Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Penske's Power Takes Indycar Grand Prix - Again; Carpenter Upsets Penskes for 500 Pole

Penske Racing owner Roger Penske - "The Captain"
There's a special connection between the Indycar teams of Roger Penske and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS), and they proved it once again as Will Power got his third win in the Indycar Grand Prix on the IMS road course out of the five times the event has been held. That Penske stranglehold on P1 at IMS did not hold up for Indy 500 qualifying however, as local favorite Ed Carpenter was the only driver in Sunday's Fast 9 to crack the 230 mph barrier in taking pole position and holding off Penske's four horsemen,  Helio Castroneves, Will Power, Josef Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud. Power took the Grand Prix pole position to kick off the month of May and then followed that up with a masterful drive on the road course to claim his 30th career Indycar win. It was also the 200th win in Indycar for Penske. The drive of the day was turned in by Scott Dixon however, who had a miserable qualifying effort and started 18th. After "throwing in the kitchen sink" before Saturday's final Grand Prix practice session, Dixon managed his fuel and tires to snag second place over rookie Robert Wickens who had another impressive outing after starting on the front row. Wickens admitted he did not have the experience to manage the dwindling late race fuel supply like Power or Dixon, but he managed another podium finish while holding off Alexander Rossi.

Robert Wickens (6) has been the series' most impressive rookie so far
Having a race on the IMS road course to start off the month of May is a relatively novel concept since it was only introduced in 2014 and this year's event was held Friday May 11th and Saturday May 12th to very receptive crowds. A little over a week later after several practice days on the oval, the field was set for the 102nd Indy 500 on Sunday May 20th. The Carb Day final practice period is already this coming Friday and the 500 is Sunday! Where did the month go? I have been so busy since the month started that I haven't been able to finish this blog post even though I started it over a week ago. For me, May is like working two jobs as I take care of my teaching responsibilities and then banzai out to IMS to catch time during practice on the weekdays. Then I am up until 10:30 or 11 each night to finish editing my images for the day and then upload them to the MPS Agency website and another French site every night. The time difference means my French counterparts will just about be getting up around the time I upload my images since they are 6 hours ahead of us. Then Saturday and Sunday brings Indy 500 Bump Day and Pole Day with very early photo meetings both days and 14 to 18 hour days taking photos or editing and transmitting them. It is physically exhausting but I don't mind for a second. My fiance calls me the "Energizer Bunny" since I keep going and going!

The Pagoda Tower plaza is quiet after practice
Whether it's the Grand Prix or the 500, I cover a lot of ground at the Speedway whenever I am there, and my step counts reflect that as I have to make my way around the circuit on foot. I have always felt like IMS is a home away from home since I've been going out there so long. I once calculated that if I added up all the days I have been at the Speedway for practice, qualifying or a race since I first started going in 1970, and you put all those days back to back, then you could say that I had spent almost 2 years of my life at the track! The coolest part is I am still learning as a photographer, even though my first race with credentials was in 1984. And I never take any of the experience for granted as it is humbling to think that I am contributing to the documentation of a great American sports institution at what one of my photographer friends called "The Cauldron of Speed."

Will Power is almost unbeatable on the IMS road course
While IMS feels like home to me, Will Power is turning the Indycar Grand Prix into his personal playground. Power said afterward that this year's race was the toughest he had driven on the IMS road course. I would chalk that up to a number of factors. First, the newer Indycar body kits with less downforce were noticeably slower in the corners and drivers were all having to work much harder to get their cars to turn in. Second, while I had expected record lap speeds due to the decrease in downforce, the opposite turned out to be true. The cars were obviously quicker in a straight line but that increased speed dissipated in later braking and more difficulty in putting the power down while exiting the corners. The good news for fans was that these factors created a lot of great racing and overtaking at the key braking zones in Turn 1 at the end of the oval's main straightaway, at Turn 7 at the end of Hulman Boulevard in the infield, and entering Turn 12 where they go inside Turn 1 of the oval track.

If a French driver like Simon Pagenaud wins the 500, that will help MPS Agency
I am providing photography this May for French media company, MPS Agency, and I had an absolute blast walking all over IMS during the Grand Prix weekend. I wanted to get lots of variety in the photos I would deliver to MPSA so shooting from multiple different vantage points was a must. I usually start off a race with something resembling a strategy and then adjust as I read the race, so this year was no different as I knew I would start the race in Turn 1 where history has shown that accidents often occur on the first lap. Sure enough, I had Jordan King come through the sand trap and stop at my feet after punting Simon Pagenaud who spun through the sand and kept going. On many races, I try to follow a "shoot 10 laps and move" strategy which allows me to cover most of a racetrack no matter its size. At Indianapolis, that is a daunting task and I ended up logging nearly 18,000 steps on my pedometer for the Grand Prix race day as a result. Thankfully the rains never came which had been predicted originally (I was prepared if it had rained) and the weather was warm but still pleasant. It was definitely a workout getting from one end of the circuit to the other with about 25 pounds of camera guy strapped on, and my legs were on fire walking up the stairs to the Penthouse seating with about 25 laps to go in the race. When the Grand Prix was over, I was exhausted but happy with the work I had done but I knew I still had a lot of editing to do to wrap up the event before the emphasis switched over to the Indy 500 in just a couple of days.

Helio Castroneves is a sentimental favorite to win the 500 for the 4th time
This past Tuesday was the first day of practice for the Indy 500 and my goal was to be working every day I could make it out to the track once my teaching duties had been fulfilled. I didn't miss a day but the time was extremely limited until Friday when I could be there all afternoon. As the sole representative for MPSA, I had some work to do with the IMS photo staff to ensure the access I needed to do the best possible job for MPS Agency and everything I could have hoped for came together. The weekend culminated with some great shot of the pole winner Ed Carpenter, his family and team after the pole award ceremony Sunday evening. I still am not sure about my race day access for the 500 yet but I will find that out on Carb Day. I am optimistic and excited to be shooting another Indy 500 as a credentialed photographer for the 31st time! There's nothing like it so come on out and join the fun this weekend.

To see photo galleries from my May work at IMS on the MPSA website, please click here for the Indycar GP and click here for Indy 500. See you at the track!

Will Power made the Fast 9 but couldn't take the pole for the 500
Ed Carpenter took his third pole at the Indianapolis 500 and must be considered a favorite to win the race
Indycar's other French driver, Simon Pagenaud, got punted at the start of the Grand Prix

Monday, April 30, 2018

Talladega Nets Closest Ever ARCA Finish; James Hylton Lost En Route Home

Zane Smith grabbed his second win of 2018
It has been said that fate is a cruel mistress. The ARCA family got an unwelcome close up view of both her good and bad sides this past weekend. Friday at Talladega Superspeedway was a gorgeous day and the 76 lap race produced the closest finish in ARCA history with Zane Smith inching ahead of Joe Graf, Jr. The finish was so close that the official order of finish showed the margin of victory at 0.000. Smith and Graf traded paint the entire last lap after the race went 11 laps longer than the scheduled distance due to wrecks, red flags and multiple green-white-checker attempts. It was an exhilarating evening and we finished our photo editing after the race in record time so I was all pumped up leaving the track that night for our hotel in Irondale.

The hard work of James Hylton's team does not go unnoticed
The next day brought the bad news which I learned upon arriving back home in Indianapolis once I had the chance to check my social media accounts. One of ARCA's team owners, James Harvey Hylton, had been involved in a highway crash earlier Saturday morning which claimed his life and the life of his son, James Jr. Mr. Hylton was 84 years young and a mainstay of the ARCA series the last several years, first as a driver who begrudgingly stepped out of the drivers seat in 2013 and as a car owner, fielding the #48 entry for Brad Smith and others. His crew chief Terry Strange was seriously injured but survived and judging by the reaction on social media since Saturday, the ARCA community has clearly been reeling since the news came out about the accident. It is really going to be odd not seeing Mr. Hylton and the 48 team in the ARCA garage area and I hope someone can pick up the pieces and allow the team to carry on. I can only imagine how tough that is going to be. I will miss his smile and the fact that he always called me "young man". As a man and racer, he will be sorely missed by everyone in ARCA and I am glad I got to talk to him Friday morning at Talladega as the team arrived and hear him call me young man one last time.

The Hall of Fame Museum has a wall featuring ARCA champions like Austin Theriault
I got to Talladega Thursday when there was no track activity but all the teams were going through tech inspection since our first practice session was going to be at 8:30 Friday morning. Even though it rained virtually all day Thursday, I was glad I was there since last year's ARCA champion, Austin Theriault, was being formally added to the ARCA Wall of Fame in Talladega's International Motorsports Hall of Fame which is located just outside the track's main gate. I got to talk with Austin again and get photos of the brief ceremony which was very cool. I also got the chance to check out the museum exhibits which are heavy on stock car history, but also included Indycar and sports car memorabilia. I have been going to Dega since 2011 and that was my first visit to the museum so I was happy to finally check it out. Now if someone can just give Austin a good ride in the Cup series (which I think he deserves), then a lot of other people will be happy too.

Mike Helton joined Ron Drager to talk about  NASCAR's acquisition of ARCA
After going out to dinner that evening with several other ARCA officials, I made sure I got a good night's rest since we had to be at the track for a 6:30 a.m. officials meeting the next morning and I knew it would be a long day with lots of walking. Little did I know what was in store for us at that meeting but we found out quickly that there was big news ready for release later that morning. We heard that NASCAR would be acquiring ARCA and effective with the 2020 season, ARCA would become a NASCAR property, albeit operating independently similar to the way IMSA operates the WeatherTech Sports Car championship (also owned by NASCAR). In the process of ARCA principal Ron Drager breaking the news to us, NASCAR bigwig Mike Helton walked out and joined Mr. Drager to make a few comments.  When the news conference occurred after the ARCA practice session was over, Ron had the best quote of the day when he said he "...wanted to be on a bigger boat..." after using an analogy of paddling a small boat on the ocean as larger ships passed by and stirred up the surf.

ARCA's Ron Drager and NASCAR's Jim France broke the news of the deal
I have often wondered why something like this hadn't happened sooner since NASCAR is the 900 pound gorilla of motorsports and ARCA has been a family owned business for more than 65 years. I was really excited to hear the news in person and can see how this deal will help ensure the longevity of the ARCA series and increase its marketing reach so that more people will find out what a great series it is. The hardest part of the morning was keeping the news quiet but everyone did a great job of that. The best part for me was that I got to be a part of stock car racing history by photographing the news conference later Friday morning when Jim France and Ron Drager announced the deal to the world.

So this Talladega ARCA weekend was historical from beginning to end and I was thrilled to be a part of it, and to have the chance to help document the moments in pictures. For more photos, be sure to visit the ARCA Racing Series website and you can click here for a brief photo gallery of my work. Thanks for reading. I will see you next at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for Indycar racing.

Zane Smith (41) barely edged out Joe Graf, Jr. for the win
I started the race in the flagstand where the view is spectacular
Michael Self put his  good looking Sinclair machine on the pole
There's really no place like Talladega in my experience
They say rubbing is racing, and Zane Smith's right side tires had all the lettering rubbed off after the last lap battle

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

These Kids Are Alright in ARCA 200 at Salem

Youngster Christian Eckes got his first ARCA Racing Series win at historic Salem
Legendary rock band the Who sang "The Kids are Alright" and that statement was never more true that at Salem Speedway this past weekend where the ARCA racing series raced for the 103rd time! Chandler Smith won his second straight ARCA pole position at the ripe old age of 15 and led the most laps before crashing on the last lap when a tire went down as he attempted a last gasp pass from second place. Christian Eckes came home the winner as another stellar teenager who isn't even old enough to run on the superspeedways yet! Both of these young men were piloting machines for the  Venturini team and Eckes snagged the team's second win of the season in the #15 car following Michael Self's survival of Daytona in February.

Nice weather made the weekend enjoyable for everyone attending
The ARCA series usually races twice per season at Salem Speedway and the two races are often quite different. The spring race is usually held on a Sunday afternoon with practice and qualifying conducted on Saturday. That makes for a much more leisurely pace around the garage area and gives me more time to edit and select images than a typical one day show offers. The Fall ARCA race is one of those one day events with practice, qualifying and the race all the same day, and it's a night race so visually it is much different than the Spring race. Everyone was happy with the weather at Salem this weekend after we all froze our butts off at Nashville two weeks earlier! I think this was my 23rd ARCA race at Salem since 2006 so I've been here more often than any other track besides the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. I can't help but feel like Salem is a second "home" track for me and I have made a lot of good friends there that I look forward to seeing every year. The racing has changed a lot since that Fall 2006 race when I first started going back to Salem and it's for the better in my opinion.

Rookie Natalie Decker was again impressive in another Venturini car
Looking at the finishing order, I know Smith had to have been disappointed to be scored in 10th place after a fairly dominant race, but he took a hard lick on the Turn 1 wall in his last lap crash so I'm also sure he will leave Salem with some great memories as well as some bumps and bruises. These Salem races used to be wreckfests just a few years ago but the level of talent coming into the ARCA series has escalated year after year over the last decade and now these young drivers race hard and clean without a lot of the bump and run tactics you see in some stock car series. And they don't tear up a lot of equipment anymore so the composite bodies often look just as good after the race as when they started. Gone are the days when racers tape and bear bond was needed by half the field to patch cars back together and I am glad for that. 

At only 15 years old, Chandler Smith has amazingly qualified P1 for his first two ARCA races
Following Eckes to the checkered flag was Zane Smith, winner at Nashville for MDM Motorsports and another youngster with a good team. Zane was chased by his MDM teammate Sheldon Creed and two other young newcomers, Josh Berry and Chase Purdy. The first "veteran" to finish was Riley Herbst in 6th and he's only in his second year racing ARCA but is already a winner, taking Pocono last season as a rookie. Gus Dean followed Herbst home in 7th and now we go to Talladega this week where Gus already has a win in his brief ARCA career. Two other "kids", Colby Howard and Brandon Grosso, took 8th and 9th ahead of Chandler Smith. I doubt that any of these guys are even old enough to buy alcohol legally yet but there they all are - at the top of the charts in 700 horsepower stock cars. It is really amazing to me how they are able to race this way at such a young age. It sure is fun to be a part of it as a photographer for the series.

Gus Dean (32) has a win at Dega so he will be glad to get back south
Now that the series has raced on a couple of short tracks, it's time to head to the biggest track of the year at Talladega Superspeedway. If you've never been to "Dega" then you need to go at least once to see how huge the place is, especially the banking. It's a gigantic bowl with sides just as steep so the racing action is frenetic, side by side, nose to tail drafting at its best. Sometimes the worst happens too as the tendency for pack racing can lead to some big wrecks, although not nearly as bad in ARCA as you often see with the NASCAR races since the speed variance from top to bottom in the ARCA field is much greater. I started going to Dega in 2011 at the spring race and I think this will be my 12th visit to the home of the Alabama Gang. I have made a lot of good friends working races at Dega and the track itself is so different than anything up north that it is a special event in its own right no matter what series I am shooting. The track itself promotes its events as "More Than A Race" and that is certainly the case if you spend any time in the infield with the motor home crowd. Plus I've had the chance to make some great pictures of some of the wildest racing action I've ever been around, so that alone makes the opportunity to travel there worthwhile. Who cares if it's 500 miles to the track from my home in Indy? Not me. I will see you at the track! Until next time, click here for my photo gallery from Salem and enjoy these photos.

Pole winner Chandler Smith found the wall on the last lap after leading most of the race at Salem
Richard Petty's grandson Thad Moffitt had a rough day but the car sure looked good in Petty blue!
Race winner Christian Eckes hits the restart line in Turn 4 during Saturday's practice session.
Rookie front row starter Josh Berry (22) (shown here racing against Bret Holmes) took 4th place in his first ARCA start.