Sunday, July 31, 2011

Paul Menard Snags Brickyard 400 for First NASCAR Sprint Cup Win

Paul Menard takes to the grass to miss Landon Cassill on his way to winning 
Paul Menard took his first Sprint Cup win in one of the biggest races of the year:  the Brickyard 400. He managed to outlast Jeff Gordon who finished second. Numerous drivers ran low on fuel late in the race and were pedalling hard to make it to the finish. Menard survived a close call in Turn 3 when Landon Cassill spun and Menard had to go through the grass to miss him. Thirteen different drivers led laps and there were 22 lead changes in the 18th edition of the Brickyard. Kasey Kahne looked to have the field covered early in the race but got shuffled back on pit sequencing. Kahne led the most laps (48) and Jeff Gordon led the second most laps (36) with Menard leading 21 when it counted. This was a welcome victory for Menard and his father John, who was a longtime sponsor and car owner in Indycars without much success. Just rewards went to the winning team as Paul Menard kissed the bricks along with country music star Reba McIntyre and numerous other friends and family. It was a great day in Indy for the Menard family. Regan Smith took thrid ahead of Jamie McMurray and Matt Kenseth. Tony Stewart led 10 laps and finished sixth ahead of Greg Biffle, Mark Martin (who ran out of gas on the cool down lap), Brad Keselowski. Kyle Busch rounded out the top 10 after a rough day at the Brickyard for him.

Following Cassill's spin, the field got seriously shuffled, as many drivers had to take evasive action and then make several pit stops to clear grass from their radiators to avoid overheating. I kept looking at the scoreboards the last 40 laps to see who was where in the field as early leaders went to the back, while others came to the front as the shuffling of positions continued. In some ways it was an odd day at the Speedway, as the Brickyard crowd was significantly down from prior years. Numerous stands were completely closed to fans and there were still plenty of empty seats. Even the infield mounds in Turn 3 behind me were sparsely populated. I hope the changes the Speedway is making for 2012 with the "Super Weekend" will help the overall show, as I have said for the last few years that the Sprint Cup cars simply do not provide enough track time to keep spectators interested. Today was a blistering hot day as well, which may have effected attendance, but having been to Daytona, Talladega and Kentucky to shoot those NASCAR races this year, I am not surprised that the Speedway's numbers have steadily dwindled. The bloom is off the rose at the Brickyard and while today ended up being an entertaining day through my camera lenses, it may not be enough to bring casual fans back in the future since they can't see much of the track from any vantage point and the race is generally follow-the-leader.

I think the sports car brigade with the Grand Am series next year will be an eye opener for many people, and while the Brickyard 400 has been a serious cash cow for the Hulman-George family for many years, could it be on shaky ground if attendance keeps falling? Or could the sports car crowd draw enough interest someday to hold a real endurance race on the road course as the next big standalone event at Indy? I'm just asking. I don't have the answers, but I will be there to bring home pictures like these no matter what.

There's still no place like Indy.

It's Race Day at the Brickyard!

Dawn was gorgeous over Turn 3 at Indy for the 2011 Brickyard 400
I'm set up in the media center this morning and ready for racing! David Ragan is the surprise pole winner for the 18th Brickyard 400 and most people seem to think the winner must start in the top 10 to have a chance since the track is notoriously hard to pass on for the Sprint Cup cars. Tire and pit management will be all important, and someone will make the right call late in the day to catapault to Victory Lane. Indy's long straightaways and relatively flat corners have historically not allowed for much side by side racing in the turns during the Brickyard, but I am hoping this year will be different. My personal choices for today's win are Tony Stewart and Juan Pablo Montoya, although if Mark Martin were to break through to win, it wouldn't break my heart.

Indy's Pagoda Tower

The biggest story today may be the crowd (or lack of one) as advance ticket sales are said to be struggling to hit the 100,000 mark. In a place as big as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where the stands can hold roughly 250,000 people, it may look strange with so much aluminum visible. I just hope I have good backgrounds for my shots in Turn 3. That could be a challenge.

Grand Am Champ Scott Pruett

Pruett's Telmex Grand Am ride

To combat the attendance drop, IMS is bringing the Rolex Grand Am series to the Brickyard weekend in 2012 to run for three hours on the road course. Scott Pruett is here this morning with his Target Ganassi Telmex car to sign autographs and promote what the Speedway is calling the "Super Weekend" which will also include races for the Continental Tire and Nationwide series. That should make things much more interesting as lack of time on the track is a real issue here in my opinion, especially since there are no support races for the main event. That should change next year and I hope it brings in a whole new bunch of fans who come for the sports cars and stay for the stock car racing. This is all quite a contrast to the last NASCAR race I shot at Kentucky Speedway earlier in July, where the place was sold out and traffic was lined up for hours trying to get in. In all fairness, that was an inaugural race and Kentucky only has 107,000 seats, so it's probably not a fair comparison. It may, however, have had an effect on Indy's ticket sales due to close proximity and placement on the calendar.

We'll see how the day pans out but it is already hot and there's no clouds anywhere, so the track will be greasy and slick by the time the race starts shortly after 1 o'clock today. More later!

Plymouth Superbirds in the infield at Indy

Friday, July 29, 2011

Kody Swanson Beats Hines & Brother for Lucas Oil Raceway USAC Win

Kody Swanson (left) won the JD Byrider 100; brother Tanner took third
In the nightcap of a wild night of racing at Lucas Oil Raceway, Kody Swanson held off a hard charging Tracy Hines to take the USAC SIlver Crown victory. Swanson's brother took third and although Hines made a valiant charge over the last 15 laps, he could get close but could not get around Kody who led easily for most of the race. A solid field of 30 Silver Crown cars was on hand for the 100 lap feature sponsored by JD Byrider. It was a failry clean race with many drivers doing double duty, having already competed in what turned out to be a contentious 30 lap USAC midget that was sandwiched between the ARCA 200 and the Silver Crown race. These big, loud open wheel cars are a real treat to watch, and this is where drivers learn how to handle a loose race car. You may have heard the phrase, "Loose is fast". I think this is the series that invented that concept.

Midget race winner Kyle Larson wonders what's up with Bryan Clauson
The Road to Indy also started here and there were several drivers pulling Silver Crown and Midget duty, including Bryan Clauson, Hines, Bobby East and Bobby Santos for 130 laps of racing on the night. South Bend Ryan Newman stopped by hoping to add a Silver Crown win to his recent one-off victory in a modified. And the weather wasn't the only thing that was hot - tempers flared after the Midget race which was won by Kyle Larson in relatively easy fashion after Bryan Clauson crashed out. Evidently Bryan felt that Darren Hagen was the cause so Bryan waited near the start-finish line after he was knocked out of the race. Once the race was over and Larson was getting ready to climb out and celebrate his win, Clauson went after Hagen and had to be restrained by USAC officials. Heated words were exchanged between their crews as well, but Bryan calmed down enough to get into his Silver Crown ride for the final race of the evening. I am sure we have not seen the last of this duo tangling!

Here are my slide shows for these races. Now it is on to the Brickyard for me, and then off to Mid Ohio next weekend for the Indycar and American LeMans Series weekend. Having fun now!

Ty Dillon Wins Again! Takes ARCA Ansell 200 at Lucas Oil Raceway

Ty Dillon Begins Victory Celebration at Lucas Oil Raceway
I've been calling the new breed of racers coming up through the stock car racing ranks "young guns" now for quite awhile, but I may have to amend that to "young lions" after the way Ty Dillon roared to another ARCA victory at Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis. Kicking off the Brickyard 400 weekend with the first racing event, ARCA put on another excellent show as Dillon, James Buescher, Ryan Blaney and New Castle's Dakoda Armstrong all took turns in the lead. A late race red flag caused by a frontstretch pileup on a restart let everyone catch their breath a little and the victory was in doubt right up until the green-white checker finish. Dillon took off at that point and won comfortably on a sweltering summer evening on the westside of Indianapolis.

This night was Dillon's from the very beginning, as he outpaced everyone from Pole Position to grab his sixth win of the ARCA season and maintain his series points lead. It looks pretty clear that he is the man to beat for the title this year in ARCA and his Richard Childress Racing (RCR) team has the goods to deliver. Grandpa Childress, in town for the big show Sunday at 16th & Georgetown, was beaming in victory lane after the race and it was great to see him congratulate all the team members for a job well done. Dillon led the most laps (71) on the night but was strongly challenged by Ryan Blaney who led almost as many as Dillon and was a threat right to the very end. He was extremely disappointed afterward. James Buescher came over from the Camping World Truck Series to lead 51 laps but couldn't match Dillon or Blaney's pace at the end. I was pulling for Armstrong and it looked like he might do it after taking the lead on lap 151 but the others were just too strong and he couldn't hold them off. Dillon's brakes were glowing red hot by the end of the evening and he lit up the frontstretch after taking the checkered flag with a burnout for the ages. His figure eights generated huge clouds of smoke and when he finally climbed out of his car, he dove into the arms of waiting RCR crew members, still wearing his helmet.

If you've never been to this fast little oval in Clermont, Indiana that has gone by various names over the years and is now known as Lucas Oil Raceway, you should make sure you visit someday. Even though it is relatively flat, there are almost always two grooves and it is a perfect track to diamond the corners and pass other cars either entering or exiting the turns. The lighting late in the day is also spectacular and for ARCA's first run here in many years, it was a special night to be a photographer. I have been shooting races at this track since the late 1980's, and although I have to miss the Camping World and Nationwide races here this weekend which lead up to Sunday's Brickyard 400, I always know this place will generate some exciting racing. Next year the story is going to change with the recent announcement by NASCAR and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) that the truck series will not return in 2012 and the Nationwide race will be moved to IMS to run the day before the 2012 Brickyard. I know Forest Lucas is not happy about those changes, given how much he probably paid for naming rights at the track, but it is a well managed facility and I'm sure they will bounce back next year. I hope ARCA can return and generate a following as their presence during the "Kroger Speedfest" should be a boon to that series as well.

With all that said, I haven't even mentioned the fireworks that followed the ARCA race in the USAC midget and Silver Crown races which headlined this tripleheader. More on that in just a bit. Until then, here's my slideshow from Ty Dillon's remarkable Lucas Oil Raceway win.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Kyle Busch Takes NASCAR Points Lead with Kentucky Win

Kyle Busch pits at Kentucky Speedway en route to his second win of the weekend

The Kyle Busch freight train picked up Saturday where it left off Thursday night as he rolled to a convincing win at Kentucky Speedway in the Quaker State 400. The Sprint Cup race win followed his win in Thursday's truck series race and a third place finish in Friday night's Nationwide Series event. Not bad for a weekend's work and I saw plenty of fans at Kentucky with Busch paraphenalia, including one whose car had the number "18" on the side in shoe polish along with "Bring Out the Brooms" - while that fan did not get their wish of a Kyle Busch sweep of Kentucky's weekend of NASCAR racing, I'm sure they were happy with two out of three. They were probably a lot happier than thousands of fans who sat in gridlocked traffic jams outside the track trying to get to this inaugural Sprint Cup race at Kentucky Speedway. In the media center Saturday morning, I started hearing stories of horrendous traffic backups at 11 a.m. and the race was still more than 8 hours away! When you add 67,000 seats to a place that used to only hold about 50,000 people total, I guess that's what happens. I'm just glad I got there early.

Kurt Busch leads brother Kyle past packed grandstands at Kentucky

The race itself was fairly processional with not as much side by side racing as I had expected, and no significant challenges for the lead all night. The lead only changed hands on pit stops so I spent more time than I usually do during a race shooting from pit lane. Kyle's brother Kurt Busch jumped out to an early lead and Brad Keselowski looked like he might add the win to his Nationwide trophy from Friday night. Tony Stewart even spent a little time in the lead based on pit strategy but this was clearly Kyle Busch's race to lose, and he stuck it to the rest of his competitors.

The Sprint Cup season is now halfway finished and only eight races remain to determine which drivers will make "The Chase" which will decide the season title over the final ten races of the year. The next time I see these cars will be at the Brickyard 400 in three weeks and it will probably be the same story there as in years past. If you are out front in clean air at Indy in these cars, then you are going to be tough to pass. It will be very interesting to see if the Brickyard crowd rebounds from the dismal attendance of 2010. Perhaps the recent announcement of the 2012 schedule additions for the Brickyard weekend will bring people back this year in anticipation. Adding a Grand Am race on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course on Friday and moving the Nationwide Series race from Lucas Oil Raceway's 5/8 mile oval to the big track to run 250 miles on Saturday are going to be welcome additions to Brickyard weekend track activity next year at IMS. My guess is those announcements regarding 2012 will not help this year's Brickyard, but I will be there to bring pictures back like I always do, most likely from Turn 3 with the rest of the Third Turn Society. Until then, here's my race slideshow, so happy hunting and safe travels. See you at Indy!

Saturday, July 9, 2011

NASCAR Sprint Cup Kentucky Speedway People

Click on this image of NASCAR star Tony Stewart to see more photos of race people seen at Kentucky Speedway for the inaugural Sprint Cup race, the Quaker State 400.

Keselowski Takes Kentucky Nationwide Race on Fumes

Brad Keselowski Celebrates his NASCAR Nationwide Win at Kentucky Speedway
For once, someone did something to slow the Kyle Busch freight train in one of NASCAR's junior series as Penske driver Brad Keselowski milked his fuel better than everyone else to win the Feed the Children 300 at Kentucky Speedway. It was the 11th time the Nationwide Series has raced at Kentucky Speedway, but the first time as part of the undercard for a Sprint Cup weekend here. For most of the race, the battle at the front was between Keselowski and Kevin Harvick as they 188 of the 200 laps between them and really had the rest of the field covered most of the night. I was in Keselowski's pit the last 30 laps, certain that he would need to make a late stop for fuel but he never did, and there was never any indication from his Penske crew that he intended to visit pit lane again. You could clearly hear him lifting off the throttle much sooner than usual going into Turn 1 those last laps and once Harvick slowed dramatically to get to the finish, Keselowski had the race in the bag.

It was a sweltering night in Kentucky and even the last rain shower that interrupted the Sprint Cup qualifying did not offer much relief for the Nationwide teams during the race. Kyle Busch ended up third ahead of Kasey Kahne and pole sitter Elliot Sadler. Kenny Wallace was the first of the Nationwide "regulars" in sixth place followed by Michael Annett. There were no serious incidents during the race the comeback award has to go to Ricky Stenhouse who spun in front of me in Turn 4 without contact and managed to finish on the lead lap in ninth. Only the top 10 were on the lead lap at the finish in what turned out to be a fuel management race. Let's hope the Sprint Cup race today is a little racier, as judging from the frantic work in their garage area yesterday, there's a big emphasis on winning tonight on this bumpy Kentucky asphalt.

The biggest disappointment for me on the night was seeing (and shooting) Will Kimmel, son of ARCA legend Frank Kimmel, spin and crash out of his first Nationwide race after only 62 laps. We have seen Will run many times at Salem Speedway over the years and I was hoping he would be able to muster a good finish for the southern Indiana contingent in the stands. The funniest thing I saw was little Mark Martin talking with former NBA player and current television race commentator Brad Daugherty on pit lane prior to qualifying; the contrast in their heights made for quite a visual. For now, I am working in the media center but space is at a premium here and I don't know if I will be able to work from here the rest of the day. I did not have Victory Lane access for the Nationwide race, nor will I have it for Sprint Cup, so I will be back with more pictures of race action and personalities as soon as I can. Until then, here's a slideshow from the Nationwide race.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Elliot Sadler on Pole for NASCAR Nationwide Race at Kentucky Speedway

Crews patiently waited out rain delays at Kentucky Speedway
It's been a topsy turvy day at Kentucky Speedway today as rains hit prior to the final Sprint Cup practice but then came again during Spring Cup qualifying after only 22 drivers had a chance to qualify. The Nationwide qualifying went off without a hitch and Elliot Sadler will lead the field tonight once the track gets dry again. The brief shower seems to have cleared the area and as I sit here in the media center, I can hear the jet dryers on track trying to get the track ready for the Feed the Children 300.

Qualified NASCAR Nationwide Series cars wait in impound area
It's been an eventful day for me as well, as I really had to hustle to get here this morning for the photo meeting but I made it and have been busy all day. The track has undergone a number of changes since I was here last year for the Indycar race. Gone is the grassy infield, replaced by acres of gravel and pavement for the new motor home parking areas. The area along the inside wall in Turn 1 is very narrow and is extremely close to the racing surface now. There's not much room to shoot there now and it is a "hot" area for safety vehicles to travel. Turn 3 is pretty much inaccessible with large new catch fencing on the inside of the track but Turn 4 is still pretty wide open. The good news is I have a hot pit pass so I have been able to get in the garage area for driver pictures and will be able to go on pit road this weekend during the races. I am very excited about that, as even the pit lane here is new - wider and curved like the front stretch. I will not be able to get to the outside fence holes to shoot so that is somewhat disappointing, but it looks like NASCAR and the Kentucky Speedway officials have done a great job getting this place ready for their first ever Sprint Cup weekend. I am glad to be here and will have more later as time allows. Getting out of here tonight and tomorrow night could be a real treat!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Indycars North of the Border Bring Back Toronto Memories

Rick Mears leads Al Unser Jr.past Toronto's Prince's Gate in 1986
It's hard to believe that 25 years have passed since Indycars first raced through the streets of Toronto around Exhibition Place.

While I will be heading south to shoot the NASCAR Nationwide and Sprint Cup races this weekend at Kentucky Speedway, thinking back to the trip we took to that first Toronto race in 1986 brings back a lot of memories: most good, some bad. It would be great to shoot Toronto again someday as it is a beautiful city and race fans there have always supported this race with a passion. That passion is what took me and seven other friends there to shoot the inaugural event and I will always remember it. After a 12 hour ride through the night in a friend's van painted in Miller High Life colors, we went straight to the credential office. It was ironic that the border agents asked us if we were bringing any alcohol into Canada and we got a good laugh out of that, especially since the van was painted like Danny Sullivan's car and the race we were on our way to shoot was sponsored by Canadian brewer Molson. It was the first opportunity I had to shoot with folks at the Indianapolis Star and it was just my third year as a racing photographer. Looking back on my pictures now, they seem so primitive and I realize how much I have learned about photography since then.

Downtown Toronto from the CN Tower

Toronto swag bag cover

When we got our credentials, we were given a bag with race swag which I still have, the outside of which had the race logo and Molson sponsor information. We were there in time to shoot some of Friday practice but everyone was beat from the long ride so no one was disappointed to head out to our hotel in Scarborough. One of our contingent knew friends in the area and I remember a nice evening at their home and then the tunnel vision set in for me. All I could think about was being at the racetrack and that didn't turn out so well, as those on the trip can tell you. In hindsight, it would have been better to spend more time having a balanced weekend, but we did get to see some of the city and took the CN Tower tour up to the observation deck at one point. The view from up there was simply spectacular and I recall dinner on Saturday night at a wonderful Italian restaurant which served a multiple course meal family style. I would love to go back and see how much the city has changed since then, and the fact that the IZOD Indycar Series has usually had Canadian drivers represented here, like Paul Tracy and Alex Tagliani this year, bodes well for another great fan turnout. Having shot plenty of road and street courses since 1986, it would be fun to go back and see how I could put that experience to use in Toronto where so many great backgrounds exist.

This year's Toronto race starts a three race road course swing for the Indycar series that could tilt the season championship battle either for or against the two main protagonists, Will Power and Dario Franchitti. Power needs to make hay in these three races so that by the time the series leaves Mid Ohio August 8th, he can take a lead into the oval races which follow where Dario is typically stronger. If Dario gets on a roll starting this weekend, he could balloon his current 20 point lead into something insurmountable by the end of August when the last quarter of the season gets underway. Finishing with oval races should favor Dario and he is the man I predicted would win the title in a blog post back in January. The next Indycar race I will shoot isn't until Mid Ohio and then the penultimate race at Kentucky Speedway, so while I am shooting the taxicabs, make no mistake that Indycars are where my heart is. I'll be blogging and posting to Twitter @alleygroup all weekend so stay tuned. In the meantime, here are a couple other shots from that first Toronto race in 1986. 

Mario Andretti, Toronto 1986

Indycar field passes Toronto's Prince's Gate 1986