Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Fast and Furious Finish

Sometimes when you least expect it, things just seem to work out. I had been going through racing withdrawals most of this year due to my lack of photography work and I was especially missing the ARCA Menards Series in which I had been so integrally involved over the last five years. Then I got an email at the beginning of last week inviting me to come to Kansas Speedway where the ARCA season championship will be decided. Historically two photographers have been needed at Kansas to cover two celebrations in case the race winner is different than the championship winner. Of course, I said yes.

Carson Hocevar led over 300 laps in winning the 400
So in the span of a few weeks, I've gone from having no races to work in October to having two jam-packed weekends, the first of which I just completed after spending three days at Winchester Speedway as part of the Winchester 400 weekend. Carson Hocevar, who I know from shooting ARCA races, was dominant in the 400 and won the 400 for the first time. I hadn't been to Winchester at all since the last time ARCA raced there in 2017, so it was nice to be able to spend a significant amount of track time there this past weekend. Raceday itself was absolutely gorgeous and a large and enthusiastic crowd was on hand. Fall colors were evident in abundance and the campgrounds on-site were completely full.  

The pace lap included a colorful salute to America under beautiful skies

Working with driver Travis Braden was fun

I had two jobs last weekend and had plenty of opportunities to make photos. My first responsibility was to gather shots on Friday for Travis Braden to use on social media and for his promotional activities, including his merchandising. My second assignment was to cover the ARCA CRA super late model competitors in the 400 for Speedway Illustrated magazine. The races I have done this year (and so far there have only been five) have each involved submitting photos to the magazine for their consideration. Nothing has been published yet from those but you never know what priorities a magazine has when it's time to go to print. All told, I am glad to get these races added to the ones I've been fortunate to do this year. The pandemic has impacted everyone's schedules so the fact I've only done a few races is understandable. A total of seven races for 2020 pales in comparison to what I've worked the last few years, but in this year of pandemic upheaval and massive cancellations or schedule changes, I'll take it. For the first time maybe ever, I'll do more races at dirt tracks than at paved tracks this season. Those dirt track events have been a pleasant and refreshing return to my racing roots.

Now, this week I will drive to Kansas City on Thursday, shoot the ARCA race on Friday, drive home to Indy on Saturday, and then drive to Springfield, Illinois on Sunday to shoot the USAC Silver Crown event on the mile dirt track at the Illinois State Fairgrounds. The trip to Kansas is about 1,000 miles round trip and then I'll put in another 425 miles or so to Springfield and back, so not only am I getting a chance to shoot more, I'm getting some serious drive time. And that's after three commutes to Winchester this past weekend totaling about 430 miles. I love to drive so the mileage is no problem.

These last two weekends of my season are the reason I titled this blog post "Fast and Furious Finish" since that's how my racing season will wrap up. Unless of course, someone wants to hire me for the 12 Hours of Sebring which got postponed from March to November this year! Sebring has been a bucket list race for me for years and I'd love to have a chance to work for IMSA, Associated Press, or one of the sports car teams. That would also help me prepare for LeMans next year. Maybe I could even add Daytona and a return to Sebring next March if all goes well! 

I'm ready. Let's do it! So until I get back from Springfield, you probably won't hear from me on this platform but I hope you follow me on Twitter @alleygroup. Until next time, here are a few photos from the Winchester 400 weekend. Contact me if you see something you like!

Monday, October 5, 2020

What Happened to 2020?

Empty grandstands are symbolic of the racing year
n many ways for me, 2020 has been a lost year. I'm sure I am not alone in feeling that way. Back in February, I had big plans for this year but they all got quashed when the Covid-19 pandemic shutdown hit Indiana on Friday, March 13th. It's the first year I can remember since 1976 when I didn't attend or work an Indycar race. I went from working 21 racing events as a photographer last year to only four so far this with just two more on my radar. The silver lining in all of this has been I am still healthy. I've also probably prolonged the life of my Civic Si by a couple years after so little driving this year!

Chad Bryant (left) and Ron Drager confer in 2019
Watching from the sidelines and seeing what the various racing series have done this year to get their seasons completed has been amazing. The ARCA Menards Series, where I was chief photographer the last five years, has managed to complete 19 races with only one to go now. It's not the same 20 races that were on the original ARCA schedule, but they are getting it done with just the finale in Kansas remaining. While I was not fortunate enough to be assigned to shoot any ARCA races this season, which of course was disappointing, I still have friends in the series and follow the race results closely. It's still a thrill seeing my photos still being used on the series' website or on Instagram. I know they used quite a few in their media guides this year and I downloaded those for my portfolio whenever I saw that. I always know which photos are mine even when they don't have photo credits! Kudos to Ron Drager and all the ARCA staff for managing the season the way they have.

The NTT Indycar Series likewise has only one race to go and the pandemic restrictions on media kept me from shooting any of the races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway this year. Missing the Indy 500 was heartbreaking, especially after Takuma Sato won since I have been a regular contributor to Autosport Japan magazine since 2013. I don't know who I will be shooting for next season, so I have my work cut out for me this off-season to find another media outlet to work for in 2021. I have several friends who were able to shoot Indycar races this season and I have been living vicariously through their photos. They have done some outstanding work under some really trying conditions. I hope to be out there with them all next May.
As for the NASCAR Cup Series, they raced at Talladega yesterday and I couldn't help but think about all the times I've made the eight hour, 500 mile trek to Alabama since 2011 to shoot for either ARCA or Associated Press (and sometimes both). I'm pretty sure I would have "made some freaking pictures" yesterday, as the late AP Bureau Chief Dave Martin used to say. The "Big One" where Kurt Busch got airborne happened near the start-finish line and the melee would have come right to me if I had been positioned across the track in my usual photo hole. Unfortunately for me and many of my Alabama friends, none of us got the chance to shoot this weekend due to similar restrictions that I encountered in Indy, so I will set my sights on next Spring and hope that things have opened up by then and I can return to Dega where they say "It's More Than A Race."

Ayrton Senna, USGP Detroit 1984
It still amazes me that racing was able to resume during the pandemic and there hasn't been a catastrophic outbreak similar to what seems to be happening in college and pro football. Restricting photographers at races never made much sense to me since we can still get photos and socially distance simply by using a longer lens, but I understand the need to be cautious and limit "outsiders" who might not be a part of the usual "bubble" of participants. Formula One has probably done the most extreme job of this in racing from what I have seen and has put on great races in new venues while changing its schedule seemingly at the drop of a hat.

All that being said, every series has had to be flexible. Therein lies the lesson for me in all of this: I need to be flexible too. I understand why all the restrictions were put in place but I didn't like them because they put a major crimp in my plans for this year. On the other hand, since I might be more at risk than many people,  I have to say those restrictions were a hidden blessing for me and kept me from being potentially exposed and having to go through what my father endured before he passed away from the effects of Covid-19 this past June. You might say that racing saved my life this year, but in a dramatically different way than in years past. 

As the late Steve McQueen so famously said in the movie LeMans, "Racing is life; anything that happens before or after is just waiting." 

 And so I wait.

Thursday, September 3, 2020

All Eyes on 2021


Kody Swanson was quickest in Silver Crown at LOR
My last blog post was looking ahead to the 104th Running of the Indianapolis 500 and deferring to friends who got to shoot the race. Afterward, I saw lots of amazing photos from my photographer friends who were allowed to cover the race on August 23rd. Unfortunately, I was not at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway that weekend but I was able to watch and listen to the race. Most importantly I got the opportunity to shoot two USAC Silver Crown races as bookends on the weekend. I was really happy to see Takuma Sato win his second Indy 500 and I know my friends at Autosport Japan magazine were too. When Taku won in 2017, they used a lot of my photos so this year I could have perhaps had another nice payday with his win. It was not meant to be, however, so we move on and that's what I've done.

Kody Swanson set quick time in Pro 2000 also

 As it turned out, I got to see lots of great racing over the weekend after all, on two very different kinds of race tracks. They got my creative juices flowing and with my family having the ability to finally have a memorial service honoring my late Father on Saturday, the whole weekend brought a sense of closure and peace about all the loss I've dealt with this year personally and professionally. Added to the two other recent races I shot at Terre Haute at The Action Track, the two around Indy 500 weekend brought my total for the year up to four races photographed. That's a far cry from what I worked in 2019, but it's still way better than nothing. The first event of the weekend was Friday night August 21st at the paved 5/8ths mile oval at Lucas Oil Raceway and featured the USAC Silver Crown cars and the Road to Indy F2000 and Pro 2000 series. Sunday the Silver Crown series moved to the venerable one-mile dirt track at the Indiana State Fairgrounds for the Hoosier 100, a legendary open wheel race which at one point had been canceled by the State. I've been shooting races at both these tracks since I started in motorsports photography in the 1980s. It's still a thrill to stand next to the guardrail as the Silver Crown beasts roar past me just inches away and fling dirt all over me and my camera gear. That never gets old.
Kyle Larson set fast time and took the win

I have to give a big shout-out to my friends at Track Enterprises, the promoter of both events, who I had gotten to know during the years I served as Chief Photographer for the ARCA Menards Series. They made it possible for me to shoot both these events. I was joined by my former ARCA colleague Rich Corbett at the Hoosier 100 who got some spectacular shots of two accidents on the backstretch. Both events gave me the chance to shoot night racing, to work more on my flash photography, and try some experimental photos that I might not normally get to do when I am concentrating on editorial and documentation style photos. Ironically, the Hoosier 100 was the first time that former NASCAR driver Kyle Larson had raced in Indianapolis since his now infamous utterance of a racial slur during a virtual race earlier this year. I am not condoning his use of racially derogatory language in any way. Seeing him sling that Silver Crown car around on the dirt was a sight to behold. I know Kyle has applied to be reinstated by NASCAR and I hope there is a thorough vetting of his application. As a motorsports photographer, having Kyle race on the Indy mile was newsworthy so I made sure I got photos.

Back to racing at the Fairgrounds again!
Being able to get back to racing of some sort was a real Godsend for me. This has frankly been a shitty year for me in many ways and it has affected my outlook on life and my relationships with people around me. Call it grieving or depression or whatever, it sucked and these races, along with my Dad's service, and some counseling help through my EAP at work, have helped me turn the corner on a year of emotional turmoil. Being in a high-risk group during the Covid-19 pandemic has added a layer of anxiety that just won't seem to go away but if you really know me then you know how important my photography work, especially in motorsports, is to me. If you think it's fun hobby that I dabble in then you really don't know me at all. I'm still in good shape physically, I have proven what I can do for more than 30 years, and I will travel. I just need an assignment and I will be there.
Pro 2000 at LOR reflections

This blog post title refers to what's next for me. I don't have any idea. I'm still going to be teaching full time as I have a few more things to accomplish in that field before I am ready to retire. Rest assured I will be taking photos, whether it's increasing my stock photo offerings, boosting my social media presence, ramping up my sites with Canon and Adobe, or contributing to Google Maps. I expect to be looking for new opportunities in motorsports and will be back shooting the Indy 500 next year for some media outlet. I also plan to return to LeMans but it is not clear what MPS Agency plans to do in 2021. The help and assistance of my friends in France at MPS will never be forgotten and I look forward to seeing all of them again next June. As crazy as this year has been, I am certain that next year will be exactly the opposite. When I said, I had turned the corner, that last statement says it all. See you at a racetrack somewhere soon. When you see me, be sure and say hi. I'll take your picture.