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

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Been reading your posts and checking out your photography. I am a former crew member and an aspiring racing photographer and would love to see more of your work and learn some more about what you do. Please feel free to check out my site. It'd be great to get some advice from someone like yourself.