Sunday, July 28, 2013

Brickyard Superweekend Main Event Time!

Jimmy Johnson wears favorite role well
Day four of the 2013 Superweekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway is upon us and it's time for the main event:  the Brickyard 400. It is the 20th edition of NASCAR's pilgrimage to Indy and while the bloom seems to be off the rose for many race fans who used to swarm the speedway in the race's early years, Sprint Cup drivers still regard this race as one of the biggest on it's schedule. No one has ever won five races at Indianapolis, either in Indycars or stock cars, and today both Jeff Gordon and Jimmy Johnson have a chance to become the first five-time winner at Indy. If he can keep their fenders clean and stay out front, Johnson probably has the best chance to do it today. His front row start next to surprise pole winner and Hoosier Ryan Newman gives him a great opportunity to arc into Turn 1 at the drop of the green flag and run in the coveted clean air which is so essential for speed on Indy's flat, smooth, narrow surface. 

GrandAm Rolex Series brings more racing to the Brickyard weekend
I am in the IMS media center this morning waiting for today's photo meeting and it's the first chance I've had to write all weekend. That's not a bad thing as one of the chief complaints about the Brickyard weekend in years past has been the lack of track activity. That has certainly not been an issue since the Superweekend concept was created in 2012 with the addition of the Rolex GrandAm and Continental Tire sports car series to the weekend schedule. My three days here so far have involved non-stop shooting, editing and uploading for Interestingly, even with near perfect weather this weekend, the crowds still are not turning out for this weekend, so at least no one can use the conditions as an excuse not to come to the track. I noticed Indy braintrust Mark Miles sitting by himself in a golf cart yesterday in the infield off of Turn 5 during the Nationwide race just watching. I wondered what he was thinking about as the Speedway management contemplates the future of this great facility and this weekend...

Working at IMS is always a challenge and this weekend has been no different. It is a huge property and to get from one area to another involves lots of walking with few direct routes. I feel badly for photogs who have never shot here before and discover that there's no easy way to get from here to there, and that shooting from preferred locations is often restricted. I spoke with some video shooters yesterday who were lamenting the lack of "hot" passes which severely hindered their access which did not make their boss very happy at all. Having shot at Indy since 1984, I know the restrictions and how to work around most of them, but at least for this race, I do have a hot pass and have been able to go pretty much everywhere I want. That is quite a luxury and I am thankful to have that freedom which shooting for provides.

Today is the "big show" and unfortunately the Sprint Cup cars are not well suited to racing here, unless you are out in front and have big horsepower to pass on Indy's long straightaways. I have not missed a Brickyard and don't intend to in the future, and the rumors about putting lights at IMS and moving the race to a Saturday night are quite interesting. Along with that, the concept of a lengthy endurance race into the night also begins to enter the picture which I would love to see at Indy. With GrandAm and the American LeMans Series merging to become United Sportscar Racing in 2014, the endurance racing landscape in the USA is certainly changing so it will be very interesting to see how that all shakes out since the number of events will be limited as it stands now. All that aside, today's 160 lap stock car race could very well make history of its own and it will be a busy one (again) for me I am sure. Next weekend I am off to Mid Ohio Sportscar Course to shoot the Indycar weekend for so if you need to find me, come on out to the track!

Jimmy Johnson navigates Turn 1 during Sprint Cup practice.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

400th Motorsports Blog Post - Milestones From the Road

Yours truly hard at work at Chicagoland Speedway 2009
When I started this blog in 2007, I had no idea where it would lead. My road to racetracks around the Midwest and Southeast United States has brought many interesting experiences, the stories of which I have tried to capture here. Along the way, I have passed through a few hundred towns which end in -ville and hope you've been there with me from time to time. I officially became an "oldtimer" in 2009 when I was accepted into the Indy 500 Oldtimer's Club as a media member with more than 20 years involvement in the Indy 500, so please bear with me as I reminisce!

I certainly didn't envision writing 400 posts, and I am far from done. This will also be one of my longer posts but I will try to spare you the agony of too many of my words at one sitting. At the time I started this blog, I was between jobs, trying to expand my photography opportunities and searching for meaning in life after going through a divorce and a number of other personal travails the previous two years. None of that matters now and all of it has fueled my desire to express myself through writing and photography. Life seems to have come full circle for me, since I am again between jobs and seeking new creative outlets. I have been blessed with luck and opportunity, and today I recap some of my greatest memories from life on the road as a racing photographer who lives for the smell of racing exhaust and tire smoke. Hopefully you get that feeling too, while I recount other significant milestones on this journey.

Lost Friends

Dan Wheldon at Kentucky Speedway, October 2011
As time marches on, there is no escaping the fact that many of the people I have gotten to know through racing are no longer with us. People like Steve Snoddy, who always had spot-on advice and seemed genuinely concerned with how I was doing when I was struggling. I wrote about Steve's passing here and he was a photog for whom I will always feel a debt of gratitude. For Steve and others like him, I try to pass along what I have learned. Two other people fall in that same category - people who were shooting races when I first started and who helped me along the way: Keith Pritchard  and Carl Pendleton. These men both signed my  500 Oldtimers application and fought brave battles with cancer over the last few years of their lives. Then there's Don Hamilton, publisher of American Motor Journal. Don helped me get back into shooting races on a major scale in 2006 when he asked about helping out with his publication. By the time of Don's unexpected passing in late 2012, I had provided thousands of images from races since that day in June 2006 when I bumped into him at Mid Ohio during the Rolex event. I jokingly tell people I bought camera gear instead of furniture after my divorce, and Don gave me the chance to put it to good use, to stretch my creative limits and try to help him make AMJ a success in the topsy turvy media world which has evolved since then. Sadly, AMJ died along with Don and his dream along with it. Lastly, I have to mention Dan Wheldon, whose demise hit me quite hard, as it did so many others in the Indycar community. Having shot dozens of Indycar races where Danny was a participant, the photo above is from the last event where I saw him compete, at Kentucky Speedway, just two weeks before he was lost in Las Vegas. I'm sure my friends Steve, Keith, Carl and Don are swapping racing stories and pulling pranks together with Danny today, as they are all in a better place. Godspeed to you all and others in racing heaven.

Found Friends

Helio & Sam Hornish, Turn 1 Indy May 2006
I was out of racing photography in 2004 & 2005 after Agence France Presse, for which I had been shooting Indy the previous five years, decided to no longer cover the Indy 500. Towards the end of 2005 I began to swap out my old film, manual focus camera equipment for high speed digital and I got the itch to get back to shooting races again. The person who helped me do that was Greg Griffo with the Indianapolis Star. I had known Greg for quite a few years and had shot for the Star in the late 1980's so Greg picked me up for Indy in May 2006 and gave me invaluable tips on shooting digital. He kick started my motorsports work that May and gave me a chance to shoot from the outside of Turn One on Pole Day that year. It was an unforgettable day and I had the spinning car of Thiago Medeiros come right at me during qualifying where all I could do was duck down behind the wall. I still remember the sound as the car hit about ten feet away and showered me with carbon fiber and rubber dust on its way past. After Indy, the next big steps I took were with AMJ and then I started this blog in early 2007. Over the last two years, I have been fortunate to branch out and make many new friends at racetracks and media outlets. In Indycar, I kept running into Eric Schwarzkopf with Trackside Online and Paul Hurley with Paddock Talk. Regis Lefebure gave me great advice during an ALMS event at Mid Ohio. I've gotten to work for ARCA with Doc, George, Deb, Bev, Rocky and others to support its website. The folks at Associated Press in Atlanta,  Daytona, and Talladega have been extremely gracious and I can't thank Mike, Butch, Mullet and Rainier enough. Working with Rainier at AP led me to this year where I've had the chance to continue learning and growing as a shooter. Special thanks to Rainier, Eric, Ken, Nancy, Covy and their whole crew. This also led to my first international publication this year through Autosport Japan, courtesy of a lead from Eric Gilbert. It's been a long road since Alex Persons gave me a chance to work at Indy for UPI in 1984. I'm sure I've left out the names of others who've helped along the way, so I apologize for that!

The Spectacular

Mike Conway's Turn 3 Indy 500 crash
Racing is by nature a spectacular sport and I've been lucky to be in the right spot and ready to shoot for some amazing race action over the years. By far the most spectacular situation I've shot was the 2010 Mike Conway crash on the last lap of the Indy 500. There have been plenty of other big moments but none like that one. This year I got to shoot Victory Lane at the Indy 500 for the first time and caught a great four-wide photo finish in the Freedom 100 Indy Lights race for In 2009, I captured Vitor Meira upside down during the Indy 500 in Turn 1 and have shot Indycar and Indy Lights photo finishes at Kentucky Speedway and Chicagoland Speedway. I've been in hundreds of victory lane celebrations, doused with water, Gatorade and champagne, chased out of the pits for not having on my firesuit at Mid Ohio, and climbed untold number of hills and grandstands to get the shots I needed. But you will get no complaints from me as it's a small price to pay for pursuing my passion.

The Mundane

When I started as a credentialed photographer at the Indy 500 in 1984, I was just happy to be there. UPI stuck me in Turn 2 and told me to wait for spins and crashes. Being a turn shooter at Indianapolis involves long hours of waiting for three seconds of action to have a chance to get a picture used. But the payoff is huge emotionally, if not financially. Gone are the anxious days of waiting for the runners to bring your exposed film back to see if you "got the shot" and if it was used on the wire. Now the result is instantaneous and there's no doubt once the image viewer is opened on the back of your camera. You either got the shot or you didn't, and there's been plenty of times where batteries have failed, my framing wasn't right, or I cut off half a car during an accident sequence. Those moments and the long hours waiting for something (anything) to happen seem like distant memories since I have been able to shoot much more than just car action the last few years. I feel like I have graduated in a sense, but I still learn something every time I shoot a race. I hope I never stop learning.


Chad Boat at Kokomo 2009
If I could catalogue all the races I've shot or the racetracks I've been to over the years, it would take up too much space here today but it would include everything from Kokomo and Lincoln Park dirt tracks to the Daytona high banks, from the streets of Toronto, Detroit and Columbus to Talladega Superspeedway. Not to mention Indy, Michigan, Mid Ohio and a host of other tracks in the Midwest. There's an alphabet soup of racing series I've worked as well: ALMS, ARCA, GrandAm, Indycar, NASCAR, NHRA, USAC, IROC, plus all types of cars from midgets to full blown prototype sports cars and Top Fuel dragsters. My best guess is I've captured a couple hundred thousand images in all, and that's probably conservative since I've had hard drives crash, CF cards that got corrupted and three camera bodies whose counters have turned over numerous times after hitting 9999.

The Road

I love to drive. It's a good thing too, as I've logged tens of thousands of miles the last few years, most of it solo, involving long hours at the wheel, often at night. Most of the time I keep the car stereo off and just listen to the 5th gear 3500 rpm hum of my 1999 Acura engine and the tires on the road. Sometimes I think of Dustin Hoffman in "Rainman" when he says "I'm an excellent driver" and just keep on rolling despite all kinds of road conditions, terrible weather, traffic jams and detours. But I've been lucky too, and only had one warning from gendarmes all these years. There have been crashes on the highway where I've arrived on the scene before the emergency crews; I have thanked my lucky stars that I wasn't there a few seconds earlier or I might have been involved. Then there's the ratty overpriced hotels that are jammed on race weekends but vacant most of the rest of the year. I also recall lots of  nice people on the road who share their travel stories along the way. Let's not forget that all that travel often involves making a 7:00 a.m. photo meeting the next day, shooting all day, and then editing and transmitting photos until long past darkness. And then doing it all over again the next day, and maybe the next day as well. 


Mid Ohio ALMS 2011
Did I mention the weather? My photog friends will not let me live down the time I refused to come in out of the rain at Mid Ohio in a monsoon that hit near the end of the ALMS race in 2011. I got pictures but also almost lost both my cameras to "moisture" and I still had the Indycar race to shoot the next day. I have come to enjoy the teasing over being the "rainmeister" but there have also been times when it seemed like everywhere I went, it rained. My 2007 season was like that, beginning with leaving my sunroof open at the Nashville Indycar race when a downpour hit just before the scheduled start and the inside of my car got soaked. I didn't damage any equipment that night but the race got postponed to the next day and I had to scramble to find a room. Of course the Indy 500 was rain shortened that year. I almost turned back while driving to the Michigan Indycar race on a rain swept day later that summer but I followed a rule I adopted years ago after missing the start of the Brickyard in 1995:  get to the track first and then worry about the weather. I have gotten better prepared to deal with rain as the years have passed. There have also been times during rainy road course events where I think standing next to a metal catch fence under a big tree might not be the best place to be during a thunderstorm filled with I move and keep shooting.

As I wrap up this post, I am noting how often I have used terms like lucky or fortunate. Do all these things happen by coincidence or fate? I have heard people say that luck is where preparation meets opportunity, so I try to keep that in mind. At the same time, the older I get the less I believe in coincidence. First and foremost, you have to be at the track to have a chance to do good work. When I'm there, I don't listen to a scanner or radio. I put my earplugs in and dial in to the sounds of the cars, since most of the time I can't hear the public address system over the race noise anyway. It's when it gets quite and the engine notes change that I know I better start pushing the button. If I'm lucky, or fortunate, or it's just meant to be, I hope I can do another 400 posts in the years to come. At any rate, you can find me at a racetrack somewhere and it will feel like home. Just be sure to bring your rain gear.

Mid Ohio Rolex  GrandAm action in 2008

Monday, July 1, 2013

Kimmel Outruns Young Guns at Winchester - Ties ARCA Win Record

Frank Kimmel (#44) led from pole on owner's points after rain washed out qualifications
"Old age and treachery wins out over youth and exuberance." I don't know where that quote originated, but it sure seemed fitting after watching Frank Kimmel get another ARCA win on the Winchester high banks Sunday June 30th. On a misty and wet day which caused the race to start under green/yellow conditions, Kimmel bided his time and pounced in the final third of the  Herr's Chase the Taste 200 after most of his younger competitors ran into problems or each other. After leading quite a few laps, Mason Mingus got caught up in an incident and finished the race with a car that looked like a modified, the team having used a sawzall to cut off the right front fender so he could finish. With the win, Kimmel tied the all-time ARCA wins record of 79 set by Iggy Katona and remains atop the ARCA season points standings with Mingus lurking in second. Austin Self was charging hard at the end but couldn't catch Kimmel and had to settle for second.

Rainy ARCA Autograph session
This was another race where I had the opportunity to shoot for ARCA and my day started off with a short drive through scattered showers between Indy and Winchester. The weather radar looked like it was going to clear off eventually, but the pattern was odd since rain usually doesn't come from the north and east like this system. As I got onto I-69 to head out of town, I saw a large hawk perched on a set of INDOT solar panels, so I had a feeling that the day was going to work out alright. Once at the track, the sprinkles persisted until about an hour before the scheduled start. I was dealing with equipment issues with one of my cameras as a result of the "moisture" but I wasn't totally surprised since that particular camera had gotten soaked at Mid Ohio a couple of years ago in monsoon conditions during an American LeMans series race. But I was able to work around the problem for the most part, as it only seemed to effect one lens, and I was able to do what I needed to do for ARCA. Although the track was still wet at the start, by the time the race was over, there was bright blue sky and sunshine. The lead picture (above) was taken during the pace laps when I noticed an area of ponding water on the inside of  the track between Turns 3 and 4, and I liked the reflection effect. Track officials did a great job getting the racing surface ready and the start was only minimally delayed.

Austin Self's crew gets ready to work on a rainy Sunday
I'm sure the wet weather kept the crowd down, and that's a shame, because ARCA, and especially a small track like Winchester, need the fan support. But those who came and stuck it out were treated to a good race. It's not often fans get to witness racing history and I was certainly glad to do my part in helping document it. I've been shooting ARCA races pretty consistently since 2006, and Frank Kimmel has been a mainstay of the series. He races hard and clean, and I got the chance to shake his hand afterward as I was leaving the track to head home. NBC Sports Network was on hand to tape the event for a special which will air sometime in August, so everyone involved was highly motivated to get the whole 200 laps in and put on a good show. Check, and check, as both missions were accomplished.

Tom Hessert and father walk the track early on race day
It's funny what you see sometimes being on the inside of a racing series. I got to Winchester so early that the credential office wasn't even open, and all the cars were impounded on pit lane covered with rain tarps. Within an hour or so, teams started filtering in and making pre-race adjustments. I saw drivers milling around talking with crew members, friends and family, or checking out the displays of historic Winchester photos inside the main building where fans enter. I always enjoy shooting the ARCA autograph sessions too as the fans genuinely love the chance to meet and talk with these drivers, many of whom are future stars in the making. I was a race fan before I was a racing photographer, so I can sympathize with fans who are going to say "I saw them then.." like I do as time passes. And at a track like Winchester, time passes quickly as 200 laps didn't seem to take much time to complete once the race got underway. I don't know when I will be shooting for ARCA again, but I look forward to it with the same passion I approach shooting any other racing event. Hopefully next time, my equipment troubles will be a distant memory and we'll have another historic moment to write about. See you on the road somewhere soon.

Ominous skies were present right up to the start of the Herr's Chase the Taste 200 at Winchester Speedway
ARCA Driver Tom Hessert checks the historic photo displays with friends
Frank Kimmel during driver introductions