Sunday, February 12, 2017

500 Blog Posts - And Counting Thanks

Sam Hornish takes Turn 1 at Indy in 2006
This is the 500th blog post I have written here since I started in 2007, and it's hard to believe that 10 years has passed already. When I began blogging, a marriage of 18 years had ended and my career in real estate development and utility management was also in transition, so this blog was a creative outlet to write about my passion for motorsports. I still tell the joke on myself that when I got divorced, I bought camera equipment instead of furniture and went racing again, with the Indy 500 in 2006 my official re-entry into the changing digital media world. It was also my first race shooting high speed digital still photography. I am still grateful that Greg Griffo at the Indianapolis Star gave me the chance to shoot Indy again that year after I sat out 2004 and 2005 when I went as a spectator. I have had a number of great opportunities since then and now 11 years later, I am facing another transition as I search for a new media affiliation for my home races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Shooting for American Motor Journal included  USAC dirt racing
If you read my blog regularly, then you know I started shooting Indy in 1984 as a turn shooter for UPI. After that, I shot for the Indianapolis Star for five years and the Speedway's staff for five years before taking 1997 and 1998 off due to personal problems that were masquerading as burnout. Even though I kept my consecutive string if 500's alive by going as a spectator, I  discovered I missed the media work terribly and came back in 1999 with Agency France Pressed for the next five races. After the 2003 race my personal life imploded, everyone at the track switched from film to digital, and I needed time to assess where my life was going. After much soul searching, a move out of my marital home, and changes in my professional career when the housing market crashed, I bought my first good digital cameras and was ready to go racing again. And I was ready to get serious about numerous life changes I had been wrestling with. So May 2006 was a renaissance for me and I also met someone else that month who would help me rachet up my racing photography: Don Hamilton.

Chicagoland was a great track for Indycar
I had known Don for years but that May he told me he had acquired American Motor Journal (AMJ) and asked me if I'd be interested in shooting some races for him. Don passed away unexpectedly a few years ago, but the seven years I worked with him I shot Indycar at the 500, Chicagoland, Nashville, Kentucky, Mid Ohio and Michigan, plus Grand Am and American Le Mans at Mid Ohio, plus the Brickyard 400 and ARCA races at Salem every spring and fall. Throw in a few USAC dirt races here and there and I felt I was living large while doing what I lived. More changes were in store for my professional career as I got out of the utily business and went back to graduate school at Marian University to get a teaching license. My hope was to teach math, coach basketball or soccer, officiate both sports, and shoot even more racing during breaks from teaching.

Sunrise at Daytona; I slept in my car more than once here
In 2010 I started looking to branch out from AMJ as I had gotten tremendous experience shooting all aspects of race events and felt I was ready to do more. I reached out to another photographer friend from Indy, Glenn Smith, about shooting for Associated Press at places like Daytona and Talladega. He introduced me to the AP folks down south and I did my first Daytona 500 and Talladega races in 2011 and have been going back ever since. I also got to shoot my first Rolex 24 Hours race in 2014  and make new connections  that led to shooting at Atlanta for AP as well. Glenn ran into his own life problems and then passed away a few years later but I am forever indebted to him for the help he gave me with those introductions.

Shooting Victory Lane at Indy in 2013 was the thrill of a lifetime
Another key aspect of those experiences was meeting other photogs and while I didn't know it in 2012, I would be branching out again the next year as a result of the relationships I had developed. At Indy in 2012, I happened to be sharing a drop gate outside Turn 3 with another photographer and of course we were chatting during down time. That photographer turned out to be Eric Gilbert with motorsport.com who gave me one of his business cards. Over that next winter,  I contacted Eric about shooting for his site during 2013 and found out that one of his photo editors was someone I had already met and worked with at AP at Talladega, Rainier Ehrhardt. Don Hamilton had passed away in the meantime so AMJ had folded and I had nothing lined up going into 2013. Thank goodness for relationships as I got the opportunity at Barber Motorsport Park in April 2013 to shoot the Grand Am and Indycar weekend as a trial run for motorsport.com. That led to shooting the Indy 500 that year and shooting in Victory Lane for the 500 for the first time, which also happened to coincide with fan favorite Tony Kanaan's first Indy win. I also shot Indycar and ALMS at Mid Ohio and the Brickyard that year for the site. I've shot the Indy 500 since then for the site and just last month I shot my second ever Rolex 24 Hours. 

Indianapolis is still home for me
I can't even begin to tell you how much I have learned from all the people I have worked with these last eleven years, and I hope that my gratitude for the opportunities has come through loud and clear in my blog posts since I started writing on a regular basis in 2007. Those lessons and relationships have also led to the role I currently have with the ARCA Racing Series as its chief photographer through the help of Harlen "Doc" Hunter. I have learned this week that I must find another media outlet for the Indy 500 this year so I am actively pursuing other opportunities. I am still hopeful of working as a credentialled photographer at Le Mans this June for the 24 Hours but if that doesn't happen, my fiance and I are going anyway and I will do what I always do: bring home pictures. I trust the experiences I have gathered these last 11 years will continue to show themselves through my photos. So if you need someone reliable who knows how to shoot racing, then I'm your guy. Give me a call, or check my website. I am excited to see what the future holds as you know that when one door closes another opens. I am confident that I'll be there to walk through that door, but above all, I want everyone to know how thankful I am for the chances I've been given to show what I could do. It means the world to me.

Talladega has become one of my favorite tracks to work and the folks at AP have been great
American Le Mans at Mid Ohio was always a treat
Bump drafting at Daytona keeps you on your toes for the "Big One"
Indycar races at Kentucky were usually nail-biters with photo finishes
The Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona this year had more than its share of drama and "moisture"

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Wet and Wild Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona

The winning Wayne Taylor Racing team enjoyed Victory Lane
Lately I have had to pinch myself to be sure I wasn't dreaming about some of the events in my life. Last weekend I celebrated one year tobacco free by photographing the IMSA WeatherTech series Rolex 24 Hours race at Daytona. It was my second Rolex 24 and my first race to work for 2017. The only other time I went was in 2014 and I shot for AP but this time I was fortunate to go as a contributor to motorsport.com. On top of an exciting race event to wrap up January,  earlier in the month I was interviewed by two different websites about my experiences as a racing photographer. One of those interviews was the first time I had ever been on a podcast as a guest so that was fun and humbling. Links to those interviews are here: Wide Open Wheel (article) and Formula One Blog (podcast). Special thanks to Paul Henry and Doug Patterson for those opportunities. Above all, I have to thank my friends and the editors at motorsport.com for the chance to contribute to its coverage of the season opening sports car event at Daytona.

I planned for rain and it came in buckets during the race
As cool as it was getting interviewed by friends in the media, the coolest was flying to Florida and working the Rolex 24 from Thursday practice through the end of the race Sunday afternoon. I don't often get the chance to fly to races so I viewed the Rolex weekend as a real tune-up for Le Mans. I had new camera covers in case of rain, I had a 400 mm I borrowed from Canon and it was the first trip I relied on my backpack bag to cart all my gear on the plane. The trip started with a 2:30 a.m. alarm Thursday morning to catch a 6:07 flight from Indy and I actually got to the Delta ticket counter at Indianapolis before any of the airline staff, so that was a first. I got lucky on the flight when a very large man who was ticketed in the seat next to me couldn't get his seat belt buckled so he got moved and I had two seats to myself on the emergency exit row so I had lots of room. 

I enjoyed the pre-race pageantry IMSA displayed
The flight got to Orlando ahead of schedule so I got my rental car and headed for the Daytona credential office. I got inside the track near the end of the first WeatherTech practice session and was super excited to get set up in the media center for my first race of 2017. I remembered how to get in the infield even though the last time I was at Daytona was in 2014, but the parking security people sent me away to "Lot 6" which turned out to be outside the track Ali g the backstretch. My first thought was how to get my gear inside the track, which turned out not to be a big deal since there was a shuttle operating nearby and there were lots of team personnel who were parked in the same getting back and forth didn't turn out to be a big deal after all. My second thought was about sleeping Saturday night during the race. I had a hotel room for Thursday and Friday nights and my plan was to catch a few hours sleep Saturday night in my car inside the track like I had in 2014. I had to adjust that plan to include the shuttle ride but that worked out OK too as it turned out, and I was able to get through the race with a couple hours of sleep.

Night pit stops were quite a sight to behold
The Rolex 24 is such a unique event compared to most of the rest of the racing I cover. The ARCA races I shoot are seldom even two hours long and even the Indy 500 or NASCAR at Talladega seldom go four hours at most. My goal going into the race was to shoot for a couple hours and then edit and upload photos; rinse and repeat, and that's pretty much how it worked out. The race itself is a wall of sound for 24 hours and once it was over, it was amazing how quiet Daytona became. I got to test out my camera covers during the night and was out shooting at 4:30 in the morning in the rain after my brief nap in the rental car. I went in to the media center around 5:15 as the rain really started to pour down and the race went under caution for a long time so I just stayed at my computer and watched the TV monitors as I edited. It was fun hanging out with FoxSports commentator Justin Bell during that lengthy rain caution just chatting. I asked him why he was slumming with us photogs and we talked about the Facebook live report he did for the Roar Before the 24, and just generally talked about racing. By that hour Sunday morning, people were sleeping on their computers in photo room or catnapping wherever they could but by 7:00 a.m. everyone started heading back out to shoot as the race went green again.

A happy Jeff Gordon in the winning team's pit when the race ended
It seems funny now in hindsight, but I remember thinking throughout the race every time I stopped to edit and download that I had plenty of time left: 16 hours to go, 11 hours, 9 hours, etc. But when it was all over, I was ensconced next to the Wayne Taylor Racing team pit box taking a chance on them being the winning team so I could get reaction shots, wishing I had done more throughout the race. From the time I got there Thursday until I left Sunday evening, I shot about 6,500 frames and walked almost 70,000 steps, so maybe the thought of "doing more" was just my perfectionism talking. In the end I was generally pleased with my production and how I met the challenges of pacing myself, shooting at night and dealing with the rain. Starting around noon Sunday, I had done a final lap around the infield from oval Turn 2 and the pumphouse where I had shot several Daytona 500's, down the backstretch to the bus stop and then back into the pits so I could be ready for the last 90 minutes. My flights back were uneventful and I was pleasantly tired after a long weekend which seemed to go by so quickly once it was over. I am grateful to feel like I am still learning after all these years shooting racing and I think the lessons learned at this year's Rolex 24 will help me at Le Mans this June. I can't wait for the next chance to show what I've learned. To hear that roar of engines singing through the night once again will knock another bucket list item off so stay tuned and I will tell you all about it here. For more of my photos please check motorsport.com or follow me on Twitter @alleygroup. Safe travels everyone!

Wayne Taylor Racing Cadillac DPi was flawless in its debut race


The GT category was hotly contested with the Ganassi Ford GT40 program showing the way

Night racing is a thing of beauty - lights, sound and fury


Sunday, January 29, 2017

Daytona Addendum: More Rain and It's My Fault


Well I made it to Daytona exactly on schedule Thursday and everything has been great: until last night. I had a flashback to my last Daytona trip, in 2014, when I came for the Daytona 500 and rain delays pushed the race into the evening. This time the "moisture" started hitting the track around 8:30 last night and persisted through the early morning hours as the clock ticked on the 55th Rolex 24 Hours race. Back in 2014, I got back to my hotel at 3:30 in the morning and had to get up at 5:00 to catch my flight home. This year there were no rain delays per se, but the field ran behind the pace car for nearly 2 hours stating around 5:15 this morning. Thankfully, I was in the media center when that occurred, although I did get blamed by at least one photographer friend accused me of starting the rainfall. Ironically that was about the time I finished shooting some rain shots after getting maybe 2 hours of sleep in my rented Jeep between 2:00 a.m. and 4:00 a.m.

This weekend has been every bit the experience I had anticipated. I have taken over 5,200 images since I got here Thursday around noon. There has been all kinds of unusual situations to photograph and lighting has fluctuated wildly so I have been able to do some "concept" photos like this one as experiments in slow speed panning. Since I have not been the lead photographer this weekend, I have been able to do variety of shooting without the need to ensure a certain image is produced. That may or may not be what motorsport.com is looking for, but I have certainly submitted enough photos so they could decide what gets run and what doesn't. The Rolex 24 is such a unique event and I am so glad I chose to come down to start my 2017 racing season here. I even went to the beach yesterday so I could see the ocean and today the rain is supposed to stop so the finishing hours will be dry.

Now there are less than 6 hours in the race and then it will be over, seemingly as quickly as it began. But after a year's worth of anticipation and planning, that shouldn't come as much of a surprise now, should it? Until next time, got to motorsport.com to see my photos and I won't be surprised if see you at a racetrack somewhere soon.