Tuesday, November 26, 2013

ARCA Season Review - @arca_racing Is Stock Car Proving Ground

ARCA Veteran and fan favorite Frank Kimmel took his 10th season title in 2013
The ARCA racing series has become one of my favorites over the last few years, not just because I have had opportunities to work for the series directly. I love it for its schedule diversity and the fact that the future stars of American stock car racing almost always get their starts racing fendered cars in ARCA. I've written many times about the "young guns" of ARCA and the 2013 season had these younger drivers in abundance - some as young as 15 years of age winning races - see Kyle Benjamin at Salem for example. Many people don't know that ARCA has been around longer than NASCAR and is preparing for its 61st Championship Awards banquet in Indianapolis December 14th where 2013 season champion Frank Kimmel will collect his 10th title and awards. 

ARCA Rookie of the Year Justin Boston
The youth movement is the real attraction in ARCA in my opinion. Here are some names that you will surely hear more about in the upcoming years who have raced and starred in ARCA: Brennan Poole (two wins), Kyle Benjamin (two wins in 2013), Justin Boston (2013 Rookie of the Year), Mason Mingus (second to Kimmel in 2013 series points), Mason Mitchell, Erik Jones and Chris Buescher (one win and defending series champion). A couple of years ago at Salem Speedway, the pole winner and next two qualifiers were all still in their teens, so the opportunity to race full bodied stock cars on a variety of tracks is an attraction for the drivers as well. Just look at the NASCAR Nationwide Series or Camping World Truck Series rosters: they are full of former ARCA drivers. Ty Dillon, Justin Allgaier, Parker Kligerman, Ryan Blaney, Dakoda Armstrong, and Chase Elliott have all been winners in ARCA and moved up. In Sprint Cup, Michael McDowell, Scott Speed and Justin Marks have all come through ARCA and there are many more who cut their teeth in stock car racing in this series.

Series runner-up Mason Mingus at Michigan International in 2013
There is no other major nationwide racing series which visits so many different types of tracks. The series races on big, fast tracks like Daytona, Michigan and Talladega, plus an assortment of 1.5 mile tracks like Kansas and Chicagoland. They race on plenty of short tracks including the aging but storied high banks of Salem and Winchester in Indiana, the flatter tracks like Elko in Minnesota, Toledo (Ohio) and Mobile (Alabama). Add to this recipe the road course events at Road America and New Jersey Motorsports Park, then spice it further with mile dirt tracks at Springield and DuQuoin state fair tracks in Illinois, and you have a tasty mix that would satisfy the most diehard stock car fans.

Frank Kimmel congratulates Brennan Poole on his 2013 Michigan win
One side benefit of this schedule diversity is the number of different drivers the series attracts. While Frank Kimmel added to his ARCA legacy in 2013 with a 10th season championship and broke the all-time ARCA wins record formerly held by Iggy Katona, seemingly everyone seeking stock car experience races at some point during the season. As a training ground for drivers, there is no better series, but team owners and crew members also find their way to the big time by following the stock car ladder up through ARCA. If you want to see the youth movement and be able to tell your friends that "you knew them when...", then ARCA races are where you need to be. Evidence of the attarctiveness of the series is the fact that 141 drivers scored points in 2013. Granted many of these drivers were there for one-off appearances, but part of the excitement of any ARCA event is seeing who is entered. Anyone can win in ARCA - just look at want Corey Lajoie did this year: three wins out of five starts!

James Hylton
One of my favorite drivers has become James Harvey Hilton. Here is a man who has been around the sport seemingly forever and is finally calling it a day after 2013. He shows up at every race, enjoys a stogie or two and has a good time at the race track even though he doesn't have the pace anymore to challenge for race wins. He did, however, finish 11th in the season standings and clearly just loves to race. A few years ago, he showed up at Salem with dollar bills taped all over his car from fan donations, so while no one would ever confuse his operation with a Roush development team in terms of financial backing, few would argue with his passion for the sport. And he is not alone in ARCA as there are a number of drivers who may not be the fastest on any given weekend, but they are loyal to the series and might be called racer's racers. Darrell Basham is one such driver, and his story is unique in the sense that his race shop got blown away in the Hewnryville, Indiana tornado a couple of years ago but he carried on. ARCA fans know these stories and appreciate guys like James and Darrell trying their best to be competitive and put on a good show.

I have been very fortunate the last seven years to shoot more than two dozen ARCA races, including 15 straight at Salem Speedway. Next year it looks like I will add to that total as I have an opportunity to be the primary photographer for the series at a few of the summer 2014 races. I also have a project involving mathematics in racing that I hope to do with ARCA's support next summer which will tie in with my classroom teaching and involve students from the University of Northwestern Ohio's motorsports program. For me, the chance to support this series, which has a unique history in stock car racing, is quite gratifying and I am looking forward to the photography challenges I am likely to face next year. Until then, I hope you enjoy this photo gallery of my 2013 ARCA work. Look me up at the track next season!

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

#ThankYouDario - A Legend Retires

Dario Franchitti on his 2012 Indy 500 victory lap with Ashley Judd & Susie Wheldon
It seems my life is full of irony. Or maybe it's all just coincidence - except I don't believe in coincidence: everything happens for a reason. So last Thursday, on the day I posted a "Throwback Thursday" video I had created of my photo sequence of Mike Conway's 2010 Indy 500 crash, Dario Franchitti announced he was retiring from Indycar racing for medical reasons as a result of his similarly frightening crash at Houston last month.

And who won the Indy 500 which finished under yellow in 2010 as a result of Conway's accident? Dario. Then the next day I read about Mike getting a ride with Ed Carpenter for 2014 to run all the road course races next season. So in the span of 24 hours, I wrote about Mike's accident (and the fact that his Indycar comeback from his Indy 500 accident was underscored by a win at Detroit's Belle Isle circuit this past June), Dario retires and Mike gets a new ride for next season.

The common thread here is airborne Indycars. Mike Conway decided not to run ovals after getting upside down at Indy the last two times he ran the 500. Dario decided to retire after climbing over Takuma Sato at Houston and taking out the catch fencing, suffering a concussion and back injury in the process. Dario got airborne twice in 2007 (at Michigan and at Nashville), escaping without a scratch both times but this time he was not so lucky. In the aftermath of his Houston accident, I would guess that the specter of his pal Dan Wheldon was also weighing on Dario's mind with Danny's loss still fresh from the fatal accident at Las Vegas two years ago. Everyone knows that racing is dangerous but that is part of its allure - men and women risking everything at speeds most of us can only imagine:  until the risk is too great.

While I hate to see Dario retire, I am happy he is able to make a reasoned decision and walk away with his health largely intact. From the medical reports I have read, it sounded like his greatest concern is the long term impact of repeated concussions, and who can blame him for deciding that the rewards no longer outweigh the risks? Especially given all of the media attention to the effects of concussions on players in football, I hope he stays retired and doesn't fall prey to the urge to return to the cockpit.

Dario has become one of my favorite drivers the last few years and I would love to see him assume an active role in Indycar similar to other greats like Rick Mears, Johnny Rutherford or Mario Andretti. Since I expanded my motorsports photo work in 2006 to include multiple races on the Indycar circuit, I have been up close and personal with Indycar drivers like Dario many times. After his 2012 Indy 500 win I was standing next to him and Ashley by the yard of bricks and was close enough to hear their conversation. So I feel like I know racers like Dario personally and when someone leaves the sport, either by their own volition or other circumstance, I can't help but feel the loss. I feel like I am losing a hero, but thankfully this time it is not the ultimate loss as with DW. It's a loss nonetheless, so I hope I get the chance someday to tell Dario how much I've enjoyed him as a person, a racer and an icon in our sport.

So this past weekend in my ongoing efforts to experiment with video production, I put together the following video with photos of Dario from races at Indy and elsewhere I've covered the last six years. Some might think the Evanescence song "Immortal" is too melancholy for this, but for me it reinforced the notion that as long as we have memories of our heroes, then they are immortal. God bless you Dario and I sure hope to see you at some races next year so fans can salute all that you've done for the sport of Indycar racing.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

#TBT Throw Back Thursday: Mike Conway Indy 500 Crash

By far the scariest racing incident I have ever photographed took place at the Indy 500 in 2010 when Mike Conway ran up the back of a slowing and out-of-fuel Ryan Hunter-Reay near the end of the race. I was shooting in Turn 3 that year as I have for many years and the race had been fairly uneventful from my vantage point most of the day. With a couple of laps to go, I had turned on my digital voice recorder and set it on top of the fence post in front of me to pick up the sounds of the cars and the track public address system announcers making the call of the winner. I don't usually pan during a race at this location as I watch the entry to the turn, how the cars are coming along the apex and looking for the slightest little twitch or for a car running above the normal line. I also listen for changes in engine notes or any unusual sounds. On this day it was my ears that tipped me off to a problem, and then my eyes followed.

Then I heard a loud clunking sound to my left. I swung around to see RHR's car damaged and limping through the turn so I laid on the shutter release button thinking that he might get t-boned by other cars that were trailing him. At eight frames a second, it is hard to tell what is going on sometimes but I stayed relatively wide with my 70-200 and kept shooting, when I realized something (or someone) was airborne and I was seeing black which meant the bottom of the car was facing me. Then it was like a bomb had gone off with more awful sounds and a debris field filled my viewfinder. I ended up with 48 photos in the whole sequence and my first thought afterwards was that someone had gone under the stands. There was a gaping whole in the fencing beneath the North Vista grandstands which safety workers were peering through. The mangled cabling framed a piece of the nose of Conway's car behind the wall and the only other section of his car that remained in front of me was the engine and rear end  assembly. I feared the worst and the crowd in the north end was absolutely buzzing in the aftermath of the accident. Thankfully, the worst was not realized and I ended up with 16 minutes of audio on my digital recorder as it continued to record while I finished shooting the aftermath of the accident and checking with other photographers to see what they had. A lot of spectacular photos were taken that day by members of the Third Turn Society.

Monday, November 11, 2013

2013 Racing Sampler, Part 1: New Video

Part of the thrill of chasing race cars around the country with my cameras is reviewing the finished product. That is also some of the most tedious work involved since there are usually hundreds, if not a thousand or two, images to sift through after a race weekend. Multiply that by the number of race events I've done (and this year there were 10) and the editing process can be overwhelming. Thankfully, however, because of the nature of my assignments, most of the concise editing is done at the racetrack on any given weekend and I am still quite happy if 1 out of every 10 pictures is a keeper. Of course, I consider myself my own worst critic, although photo editors of the people I work for often make the final call. So putting together slideshows or other presentations is often not as daunting as you might think.

One of my goals going forward is to create more video content, even if it means putting still photos together with music, wild sound or narrative soundtracks (or some combination of them all). The following is one attempt to do so and includes photos from the IZOD Indycar Series, the Rolex GrandAm Series, NASCAR's Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series and the Firestone Indy Lights series taken at Indianapolis, Barber Motorsports Park, Mid Ohio and Talladega. I am calling it Part 1 for 2013 as I intend to do others over the next few months before I head to Daytona to shoot the Rolex 24 Hours race in January. Once that race weekend gets here, all bets will be off for 2013 and the images mostly get archived to make way for a new crop of images at various events. I have a few "sequels" in mind, but I had to start off with one that has music created by my son Max and no narrative track. There will be more as I work to polish my video production skills in anticipation of a major project I am working on for the summer of 2014. Details on that will be revealed as that time gets closer. Needless to say, lots of road miles on my '99 Integra will be involved, and I will be embedded in a six week frenzy of travel, shooting multiple events, and special video compilations to add to this blog as continuing chapters in this photographer's journey. Welcome to Indiana-ville, y'all!

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

October Insanity - Road Trip Life

Austin Dillon flips Tony Stewart's #14 at Talladega with help from Casey Mears
October was an insane month of activity - witness the fact that I haven't been able to write here in 30 days. The month started off rather slowly with a weekend at hone in Indy when the highlight was going to see the movie "RUSH", which I thought was fantastic. That weekend also featured Dario Franchitti's scary flip into the fence at the Houston Indycar race, which in hindsight was a portent of things to come for me.

The second weekend of October was filled with soccer officiating at local tournaments. We had passed the halfway point of the semester in my teaching job the previous week and the decks were then cleared for my last racing road trip of the season:  to Talladega Superspeedway, where I had my best weekend ever shooting for Associated Press. I had 15 photos used by AP over the weekend and several featured flipping race cars. I felt like I was at a sprint car race. I had never shot so many upside down race cars in one weekend on a paved track before, let alone in NASCAR and at someplace like Talladega which is huge and fast. The road trip entailed 1279 miles round trip and I made it back to Indy on only one stop - which I had never done before - at 3:00 a.m. Monday morning. Going in to teach that day I was still running on adrenaline after an awesome weekend, and it was a thrill showing my colleagues and students some of my work. Naturally there was some teasing involved about being "famous" but I knew it was more about opportunity and being ready than anything else. That was especially true in both the truck series and Sprint Cup races as the big melees with airborne race cars happened on the last lap both days. I learned a lot at the track that weekend, and using a big lens taught me some valuable lessons which I will put to use in the future.

The next weekend involved a much shorter road trip, to Bloomington, Indiana, for a family wedding where I didn't have to be "the photographer", although I did have a lot of fun putting together a slideshow of the bride and groom for their rehearsal dinner. I ended up shooting lots of video that weekend which I still have to edit, but making movies from video clips is something I need to do more often and this was a great opportunity to capture some memories for a very happy couple which did not conflict with the work of the wedding photographer they hired. After the wedding, school was on Fall break so it was back home in Indy for two days before I headed to Akron, Ohio to help my mom. I logged another 650 miles or so on the road in my '99 Integra and she just keeps rolling along, now with over 231,000 miles on her. On the way back that Friday, I was sailing along past New Castle when everything came to a screeching halt and I got stuck in a 90 minute traffic jam for an accident involving two semis which blocked Interstate 70 near Knightstown. The weekend and fall break wrapped up with my last two soccer games to officiate this fall, a visit to Scotty's Brewhouse before going to the Pacers game, and then my son and I went to see the movie "Ender's Game" on Sunday afternoon. In and around all the travel, teaching and photography, I managed to finish a grant application for several photo projects I'd like to do next summer which will put me on the road even more and take me to places I have never been and others I haven't been to in a long, long time.

Next up is the holidays but I am already scheduling my racing work for 2014. I will be shooting for AP at Daytona in January for the Rolex 24 Hours when the combined GrandAm and American LeMans series will debut as the Tudor United Sportscar Series. I have never shot the 24 before so I am really excited about that opportunity and already have my plane flight booked. So even with a little less than two months left in 2013, it's never too early to start making plans for the year ahead. Until the next time I get to go racing again, I leave you with slideshows from my super weekend at Talladega Superspeedway. See you on the road or at a racetrack somewhere soon!