our photos to look at what we had on the 52 car to see how the splitter looked relative to the track surface entering Turn 1. That was interesting and I know lots of drivers do that but it was the first time I had been there when it was happening. That's one of the advantages of familiarity in this series I think, and another reason why I enjoy working for ARCA so much.

My next race is another "home" race as ARCA comes to Indy to run on the short track at Lucas Oil Raceway on the westside Friday July 21st. That will be another very long day but the series always puts on a fantastic show at the relatively flat 5/8th mile oval and the 9:00 p.m. start guarantees we will be shooting under the lights, so it will be another opportunity to hone my night shooting skills. In the meantime, here are links to my photo galleries from Iowa Speedway and a few more photos from the event. Enjoy! Come on out to Lucas Oil Raceway next Friday and say hi!

Shane Lee put the 22 car on pole giving Cunningham two top contenders
JR Hildebrand hit the wall during practice but took a front row spot in qualifying later
Dalton Sargeant organized the obligatory team selfie after winning for the second time this season
The late afternoon sunlight Saturday made for some interesting shooting;  here's Graham Rahal in Turn 4