Sunday, April 28, 2013

Tom Hessert Snags Second Salem Speedway ARCA Win

Tom Hessert Takes 2nd Straight  ARCA Checkered Flag at Salem Speedway
What began as a day that looked like it would be a total washout, ended with the victorious Tom Hessert being booed in Victory Lane at Salem Speedway after late race skirmishes took leader and local favorite Frank Kimmel out of the lead. Hessert made a last lap pass of Spencer Gallagher to win his second straight ARCA race at Salem. His win was not well received by the Salem faithful however, who though Hessert had roughed up Kimmel in Turn 1 with less than 10 laps to go. A green-white checker finish wrapped up a day of racing that went surprisingly according to the advance schedule despite threatening skies all day over the Salem high banks. Frank Kimmel's son will took third ahead of 15 year old phenom Kyle Weatherman and Travis Swaim.

We left Indy this morning about 9 and drove through solid rain showers until we got south of Columbus. The closer we got to Salem the drier I-65 became so we were optimistic the 200 lap race would be run. We have had numerous days like this at Salem's spring ARCA race, and today brought another sizable crowd out even in the iffy conditions. But as a couple of locals told me during a late race red flag, one of whom said he had been coming to Salem since 1976, "This place is a jewel to us. We come out here to camp out for two days and escape." So this must have been a perfect weekend for those fans as the race itself included the usual assortment of bruised and battered equipment, short tempers in the pits during the race and again afterwards on the front stretch between crew members, and at least one team owner hot under the collar for a driver who continued to race on a flat tire and wouldn't park the car when told to in the final laps.

Frank Kimmel pitted from the lead at Salem; he wound up sixth
Meanwhile we walked the whole track, working our way from Turn 1 at the start following the race down the backstretch and through the bumpy Turns 3 & 4 approaching Lap 100. It was obvious the recent pavement patches had done nothing to take away Salem's "character" so I was glad to see that the bumps still came into play. By lap 125 I was headed to the pits as I knew the leaders were still due to make one more stop, and with only 10 total tires available for the race, most teams would just add fuel and bolt on their final two Hoosiers and run to the end. That's what Kimmel did and it sure looked like he had the race in the bag until his late run in with Hessert knocked him down the order. One of the things I love the most about Salem is the feeling of being shoe-horned into the pit area with everyone else. You hear things and total strangers spill their guts, or crewman's shouts to one another cut through the din of race engine noise to leave an impression of hearing privileged communications. This is feeling on the inside of something exciting and when you think about what the people in this series are trying to do  - many of them dreaming about getting into the top ranks of stock car racing - it's a privilege to have the chance to be there in their midst with a camera.

You can go to for more details on the race itslef, but I'm just here to give my two cents on the experience and share some photos with you. Here's a few in a quick album to enjoy. Next I am off to Talladega Friday to shoot the NASCAR Nationwide and Sprint CUp races for AP. I wish I could get there Friday to include the ARCA race in the weekend, but there's not way I can get away any sooner. Another racing road trip done; another one on the horizon. Then it's back to Indianapolis for the opening of Indy 500 practice the following week when I will be shooting and blogging for on a regular basis from the greatest racetrack in the world. As the late Sid Collins used to say, "Stay tuned race fans for the greatest spectacle in racing!"

Monday, April 22, 2013

Racing Roots & Road Trippin'

When I was a kid, all I wanted to do was play basketball. Eventually I began to take  a wider view of the world and decided I wanted to be a writer. So what did I do when my hoop dreams didn't pan out? I started writing, and one of the results was this blog when, as an adult, I was thoroughly consumed by the racing bug. I always tell people I came by my interest in racing naturally, and particularly Indycar racing, as I was born the day after Sam Hanks won the Indy 500 and retired in Indy's Victory Lane. Fast forward a few years and I got my first chance to shoot at Indy in 1984 after the infield crowd I had hung with started to dwindle in numbers. I knew I had to find a better way to be involved in racing after I had gone through the royal treatment in 1982 in the company of an Indy 500 princess at a race which had arguably the best finish ever at Indy when Gordon Johncock held off Rick Mears in a late race duel that remains the stuff of legends. The little camera I borrowed that year was woefully inadequate so then I had another itch to scratch - racing photography.

My roots in racing run deep as my grandfather and namesake helped build a dirt oval at the Kosciusko County Fairgrounds in my mom's hometown of Warsaw, Indiana. He would take me in the pit area outside the fence by Turns 3 & 4 where I could get up close to the cars and drivers. I'd hang on the board fence, still not of school age, and get pelted with dirt from the sprint cars and local stockers which ran every night during the County Fair every summer. If we weren't at the track, we could hear the races and watch through binoculars from the backyard of Grandpa's house across the canal from the fairgrounds, eating watermelon and Penguin Point fried chicken as the night darkened. I found out later that Grandpa also had flown planes and barnstormed with Eddie Rickenbacker in the roaring 20's, and that he used to come to Indianapolis in the 30's when Rickenbacker owned Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Grandpa always seemed to know everyone so I was never too surprised to hear these kinds of stories. Mom even has stories about coming to the 500 as a kid in a converted school bus with Grandpa, watching the men help themselves to the contents of large metal wash basins full of iced down beer. Even at 78, Mom still comes to Indy for the 500. Not bad for a little gray haired "old lady".

So now we're coming to the time of year where my racing obsession really starts to take hold. I've shot one race already, at Barber Motorsports Park, and the next two months are going to be hectic. This weekend, we go to Salem Speedway in southern Indiana for the ARCA series race at a track I have come to love. Covering ARCA at Salem consistently since the Fall 2006 race, this will be my 14th straight ARCA event at this rough and rugged high banked half mile. Some track grinding and repaving has been done to smooth out some of the bumps, so I expect the track to be faster than ever. The Hoosier Lottery has come on board in the last two weeks as a naming rights sponsor so the track will be known as "The Salem Speedway Fueled by the Hoosier Lottery". ARCA has run more races at Salem than almost anywhere else and 200 laps always brings out their best, both the young guns like defending series champ Chris Buescher, and wily veterans like 9-time ARCA champion Frank Kimmel. A fan at the track once told me "I growed up out here" and I could relate, since I feel the same way about Indy, having attended my first 500 in 1970 and  then every single 500 since 1976. Salem has become a second home track for me, and the ARCA series has some of the best young stock car racers anywhere. One of the great things about Salem & ARCA is you get to meet and know these guys before they hit the big time, and they are happy to pause for a photo and they already know to look straight into my lens for the eye contact shot. Check back here next weekend for updates.

The following weekend, I am headed back to Alabama to shoot NASCAR at Talladega. This will be my third spring race in a row at "Dega" and it is an awesome facility. Indy seems big but Talladega is mammoth as the high banks create the sort of high speed stock car racing I enjoy the most. You can have your paper clip tracks but give me a good high bank show any day. I should get there in time for Saturday and Sunday action and will be posting from the road and the track once I have met my photo obligations with AP. The folks down there have been great to work with and have given me some wonderful shooting spots the last couple of years so I am looking forward to "making some pictures" for the wire as they say.

Then the next weekend, practice starts for the Indianapolis 500 here in my hometown. The Month of May isn't what it once was at Indy but it's still the biggest race in the world and the one every open wheel driver wants to win. Steeped in tradition, the billiard table smooth racetrack invites risk taking at every corner of the rounded rectangle and there's nothing like the sounds and smells associated with Indycars at 230 mph flashing down the front straight. I have digital audio recordings from a handheld recorder in my iTunes so it's always refreshing when a snippet of Indycar sound comes up during shuffle play when I might be at the gym or riding my bicycle. As my lady friend likes to say, the "Month of Jay" is almost upon us and that means three straight weekends and numerous weekdays spent honing in on the speed stories from the Brickyard. More photos, more blog posts, and more stories for the memory banks when friends & family come around every year to see who will be the next one to get their image emblazoned on Indy's Borg Warner trophy. 

Funny thing is, there once was an Alley who raced at Indy - Tom Alley - but there has never been anyone with the surname "Smith" in the 500. And when people ask me how I spell my name, I tell them it's like Gasoline Alley. If you've been to Indianapolis you know where that is. I will see you there very soon and the cries of "Is it May yet?" are just about to be answered.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Hunter-Reay Wins Barber Indycar Battle; Angelleli & Taylor Take Grand Am

Ready to go to work at Barber!
My first race for was thoroughly enjoyable and I was crazy busy from the moment I stepped on the grounds at Barber Motorsport Park Friday afternoon. And the racing was good too! Four races over Saturday and Sunday, plus practice and qualifying in the IZOD Indycar Series and Firestone Indy Lights series meant there was little time to rest and hundreds of photos to edit and upload. But I live for that and if you think you want to be a racing photographer, this post will give you an idea of what to expect. But first the racing.

Defending IZOD Indycar Series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay put Chevrolet on the pole and then took his first win since winning the season title in 2012. RHR led 53 laps and held off Scott Dixon who pushed him hard over the last third of the race. Dixon's runner-up finish was his fourth straight at Barber but he was unable to lead a lap despite his strong pace. St. Petersburg winner James Hinchcliffe was the first driver out of the race and Dario Franchitti left Barber last in the points standings, adding a mechanical failure at Barber to his crash at St. Pete. The star of the weekend however was rookie Tristan Vautier who got into the Fast Six in qualifying after Takuma Sato's times were disallowed for a blocking violation and then raced in the top five most of the day before settling for 10th. Helio Castroneves had a strong race and led 25 laps before finishing third ahead of Charlie Kimball who enjoyed a highly competitive weekend. Will Power finished fifth and was the only other driver to lead any laps with nine (9) total on the point. Helio left Barber with the championship points lead and may finally be in position to claim his first Indycar championship if the first two races of 2013 are any indication of things to come over the remaining 17 races. Simon Pagenaud, Marco Andretti, Justin Wilson and Josef Newgarden took sixth through ninth places.

To view some of my IZOD Indycar series photos from Barber, go to the following link at

Sunday's Indycar race wrapped up a hectic weekend schedule and followed the Firestone Indy Lights race which was won easily by Carlos Munoz from the pole heading up a disappointing nine car field. So now these series move on from the Alabama roller coaster natural terrain paradise at Barber Motorsports Park to the seaside streets of Long Beach, California - the site of one of Hunter-Reay's greatest Indycar wins, following not long after his mother died from cancer. Another Andretti Autosport win will surely set them up as favorites for the Indianapolis 500, practice for which opens in a little more than four weeks from now.

To view my Firestone Indy Lights Series photos from Barber, go to the following link at

While Sunday at Barber was dedicated to open wheel racers, Saturday was a mixed bag with practice and qualifying in the morning for Indycar & Indy Lights, and the afternoon filled with sports car racing. The Rolex Grand Am Series race ran for two hours and was followed by a longer race for the Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge which took the racing action almost up to dusk. Both races were highly entertaining as Wayne Taylor's Corvette team took the protoype and overall win with Max Angelleli and Jordan Taylor at the wheel. The Continental Tire series had a huge field of cars and one of my favorite paint schemed cars, sponsored by Rum Bum and driven by Matt Plumb and Nick Longhi, took the GS win. I love these series and am so glad that the Grand Am and American LeMans Series will merge in 2014 under the banner of "United Sportscar Racing", a move I along with many other American fans of sports car and endurance racing have long awaited. I know the 2014 Daytona 24 Hours will be a sight to behold and I hope to be there shooting.

To view some of my Grand Am photos from Barber, go to the following link at

Even though this was my first race weekend to shoot in 2013, it still felt like old home week down in Alabama. And saying I was "busy" doesn't do the time spent justice, as Saturday was a very long day with continuous shooting or editing photos from the time I arrived at the track for the 7:15 a.m. photo meeting to when I finally shut down my editing for the night at the hotel after 11:00 p.m. local time. Sunday was similar and even though the photo meeting was later than on Saturday, I still was at the track shortly after 7:00 a.m. to edit photos and update my blog, and had another 11:00 p.m. curtain call that night after still more editing.

So you think you want to be a motorsports photographer? You better be ready for anything, and come prepared to become immersed in the different world which exists at the tracks. When I am at a race, I feel both safe and confident. People will ask me if I worry about the danger, and I tell them no because I know what I am doing. I do not discount the risks involved by any means, but I've been doing this since 1984 and I know certain things in my bones: don't turn your back on the cars; don't walk in front of a crash track; communicate with corner workers; keep your eyes and ears open; and above all, know where to dive if a car heads in your direction. The challenges at each track are different - access, finding your way around, technical problems with camera gear, the internet or your computer, shooting locations, lighting, etc., - but sometimes the greatest challenge involves just getting to the track, as I discovered earlier this year with my planned Daytona 500 trip. For this trip I changed time zones twice and drove over 1100 miles round trip to make it happen. So if you can manage all that and still come away with some good pictures that help tell the story of a race event, then as tired as you may be afterwards, you will sleep soundly knowing that you gave it your all. And the sounds of race cars will continue to hum in your head for days to come. Until the next race.

I will see you then!

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Indycar & Grand Am Racing at Barber Motorsports ParkHelio

Helio through the trees
I made it to Barber this year, so my ill fated Daytona trip is almost forgotten. Once I heard the sounds of Indycars on track Friday and smelled the ethanol exhaust, I felt like I was at home again. It's always an adventure going to a racetrack for the first time and Friday was no exception. When I got here mid afternoon Friday, an Indycar practice session was just starting and I inadvertently took a tram ride all the way around the track when in reality I had parked just a few hundred yards from the paddock area entrance. Then I went to the race control tower when I should have been in the media tent! But I got it all sorted out by the end of that first short day so I was really getting excited about working Saturday when a full slate of racing would be on tap from dawn to dusk.

Barber hill climb!
Saturday was one of the longest days I have ever had at a racetrack with virtually non-stop action on the track and photos to edit and upload to with very little time between track activity sessions. And then there was the walking. Mercy! This track is set amidst a pine forest of rolling hills and while the track layout is very condensed, it is tough sledding getting from one place to another. On top of that, there were heavy rains Thursday night and Friday morning which made some areas along the track guardrail slick as snot. There was more than one time when I almost went down just from the slippery conditions. Then in shooting positions, the hills came into play frequently offering great vantage points and some really unique angles. Chasing light was never a problem Saturday as it was bright and sunny; Sunday for the Indy Lights and Indycar races promises more of the same.

Ferris wheel in fan zone
Saturday morning was open wheel time while Saturday afternoon the ferris wheel, but the best way to get there is by tram and there's been no opportunity for me to get there so far. Rolex Grand Am and Continental Tire series races were run. Both were quite entertaining as usual but it was hard to keep tabs on who was doing what, especially in the Continental race as the public address system at the track was inaudible from most of the shooting locations I found. Barber does a great job with video screens placed around the circuit at various locations to improve visibility for the fans and the main scoring pylon in the center of the circuit is visible from almost everywhere. The hospitality areas here look fantastic with a Paddock Club right behind the pits which includes a Victory Lane overlook, and paddock passes are a very popular item. While I have not had time to get there, there's a huge fan zone near the Barber Vintage Museum with a ferris wheel and all kinds of displays for fans to enjoy along with the museum.

The Museum overlooks Turns 1-4
This track is notorious for being to difficult to pass on for Indycars, as it was originally built with motorcycles in mind. Drivers in the sports car races Saturday had no such difficulty as the multiple class format allows enough of a speed differential for drivers to be patient and pass on one of the central straightaways in the middle of the track. Diving into the bowls where many of the turns are located must be quite exhilarating as a driver and I would be curious to know what kind of g-force loading the drivers must be facing. Today is race day for the Firestone Indy Lights and the IZOD Indycar Series, with both series having morning warmups to get ready. The paddock area has been cleared by the sports car teams so the main even is just a few hours away. After driving 514 miles to get here on Friday, I have felt like a kid in a candy store all weekend and today should be the best yet. Until I get the chance to write again, here's a few pix from my weekend so far. I hope to see you at a racetrack soon, and I am really enjoying my first opportunity to shoot for and I hope that this is just the beginning!