Thursday, September 19, 2013

Salem Speedway Fall Classic - Stock Car's Future

Fresh faced kid Kyle Benjamin took Salem for his second ARCA win of the season
The ARCA Racing Series presented by Menard's continues to provide tantalizing glimpses into the future of stock car racing with its healthy roster of talented youthful drivers. Last Saturday night's 200 lap feature at Salem Speedway was no different as 15 year old Kyle Benjamin won his second ARCA race of the 2013 season. Benjamin was already the youngest ARCA winner ever and now he is the youngest two-time winner in series history. At a track where ARCA has run more races than at any other, Salem Speedway is a tough nut to crack with it's bumpy, worn out asphalt and imperfect oval shape challenging the most talented of drivers on every lap. Yet Benjamin has managed the almost unthinkable:  winning twice in a national stock car touring series before he is even old enough to get a drivers license. Quite impressive.

Ken Schrader races hard at Salem whenever he's entered
It was a beautiful early fall night in southern Indiana for the race at Salem. Comfortable temperatures, clear skies and a packed house greeted the ARCA competitors for the annual fall event. I was shooting my 15th straight ARCA race at Salem and the track (and series) has seen it all through the years. By no means the most modern of racetracks, Salem is homey and possesses a great local following who turned out this year in droves to pack the house and get autographs from the drivers during pre-race festivities. The autograph session along the pit wall is a fan favorite and one of the great things that ARCA does to get fans involved in their events. Local favorite and nine-time ARCA champion Frank Kimmel was racing to break the all time ARCA wins record, but came up short. Another fan favorite and former Salem ARCA winner, Kenny Schrader, also raced and 79 year old James Harvey Hilton received a special token of appreciation - a signature Louisville Slugger bat - in his last appearance at the track. The series is one of contrasts and the racing is fierce with youngsters like Benjamin, ARCA champion Chris Buescher, 16 year old Michael Lira, Manson Mingus and polesitter Justin Boston seemingly barely old enough to shave. But they race like veterans and put on another good show.

Frank Kimmel pits at Salem Speedway in front of a packed house
I love shooting the fall race at Salem as there are a variety of challenges. First, the pit lane is cramped and it's easy to get in the way if you're not watching what is going on around you all the time. The last thing I want to do is interfere with a team's pit stop during a race! Second, the event starts off in the daylight and finishes under the lights so the lighting changes dramatically the later it gets. Once it's dark, the track lighting isn't the greatest so the third challenge is getting usable images. The choices come down to blasting the flash with relatively low ISO or going to high ISO and dealing with pixellation in the final product. I tried a mixture of both this year with shooting available light my preferred setting for this event. Flash photos at night races have their place but shooting sequences is another challenge, even with a battery pack, and reflections off of walls or other nearby objects can still interfere with the flash - either the subject in the image will still be dark or there will be a reflection of flash back at the camera from walls or other objects. The law of unintended consequences rules with flash photography at night races and since I don't own a big Norman unit like a lot of my friends who shoot spring car racing, sometimes it's just a crapshoot. Adjust settings on the fly, try lots of different things, and then sort it out in editing later!

Salem was the next to last race I will probably shoot this season and I have had an incredible year. I had intended to shoot the Daytona 500 for Associated Press (AP) but winter intervened in Indy and my flight got cancelled. So I had to wait until April to get my season going when I went to Barber Motorsports Park for to shoot the Indycar and GrandAm weekend. It was my first event for that website and proved valuable once May rolled around. Then I did the spring race at Salem shooting for Salem Speedway before heading south to Talladega for NASCAR to work for AP the first weekend in May. The next weekend, Indy 500 practice started which involving daily shooting and blogging for This led to my first international publication credit with the Autosport Japan magazine. Two weeks after the 500, I got to serve as ARCA's official photographer at Michigan for two days and then helped them at Winchester at the end of June. July was somewhat of an off month, but the Superweekend at the Brickyard closed the month with a flourish covering GrandAm and NASCAR for again. The next weekend took me to Mid Ohio for Indycars again with in early August so the Salem weekend ended a long racing drought for me. I will be going back to Talladega in October to shoot NASCAR for AP and that will wrap up my year at the races.

Soon enough, however, it will be time to start planning for 2014 when I hope to shoot the Rolex 24 at Daytona, make it to Daytona for the 500 and who knows what after that. The Indy 500 of course is a mainstay on my calendar and it won't be long before I start asking the annual winter question: "Is it May yet?" Until then, here are slideshows from the ARCA 200 and Salem street stockers to tide you over.