Sunday, February 4, 2018

Cadillac Dominates 56th Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona

It was cool to be back in Daytona's Victory Lane with Action Express Racing again!
I worked my third Rolex 24 Hour race last weekend as a photographer and it was an  incredible experience once again. It was also my third 24 Hour race in the last 12 months and I have to admit that there is something unique about these overnight endurance races which keeps drawing me back. This race was dominated by two Action Express Racing Cadillac powered machines from the first few hours, so there wasn't a lot of drama at the point for most of the race. Watching the #5 Mustang Sampling car take the lead and stay out front for hours on end, including the last 293 laps, I kept wondering if they could maintain it or whether something was going to break and hand the win to the sister #31 Cadillac but they just rolled on to Victory Lane with the Whelen car on the lead lap but no real threat at the end. In the process, they set a new distance record for the event and driver Philippe Albuquerque got redemption for 2017 when a Rolex 24 win at Daytona slipped through his fingers with less than 10 minutes to go. Co-drivers and veterans Joao Barbosa and Christian Fittipaldi each got their third Rolex watches to go with the ones I saw them earn in 2014. Ironically, that 2014 Rolex 24 was my first one 24 hour endurance race; I trust that 2018 will not be my last one.

The #5 Mustang Sampling  team had everyone covered
I was most amazed that the race only had 20 laps run under caution. That is almost miraculous considering the variety of cars spread across three different classes that must share the track and the hundreds of drivers involved who bring a broad spectrum of skills and experience. Last year's Rolex was effected by lengthy cautions during the night for monsoon conditions so this race had a whole different pace to it than any enduro I had experienced previously. Every race has a "feel" to it that develops as the laps add on but I've found that to be even more true for these 24 hour races. There's a certain rhythm I feel at these races that I don't experience anywhere else other than Indianapolis. In the night, when I have my earplugs in and I am concentrating on getting from one part of the circuit to another to get a certain shot I envision, the drone of the various engine sounds is a unique visceral experience that goes right to my bones. Perhaps that's what activates my adrenal glands and sends a rush of endorphins through my brain every time I get to do one of these 24 hour events. I understand now why my photographer friends gravitate to sports car endurance racing to be able to experience those feelings over and over again throughout the event.

The United Autosports LMP2 car finished fourth
While I have only worked four 24 hour races (Daytona 2014, 2017 and 2018, plus Le Mans 2017), I know the rhythm these events have and this year I was able to get to Daytona on Thursday and experience a full immersion through the end of the race Sunday night. For the first time going to Florida for a race, I did not go to the beach at least once to see the ocean as I was consumed with the photography opportunities which the Rolex 24 provides. The rock band Scorpions had a song called "Rhythm of Love" and I could say that's what the weekend was like for me this year, as I truly felt the rhythm of the race as the weekend went on. Most other races I shoot only last two to four hours but at these 24 hour events, that is just getting started. For this event, the green flag flew at 2:40 pm Saturday afternoon and the checkers at the same time on Sunday. I was on the grid at about 1:00 pm, shot driver introductions and then went to the outside main grandstands for the first hour of the race. I then walked back inside the track and went to the infield where the racetrack rejoins the banking. From there I worked my way backward around the infield circuit so I could be back at the media center to complete my first download around 5:00 pm and grab something to eat. The next phase centered on being out shooting around 6:00 pm to see what kind of sunset would develop and then shoot for a while during the golden light dusk period.

An Audi casts a cool green glow on the backstretch as its brakes heat up
Sunset wasn't all that much to get excited about as Saturday it was mostly overcast. The next photo target was the fireworks which were scheduled for 11:00 pm so I stayed out and worked the infield, experimenting with some slow shutter speed pans, fill flash and other techniques during the darker hours. I got caught out by an unexpected rain shower around 8:00 pm and had to find cover since I was nowhere near the media center and didn't have any of my rain gear on me. I found a place at a concession stand to wait it out and as it turned out, my gut feeling was right - the rain didn't last long. It lasted just long enough to wet the track down and create a nice reflective surface so I worked my along the inside of Turn 2 of the oval, then down the backstretch to the bus stop chicane before finally heading back to the International Horseshoe in the infield to shoot the fireworks. After a quick download and backup of my files, my buddy and I headed back to his motorhome shortly after midnight to grab a few hours of sleep.

I finally got my special Daytona sunrise in my third Rolex 24
After getting about three and half hours of sleep, we got up at 4:30 in the morning and headed back to the track as the next photo target was sunrise. And what a glorious sunrise it was. Of the three Rolex 24 races I have photographed, this year's sunrise was by far the best I had seen. I know it's s small sample size and last year it was raining cats and dogs when the sun came up, but I have seen other photographers' work over the years and I had a few different photos in mind that I was going to try and capture. The sunrise was technically around 7:00 that morning so the race had been running for over 16 hours  with about eight to go but that didn't deter a gaggle of photographers gravitating to the West Horseshoe where I went to try and take advantage of the morning light opportunities. It was everything I'd hoped it would be and as I worked my way back around the infield portions of the track to go download my files and get some breakfast, I had a very satisfied feeling come over me as I felt I was achieving all the photo goals I had set for myself before the event.

The rest of the day repeated the same pattern of shooting, downloading, getting refreshments or food and then going out again. I went to Victory Lane about 45 minutes before the scheduled finish and watched for the first time all race, shooting an occasional frame when I could get multiple cars together as well as the checkered flag shot.. After the Action Express team celebrated, I headed back to the media center and packed up to leave as I had to get to Orlando for an 8:30 pm flight that evening and I wasn't sure what to expect as far as traffic was concerned. I made it to the Orlando airport around 6:00  pm, returned my rental car, went through security and got something to eat so I had about an hour to spare before my Southwest fight would be boarding. I was pleasantly exhausted. Once on the plane, I told the woman next to me to feel free and elbow me if I started snoring, and I was asleep before the wheels were even up on the plane. I woke up later as the Captain announced we were in the final descent. After a fantastic weekend at the racetrack, I was back in my own bed by midnight and back in reality with my regular job looming a short eight hours away. I'd do it again tomorrow if I had the chance. Meanwhile enjoy the photos and check out my new website for so much more.

Shooting at night is a wonderful  photography challenge
Seeing 50 cars roaring to the start line is an incredible sight to see
Morning light creates great chances to see the drivers at work inside the cars
After 24 hours of hard racing, the cars all appear peppered with rubber and dirt
Photography is all about the light so we chase that while drivers chase a win

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Alonso, Danica, Daytona, Le Mans and the Indy 500

F1 star Alonso wowed fans at Indy in 2017
So what does this blog post have to do with the biggest races in the world? And what does Fernando Alonso have to do with Danica Patrick? He's a two-time Formula One world champion seeking to win a prestigious triple crown while she's out of her NASCAR ride for 2018 and has announced her retirement as a full time driver. But Danica will try to wrap her career with a nice bow in 2018 at the place where she first gained fame: the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as she has said the Indy 500 will be her last race. Too bad they both couldn't be at Indy this year! Meanwhile, Alonso is taking on the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona this month to prepare for his attempt at winning Le Mans this coming June. I had hoped to be there to photograph all of these events in 2018. but it doesn't look like Le Mans is going to be possible after all. If I could arrange funding through sponsorship or a photo assignment for the trip to France, then it could still become a reality so if you are in need of someone to work races for you as your team or driver's personal photographer, then please keep me in mind.

Rolex 24 pre-race pageantry in 2017
With my ARCA Racing Series work and a return engagement with Vision Sport Agency at Indianapolis this May, I am anticipating a very busy 2018 as I will be flying to Daytona in a little more than two weeks to shoot the Rolex 24 Hours for Associated Press. It will be my third Rolex race and I am very excited to have the chance to work the event again this year. I do have the feeling that big things lie ahead this year so the Rolex race will be a great way to kick things off.

Danica Patrick  got a mixed reaction from fans at Texas in 2009
With Alonso in the headlines so often lately with his explorations in racing away from his full time ride with McLaren, it will be interesting to see how NASCAR starts its season off shortly after the Rolex weekend has concluded. Danica may or may not race the Daytona 500 - she said she would for the last time n 2018 but is not having much luck in putting a deal together. To say the bloom is off the rose is probably an understatement and I'll bet she faces the same issue for the Indy 500 this May. I know when she left Indycar, she did so with no hard feelings but many fans had grown tired of the surly temperament she often displayed around the garage area. The last straw for a lot of Indy fans was her comment on the public address system at Indy when she threw her team under the bus after a slow qualifying effort. Saying "It's not my fault" as she did is not going to win fans at Indianapolis and many people were happy to see her go to NASCAR.

When I took this photo, I wondered if Danica was waving goodbye
My perception has always been that Danica never really mastered how to drive a loose race car in the Cup series, having become accustomed to the high downforce Indycar package which more often than not produced tight racecars. The old saying is "loose is fast" so the learning curve in NASCAR must have been huge for her. Perhaps the new Indycar design for 2018 will present a level playing field for her return. I hope she gets back to Indyas it will offer another story line for the 500 and the chance for more publicity. Another old adage is that "any publicity is good publicity" and many would say that definitely applies to the Indycar series these days so her return might fall into that category. No matter what, she will probably sell some t-shirts and perhaps a few copies of her new book. If Danica can come back to Indy with an excited attitude and courts women and young girls who have always looked up to her, then I would say that her retirement from racing would be a success.

The 2017 Rolex 24 was hit by overnight rains which challenged everyone
The time for off-season speculation is just about at an end as the 2018 racing season got underway this past weekend at Daytona where all the IMSA teams gathered for their pre-season "Roar Before The 24" test. The 2018 rendition of the Rolex 24 Hours race promises to be one of the best in years with a star studded field of drivers and a highly varied equipment entry list with DPi and WEC LMP2 prototypes at the head of the pack and a plethora of production based GT cars filling out the class structure in GTD and GTLM. That variety is one of the great things about sports car endurance racing and why I am so excited to have the chance to go back again this year. While I shot the 2017 Rolex 24 for, this year I am working as a stringer for Associated Press - always a crapshoot economically - just as I did in 2014 in order to have another chance to prove what I can do and network with people who might be able to hire me in the future to shoot more racing.

I love working with ARCA  and its champions like Austin Theriault
This is, however, the beginning of a transitional year for me in racing photography as the financial returns have often not exceeded my investment of time, energy and funding. Over the last dozen years, I have really concentrated on making a name for myself in the business, a task which has proven to be much more difficult than I had imagined. Much as race teams need sponsorship, so do I need gainful assignments where I am not subsidizing my passion for racing as I have often done.  I am a teacher by trade, having decided to make a career change in 2009 in part so I could have time to pursue my photography interests more fully, and the change  has allowed me to do just that, so I have no regrets whatsoever. I just wish I could find more paying clients to make the pursuit of my passion truly self supporting.

At home at Indianapolis
Amidst the changing landscape of today's digital media world, I am grateful for every opportunity to be compensated for my racing photography such as my role as Chief Photographer for the ARCA Racing Series. After this year, I don't anticipate working "on spec" or in exchange for access or for photo credits in publications. That could change if there were some extraordinary circumstances involved, but I did that for a number of years trying to help a friend launch the defunct American Motor Journal publication and was aware even then that I was perhaps part of the problem in terms of the devaluation of photography services by the mainstream media. I have seen many news outlets cut back and eliminate staff photographer positions the last 10 years, so I hope I can be hired for the quality of work I produce and be paid fair compensation for that work product. As racers often have critical years in their careers, it feelss like 2018 will be a critical year for my career as a racing photographer as well.

I hope to shoot the Indy 500 as long as I am able
If you've read my blog before then you know that Indianapolis is my home track and I am a member of the Indy 500 Oldtimers so I will always have a photography role at the Speedway in May as long as I am physically able. This year will be my second year representing French media company Vision Sport Agency (VSA) and I will be seeing one of their owners at Daytona later this month to plan for that work. I am also hoping to do other sports car work for VSA if they run into scheduling conflicts with their other staff, and of course going to Le Mans in June is at the top of my 2018 list if funding comes through. So by the end of this month, I should know exactly what my 2018 schedule will include beyond the month of May as I have the Daytona 24 on tap, then ARCA races at Nashville, Salem and Talladega, before the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and the Indy 500. The end of this month will also be two years since I quit smoking so I am grateful to still be alive and kicking at an age when I see the names of a lot of my friends in the obituaries.

Thank God for exercise, good friends, and fulfilling work. Gotta love it! See you at the Rolex 24!

The first Japanese driver to win the Indy 500: Takuma Sato
I am looking forward to another great year shooting the ARCA Racing Series
Our trip to Le Mans last year was a dream come true; I can't wait to go back!

Monday, October 30, 2017

Through the Looking Glass: 2018 Racing Plans

Dawn over a racetrack as team members arrive is a beautiful thing
Sometimes once my racing photography season is over, I can go into a funk and it might take me awhile to break out of it. My fiance is the first person to call me on it when it happens as she knows me better than anyone. God bless her. Anyone else who knows me shouldn't be surprised that I have that kind of emotional reaction when a passionate pursuit of mine comes to an end, even when it's just temporary. If you know me, then you know that I am a black and white kind of guy - I'm either all-in or all-out and there's really not much gray area in between. I throw myself whole-heartedly into any pursuit I am passionate about, sometimes to the point of exhaustion, and when one pursuit runs its course then I am on to the next thing with equal commitment. My family would tell you that I've been that way since I was a little kid. I would run until I dropped and they'd be looking for me only to find me collapsed in a ball on the floor somewhere too tired to move another inch! My fiance sometimes calls me the "Energizer Bunny" as I have continued much the same pattern as an adult, especially where racing is concerned and 18 hour days are normal at the racetrack.

ARCA Champion Austin Theriault
I do have one more photo assignment to wrap up 2017 when I shoot the ARCA Racing Series annual awards banquet in December. It will be good to see everyone again after bidding one another adieu at Kansas. But the "next thing" for me right now is looking ahead to the 2018 season. That's what really helps keep my funk to a minimum as I have to have something to look forward to. I already have plans made to shoot the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona at the end of January for Associated Press; flights are booked and I just need to arrange a rental car. I also have the tentative schedule for ARCA and I am trying to sort out which races I will be able to work for the series so I can continue as its Chief Photographer. I am so happy to be able to do that work for the series as I know we provide a valuable service for ARCA and its teams at every race event. It's been fun to work with Doc Hunter, Rich Corbett and most recently, with Doug Patterson at the races so we can provide more thorough coverage. We got some excellent and supportive feedback from the ARCA brass at Kansas which I was thrilled to receive, so it's important that we continue to do a good job as the series enters its 66th season in 2018.

Dawn at Indianapolis is a special experience
I also anticipate that I will work the Indycar races at Indianapolis next May for the French media company Vision Sport Agency again. I felt like I was pretty successful this year elevating awareness of their brand with key media people at IMS and it will be interesting to see how much we can build on that for 2018 at the Grand Prix and then the 102nd Indy 500. I don't know if I will be able to match the 19 race event weekends I was fortunate enough to experience this year as a photographer but I know it will be close. I still have to compile my "best of" photos for this year and I haven't decided whether to create a video from stills or just do a new gallery of the best individual images from all the series I've covered this year, but I know the decision will come in due time. Meanwhile I have an application in the works which I hope will take me back to Europe for Le Mans in 2018. I am sure getting the year started off the right way with sports cars racing at Daytona in January, which will  include Fernando Alonso as he prepares to take on Le Mans next June, and the debut of the Penske Acura program, so I know it is going to be an exciting year.

I still have to decide which ARCA races I can work next season as well, so in the meantime, if you know anyone who needs photography services and is willing to pay market rate, then please send them my way. Until next time I will leave you with some of my photos from the 2017 ARCA season finale at Kansas where Michael Self got his first series win. I'll have more soon so come on back!

Michael Self celebrates after winning at Kansas
Austin Theriault finally had a bad race in his championship season after something broke and put him into the wall
Michael Self has had one of the best looking cars at each race he's run this year
The race was decided on a late restart as a gaggle of cars fought for position going into Turn 1