Tuesday, January 28, 2014

My First Rolex 24 Hours Is In The Books

The #5 Action Express wins the 2014 Daytona Rolex 24
Daytona: my work here is done. At least for the month of January, as I will be back in less than four weeks to shoot the Daytona 500. But my first Rolex 24 Hours race at Daytona was an incredible experience, more like six races rolled into one as the event ran twice around the clock from the 2:10 p.m. drop of the green flag Saturday January 25th. My impressions of the event are positive, although I know there are folks who are upset with technical issues and glitches which have resulted from the merger of GrandAm and American LeMans under IMSA's new TUDOR United Sportscar Series banner. I'm sure those issues will be worked out in due time and I was simply ecstatic to have the opportunity to work this event and check it off my bucket list of races I want to shoot. The next big one on my list is the 24 Hours of LeMans so maybe someday I will get to do that one as well. I'm sure it is a much different event as Daytona seemed wholly American to me, with the self contained circuit and infield hairpins comprising the road course. The noise inside the track was heavenly and only stopped one time, following Saturday's red flag for a wicked accident involving the Gainsco #99 driven by Memo Gidley who ran up the back of a Ferrari driven by Matteo Malucelli. The accident occurred just before 5:00 with slightly less than 3 hours run in the race and may have served as a wake up call for everyone at the track that the festivities are indeed serious.

Matteo Malucelli's Ferrari rests against the guardrail after the wreck with Memo Gidley
I was walking out from the media center after downloading pictures I took during the first two hours when I saw crash trucks on the track in the infield and all the competitors stopped in a long line behind them. I knew it was something serious so I walked to the scene and got there in time to photograph the extrication of the drivers. When I first got there, the Ferrari was against the ARMCO and didn't look too bad as the rear end had what looked like moderate damage. It seemed like all the track's safety and medical crew personnel were on the scene though so I knew someone in the accident may have been seriously hurt. As it turned out, that was Memo Gidley, but I couldn't see the Gainsco car with all the safety team surrounding it, but as time went on and I kept shooting, the gravity of the situation became obvious.

Memo Gidley receives medical attention from Daytona safety crews
I had to put that out of my mind and make some pictures, since shooting as a stringer for a wire service like I was this race almost always means capturing the details of any serious incident, including the aftermath and extrication of drivers. I learned some more photo lessons in the process of shooting the scene, and it was one of those times where I had to quell any emotions I was feeling and just do my job. I had originally gone back out to shoot around 5:00 to get to a spot for some sunset pictures, but by the time the race was restarted, the sun had fully set behind the main grandstands. Those sunset pictures will have to be taken another time.

Indycar's Graham Rahal was one of the drivers of the  #56 BMW
After the restart from the red flag, it was time to grab some dinner and go through the race photographer's cycle in the media center. That cycle reminds me of the old shampoo commercials which recommended "lather, rinse, repeat", only the photo cycle would be "shoot, download, backup, edit, repeat". It was a cycle I was to repeat during the Rolex 24 hour at least six times and keeping track of images became the challenge as time wore on. I was glad I had used Friday to find my way around the road course as it came in handy for the start of the 24. I had walked out about 1:00 to get in position for the start at the place where the cars go back onto the oval track and then proceeded to work my way back around the infield in my first photo cycle. It was a nice vantage point for the start with great lighting and a position where I could get up on a concrete retaining wall with a corner worker and look down on the cars as they took the left hander back onto the oval.

The Deltawing at night
My second cycle started after dinner and extended into the darkness and past the fireworks which were set off around 9:00 p.m. I had time to experiment with some long exposures, fill flash, and straight available light with high ISO settings. I was looking for glowing brake rotors, trying very slow shutter speeds on pans and all sorts of ideas that I would not often get the chance to play with during the course of a normal two or three hour race event. My next cycle took me down into the infield by Turn 1 of the oval and I found someone who let me get up on the platform they had on top of their motor home to shoot cars on the high banks. I then went into the pits for awhile and by 11:30, I was getting hungry so decided to try to get some food and rest back at my rental car in the media parking lot. I had intended all along to spend the night at the track to soak up the whole atmosphere and I'm glad I did. The day had been chilly and blustery and the night brought more of the same but while I was out walking around the track, I was plenty warm. Settling in at the car I began to get cold so I bundled up, kept the earplugs in and put the driver's seat in full recline to rest. I think I slept about four hours and woke up about 4:30 with Entemann's powdered donuts and Diet Coke before I headed back to the media center around 5:00 a.m. to start the next cycle. The race car serenade that night was symphonic and quiet loud, although I couldn't sleep for long as I had plans for the sunrise.

Dawn at Daytona
By 6:00 a.m., I was headed back to the bus stop chicane on the backstretch as I knew the sun was going to come up around 7:15 that morning and I wanted to shoot cars going through the chicane in the darkness. I had to walk through an infield tent camping area to get to the bus stop and there were a few people up but it what struck me immediately was the smell of all the burning campfires. Occasionally, I could see someone behind me popping a flash photo but I was intent on using available light as much as possible, so I cranked the ISO out to 5000 and went at it. By about 8:00, I had walked back around Turn 4 of the oval and headed back to the media center to complete that photo cycle. I was hoping there would be something hot for breakfast so I could eat and get ready for the next cycle.

The Magnus Racing Porsche limped to the finish in 12th
Before heading into the homestretch with about 6 hours to go in the race, I decided to take a shower at the facilities in the infield and change clothes. Downing several Diet Cokes and some Excedrin in the process, I got energized again to finish out the race with a couple more photo cycles in the pits, garage area and then finally Victory Lane. I loved how dirty the cars looked in the morning light after about 20 hours of racing. A few racers had engines which had gone off-song while many had incurred damage at some point and appeared to be kept together with duct tape and bailing wire. I spent the last couple hours of the race in the pits and went looking for a spot to shoot the checkered flag with about 45 minutes to go. I saw a bunch of photographers at one of the few openings on pit lane so I headed to Victory Lane as I had remembered from the Continental Tire Series race on Friday that there the risers there were high enough in some places to see over the teams' pit lane tents and I got the angle I wanted. That photo is the lead for this blog post.

Action Express driver Joao Barbosa, wife and son in Victory Lane at Daytona
Then there was just the Victory Lane ceremony to shoot and the last cycle for the event was done. I tried to look for something unusual and there it was: Joao Barbosa's son holding back tears as his dad and mom embraced once Joao climbed out of the car a winner after 24 Hours. I could go on and on with the stories from this experience at Daytona, and I'm sure there will be more to say at another time. Needless to say, it was the longest day of my racing life and I hope I get the chance to shoot here again. And then there's LeMans...

The Action Express machine driven by Barbosa, Fittipaldi and Bourdais in the bus stop shortly after dawn Sunday
The Skyactive Mazda diesels were beautiful and so very quiet, but only one finished.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Daytona Rolex 24: The Longest Night in Racing

Ganassi Racing's second team car
It's a little after 5:00 in the morning as I write this and I am back in the media center. I got a few hours of sleep which is more than I can say for a lot of people around me, many of whom have stayed up through the night. Wayne Taylor Racing with Max Angelelli is currently leading with a little more than nine hours to go. Sunrise will be with us in a couple of hours and I still have some other shooting to do. I will make a swing through the pits and then head out to the bus stop again after hitting the oval track Turn 4 area. There have been 11 cautions so far but remarkably nearly 60 cars of the original 68 which started are still running. That in itself is pretty amazing.

Patrick Dempsey 
Before I grabbed a little sleep in my car here at the track, I had been in the pits and saw Patrick Dempsey take over the #27 Porsche. The pit setups each team has are incredible with large, well lit tents enveloping everything they need to compete twice around the clock. The driver changes have always been one of my favorite parts of sports car racing and a 24 hour race has them in droves. There's so much to like about sports car racing that I can see why people have it as their favorite form of motorsports. Living in Indiana most of my life, everyone knows that Indycars are where my heart lies but I do love the sounds and smells of these TUDOR sports cars.

Going out to make some pictures now, so until then here's an updated gallery to tide you over until my next update.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Daytona It Is!

The new Mazda diesels are beautiful and so quiet!
My first day at the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona was a blast. I spent most of the day finding my way around and seeing where I could shoot and how to get from point A to Point B. I've been here for the Daytona 500 but the infield road course makes accessing certain areas quite difficult. I also found out a couple of areas which are off limits to photographers by mistake! People have been great down here and the corner workers have been extremely helpful when I had questions. I got out yesterday morning in time to shoot the TUDOR United Sportscar Series final practice, mainly from locations around the infield road course, going wherever the light was favorable. But man was it windy and chilly - still better than back home in Indy!

Coming here this year has been on my radar for a long time and today it's race day. It will be the longest race day of my life so far and this time tomorrow morning, the cars will still be circulating and there will be about five hours still left to race. Friday was easier by comparison and other than the crappy hotel I was in, this weekend has gone off like clockwork so far. I supposed that is fitting since the 24 Hours is sponsored by Rolex. The Continental Tire Sports Car Series (CTSCS) yesterday was full of yellow flags due to incidents and I already have my first spin and contact for the season, so I got that one out of the way. As it turns out, my Victory Lane pictures with Turner Motorsports are mostly unusable since the 96 car of Bill Auberlen and Paul Della Lana was disqualified after post race inspection for a technical violation and excluded from the results. But history was made in the aftermath as the DQ elevated Shelby Blackstock and Ashley Freiberg to P1 and gave Daytona its first female winner. To top it off, it was her first CTSCS race! Three BMW's took the podium positions from the race which unfortunately finished under yellow.

I got rolling early this morning to get a decent parking spot and get set up in the media center. A light rain had fallen overnight but the day has started off with less wind than yesterday. The day started off a little chilly at 45 degrees but the sun is out now and it is warming up. It is supposed to get up to 69 degrees today with partly cloudy skies, so it could be a good situation for photos with flat, even lighting and no harsh shadows which can be the case under bright sunshine. I would still take the bright skies anytime! Then the daylight will start to fade as sunset is at 5:57 p.m. and the real photo challenges will begin as nighttime shooting, even with the track's MUSCO lighting system, will probably mean high ISO settings. Direct head-on flash use is being discouraged as you might imagine, as the driver's pupils will be fully dilated during night racing stints. I'm not sure how much I will sleep tonight but I am staying at the track to soak in the entire 24 Hour experience. Sleeping in the car will still be preferable to the cheap hotel room and the periodic rumblings of a fast moving mile long freight train right outside my day which I've dealt with the last two nights. The sound startled me the first night as it sounded like the train was coming right into my room! The sweet sound of race cars will be so much better tonight.

In my last post I wrote about the sounds of language as well as the cars. Both are quite varied, and I got what I expected in the garage area as I heard multiple languages being spoken yesterday. The same has turned out to be true in the media center, as this event is truly international in scope and the photographer's room is probably representative of the countries on display in the race itself. Me? I'm just a Hoosier with a passion for the sights, sounds and smells of racing, so I go where that leads me whenever I can. Today, that's at Daytona International Speedway for the 52nd running of the Rolex 24 Hours. You should be here too. Back with more later!

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Bucket List Daytona Rolex 24 Hours: Check!

In another week, if all goes as planned and the racing gods part the wintry Indiana weather and allow my plane to escape Indianapolis, I will be fulfilling another bucket list item on my racing photography journey:  The Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona. I have wanted to shoot this race for years and I am very fortunate to finally get the chance to do it with Associated Press. When I heard over a year ago that GrandAm and the American LeMans Series were going to merge, I targeted attending this 2014 edition of the Rolex grind. I knew it would be a historic event, the first for the combined series, now known as the TUDOR United Sportscar Series, and would include all the best teams and drivers from both series under one banner for the first time in over a decade. The only thing missing, it seems, will be the LeMans spec and all conquering Audi prototypes! But I will be there and that's all that matters to me right now.

As a numbers guy I looked over the entry list for this year's race (I teach algebra and geometry after all), this 24 promises an epic battle over four classes among 67 entries. A twitter friend @Shayzen has written a nice piece on all the open wheel drivers who will be racing next weekend, and I encourage you to check it out at her More Than A Fan site. By my count, there are roughly 30 drivers with ties to open wheel racing, including Indy Lights, Indycar and Formula 1. There are three teams entered with drivers "TBA" yet the entry list already boasts 242 drivers among the 67 cars entered! There's an all-Brazilian driver team (#65 Scuderia Corsa) that will wheel a Ferrari 458 Italia. There's another team, also using a Ferrari 458, with three Russian drivers, including the newest Indycar rookie, Mikhail Aleshin. Oddly enough there are only two drivers listed with NASCAR connections, and one of them is the hottest young guy in racing right now:  Kyle Larson. I could count Kyle as an open wheel guy too since he came up through USAC. It appears that lady racers outnumber the stock car boys as I noted 3 women drivers listed. Katherine Legge has arguably the plum job of the women entered:  co-piloting the radical Deltawing machine. Can't wait to see that machine at speed!

The Gainsco Red Dragon leads Wayne Taylor Racing at Barber in 2013
All of these men, women and machines are vying for the coveted Rolex watches which all the winners get. With 19 of the big prototypes and all the best North American sports car racers in attendance, the race will almost surely be a series of sprints between pitstops. The top protoype teams are still the ones people will recognize - Ganassi, Wayne Taylor Racing, Gainsco, Muscle Milk, Starworks, Michael Shank, Action Express - and they have most of the big names behind the wheel, as well as team cars in many cases so different strategies can be pursued. I think this 24 is wide open and I wouldn't be at all surprised if one of the Prototype Challenge teams made its way to the front and won. Winding their way through 40 GT cars will make for exciting racing. Then there's always the element of weather to add to the mix:  rain, cold, fog, etc., not to mention a grueling trek through over 12 hours of darkness where everyone is just trying to get to sunrise Sunday morning to hit the reset button and go for the win.

Scott Pruett
My pre-race favorite still has to be the Ganassi #01 entry with Scott Pruett as the lead driver. I have been wacthing Scott race since the glory days of Trans Am in the 80's and he knows how to win these endurance races, and so does the Ganassi team! But the 24 Hours is a truly global event with drivers, support personnel, engineers and crews representing countries throughout the industrialized world. I am so excited to have the chance to walk through the garage area and down pit lane to hear the cacophony of languages being spoken.

Patrick Dempsey
The universal language of speed will tie us all together, and I am hoping that this trip south will be both creative and fruitful. Sports car racing also has its share of star power and sometimes plays out like a hollywood script. If you saw the effort put in by Dempsey Racing at LeMans last year, then you know what I mean. And if the maze of car classes and acronyms for the new Tudor series makes your head spin like it does mine, then be sure to check out Tony DiZinno's blog post which likens sportscar racing to the periodic table of elements. Let's hope that the mixture of the GrandAm and ALMS elements this year is not too volatile, but then a race twice around the clock has the potential for just about anything to happen. I can't wait to get there and get to work! Until then, here's a few pix from my GrandAm and ALMS work the last couple of seasons to get you going. See you at Daytona.

One of the top GT teams, the Flying Lizard team colors will adorn an Audi R8 this season
Bruno Junquiera at Mid Ohio 2012; the Prototype Challenge class includes drivers like Alex Tagliani this year
Even with the demise of the P1 category, the Muscle Milk team should still be a contender for the overall win at Daytona
GT traffic will be heavy for the prototypes to negotiate in 2014
Magnus Racing with Andy Lally as the lead driver is a GT favorite every race
A second Ganassi entry at Daytona is loaded with Indycar driver talent - Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

New Year News: The Good & The Bad

New Year's Hawk 2014
One of the first things I saw out our front window this morning was a redtail hawk in the tree next to the driveway. I see these magnificent birds everywhere I go, especially while traveling as they perch on fence rows, in treetops and on electrical power poles. I even have a tattoo on my left shoulder of one from a photo I took several years ago. I always know I'm being watched over when I see a hawk. That's the good news.

This time I think he was a messenger of bad news. Soon after I saw him and took some photos, I checked Facebook and saw a post from a fellow photographer about the sudden passing of AP photographer Dave Martin who I had worked with at Talladega the last few years. Dave apparently collapsed after shooting the Chick-Fil-A bowl game in Atlanta, taking photos right to the end. I will miss him a bunch as he taught me so much about wire service photography and always treated me well when I would make the 500 mile trek to Talladega twice a year. I can't believe I am starting off the new year with a post about another photographer friend who has passed away, but then we are all getting older and I've been doing this for quite awhile myself so I suppose it is inevitable. If you want to know more about him then please read the AP "Big Story" article which I first saw on Facebook this morning.

Dave Martin
Dave's nickname was "Mullet", not for the hairstyle but for the "Mullet Festival" party he used to throw at his home, which apparently involved cooking mullet fish and then throwing fish guts at some point in the evening once the party really got rolling. I heard the whole story about the nickname this past October while hanging out with Dave, other AP staffers and photographers at dinner at the Tilted Kilt in Birmingham after a day's shooting at Talladega. The "Festival" earned some degree of notoriety for Dave and even made the television news one year in a segment about things to do in town that night. Quite a crowd showed up unexpectedly as you might imagine. And Dave was quite the storyteller so I will really miss his wit and wisdom. I admired him for knowing what he wanted to do and going after it. He told me about taking photography classes in a rigorous program in Florida where he got his start, and taking photos to the local paper and asking that they consider using them just so he could get images published.

Dave had a love-hate relationship with Talladega but he had been covering the races there for so long that it was not really surprising as there had been a lot of changes at the track, and not all of them had been favorable to the media. I loved his stories about Dale Earnhardt parking his motorhome right next to the AP building in the media area and sharing barbeque or gumbo with the legend. His stories about other photographers were priceless, and I especially loved the one about a stringer who was shooting a crash and in mid sequence turned to shoot a babe flashing her ta-tas in the infield and then finished the crash sequence without missing a beat. That sequence was in the days of film shooting so apparently the photo editor had quite a moment when he realized the infield babe pix were taken in the middle of the crash sequence. Another favorite story he would tell was about the infield drunk who stole the pace car before a NASCAR race at Dega and took it for a joy ride around the track with Alabama state troopers in pursuit. When he and the other AP veterans would share stories about shooting Super Bowls or covering the Olympics, I was spellbound. I knew when I went to Talladega that I would hear more stories and I always looked forward to that. I am saddened that I won't have that opportunity again with Dave. Dave was the first person I heard use the phrase "let's go make some pictures" and he would always talk about how important it was to tell the story of the event through our images. The post-race slideshows were a thing of beauty and I was always amazed at how quickly he would sift through everyone's images and pick the ones that told the story. Dave was also highly competitive, having lived through all the changes in the media industry during his career. He would emphasize being safe and doing our work in a way which would top the competition, going for quality over quantity every time.

As I thought about this news earlier today, I remembered thinking on my drive back from Talladega this past October that I needed to suggest to Dave that we take a group photo of all the AP photographers working the race next spring. I'm saddened that we won't get to do that with Dave; I wish I had thought of it sooner. We are most often behind the camera and perhaps he would have wanted it that way. It is with sympathy and condolences for Dave's wife, family and friends that I write this post. AP has lost a dedicated photographer and we have lost a friend.

RIP Mullet. I thank you for all that you've done for me. May God bless your soul and comfort your loved ones through their loss.