Tuesday, December 29, 2009

2009 Full of Memories - Best Is Yet To Come

As the first decade of the 21st Century winds down this week, I am struck by a flood of memories from my fourth racing season shooting for American Motor Journal. Racing news is generally hard to come by at this time of year, and Danica seems to be the main focus of interest with her Nationwide Series deal for next year. Yes, I wrote about it here a couple of months ago long before it was confirmed and I'd still like to see her run at Salem! It was funny that after her first ARCA test at Daytona, she said the car was slow. Well yeah - compared to Indycars, of course the ARCA car is slow!

But she's not the only one in the news. Helio and his girlfriend have just had a baby. Ryan Briscoe has recently gotten married. The IRL is debating whether to go radical or traditional on its next gen chassis spec. Layoffs at IMS have stretched into marketing and PR departments. Tony Stewart was behind a growing motorsports industry show in Indy that has already booked twice as much convention floor space for next year. IZOD came on board as the IRL series sponsor. And the 2010 Indy 500 practice schedule has been cut to one week. Barely a month from now, the Rolex Series will be running the 24 Hours of Daytona and then the madness starts all over again for the various series. I can hardly wait. Please enjoy the following slide show of many of my "Best of 2009" photos from various racing series.

If you've been here before, you know my 2009 season began and ended with the ARCA races at Salem Speedway. In between April 5th and September 19th much has transpired and thousands of miles have been driven or flown chasing race cars. I've heard it said over and over: do what you love and love what you do. I've tried to incorporate that into my life as well, leaving a job I didn't enjoy in October to pursue the passions that drive me onward: photography, racing, basketball and teaching. As Joe DiMaggio said in his famous speech, "Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth." Believe it or not that rings true for me and I trust that the best is yet to come.

After Salem in April came the "Month of May" in Indianapolis; naturally the Indy 500 practice doesn't take a whole month anymore, but oldtimers like me still call it that. I was accepted into the Indy 500 Oldtimers Club this year and had an incredible time shooting all over the place at the track. Turn One was the busiest it's ever been in my experience, and there were days you really had to be on your toes - second day qualifying for instance, when there was a crash the second lap after the track went green in the morning practice. Lots of people got no pictures as the morning "hello, how are ya's" were still being exchanged along the fence. Not me. I got pictures. That's what I do. Then poor Vitor Meira got steamrolled during the 500 and he came down off the wall right in front of me in one of the wilder accidents I have ever photographed at Indianapolis. Indy Lights ran a highly competitive race on Carb Day and Anna Beatriz pounded the inside fence to my left in Turn One - I don't think anyone else got pictures of it as I was the last person in the row of photographers and shot through the gap in the safety fence where the crash trucks come out. The photo which leads this blog post is one of this series and is spectacular for the trash and debris thrown off in the incident.

Soon after the 500, I got to go to Texas for the IRL race for the first time. We stayed at the Champions Marriott within sight of the track. We spotted Tomas Scheckter and Mike Conway in the hot tub the day of the race while we were relaxing by the pool. It was great being there as race team personnel were all around. My brother and his son were there for the weekend and we thoroughly enjoyed the action at Texas.

Two weeks later, my assistant and I took off for Ohio and the Rolex Series at Mid Ohio Sports Car Course, which is absolutely one of my favorite race tracks for photography. From that standpoint, the racing is almost secondary, as they fill the weekend schedule with cars on track from dawn to dusk and memory cards get filled early and often. These beautiful machines sound and look wonderful on the rolling Mid Ohio course and the angles to shoot are plentiful.

Then came a couple of bonus short track races for me. First, on July 2nd, the USAC sprinters were at super-fast Winchester and put on a good show despite a short field for the pavement race. Street stocks also ran with USAC here, and I shot one of my most interesting crash shots as the driver's hands flew off the steering wall after backing hard into the inside wall coming off of Turn 2 onto the backstretch. I had my 300 on at the time, and was right next to the track so through the camera it looked like he was coming right at me. "Keep shooting" was all I could think. The following weekend, I shot the USAC sprinters at Kokomo Speedway on dirt July 12th as part of the Indiana Sprint Week tour and a huge car count meant plenty of qualifying, heat races and a highly competitive feature. I hadn't shot dirt track racing action in awhile, so it was a great refresher for my technique.

At the end of July, NASCAR came to Indy for the Brickyard 400 the last Sunday of the month. It was a boring parade as Juan Pablo Montoya had everyone covered until a bogus pit lane speeding violation took away his chances and manufactured a "race" between Jimmy Johnson and Mark Martin on the final restart. Something has to be done to make the Brickyard more exciting as the last two races have been godawful to watch and shoot, with almost no side by side racing in Turn One. Maybe I need to change locations...

The very next weekend, I was off to Kentucky for the IRL race and I had intended to go down and back in one day as I had done before. I got up that morning and saw on the IRL website that rain had effected Friday's schedule so Indy Lights and the IRL were going to all be jammed into Saturday with an earlier start. I got on my horse earlier than planned and hustled down to Sparta, where more sprinkles as I arrived jumbled the schedule further. As a result, Lights and the IRL ran back to back with essentially no practice; shooting nothing but racing was great. It reminded me of the CART 500 race at Michigan in the late '80's where Saturday was a washout and I was up cooking over a campfire Sunday morning with race cars on the track. For some reason I was not given a race mode sticker for the race so I couldn't shoot any pit action, but I still managed to get a great shot of the IRL's photo finish between Ed Carpenter and Ryan Briscoe while standing on somebody's golf cart behind the pit lane fence near Victory Lane. I got pictures again, despite less than ideal working conditions.

Continuing a hectic mid-summer schedule, I was on the road again the next weekend, heading back to Mid Ohio for the entire three-day ALMS/IRL weekend. Indy Lights were also on the schedule so the track action was non-stop and I shot more pictures that weekend than any other in my life. I even had to go back to my car Saturday morning to download memory cards to my computer after rain hit the ALMS warmup and made for very interesting shooting. I recall sitting on the photog bleachers in Victory Lane Sunday waiting for the last 10 laps of the IRL race to be completed and thinking how tired I was and that I had done a good job that weekend. I wish I knew how many miles I walked those three days at Mid Ohio. It was awesome.

With three weeks away from the track following Mid Ohio to regain a semblance of my personal life, my assistant and I then went to Chicagoland for the IRL/Indy Lights event with the feature on Saturday night another fantastic finish under the lights. This time I had the race mode sticker and got the photo finish pictures from the vantage point I wanted along pit wall. It was also the last time I saw Steve Snoddy, God rest his soul.

Back in Indy for work, I read about the scheduled Rolex test at the Speedway so I managed to get out there to shoot for a couple of hours. I was amazed by the big crowd that turned out to watch a test session for the sorts cars on a workday. The minimal publicity which preceded the test was apparently enough for thousands of gearheads like me to go racing at IMS again. It was like old home week at the track as I saw lots of my photographer friends along the fences snapping away as the test progressed. I sure hope they get an endurance race scheduled for the Rolex Series at Indy and that they run into the darkness. That would be truly spectacular.

Finally, yet it felt like it was suddenly upon me, September 19th my assistant and I went back to Salem for the ARCA night race to wrap up my season of racing. We love that place and I am thankful for the opportunity to shoot the future stars of stock car racing at this famed little track. At the spring race, I got to shake Parker Kligerman's hand before the event and to see him battling for the season title with another young gun, Justin Lofton, several months later was one of those unexpected treats that comes from racing photography.

There were poignant times this year also, with the sudden and unexpected death of photog Steve Snoddy among them. As I write this today, I am filled with gratitude for the opportunity I have had to be involved in so many great events. The people that have helped me over the years are so numerous that it would be impossible to mention them all. Folks like Don Hamilton, Penny Holder and Kevin Thorne at American Motor Journal are at the top of the list. Ron Green and Ron McQueeney at IMS are in there. Keith Pritchard, Glenn Smith and numerous other photographers are there too. Most importantly, I recognize the blessings in this life that have enabled me to travel and shoot the racing caravans of all descriptions while my life has undergone a transformation the last few years. I have not done it alone and I know the best is yet to come. God bless everyone and have a safe and happy new year! Let's go racing!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

IRL Scores Big With IZOD: Danica to Run Nationwide Series

Even though the Indy Racing League season has been over for a month, the IRL continues to make news with the announcement that IZOD will become the series sponsor in 2010. Perhaps more importantly, Danica Patrick also has announced that she will run a limited schedule in the NASCAR Nationwide Series in 2010 for Dale Earnhardt's JR Motorsports team. Already IZOD coming on board has touted a new apparel line it will feature in 2010 of legendary Indy winners and their cars. All reports so far are that the IZOD brass are extremely happy to be involved and although the individual teams may not get direct cash infusions from IZOD's involvement, having their retail clout behind IndyCars should benefit everyone from a marketing visibility standpoint.

Danica's move to NASCAR has been much discussed this season, and feared by many to be a death knell for the IRL. I do not believe that will be the case at all. As the saying goes, a rising tide raises all boats, and the combination of IZOD's backing and Danica's stock car excursion should do just that. If it is true that she will not run NASCAR during the time period between the start of the IRL season and the 2010 Indy 500, that still leaves 18 Nationwide dates she could possibly make. If she gets to test this winter for JR and feels she is ready for Daytona, then imagine the boost that will give both series. A month before the IRL opens in Brazil, the series' biggest star and arguably only household name will be all over the motorsports media. What would "Go Daddy" do with that? And how many times do you think Michael Andretti will be interviewed about her during the month of February? That can only be good as everyone is going to want to see how this pint sized racing dynamo will handle the big heavy stock cars, absent the IRL's huge tires and mega-downforce. I wouldn't want to be the first NASCAR guy to put her in the fence as there might be some fisticuffs! Even if she doesn't run Daytona, there's still Fontana and Vegas races before the IRL season starts that she could run to just get seat time and get acclimated. Lord knows she will need the laps. I hope someone like Tony Stewart can give her some tips and I hope that Jr. is able to put a team behind her that gives her a real chance to win some races.

Looking down the road after the Indy 500, Danica could be racing somewhere almost every weekend through the end of November in 2010 if her contracts are set up right. And you can bet her presence will be a huge boost for Nationwide's ticket sales, race attendance and television ratings. She has always been kind on equipment and rarely had a major incident in the IRL, and I'm sure that would be the same in NASCAR unless someone gives her the bump and run. You just know it is going to happen and she is going to have to learn to handle a loose race car as the stockers seem to run best that way - quite a contrast to IndyCars which are essentially nailed to the track with downforce and are more likely to push than go loose. If loose is fast in a Nationwide car, then she better learn quickly. After Indy, she could run a lot of great tracks but the one I would be most excited about would be the road course at Montreal at the end of August. I'm sure she could more than hold her own there. With the IRL season wrapping up October 2, 2010, she would then have six Nationwdie races to run without schedule conflicts and she could really focus on stock cars, as well as probably make her Sprint Cup Series debut. That could make things really interesting in 2011 if she intends to be ready for the Daytona 500.

And what if she wins the Indy 500 in 2010? How can Andretti protect his investment in Danica beyond the new three year deal he has with her? I don't have the answers, but there's going to be more money coming to the IRL in the next few years as many fans are sick of NASCAR's WWE tendencies, phantom debris yellow flags, and the artificial chase points championship setup. The most recent Talladega race was a good example: I never thought they could put on a boring race there, but somehow they managed. Let them race!

Regardless of what happens, Danica is sure to have an impact on both IndyCars and NASCAR in 2010 and IZOD could be just the heavyweight marketing partner the IRL has been looking for. Next year, you won't be able to talk about one series without mentioning the other where Danica is concerned, and I think that along should bring a lot of female race fans to the IRL tracks. The IZOD people see IndyCars as sexy so you can bet your VISA card they will play that to the hilt in 2010.

I can't wait to get started, but I'd still like to see Danica run the Salem high banks!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Championship Weekend: Vets & Young Guns Rule

On a glorious October weekend for racing from coast to coast, Dario Franchitti led the champion's parade by taking the Indycar season finale at Miami Homestead by playing the tortoise to the hares of competitors Ryan Briscoe and teammate Scott Dixon, snookering the field on fuel strategy to take the season crown in the Indy Racing League. In the first IRL race ever run caution-free, Dario capped off his impressive return to open wheel racing with style as the top three in points set a blistering pace all day, lapping everyone but each other. It was a fantastic display of driving from all the IRL competitors as lots of squirrely moments were experienced as the only incident for the day occurred in pit lane as Danica and Dan Wheldon got together when Wheldon got released just as she was coming into her pit box. Congratulations to Dario and the Target Ganassi team for an awesome season. It's still hard for me to believe that it is over. The withdrawal symptoms are already beginning to show themselves; it's a good thing I have the races recorded for viewing this winter!

In the American LeMans series, Scott Sharp and David Brabham of Patron Highcroft Racing took the LMP1 class season title on the "left coast" following the season finale at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. Adrian Fernandez and Luis Diaz completed an Acura sweep of season honors by taking the LMP2 category title. Let's hope they can make it back in 2010 if sponsorship concerns can be overcome and I'm sure the Acura brass would love to see some more compeitition next year in ALMS. The Flying Lizard bunch ruled GT2 with Jorg Bermeister and Patrick Long taking the season honors in their Porsche while the Corvette of Oliver Gavin and Olivier Beretta really only had to worry about their teammates most of the year in GT1.

In the Rolex Grand Am series, The Gainsco crew was once again led by Alex Gurney and Jon Fogarty in arguably the most competitive sports car series running in North America today. I look forward to even higher levels of excitement for this series in 2010, especially if the recent test at Indianapolis Motor Speedway results in a 2011 race date as part of the Speedway's Centennial Celebration. Congratulations are also due for the Farnbacher Loles team for taking the GT title in their Porsche.

Finally, hats off to Justin Lofton who eked out a close series title win over Parker Kligerman who dominated the ARCA winer's circle this year but fell short on the basis of bonus points which cost him the title. In a true battle of the young guns, the ARCA series showcased some of the best young oval track talent in the USA this season and I look forward to an even more exciting season in 2010. Congratulations to all the winners! I'm sure there were some nice parties thrown this weekend. I will see you all at the race track next year.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Three Fight for Indycar Season Title at Miami Homestead

It's hard to believe that the 2009 Indycar season is about to be over with the finale tomorrow at Miami Homestead. Oh how I would love to be there! But Versus will have to be my surrogate for tonight's preview and qualifying shows, plus the race tomorrow. It should be one helluva show with the series title down to three men and 8 points of separation between them. With a 10 point margin between first and second place race points, it is still possible that Dixon could win by finishing second if he gets pole position and leads the most laps. He also has the tie-breaker over Briscoe based on season wins. Dario is in the catbird seat and he and Dixon have been down this road before when they duked it out at Chicagoland in that season's last race.

I have to root for Dario as my sentimental favorite, having come back so strong from a one year "vacation" in NASCAR. If Briscoe doesn't get a grip on his excitement level tomorrow, then look for him to make another mistake like he did in Japan when he had the race won and blew it coming out of the pits. Dixon is as cool as they come so I don't see him having any problems staying up front, so my guess is it will be the Target boys battling for the honors with fuel and pit strategy possibly taking the day. So Dario, please let Dixon lead will ya! Ride around in his draft and let Dixie break the air for once, rather than the other way around. If Dixon is allowed to just cruise around in second or third most of the race, he has shown the ability numerous times to go farther on a tank of fuel than anyone else, so he probably gets the race win and season championship. After all is said and done, I will come back with my favorite moments of the season - and there have been a bunch of them. Including Indy, I was fortunate to shoot five IRL races for American Motor Journal this year and I had a blast at every one of them.

While the IRL teams have taken a bit of a breather in the schedule recently, there is much related news worth noting. Dixon ran for de Ferran's ALMS team at Petite LeMans and spun off into the barriers on a damp track - not good form Scottie! Speaking of racers named Scott - how about Scott Sharp's crash at Road Atlanta! OMG is he a lucky man. Those Acura's sure are tough! Several teams tested at Indianapolis and at Miami in the weeks leading up to this race and Vitor Meira got back into Foyt's car for the first seat time since his back-breaking wreck in the Indy 500 this year. AJ gave him a vote of confidence for 2010 and assured him the ride is still his and Vitor was quickly up to speed in the test. Sarah Fisher will be in pink livery for Breast Cancer Awareness this weekend and has announced a busier schedule for herself in 2010 (nine races) and a second car in four races for Jay Howard, who got the boot at Indy this year from another team after not looking very confident. He was awfully fast in Indy Lights a couple of years ago so of course I have to hope anyone who shares my name will do well.

The biggest off-track news is the continuing saga of Danica Patrick. Reports are she has signed a new three year deal with AGR but her "people" have not confirmed it. Meanwhile, JR Motorsports is supposedly trying to set up a partial schedule for her in their Nationwide car for next season when there are no IRL conflicts. Personally, I'd love to see her go to Salem in an ARCA car! Wouldn't that be a hoot? They'd have fans stacked on top of one another down there, and I'm sure the guy we saw last month in the parking lot who told us "he growed up there" would be in attendance along with all his cousins. That would be something to see, but it probably won't happen.

I'll be watching karts at Mark Dismore's New Castle, Indiana track on Sunday so I'm glad the IRL runs tomorrow. I'll get to see a good friend of mine race; he was crazy enough to let me do some laps in it there back in April and since I still haven't scared myself yet, I guess I will keep going back. Anyway, that's about enough for now, so see y'all soon! Go to a racetrack near you this weekend.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Lofton Takes Salem ARCA Win and Points Lead Over Kligerman

Young guns Justin Lofton and Parker Kligerman fought it out with amazing restraint and professionalism at Salem Speedway Saturday night with Lofton coming out the victor after some tense moments over the last few laps. Youth was well served on a beautiful southern Indiana night at Salem's infamous high banks as 16 year old Chris Buescher took the pole and Joey Coulter ran away with the middle third of the race before cutting a tire and finding the wall. Dakoda Armstrong came through for third. Lofton also took command of the ARCA season points lead with just two races left even though Kligerman fought back from a lap down late in the race and put on a furious challenge for the win. Lofton started the evening ahead on points by virtue of his second place starting position while Kligerman started fifth. The gap is now 25 points and the Salem finish sets up a great season ending duel in this highly competitive series.

On a night when Salem honored its legacy of more than 50 years of ARCA stock car racing by saluting short track legends before the 200 lap feature, local hero Frank Kimmel ended up fourth but was never really a factor for the win. Coulter was most impressive as he had lapped everyone except Lofton by the time the last 25 laps were approaching. Lofton used a little bump & run in turns one and two to get past him and within half a lap, Coulter cut a tire and hit the turn 3 fence to end his night. Kligerman had just been lapped by Coulter a few laps before this incident so he got the lucky dog pass back onto the lead lap but he was mired behind a dozen or so lapped cars on the final restart. Amazingly, he threaded his way through the pack to find Lofton and with about 10 laps to go, he made several attempts to pass for the lead but could never quite get fully alongside Lofton. Lofton noted after the race that Kligerman could have given him the bumper and moved him out of the way, but they raced clean and hard to the checkers.

All in all, it was a very entertaining night at a legendary short track. I don't know of anything better to do on a late summer Saturday night than go short track racing, and I think the healthy crowd at the event must have felt the same way.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

ARCA ReMax Series at Salem Next; IRL Fight to Homestead

While the Indycars are halfway around the globe in Japan, I am in Indy and we are heading south to Salem Speedway today for the ARCA ReMax Series race where young guns Justin Lofton and Parker Kligerman are poised to duel for season championship honors, tied for the points lead with only two more races to go after today. The fall night race at Salem is always a treat as the beating & banging among 30 or so competitors is always entertaining. And don't count out local favorite Frank Kimmel as he has won at Salem perhaps more than any other entrant and with no real shot at the season title from third, you can bet he will go for broke tonight to get a win. This has been an awesome season for Parker who, as a Penske development driver, you just know is getting great equipment and tech support. We're planning to get there for pole qualifying so I'm looking forward to seeing how it plays out.

This is likely going to be my last race worked this season and I suppose it is appropriate that my 2009 racing season is bookended at Salem. It's a fun track to shoot with lots of side by side racing on the high banks, but it can also be quite nerve wracking working in the pits. This is especially true for the ARCA race as the curving pit lane with only one lane for outbound traffic is exceptionally tight and the pit boxes are small. There hardly seems to be any room for the teams to work, let alone for a tall guy like me to wedge myself in to get a few pictures. I really have to watch what's going on to stay out of the way and still do my job without effecting the teams.

Meanwhile in Japan, Ryan Briscoe threw away a golden opportunity to seize the series points battle, getting sideways and hitting pit wall while leading as a caution came out when all he had to do was get out cleanly and he probably had an easy win. Briscoe finished laps down after repairs and last year's history-making winner Danica was never really a factor which left the Target boys fighting it out amongst themselves for the victory. Dixon got out of the pits ahead of Dario on the last round of stops just as Hunter-Reay hit the fence to bring out the final yellow and cruised to the checkers from there. NHL teammates Rahal and Servia rounded out the top four, Mario Moraes overcame a fueling problem to take fifth and Danica wound up sixth.

So now the season points fight is tight as wet jeans going to Miami and the top three all have a realistic chance to win the title. Dixon, Dario and Briscoe now will fight over the 53 points still available for the series championship in a few weeks. I wish I could be there. Maybe next year.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Steve Snoddy: We Barely Knew Ye...

I found out tonight that Steve would have been 60 today. There was a celebration of his life at the Brickyard Crossing resort this evening and it was standing room only - photographers, IRL and IMS officials, television and radio personalities, and numerous others. I hope Steve's son's Stuart finds some solace in knowing that his racing family will miss Steve very much. I felt honored to be there and want to say thanks to those who let me know via email and Facebook.

I can't honestly say I was a friend of Steve's so perhaps I have no business even writing this, but there are moments from our interaction over the years that I feel compelled to share. Others who knew him better than I did can certainly add chapter and verse to these experiences, but having just seen him at the Chicagoland IRL race two weekends ago, to learn about his sudden passing was a shock and reminds me that the time to say what is felt is now as tomorrow could be too late.

My first year shooting the Indy 500 was 1984 and looking back on it now, I was completely out of my league. But I wanted to be involved and was eager to learn. I didn't know who Steve was but I knew he was "somebody" at IMS. Over the next few years, I would run into him occasionally at Firehouse Color Lab on East Washington picking up prints and he was always willing to offer tips and advice. "Fill the frame ", he'd say. "Be patient and let the cars come to you" was another tidbit I remembered. His images always seemed tack sharp while I was happy then to get a handful of good images out of a roll of 36. As it happens at the Speedway, I learned pretty quickly who he was in the network of racing photographers and my respect for his work only grew over the years.

I was blessed with the opportunity to work for the IMS staff from 1992 through 1996 and got to see Steve more often but I was still the low man on the totem pole and he was the accomplished photog. He was clearly a ringleader of the group and obviously loved what he was doing at IMS. Four or five years ago, I was playing hooky from work and just "happened" to be at IMS when an IROC test was going on, so I thought I would stop in the Indy 500 photo office in the Speedway Museum to see if Ron McQueeney was around. I wanted to talk with Ron about some of the mistakes I had made while working for him and try and set things right with him if I could. To my surprise, Ron was in his office and was willing to give me a few minutes of his time. Steve was there that day and every so often since then, when I saw Steve at a racetrack, he would ask me how I was doing. He always seemed genuinely concerned and I really appreciated that. He didn't need to do that and it was a reflection of the kind of guy I began to know.

Fast forward to April 2009 at Salem Speedway for the ARCA race. Some of us were standing around on pit lane before the driver autograph session and Steve walked up. It was the same weekend as the St. Petersburg IRL event so I was surprised to see him and asked him what he was doing at an ARCA race at Salem. He said "he needed to shoot a race" and that said it all. It was the first race of the 2009 season for me after a long winter and I knew exactly what he meant.

Then at the Texas IRL race in June, I was in the media center at one point trying to cool off and he asked me about doing something for him. I asked if he needed help and he said there was a photographer who might be interested in pictures of the NASCAR truck race and gave me her name and phone number. He said he was counting on me and whatever I could work out money-wise would be between me and her so I called her and found out what she needed. I felt like he was throwing me a bone, and even though the opportunity didn't bear any immediate fruit, I was grateful that he felt I could help someone else out -- there were plenty of other photographers there that weekend he could have gone to rather than me.

Just two weeks ago at Chicagoland Speedway where Steve served as the track photographer as well as shooting for the IRL, we were standing in the lunch line Saturday afternoon chatting and I introduced him to someone that was fairly new to racing photography and he was gracious and accommodating. This was hours after the morning photo meeting where I had talked with him about getting a special sticker for outside wall access. I had jokingly addressed him as "Mr. Snoddy" that morning and he was willing to help (as usual) and told me what to do next year to be sure I got that access.

Around this same time, I had contacted the photographer from Steve's Texas lead through Facebook and mentioned in my friend request that I owed Steve a thanks for the chance to help her out. A few days later, I got the news that Steve had passed away unexpectedly and was completely taken aback. Tonight's celebration at the Brickyard Crossing was very touching and I know there were many more who would have attended but could not due to distance. There was a lot of love in that room tonight. So if I didn't say this before, I regret that: tonight I say, "Thanks Steve".

Godspeed, Mr. Snoddy.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Indycar Title Chase Winding Down - Silly Season In Full Swing

Since my last post to American Motor Journal about the fantastic Chicagoland IRL finish, I've had time to reflect on what has been an awesome season title chase. It's now down to Briscoe, Dixon and Dario with two races to go, and there is bound to be fireworks somewhere along the line before the season winds up at Miami Homestead. The IRL oval races have taken a turn for the better since Kentucky as photo finishes there and at Chicagoland will attest. Motegi is a different kind of oval however, and fuel consumption strategy places a bigger role than aero tweaks, with its odd shape and lack of banking. I'm sure the folks at Honda and Japanese fans are looking forward to it.

Danica returns to Motegi where she got her lone Indycar win last year, and she is reported to be seriously considering running NASCAR Nationwide races next year in addition to the full IRL season. That sounds like a good move for her, and if Scott Speed can go from F1 to ARCA, getting seat time in the heavy taxicabs before committing to a full series switch must be a good thing for Danica. Even my man Tony Stewart has reportedly been consulted by Danica, and he is being quoted as saying she is serious about making the move.

Speaking of Honda folks, will Hideki be back in the AGR stable next year or will the Formula Dream yen go elsewhere? There sure were a lot of Formula Dream people at Chicagoland, and with reports that Dixon had considered moving to Gil de Ferran's new team in 2010 before re-signing with Ganassi, can the sponsor move from AGR to de Ferran be far behind? Will Takume Sato end up behind the wheel at de Ferran? I doubt that crashing out at Chicagoland helped Hideki's cause much, even though he had some very encouraging runs lately.

And how will the changes at AGR play out, now that Michael Andretti is going to be sole owner of the team, and his partners are going to focus on Andretti Green Promotions? If the Formula Dream money goes elsewhere, re-signing Danica has to be of paramount importance for Andretti. The team is probably going to have to make some other changes as well, as overall they have not done well in 2009. I would expect TK to go for broke in the last two races to try to get one in the win column, even though Danica is leading the charge in the season points for the team.

The guy I think could surprise everyone these last two races is at KV Racing however: Mario Moraes was truly spectacular at Chicagoland and it looks like he's got this oval track thing figured out. He was strong at Indy before he and Marco tangled on the first lap so he could do well at Motegi and steal one yet.

Everyone else is pretty much running for bragging rights, or a contract for 2010. What's going to happen to Vitor Meira? Will Wheldon jump back to AGR from Panther? And what about Vision Racing? The Hulman purse strings have been cinched up tight so Tony George is going to have to drum up some sponsors it looks like, which could be bad news for Ed Carpenter and the team, especially since Eddie has looked so good in the last two oval races and had his best ever road course finish at Sonoma.

With MotoGP done in Indy for another year, and the Grand Am series running a very popular and successful open test at IMS this past week, much remains to be revealed in the racing capital of the world over the next few weeks. I'd like to see Dario take the IRL title, and I hope the teams pit blunder at Chicagoland doesn't prove fatal to his title chances. I'd also like to see IMS renew the MotoGP deal and get some more general admission tickets out there for race day. The fans of the knee-draggers don't want to sit in the grandstands - they want to go where the bikes corner and pass, so give them what they want Mr. Belskus! And let's hope the Speedway management can find a way to run an endurance race in the fall with the Grand Am series, maybe as their season finale, and run it into the night on a Saturday. Finally, when the musical chairs end in the IRL after this season, let's hope they can get back to 26 or 28 cars at every race next year and continue to show the way with the fastest, closest racing on the planet.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Brandon Wagner Takes Chicagoland Indy Lights Pole

Brandon Wagner came from nowhere in practice to take the Indy Lights pole todat at Chicagoland with an average of 189.954. Whereas everyone else went slower from the morning practice, he ran about the same as his top practice lap when he had been 15th of 16 cars on the track. Wade Cunningham will start on row 1 alongside Wagner. Anna Beatriz had mechanical problems and never took the green after a warmup lap in qualifying so she will start in the last road. Series leader JR Hildebrand had a sour sounding engine and will also start near the back.

Chicagoland Indy Lights On Track - Cunningham Quickest

Live from the media center at Chicagoland Speedway on a gray and windy day, the weather may be chilly but the Indy Lights teams have finished their hot laps and are now preparing to qualify. Wade Cunningham had fast time in this morning's practice session, followed by season points leader JR Hildebrand, who has a chance to clinch the Indy Lights championship today if he finishes 13th or better. The Lights cars are always entertaining on the ovals and today should be no different. Packs of 5 or more cars is not unusual and when I saw them doing that in practice this morning, I thought they must be crazy. Conditions today, however, are vastly different than yesterday, so all 16 teams were working on race setups the first half of the session and then focusing on changes for qualifying the second half.

My personal favorite Indy Lights driver is Ana Beatriz, who I saw win her first race at Nashville in 2008, and who had a wicked crash at Indy near me in May. I got this shot as practice wound down and the team was doing lots of work trying to tweak her shocks for qualifying. She ended up fourth quick in the practice session and should be a leading contender in the race today. I hope she can graduate to IRL next season!

Back with more later. Indy Lights qualifying is next followed by the Lights race and then IRL under the lights. Both should be entertaining. Ryan Briscoe is on pole for the IRL feature and I'm still not ready to make my pick yet...

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Chicagoland IRL Points Battle Looms; Power Out - Phillipe Lucky

Dario Franchitti had them all covered at Sonoma this past weekend and jumped past teammate Scott Dixon into second place in the season points standings behind Penske rival Ryan Briscoe. Penske's stellar stand-in Will Power survived the scariest crash of the season with broken vertebrate but the really lucky driver was Nelson Phillipe, who had a one-off ride on the road course for Conquest Racing. With only three races left, all on ovals, it's a shame that Power won't be able to take part as he has been a more than capable team player for Penske this season. And even though they don't typically come anywhere close to 200 mph on the road courses, Power's accident cresting a blind turn goes to show just how dangerous these IRL events can be; no one should ever take driver safety for granted as anything can happen. With the series heading to Chicagoland this weekend, that will be even more true since three-wide Indycar racing and close quarter battles up and down the field are almost assured if past history is any indication. Crashes are a part of the sport and you better believe that Ryan Briscoe knows a thing or two about the dangers on the fast Chicagoland oval. Let's hope for a safe and competitive weekend. At least there are no blind corners!

The other big news heading into the home stretch of the IRL season is that Danica won't be waving goodbye to the Indycar series as she is reported to be close to signing a deal with Andretti Green Racing, and next year Michal Andretti will be the sole owner, as his partners in AGR are going to focus their efforts on the Andretti Green Promotions company that promotes IRL events in Toronto and elsewhere. I was wrong a month or so ago when I guessed that Danica might jump to Penske but regardless, having her stay in the IRL is an essential element for the series to grow in popularity as far as I am concerned. Just judging from the number of people at the tracks (men, women, little girls - it doesn't matter) wearing Danica gear, it is obvious that when speaking of the IRL, they know about Danica. We really can't afford to lose her, and especially not to NASCAR. While AGR hasn't done much for her on the track this year, the team seems to be getting its act together, so maybe she can repeat in Japan or steal a win at Chicago or Homestead.

Scott Dixon, on the other hand, is almost too cool for his own good sometimes, but man does he know how to peddle it and save fuel on the ovals. Third in the standings doesn't mean he is out of contention by any means, and I'm hoping this weekend has a similar fantastic finish as they had at Chicagoland in 2007 when the race wasn't decided until the last turn of the last lap. And it was fuel that made the difference that time, with Dixon sputtering and Dario flashing by to take the win and the season title. After getting punted by Marco Andretti on the last lap at Sonoma this past weekend, I'm sure Scotty D will have something up his sleeve for everyone this weekend. Dixon apparently took a look at jumping to Gil de Ferran's new team for 2010 but that was probably just for bargaining leverage. Lord knows with the success he has had at Target Ganassi, that would be awfully hard to match with a new team. He's in the best seat in the house right now and he's still the man to beat for the season title. I know he won't go down without a fight.

And the fight could come from inside the Target team, as Dario has done a fantastic job this year after his NASCAR "vacation" and he clearly knows how to win races and season titles. He has looked really relaxed all season long and seems to be enjoying his return to open wheel. Certainly his results warrant the show of confidence that Ganassi provided by bringing him back to the IRL when the taxicab money went poof. His Chicagoland win of 2007 was the capper to an awesome season for Dario and the new long, curly locks contrast sharply with the high & tight look he had that year. No one should doubt Dario's willingness to take chances to win these last three races and he appears to be as fearless as ever, despite the aerial shows he put on at Michigan and Nashville in 2007 during his championship season. We'll have none of that this weekend, if you please. I've always liked Dario and I just wish they would leave Mrs. Franchitti out of the broadcasts as I really think she'd much rather just let Dario have the spotlight. Why else would she wear the same floppy hat every race?

Which finally brings me to the man everyone is chasing: Ryan Briscoe. He's been strong all season and he has certainly resurrected his career with his results at Penske Racing. Most IRL fans will remember the awesome wreck he was in at Chicagoland a few years back driving for (guess who?) Chip Ganassi, during the season of crashes for the team when he and Dixon wadded up a number of underpowered Toyota-engined Target cars trying to stay with the leaders. And after his tangle with Danica at the Indy 500 in 2008 followed some early season struggles, a win at Milwaukee last year sure righted his ship and Captain Penske has been unwavering in his support of Ryan. That's good news for the team but bad news for anyone not driving a red and white car this weekend, I'm afraid, as he snookered Ed Carpenter at Texas in June in the closest finish of the year and he will surely be part of any photo finish this weekend at Chicagoland.

This track has a history of many of the closest IRL finishes ever, so I am really looking forward to getting back there for my fourth IRL race in a row at the track. The Indy Lights are also on the agenda Saturday, following ARCA and the Camping World Truck series Friday night which I will probably miss due to other commitments. I expect to be posting from the media center at various times Saturday and I will save my prediction for the IRL race winner until I've had a few whiffs of ethanol exhaust. Stop by again soon, or come find me at the track if you make it out. I'll be accompanied by my able assistant this weekend so it should be a blast!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Mid Ohio Madness - All Racing, All The Time

After a long and hectic weekend at Mid Ohio shooting a ridiculous number of images, walking several miles over hill and dale, and falling asleep each night with the hum of race engines in my ears, some might wonder if I really have been out in the sun too long with this post. Three straight days at this track is like a week's worth of racing most anywhere else, with so many sessions crammed back to back to back. I wouldn't want it any other way and the technical and creative challenges I faced last weekend made it all the more interesting. Throw in a little rain Saturday morning and high heat and humidity on Sunday, and you have a racing photog's best recipe for either disaster or something approaching the "zone" that many athletes have experienced. The top dressing for it all is luck - being in the right place at the right time and having a camera ready. I can't say I really found that zone this past weekend, but after a few thousand pix and as many cars flying by, everything did slow down and I was able to quickly dial in about any shot I wanted. By the time the IRL race was over Sunday, I was sitting on the photographers' bleacher in victory lane and thinking to myself that I had done a pretty good job. And I had 16 gig of images, sore feet and a back seat full of sweaty clothes in my car to show for it.

On the drive home, another thing struck me, having been to Mid Ohio several times the last few years to shoot both the ALMS and Rolex Grand Am events. While I love the big prototypes, the addition of the "Challenge" class cars to this ALMS race was disappointing to watch, as they were clearly just field fillers. Anyone can seemingly get a Porsche 911 and go racing. Sure it makes it interesting for the drivers because of the huge differential in top speeds, but should a P1 car have to spend half the race flashing his brights at the slower cars like de Ferran seemed to? How long before a P1 or P2 car rounds a blind corner at top speed and plows into a stalled GT car that is just there to build the car count? God forbid it should happen.

What I'm really wondering is what will be the catalyst for a sports car unification ala Indycar and Champ Car? Let the GT cars run their own races as support categories except in the endurance races - Daytona, Sebring, LeMans and Petit LeMans. Maybe add Indianapolis to the mix if they can figure out how to make a 6 hour or 1000k event work on the IMS road course. Get everyone together for those races, and let the prototypes hammer one another in the sprint races. Of course there are a number of problems with that approach, not the least of which is each series philosophy on equipment. Rolex is more customer car oriented with lower tech requirements and Hoosier spec tires. This leads to big lap time differences compared to ALMS so an equivalency formula of some kind would be needed; often simply adding weight is enough to do the trick.

For example, the Pontiac Riley of Gurney and Fogarty were on the Rolex Mid Ohio pole this past June at 1:18.059 and the last DP car qualified at 1:24.086 back in 19th. Conditions were dry but not as hot as this past weekend. Thirteen GT cars followed in a range from 1:26.171 to 1:32.680 for a total car count of 32 machines. The Rolex series has been known for its "gentleman" racers, sportsmen with cash to burn who help fund an entry so they can race with the big boys. It would be hard to argue that Alex Gurney, Scott Pruett and others like Max Angelelli or Romain Dumas couldn't hold their own regardless of what sports car series they were in. The Rolex race ran 2 hours 45 minutes and the winners completed 111 laps with a fastest race lap of 1:18.909 by the 6th place Ford Riley of Michael Shank Racing.

By contrast, six weeks after the Rolex event, ALMS fielded just 26 cars, with only 10 prototypes in P1 and P2 combined. Pole winner Gil de Ferran stopped the clocks at 1:09.443 while the slowest P2 car qualified at 1:15.898. The slowest production based car ran 1:29.470. De Ferran's fastest race lap was 1:11.105 and ALMS ran 118 laps in the same 2 hour 45 minute race window in much hotter conditions. So there would obviously be some work to do to for the manufacturer and technology based ALMS series to see true competition from the Rolex brigade.

Would the result yield better racing for sports car fans? I sure don't know, but the crowd at the Rolex event is paltry in comparison to the ALMS/IRL weekend. Maybe the fact that the Rolex race is run late Saturday afternoon to get on TV has something to do with it. Maybe the fans like the combo event where they can see IRL's high speed open wheel stars on the same day as the ALMS. I don't know what the answer is, but everyone seems to sing the blues amid a cry of "in this economy etc., etc., ...) so something is probably going to have to give. How long will Acura want to be the lone manufacturer at the top of the podium? So far it's working for the parent company Honda in the IRL, but I do not think they would shy away from competition. After all, they decided to enter sports car racing when the mighty Audi's ruled the roost, and even Audi succumbed to the doldrums of the worldwide car market this year and bailed out on full season racing at the top levels. Would more manufacturers bring sports car racing together so we could see 30 or so prototypes battle it out in their own feature races?

Who knows? I'm just asking, that's all. And everyone knows how to become a millionaire in racing - you start with ten. See you at the race track.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Mid Ohio ALMS Win goes to de Ferran; Briscoe on IRL Pole

Gil de Ferran followed up his retirement announcement with a dominating win at Mid Ohio today in the P1 class with co-driver Simon Pagenaud. The 66 Acura machine jumped into the lead from the start and while the similar Patron sponsored Acura piloted by Scott Sharp and David Brabham gave chase all afternoon, they were no match for the de Ferran team. Acura completed a sweep of the top three spots on the track by taking the P2 class win as well, as Adrian Fernandez and Luis Diaz brought the Lowe's car home unscratched. I suppose this was fitting in the "Acura Sports Car Challenge."

It was a busy day at Mid Ohio with cars on the track shortly after 8 a.m. past 6:45 p.m. when I left. The Indy Lights series made their first appearance on the track early in the day and it rained during the last 20 minutes of the IRL practice session which follwed the Lights. That meant the ALMS cars had a wet track for their final warm-up session and the Lights had a drying track to contend with, so tire changes and dropping lap times marked the Lights qualifying. By the time the IRL qualifying began, the track was fully dry, and it was fun to watch the knockout qualifying as teams went from the "blacks" to the "reds" optional tires to set faster and faster times as the session went on. Ryan Briscoe took pole from the vastly improved Dale Coyne Racing team and its driver Justin Wilson who will start second. Briscoe's IRL pole time was about two mph quicker than the ALMS P1 pole it has been extremely interesting to see how each series attacks this undulating road course.

Sunday should be a lot of fun as there are still two races to cover with the Lights going off first in the morning and the Indycars following in the early afternoon. I've walked at least five miles today trying to hit all the angles I could think of, so tomorrow will likely involve more of the same. Passing will be difficult for the IRL cars, even with the push-to-pass feature in play, so it may come down to pit work and track position at the front. If Wilson can get the jump on Briscoe at the start, that could set the tone for the race.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Gil de Ferran Takes ALMS Pole at Mid Ohio

One day, open wheel and sports car veteran Gil de Ferran announces he will step out of the Acura cockpit in ALMS and the next, he goes out and puts the car on pole! A winner at every level, de Ferran showed the P1 competition the way and led an Acura sweep of the top two class positions as Luis Diaz swept the Lowe's Fernandez machine into the first P2 slot. While the ALMS car count in P1 and P2 still eaves much to be desired with the departure of Audi this season, these cars are beautiful and sound even better. And there's probably no better place to showcase skills for the road racing crowd than Mid Ohio. For a Friday practice and qualifying day, the sports car enthusiasts were out in droves. I'm sure the place will be jammed to the gills tomorrow for the featured ALMS race.

The Indycars didn't get on track until late in the afternoon and you really needed a program today to keep everything straight. Robert Doornbos bailed out of Newman Haas Lanigan this week and is a teammate to EJ Viso at HVM this weekend. Oriol Servia jumped right into "Bobby D's" former seat and spent the afternoon session getting comfortable in the 06 car, not having been in an Indycar since May at the Indy 500. And who was in the 5 car normally piloted by Mario Moraes but Paul Tracy? I thought the helmet style with the Monster energy drink logos looked odd! The IRL and Lights qualifying sessions are tomorrow for Sunday races so it should be an interesting day. It is supposed to be close to 90 degrees the rest of the weekend so that will surely test everyone's stamina.

I covered about two-thirds of the track today and tried to go where the light was best. One of the great things about shooting road racing, especially at a track like Mid Ohio, is the variety of cars and angles to photograph. Now I'm sitting in a Super 8 and watching the Rolex cars at Watkins Glen on Speed TV, so it doesn't get much better than this. If only the photo meeting weren't so darn early tomorrow!

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Briscoe Edges Carpenter at Kentucky Speedway

Of all people to be racing wheel to wheel for an Indycar Series win, I'm sure Ryan Briscoe would not have picked Ed Carpenter. But that was one helluva run by Carpenter and the changes made by the IRL brass seemed to have worked as there was lots of side by side racing throughout the field. Briscoe survived a brush with the wall and a persistently aggressive charge by Carpenter to snag the win in a near photo-finish. The margin was said to be 0.0016 seconds, the closest IRL finish ever at Kentucky, and the average speed was over 200 mph. The racing was mostly clean and green all night and the number of laps led by Carpenter tonight were probably more than the rest of his IRL career combined. He had the low line on Briscoe late and held his own for at least 10 laps wheel to wheel in a really spectacular display of driving. Perhaps the Vision Racing team is coming into its own now that Tony George is able to focus his attentions on what the team needs.

Standing in Victory Lane waiting for the ceremonies and the hat dancing to begin, a few sprinkles were felt and everyone really got lucky tonight. Briscoe has now taken the IRL season points lead heading to Mid Ohio next weekend, a track he won on last year. Early int he race, it looked like the Target-Penske juggernaut was going to make the race another parade, but the push-to-pass technology and other aero changes combined to produce a very entertaining Indycar race.

The other news coming out of Kentucky this weeked was the 2010 IRL schedule, which features 17 races along with a couple notable additions and deletions. Gone are Richmond and Milwaukee. New are Brazil and Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama. It will be the first time in the IRL's history that there will be fewer oval races than road/street circuits and the league is entering into a crucial year. Unification came last year and the economy tanked this year, so next year could be critical to see how the IRL responds to new leadership and an expanded international presence. The usenet group folks still howl about how this looks a lot like CART or Champ Car, but it is the only major open wheel series running at a top level for American fans to see. Everyone knows I've been an IRL supporter from the beginning so I'm hopeful the current momentum can build. With the troubles that Sprint Cup is having, perhaps the timing is just right. We'll see.

Look for more soon on the American Motor Journal website.

Cunningham Takes Indy Lights at Kentucky Speedway

Sam Schmidt Motorsports driver Wade Cunningham took the checkers today after a spirited battle among the top 4 for the full race distance. A late spin caused the race to finish under yellow and Carlos Saavedra and Ana Beatriz followed Wade to the line in second & third. Problems with drainage yesterday caused the postponement of all of Friday's activities and then a rain shower around noon today caused the schedule to get jumbled even further. Both the Lights and IRL cars got on the track for later afternoon practices and the Lights race was pushed to 6 p.m. but they got it in. More rain is forecast for tonight so the featured IRL race could still be in jeopardy.

I'm in the media center writing this now so I hope to have a further update before I leave the track tonight. Someone just came in and said it is raining. I drove through rain near Madison on the Kentucky side of the river on my way here this morning so nothing would surprise the reigenmeister, although this year my luck has been pretty good so far. I hope Versus will stay with the race tonight, although my recorder is set for the slated time, so we'll see what happens.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Jimmy Johnson Takes Second Straight Brickyard Win

I think it was Yogi Berra who once said "It's deja vu all over again." That was the way I felt at the Brickyard yesterday as Jimmy Johnson became the first NASCAR driver to win at Indy two years in a row. It was also a lot like the Indy 500 in 2000, except Juan Pablo Montoya didn't get to kiss the bricks this time. Back then just as yesterday, JPM thoroughly kicked everyone's butt and was the class of the field by a longshot until a speeding penalty on pit road cost him a certain victory. So instead of having Juan draped in the Columbian flag in Victory Lane as the first driver to win the 500 and the 400 at Indy, JJ got his third trophy with the mounted gold brick and second in a row.

The conspiracy theorists were all over the penalty call when it occurred as up to that point the race was a snoozer as this year the tires weren't the problem. The racing, or lack thereof, was the problem. From my vantage point in Turn 1, no one seemed able to pass unless they were right up under another guy's bumper and loosened them up so they could drive under them going into 2, or someone got bogged down by the field fillers who were clearly content to just run laps and stay off the fence. After Montoya got the pass through penalty and dropped to 12th, it was just a question of who would get the lead on the next restart since clean air was everything yesterday and whoever was in front was pretty much untouchable. I found it incredibly tough to get two cars in the frame most of the day unless it was the first couple of laps after a restart or the leaders were passing a backmarker. Not what I call real exciting racing photography, but that's the way it goes sometimes. Despite what the shills on Victory Lane say on SpeedTV, not every NASCAR race is a great one. This one certainly wasn't. And for all the NASCAR drivers they brought to town before the race "guaranteeing" to put on a show, it didn't pan out, although no one wadded up any equipment this year.

The fact that Montoya dominated was no real surprise to me. In 2000, I was shooting in Turn 3 at the 500 and Juan took no prisoners that day, passing other cars in places where no one else dared to put a wheel. He was just a 500 rookie then and didn't know "they don't drive that way at Indy", but he showed everyone the fast way at the Indy 500 then just as he did yesterday at the Brickyard. It's really a shame that the day ended as it did, but he about put everyone to sleep at the 400 this year, his dominance was so complete. The biggest surprise to me was the huge number of empty seats. I'm sure it was obvious on TV but it was blatant in person. The big corporate ticket blocks may be a thing of the past, at least at Indy, as huge areas were wide open. It was a very disappointing day, but at least I didn't leave the track angry like I did last year.

I'm off to Kentucky next for the Indy Racing League race this weekend. Let's hope the rules tweaks the IRL has discussed make for a better show.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Indiana Sprint Week Ends: Brickyard 400 Next

Levi Jones took the title in the 2009 edition of Indiana Sprint Week driving for Tony Stewart racing in a week long grind all over the Hoosier state that saw great racing, huge car counts and lots of excitement for USAC sprint car fans. After seeing the small but competitive field at Winchester the first week of July, I was thoroughly impressed with the turnout at Kokomo Speedway last Sunday night, and the packed house surely got their money's worth. It has been awhile since I've been to a dirt race and I quickly remembered why I love it so much. I wish I had time to go do more of these events, as even though the feature races are short 30-lappers most of the time, 24 of these howling vehicles sliding sideways inches apart is a sight for sore eyes. And from the infield when the dust is flying, by the end of the night, the eyes are definitely sore!

I had never been to Kokomo Speedway before and it was quite a treat. A short oval with relatively low banking, it was in great shape all night with a nice cushion built up and multiple grooves available. For the photographers like me, you are in no man's land in the infield, with just a couple of concrete barriers to stand behind at each end of the track. There were too many of us to squeeze in there, so we ended up stringing out into the next corner and if you thought for a moment about how unprotected we were, it would make a sane person cringe. But the next thought is always, "their momentum will carry them past me" and you keep shooting.

I saw it as another opportunity to return to my racing roots, as I was introduced to racing by my grandfather at the dirt track at the County Fairgrounds in Warsaw, Indiana when I was three or four years old. I loved the way the fans at Kokomo edge up to the fencing in the corners, as they just know they are going to get pelted with dirt and mud as the cars broadslide through the turns. Maybe one of these days I'll get myself a big Norman flash unit and shoot like the regular sprint guys do. For now, my Canon gear is enough of a challenge to shoot high speed flash at night in dimly lit bullrings like Kokomo. Thank goodness I have the chance to keep learning, and for that I continue to thank American Motor Journal.

Next up is the Brickyard 400 this weekend, and of course I'm going to be pulling for Tony Stewart once again. He, along with Ryan Newman, Jeff Gordon, Little E and others, have been paraded through Indy the last few weeks talking about what a great job Goodyear has done testing tires for the race this year. It sounded like ticket hawking if you ask me, so we'll see whether it's on the level or not this weekend. I'll be back with more from there Saturday and Sunday. See y'all at the racetrack.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Tony George Ousted at Indianapolis; USAC Sprinters Take On Winchester

This is my 150th post on my blog and what better way to celebrate than to talk about what an interesting week in racing it has been around here. I suppose no one was shocked with the changes announced at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway recently as there had been rumors for awhile. As for me, I managed to squeeze in a trip to Winchester for the Rich Vogler Classic USAC sprint car race which had been postponed by rain from April. The family interests on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway board have relegated Tony George to a simple board member and made a number of other changes in its leadership structure. Apparently, he had the opportunity to stay on as head of the IRL but declined, opting to let the new leadership take this over, although he continues as a team owner for Vision Racing. Even that has strings since the family checkbook has been restricted to keep Vision as a one car team. Who knows what else is in store for the IRL now? With the road course race at the Glen this weekend, I'm sure this will be the subject of much discussion. I sure hope it is a more competitive event than the Richmond oval race last weekend. I was shocked to hear Dario admit afterwards that it was a lousy race and I am anxious to see what the opening of the rules will mean for the next oval race at Kentucky Speedway August 1st. That will also be my next IRL race so I am looking forward to that.

All of the focus seems to be on adding more downforce so there can be more side by side racing. I have to wonder whether the tires are too soft and whether a harder compound wouldn't help just as much as side pod extensions. Loosening the cars up by taking downforce away makes more sense to me, since the guy in the lead or a car in clean air now has a huge advantage, since the cars are so stuck to the track and you can't turn under anyone. The push to pass technology might help if Honda will bless it, but as it is now, there is no high line on most ovals since the marbles are so bad from tire debris. That's why giving them a harder tire compound makes more sense to me, but I'm not an engineer so it wouldn't be the first time that what I think is good common sense is all wrong from an engineering standpoint. It does seem a little odd that not much has been heard out of Firestone on this, so I hope Barnhart and the IRL tech people can land on something that brings back the close racing. More oval track processions is the last thing the IRL needs right now, and if Milwaukee is going off the schedule next year as has been reported, then there goes another opportunity to get it right with the cars and the fans. Indycars on short tracks have been racing fixtures since the days of Langhorne, and while I look forward to shooting the road course race at Mid Ohio in August, it's tough to see ovals dropping away when the IRL was formed as an all-oval series. Of course much has changed since the IRL was conceived and anyone involved now would have to say "mistakes were made" that have hurt the product and caused fans to lose interest and run to NASCAR. How the IRL moves forward under new leadership at the top is going to be critical for the survival of the series. If it were only about survival, then that might be OK for some, but personally, I want to see the series thrive and not just survive.

I couldn't get to Winchester in April when the USAC show was originally scheduled, so I was kind of glad it got postponed so I could go Thursday July 2nd. It's only about 90 minutes from home and it is another great little racetrack similar to Salem. The bad news with the postponement was the short field that towed in, especially since they had to move on to Toledo the next day for a doubleheader with the USAC midgets. There were only 15 sprinters that made it to Winchester, and the undercard of street stocks and front wheel drive compacts were similarly short handed. There was a good crowd though, and the promise of a post-race fireworks display no doubt had an influence on the number of families with kids who attended. Tracy Hines won the sprint feature after coming through the pack to pass Cole Whitt late in the race and there were several good battles throughout the field before Shane Hmiel's spin brought out a late yellow.

It was like old home week at the track for photographers as well, since there were quite a few guys there I hadn't seen since May at Indy. That's one of the best parts of being a racing photographer - these impromptu reunions happen at tracks all over the place and they are never planned. The most fun I had was talking to a young man from Spanaway, Washington with one of the best names in racing: Snake Livernash. He had never been to Winchester before and we struck up a conversation before the heat races started. Not that I know anything about driving one of those sprinters, but when he said he was starting behind Hines in his heat, I said "just follow him", knowing that he'd learn the fast way around from one of today's best. "Snake" had a nicely turned out car and seemed very nervous about running these fast high banks, but he stayed out of trouble and still had his equipment in one piece for the next day in Toledo. That's more than a lot of Winchester "rookies" can say, I am sure of that.

Until next time, here's a slide show from Winchester and don't forget to check out the American Motor Journal website from time to time. Order up a subscription while you're at it! See you at the race track!

Monday, June 22, 2009

Pruett & Rojas Take Grand Am Show at Mid Ohio

Sports car racing at a beautiful natural terrain road course like Mid Ohio is quite a change from the oval track action I've been covering so far this year. The Rolex Series cars are simply gorgeous and the weekend schedule is almost non-stop action with a huge variety of cars on the track from early in the day until dinner time. For fans camping at the track, it must be great to have high octane racing fuel every morning with your eggs and bacon. Mid Ohio is a great family atmosphere and the racing is usually top notch, even though the course is notoriously difficult to pass on. But the great thing about multi-class sports car racing is the fast guys always figure out a way to carve through slower traffic and come out ahead. That's what Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas were able to do after starting on the front row, enduring penalty time in the pits and going a lap down, to storm back through the field and win a hotly contested race among the top three.

My first race at Mid Ohio was as a fan in 1982 for a CART road race and I remember sitting in the "esses" and watching Tom Sneva shortcut the hill through the grass. I went regularly through the mid-90's before the CART-IRL split as a photographer, racing back to Indy to turn in our film afterwards. For the last four summers, I have had the pleasure of covering the Rolex sports cars, the ALMS and IRL on their Mid Ohio weekends for American Motor Journal and these weekends are always marked on my calendar. Even my 74 year old mother likes to come down from Akron to watch, usually sitting on the hillside in the keyhole and enjoying the scenery. At least this year, the weather cooperated and it was hot and muggy, rather than soaking wet like last year.

The weekend schedule still mystifies me somewhat, as the feature race with the Daytona Prototypes and GT cars is run late Saturday afternoon, obviously for the TV slot on Speed. The bad thing about that is the only races left to run on Sunday are for the under card Koni and VW series and most of the weekend crowd has already gone home. It's too bad they can't have the Grand Am on Sunday as I'm sure the weekend attendance would improve. Nonetheless, we stuck it out through the Koni ST race Sunday afternoon and had a ball shooting from angles all over the track. My assistant and I probably walked five miles on Saturday as it was her first road course (and first sports car) race and she also enjoyed the variety of photo ops Mid Ohio presents. As many times as I've been to Mid Ohio, I like it even more each time, with its park-like setting, the rolling hills and laid back atmosphere. Not to mention the fact that I did the Acura High Performance Driving School on the track three years ago this past week, so I see in my mind's eye every corner and hill as they race since I've been out there myself. The goosebumps rise even now as I type and I look forward to getting back on the track again.

I'm off the road for awhile now but will keep my eyes and ears open for other racing tidbits, or just plain old couch racing BS, and bring it to you here as the spirit moves me. If it's Monday, I must be back to reality after all, which just means I start thinking about what I'll do differently in August when I get back for the ALMS and IRL weekend. I just hope the ALMS car count improves!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

IRL Drivers Carping at Texas

I guess one measure of a series' competitiveness is the amount of bitching and moaning you hear from the drivers after a race. And there was plenty of that after last Saturday's 550k at Texas Motor Speedway. I wasn't surprised to hear Marco whining about Danica, but what is she supposed to do? Pull over and wave him by? His comments were just inane and showed his continued lack of maturity. Teammate or not, no one racing for a top 5 position is going to just open the door and say "After you, if you please. Thank you much." Like the t-shirts and bumper stickers say, "kwitcherbitchin". Stand on the throttle and don't complain if a pass can't be made!

The best comments I heard were Scott Dixon's when he talked about how equal everything is getting in the IRL and that they should open up the rules some and let them have at it. I think that will happen but probably not anytime soon. It would be hard to get a new rules package together for 2011 unless the world economy really springs back strong this year and next. 2012 is probably more reasonable and I think the IRL has said as much. Even though this Texas race didn't come down to a photo finish, there was still plenty of good racing from my vantage point.

Speaking of Danica: she was all in the news with talk about her contract expiring when this season is over. How long before someone mentions Penske as a possible seat for her next year? How about right now, right here? I think The Captain is the best option to keep Danica in the IRL for 2010 and if she made the move, Roger could probably afford to run three cars all season since you know Danica would bring a fat checkbook from her sponsors. And there's no one better at preparing drivers to win (and win Indianapolis) than Penske. It's a no-brainer if anyone is asking.

Speaking of Penske, with his purchase of Saturn out of the GM bankruptcy, talk has shifted to having the Saturn badge on Sprint Cup cars. I'd suggest he's more likely to get Saturn into Indycars, especially if the manufacturing operation shifts overseas as has been mentioned. I heard somewhere that Honda is already making engines for some Saturn models and if Penske's stake is intended to make worldwide distribution easier, then what better way than to team up with Honda (or Toyota or Fiat even) to start sticking whatever motor he can into the Saturn models? Then it's just a matter of someone adding a new nameplate to the Indycar engines and go racing. If he still owns a stake in Ilmore Engineering, then it could happen almost overnight. And don't forget that Cosworth is still out there in the weeds doing their thing. All it takes is money, right? And Roger knows how to go get it.

As the old adage goes, the fastest way to become a millionaire in auto racing is to start with 10. Not so with Roger though. He seems to have the midas touch in automotive and trucking circles.

With ethanol now the fuel of choice, how long before they open up the rules for any kind of fuel? Can you say Audi diesel?

I know: too much time in the sun and too much racing fuel exhaust have cooked the remaining brain cells that I have. Oh well. More soon. Mid Ohio Rolex Grand Am is up next for me. Until then, enjoy a little slide show from that little Texas track near Fort Worth. I can't wait to go back.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Helio Climbs Texas Fence - Takes 2nd Season Win

Helio Castroneves has done it again! His Penske crew got him out first on a late pit stop and he held off teammate Ryan Briscoe and the Ganassi team to take the Bombardier 500k at Texas Motor Speedway. His fence climbing routine is getting more polished every race now it seems and the Texas fans ate it up. My first visit here has been a great experience - from the hospitality at the Champions Club Marriott, to the trackside access for photography. I have to say though that I expected more side by side racing in the corners than I saw this weekend, especially when compared to past races at Texas which always seemed to end up in photo finishes. I heard someone suggest that these IRL cars are so finely tuned now that it is hard to gain an advantage. I am not a technician by any means, but I can see how that might be the case after several years with the same chassis technology. On top of that, with the sealed Honda engines being virtually identical, no one seems to have a horsepower advantage so it is all down to handling, and clearly the Penske and Ganassi teams have it figured out. Once in the lead, they are hard to catch and almost impossible to pass. At least that's what it looked like down here.

My pick for the win was Dario and he never really challenged for the top spot. Ryan Briscoe appeared to be cruising for most of the race with the lead when a caution came out for debris and they brought out the sweeper trucks. I heard from others that several drivers were complaining on their radios about how bad the marbles were late in the race, so the track probably did need to be swept. But it took Briscoe's advantage away and once Helio beat him out of the pits, that was all she wrote.

Thanks again to American Motor Journal for the chance to shoot down here. There was even a sticker on the photographer's risers in Victory Lane for us and I felt like a one man band with the opportunity to cover the race from all different angles. Shooting from the outside through small holes in the fencing was incredible as cars whipped by in packs just inches away. The lighting may look good for television and the fans at the track, but my cameras still told me it was bloody dark, so it was quite a challenge to get usable images from certain spots. That's a matter of opinion, I suppose, and I enjoy the fact that I am still learning the digital gear at every race I shoot. And even as long as I've been doing this kind of photography, I still get the adrenalin going before the start and have to take a deep breath and tell myself to calm down and go to work. When that feeling goes away, then perhaps it is time to start doing something else, but I don't see that happening anytime soon.

Y'all come back now, ya here! I know I will be back. Everything IS bigger in Texas apparently, and this race was not the best IRL race I have seen, but the venue is spectacular and they do their best at the track to give the fans their money's worth. Now it's back to Indy and then in two weeks I'll be at Mid Ohio for the Rolex Grand Am series event. See you there!