Saturday, February 23, 2008

Indycars - All Together Now

I have held off writing the last few days to see if I was going to awake from a dream and discover the rumors about an open wheel reunion had been a nightmare. But the dream lives on after all, and despite what many on the internet are saying, Tony George has made it happen at long last. I for one do not think it is too late for Indycar racing to regain its prestige and reputation on the US sporting scene.

So go buy a ticket! Get to a race. Or STFU.

Bash Tony all you want but anyone that follows open wheel racing in America must know that the bankruptcy judge did no one any favors when he bypassed George for Kahlkoven's lower offer a few years ago. Let's face it folks, Indy is the goose that laid the golden egg, and Tony has some spare change now that he doesn't have to feed the F1 greed machine anymore. Hasta la vista, Bernie. Welcome back Paul Newman.

Granted, the bleeding has been severe since the first IRL season in 96, and perhaps the fan base won't recover. But at least everyone is together again. I expect 2009 to be a spectacular season, while the series will experience teething pains this year.

I hold out hope for a number of positives. Perhaps the teams will actually share info and parts, as in years past when new teams were struggling to find speed. I'm sure Dallara has a base setup that everyone will get, and Indy will provide lots of track time for teams to sort themselves out.

Lord knows plenty of guys have gotten up to speed in May with unfamiliar equipment and part time crews in the past, so there's no doubt in my mind that the Champ Car guys will adapt. And much more quickly than many may expect. The established IRL teams will still have an advantage this year, but adding a couple more open tests should help everyone get with the program.

I also think we will hear the CCWS guys glad to be back at Indy. Paul Tracy will even have to admit he wants another shot at Helio, and I doubt he will say that Indy "owes" him one.

Newman Haas will be a force to reckon with, especially for the 500. Rahal and Wilson will have no problem going fast in May.

Derek Walker will somehow find some cash and get a car in the show at IMS. If Greg Beck can do it every year, then surely someone with Walker's savvy will be on the pace in a hurry. After all, he beat everyone a few years ago at Mid Ohio on strategy with the Porsche program that couldn't get out of its own way anywhere else.

With Australia and Edmonton on the schedule, the international fans will be treated to the best open wheel competition anywhere once again. I challenge anyone that would say there's a racier series this year, and don't feed me the F1 techno line as those guys don't race. Indycars do.

I can't wait for May and I wish I could get to Florida for the Homestead and St. Pete races, but my summer will be busy in the Midwest with the middle portion of the IRL schedule. It's really even more of a shame now that Michigan is gone from the schedule, as that is the one track where these cars really can stretch their legs and fans can see the whole show from the stands.

I do have a couple of other questions:

When will Tony Stewart come back?

And, is it May yet?

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Motorsports Mayhem: A Racing Photographer's Dilemma

You may have heard an old saying in racing that goes something like this: "There are drivers who have hit the wall, and drivers that are going to." Or, "There are old drivers and bold drivers, but no old, bold drivers." Or, "The only reason people go to races is to see crashes." Each of these is true to a certain extent. If you want to be a racing photographer, shooting wrecks comes with the territory, as the "splash shot" with the moment of wall contact has historically been a wire service staple. Before autofocus and digital imaging came along, shooting a crash was one of the most difficult elements of a race event to shoot. Winner's circle and pit stops are no-brainers. Panning cars as they go by is not much more difficult. Now it seems that almost anyone can grab an EOS camera and call themselves a racing photographer. That's not a good thing in my estimation, and those of us that started years ago don't see much new blood coming into the field.

Many of us started because we loved racing and wanted to get closer to the action. Standing in one spot at Indy day after day for hours at a time waiting for a three second burst of action was often the only way photo stringers could make any money. But race day made it all worthwhile. The vantage points are incredible: nothing between you and the racetrack except other photographers - at least it used to be that way until the safety gurus started putting up fences. At most tracks now, you have to either shoot through the chain link, or share a hole with a dozen other people. But that's another story altogether.

Timing is everything. If the cars are at speed, an incident can happen at any time, so you must stay alert and can't turn your back on the racetrack. An "incident". I've always found that a quaint way of describing a driver's most inglorious moment in a race, like the shot here of Mario Andretti spinning in the first turn at Detroit in 1989. Position and location are almost as important as timing. Go to enough races and you'll know where the likely accident areas are, but they can still happen anywhere, as Dario Franchitti proved twice last year, first catching air on the backstretch at Michigan and then doing it again at Kentucky after the checkered flag had already flown.

One odd thing about shooting crashes: the sound of a car pounding the concrete. Everything gets quiet as a driver pedals out of the throttle or jams on the brakes, but a car (especially an Indy Car) hitting the wall sounds like the slamming of a big heavy car door on a luxury car. Then it really gets quiet. No squealing tires or debris noise raining down around you. Just quiet, and then the cars that are following pedalling even harder to slow down and miss the wreckage and trash that inevitably ends up strewn across the racing line. My hands don't shake anymore after I've shot a crash like they did when I first started, but I still get a rush from shooting a spectacular accident and seeing the driver get out unscathed. Thankfully, I've never shot a fatality but I have been there for some serious injuries and that is never any fun. An old adage has proven true many times over as well: if you see it through the lens, you didn't get it, as the shutter blinds you while the motordrive is humming and what you don't see is what you get.

And I've always found that the language used to describe the mayhem on the track has it's own charm. A driver will hit the fence. Smack the wall. Flip. Get airborne. Pancake the wall. He will get on his head. He may have clouted the barrier or done some agricultural racing on a road course. He might go off. Or end up in the weeds or the toollies. A race might become a crashfest or demolition derby. He may have wadded it up or tried to knock down the walls. I'm sure there are other descriptions you may have heard, but they all usually mean the same thing. And you can bet that there will be a photographer somewhere nearby capturing the moment. The best part nowadays is you don't have to wait for the film to be souped and wonder what you got. With digital, it's all right there instantly, so the anxiety level is greatly reduced over the days when everyone shot Tri-X or Fuji film.

Aside from the hazards of being so close to crashing cars, there are other hazards that every photographer will face at one time or another. And I'm not talking about drunken fans or tornado warnings. Batteries will crap out and the motor drive won't advance. Or the shutter will freeze up. You'll forget something, left behind in your car parked in the infield miles away. Someone will stand in front of you at exactly the wrong moment. You'll leave your extra memory cards at home. You'll be walking back to your spot after a yellow flag and a crash will occur right across from where your cameras are sitting, on top of your camera bag. You're panning with one car and the next one spins but you cut off half the car in the frame. Or turn the lens the wrong way to focus. They've all happened to me.

At least we don't have to worry about banging the end of the roll of film in the middle of an "incident" anymore. Thank God for digital.

The following link has selected spins and crashes going back to 1984, many of them scanned from prints from a variety of racing series.

Crash & Bash

Friday, February 8, 2008

Indycar Union Possible?

Anyone with half a brain knows that big time open wheel racing in America has suffered since the 1996 split into two series. The Indy Racing League (IRL) and the Champ Car World Series (CCWS) have been at each others' throats ever since then. Now it seems there's a real chance for unification, just as the eyes of the racing world look to Daytona for NASCAR's biggest race. So did Hornish, Franchitti, et al leave too soon?

Recent reports by Robin Miller of are almost too good to be true: that Tony George has offered free cars to all CCWS teams and will incorporate several CCWS races in the 2008 IRL season. And that Kevin Kahlkoven is actually listening! But haven't we been down this road before? Just when things seemed to be getting close to a sensible deal in the past, something always seemed to happen and it blew up, both camps going to their separate corners and extending the stalemate. Well that stalemate has just about cost open wheel fans their beloved sport and while I have been a loyal IRL fan from the beginning because of my allegiance to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, I've followed Champ Car and watched their races too. It's been obvious that one series is better than two, and the casual fan only cares about who runs at Indy, so it's better for everyone to get together.

I won't hold my breath that this latest news is for real until I see photos of Tony and Kevin standing together at the yard of bricks shaking hands. It sure would be awesome to see Tracy back at Indy, along with Graham Rahal, Justin Wilson and the rest. Full fields with legitimate bumping at Indy. 24 or more cars at road courses. 30 or more on ovals. Imagine that.

I guess since Tony doesn't have to feed the F1 money monster anymore, he must have some extra cash lying around so what better place to spend it than on top level open wheel racing right here in the good old U. S. of A?

Thank God. So let's strap in, shut up, go fast and turn left. Please!

Saturday, February 2, 2008

"Racing is Life - Everything Else is Just Waiting"

Anyone that enjoys racing movies knows this quote from the late Steve McQueen in "LeMans". I can definitely relate.

I can't even begin to guess how many races I've been to over the years. I do know that if you put all the days I've spent at Indy back-to-back, it would be in excess of 14 months. So I guess racing has been life for me in many respects. As I've been going back through my photo collection for post material like this shot of Keke Rosberg at Detroit in 1984, so many memories have come flooding back to me. Some of them still give me goosebumps even now.

Many of the pix I've attached to this post fall into that category. Awesome events at Michigan International Speedway. Dale Earnhardt in a Busch car at Indianapolis Raceway Park. Shooting in the pits at the Indy 500. Being up close with legends like Gordon Johncock or Rick Mears at Indy. Foyt waving to friends in his Turn 2 suite at Indy after qualifying. Nelson Piquet pondering his lone attempt at Indy, only to be horribly injured in a Turn 4 crash, never to return.

There's something special about being close to the track, peeking over the top of my camera, waiting to react to the slightest bobble, watching the right front tire at Indy to see if it's riding up out of the groove. There have been times during races when shooting becomes effortless and instinctive, where I've tapped into the energy of the moment - entered the same "zone" that athletes talk about when concentration is at its highest. It's only happened to me a couple of times and by the time I realize I'm there it's over. The Indy 500 in 1992 was one of those times - the "Ice Race" - when it was freezing cold and there were crashes galore for the first half of the race on almost every restart due to cold tires. Everything I shot that day was spot on, the cars went by in slow motion, the air was crystal clear and electric at the same time... I could go on and on.

Anyway, what good are a bunch of pictures stuffed in a photo album if no one sees them? That's why I'm here again this evening. Enjoy! Talk soon!

Racing is Life