Tuesday, February 25, 2014

2014 Daytona 500: A Long Day At The Race

Fans autograph the start-finish line; I did too
My second Daytona 500 was another interesting day in my journey as a motorsports photographer, replete with monsoons, tornado warnings, wildlife sighting, signing the start-finish line before the race, and a popular winner in Dale Earnhardt, Jr. It was almost unbelievable that they ran the entire 200 lap distance after the initial red flag for "moisture" after 38 laps had been run. The day had started off beautiful but the forecasters had the timing of the rain nailed quite well as it turned out, and I am glad that there were some other people in Turn 2 who helped me out when the worst of it hit the area. Seven hours later the race resumed and it got crazier as the night wore on since it looked like another batch of rain might cut the 500 miles short after all. I'll get back to that in a minute...

The Brickyard Lounge menu
Thursday and Friday nights I had slept in my rental car in the infield parking area but Saturday night I crashed on a pullout sofa bed in the suite a couple of Indy friends had invited me to share. We had gone to dinner at "The Brickyard Lounge" on International Speedway Boulevard after the Nationwide race on Saturday which was pretty cool. The restaurant was in a shotgun of a building, probably less than 20 feet wide, and it's theme was all racing: "Where Indy and NASCAR Fans Meet" according to the menu and the sign on the front window. My friends John & Mike had been to Daytona many more times than I had so after we hung out at their hotel room for awhile following dinner, we hit Main Street in Daytona Beach to see the sights. The Boot Hill Saloon was the primary destination but we stopped in a few other places they knew of and of course I had to check out the gaudy souvenir shop at the corner of Main and A1A. It was a fun evening with loud music, quite a few gorgeous Harley Davidson's and lots of race fans. I went back to the hotel before midnight with the intention of getting up early and heading back to the track early Sunday, not knowing what traffic would be like on race day. I was up by 6 a.m. on Sunday, back inside the track by 7 and in the media center by 8 getting my laptop set up and checking all my camera batteries.

Luke Bryan
After breakfast in the media center, I made a trip around pit lane and the frontstretch to experiment some more with the 8-15 mm fisheye lens I had on loan from Canon. On my way out, I saw country music star Luke Bryan and some other celebrities and after signing the start-finish line as my brother had requested, I was back in the media center by 10:30 to rest my legs for what promised to be a long afternoon on my feet. I had no idea at the time how long it would actually turn out to be and I did not want to believe the Intellicast reports of rain coming in sometime after 1 p.m., which naturally was about the time the race was to start. By 12:30 I was packed up with my rain gear and everything else I needed to shoot from the inside of Turn 2 at the pumphouse where I had been for all the races during the weekend. It was starting to cloud over as pre-race festivities were winding down and I started to feel a few raindrops around lap 30 but it didn't look too bad so I just bagged my gear and stowed it on the fender of a flat bed truck nearby used by the track fencing crew.

Fifteen minutes later, I was crouched beneath that flat bed seeking shelter from the downpour which had erupted. Then a car backed into a space next to the truck, the rear door opened a crack and I heard someone ask "You want in?" Without hesitation I jumped in the back seat as my car was still a mile away in infield the parking area and there was nowhere else for me to go. I have been through plenty of rain delays over the years where any kind of shelter will do but this time seemed different. It turned out the guys in the car were all with FOX and one of them was the camera operator who had been on the tower near the pumphouse all weekend. His name was PK and the driver introduced himself as "Turtle" who manned the camera at the entrance of Turn 3. Ironically Turtle said he was from Carmel and Terre Haute originally so we had a Hoosier connection. Over the next 30 minutes as they figured out when the best time was to cover their video gear with what they called "elephant bags" the rain worsened and announcements were made on the track PA system that a tornado warning for the area had been issued and everyone should seek shelter. We were all checking weather radar on our phones and trying to sort out what to do and they thankfully took me back over to the media center before they took off for the TV compound which I learned was outside the track near Turn 3. So I got dried out in the media center and joined everyone else checking weather reports and radar, Facebook, Twitter and whatever else we could find to kill time waiting for news on when (or if) the race would be restarted.

Rumors had gone around that the race was going to be moved to Monday at 5:00 p.m. so FOX could do a live broadcast and that bummed me out since I had to catch a flight back to Indy at 8:00 Monday morning. After driving home and missing the race in 2012 due to rain, I was hoping against hope that the same thing wouldn't happen again. Around 6:00 Sunday evening it was looking more realistic to get the race in that night so I was relieved and starting to feel more optimistic. The fried chicken dinner they served in the media center was just what the doctor ordered. By 7:30 I had driven back out to my position in Turn 2 and was ready to work, so if it did rain again I had somewhere to retreat. I was hoping the whole 200 lap distance could be run, not just a rain shortened version, as no one could say how big of a dry weather window we had to work with. I really didn't care: I had quit looking at the weather radar hours earlier praying that the racing gods would smile down on us and keep that window open to "get this thing in".

Trevor Bayne (21) almost caused another "Big One" where I was positioned
After the restart a lengthy green flag run ensued and then it started to get a little crazy with big wrecks on the frontstretch and also in Turn 3 and 4 where my Indy friends John and Mike were positioned. I knew they would get some pictures so I was happy for them but not much had happened where I was. After watching and shooting packs of cars roar by all weekend without anyone getting even the least bit squirrely, I finally got some action with Trevor Bayne hitting the wall and spinning so I was happy to have a chance to turn in my memory card for AP. I also felt that I probably didn't have much chance of moving a picture from Bayne's incident since it was not spectacular like the other wrecks had been. That didn't matter to me. It was just as important for me to know that I had nailed the sequence and for AP to know that I hadn't missed it. With about 40 laps to go, my new friend the FOX cameraman "PK" whistled down from his video position in the tower and shouted that "Rain and lightening are 30 miles away" and then the racing really started to get intense. After my experience at Talladega last October with huge crashes on the last lap in both the truck and Sprint Cup races, I knew I had to stay ready for anything to happen right to the end. But nothing did and it was back to the media center to get my gear packed up to leave.

My view from the Turn 2 pumphouse
By half past midnight, I had said my goodbyes and thanked everyone for the opportunity and started to head out of the track and back to Orlando. I turned in my rental car at the airport around 2:00 a.m. and waited for the hotel shuttle to pick me up and finally got to sleep around 3:30 after getting my boarding pass ready to print. I was up at 5:00 a.m. to catch the 6:00 a.m. hotel shuttle back to the airport and slept almost the whole flight back to Indy. Strangely enough, I think I got more sleep during the night at the Rolex 24 Hours race in January than I did after the Daytona 500, but I ran on adrenaline all day yesterday through my teaching job, shipping the loaner lens back to Canon, and a nice dinner out with my lady friend. It was good to be home again after more than four days on the road and I hope my blog posts have helped give a sense of what it's been like. I tell people all the time that I am still waiting to be discovered, and until I find that sponsor, benefactor or hit the lottery, there may be other weekends like this one where roughing it a little to get "the shot" is more than worth it in hindsight.

Did I mention that Dale Earnhardt, Jr. won the race? I will be back with more pictures in a complete Daytona 500 gallery soon. Until next time, be safe and happy shooting!

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (88) raced to the front of the pack to win his second Daytona 500
Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Daytona 500 Race Day!

Sunrise at Daytona over the backstretch
Day 3 of this trip to Daytona was the shortest so far and it gave me the opportunity to have dinner and check out some of the night life on Main Street in Daytona Beach with a couple of fellow photogs from Indy. In my previous visits here I had never had the chance to check out much of the local scenery (other than the beach) so hitting a couple of nightspots after dinner to listen to music and check out the people was a lot of fun. And I saw a motorcycle unlike anything I had ever seen before:  a Boss Hoss with a Chevy V8 engine in it! It was insane looking, had a nitrous injection system and boasted 740 horsepower. I was really glad to get the chance to take more of a look around and I almost didn't go out since I was feeling the effects of little sleep and miles of walking after we had finished dinner. But then I decided I needed to get out and not be so consumed with just the track activity and see more of the local sights. I'm glad I did!

Boss Hoss motorcycle seen at Boot Hill Saloon
Now today is race day and it has dawned bright and sunny. We really haven't seen much sunshine since my first day here last Thursday so I am hopeful that the day continues that way. The cars and pomp and circumstance on any race day are always so much more colorful and vivid when it's a 1000 f11 day. We love that! It's Day 4 of the trip and I'm back in the media center early, but not near as early as the first three days. The guys I hung out with last night were kind enough to let me crash in their hotel room and after sleeping in my car at the track for the two previous nights, it was very welcome. The sofa bed wasn't like my king bed at home in Indy, but it was still far better than the Dodge Avenger's driver's seat! It was fun talking about racing photography with them. Often my road trips are solo journeys and it's easy to spend too much time in my own head so the outside input was most welcome! On top of that, when you walked out the door of the hotel room, the ocean was right there and you could hear the waves crashing on the shore.

Ocean view shortly after dawn on race day
With the 500 today, this will be my fifth race to shoot in four days at Daytona and will conclude over 1350 miles of racing that I've covered since I got here. I haven't had any wire service worthy action where I've been stationed but I think I've done some good work, even though the shooting spot makes the pictures all kind of look the same. It has really challenged my creativity but that's another one of the reasons I do this:  to exercise the right half of my brain and learn something new. So maybe today I'll have the "hot corner" and get the chance to do what I am suppose to do, which is to capture the spectacular action that can happen at any time. Today's only track activity is the 200 laps of the 56th Daytona 500 (assuming it doesn't go to a green-white-checker finish) and then I am headed to Orlando to fly back to Indy tomorrow morning. Then it's back into the classroom tomorrow afternoon to teach and like everything else I do, I am "all in". Today that just happens to mean racing. Monday it will be algebra and geometry. Whatever happens today, I have no regrets as I know I will have given my all.

For now, here's a gallery from yesterday's Nationwide Series race won by Regan Smith.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Daytona Day 2: A Stringer's Life

Daytona sunset
I need a sponsor. Or a benefactor. Or something. Working as a wire service photo stringer as I am this weekend at Daytona has its challenges but it also has its rewards. The biggest challenge is working on spec where you don't get paid unless a photo is used, so it's a risky deal to foot the bill for traveling with no guarantee of success. It's also risky since the area you are assigned to shoot may not be the "spot" where the action happens and pictures can be made that the wire service will want to use. The more spectacular the better but you can't chase the action around, and even when you find yourself in the right spot, you still have to be ready and not following some other cars in the area.

But the rewards are not just financial as if it were just about the money, then most of us wouldn't be out here doing this. The hours are long, you have to deal with traffic, fans or people with hot passes and iPhones who always seem to get in the way at just the wrong moment, adverse weather, and a host of other issues that the average race fan never encounters. I have been to a ton of races the last eight years and everywhere I go I see many of the same faces in the media centers. I don't know everyone's name but I would be willing to bet that there are only a handful of shooters who make a living in racing photographer. I have dreamed of being one of those people for years and worked by tail off at every race I've worked yet these plum jobs in this industry are extremely limited and highly competitive. But the biggest reward is getting the shot. Or when the action slows down and the engine noise drones to a low hum and you feel the photos before you even press the shutter button. That zone is hard to achieve and if I push for it, I miss it; it has to just happen organically. When it does it is magical.

Yesterday was Day 2 on this trip and it was marked by repeated weather interruptions. I managed to miss most of them but the waiting, as they say, is the hardest part and I was in position for last night's truck race over an hour before they track was truly ready for racing. I am not fortunate enough to have a golf cart to get around so I am putting on the miles again this weekend by foot, which is OK since I love the exercise even though at times I feel like a pack mule with a couple cameras on my shoulders, lenses, rain gear and my belt bags packed to the brim to be ready for every possible situation. I needed all of that yesterday and today's forecast looked like it might bring more of the same but the Nationwide race started on time. I was hoping I could wear my prescription sunglasses today (I am in Florida, the Sunshine State, after all) and I am glad to report that I was able to do that, even though today was mostly overcast all day. By no means am I complaining about these opportunities as there are plenty of people who would love to have the same chance I do to go racing. I am blessed in that regard and the hard work pays off in images if not in dollars and cents.

Daytona International Speedway hawk over Lake Lloyd
So we've had two photo finishes in back to back races now. Kyle Busch made a high side pass to win the trucks race last night and Regan Smith nipped Brad Keselowski in an even closer finish in today's Nationwide race. The most exciting thing I saw today was a very large hawk that flew over Lake Lloyd during a late caution period, and as everyone who knows me well will attest, I have a special affinity for those birds so I know good luck is coming. At times today I felt like a gunslinger ready to aim and fire away, but the pumphouse was not the place to be for action today. Maybe tomorrow will be the day, as so far I have not sold any pictures for the wire, although I have made a lot of pictures, not nearly the volume I would have shot in a more freelance capacity as I often do at other races, but shooting for AP has taught me that economy (and a high shutter speed) are quite valuable in their own right. And it sure makes editing a whole lot easier! Until next time, here's a gallery from last night's truck race. The Daytona 500 is next!

Friday, February 21, 2014

Daytona Duels: Screaming In The Night

Yesterday here at Daytona, the evening skies were filled with the sounds of screaming race cars as the Budweiser Duels qualifying races were run at night for the first time. I am personally glad they were switched to night races as I was never able to get here in time to shoot them in the past when they were run in the afternoon.

Denny Hamlin won Duel #2
Unfortunately, until the last lap of the second Duel, both races were pretty much single file parades which was a disappointing. Then all hell broke loose coming onto the tri-oval as Jimmie Johnson got loose and tore up another race car (his second for the week) and Clint Bowyer flipped in a huge melee as Denny Hamlin was taking the checkered flag. I was positioned on the exit of Turn 2 for both races so I tried to get racing action with multiple cars int he frame whenever possible, which was difficult at times. I did get a nice shot of Hamlin on his cool down lap as he thankfully had dropped his window net and you can see his face with his visor flipped open. Matt Kenseth won the first Duel so it looks like Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota has the upper hand at the moment.

Jimmie Johnson's crew has to go get another car in North Carolina after another wreck
Today I got to the media center early and was the first one here other than the staff person who signs people in and manages the photo vest process. She is a nice older woman and I have wondered why someone would do that job since she probably never gets out to see any of the on track action. On the other hand, I can understand why someone who is not necessarily a race fan would want to do that job since the photographer's room is a place of constant activity with lots of conversation about what's going on at the track and an occasional funny story or silliness. Plus all the track action and timing and scoring is always shown on TV monitors in the room so it must be like watching from home with the ambience of the hectic media room in surround sound. But today's action will likely be interrupted by moisture so it will be interesting to see how that disrupts the schedule where NASCAR had planned its first attempt at knockout qualifying for both the Camping World trucks and the Nationwide series.

I don't know where I will be positioned tonight for the truck race yet and I have already told everyone that if we get adverse weather then you can blame it on me. I'm used to it.

Matt Kenseth won the first Duel and will start third in the 500 Sunday

Monday, February 17, 2014

Back to the Future: Daytona Speedweeks

Austin Dillon took a wild ride subbing for Tony Stewart at Talladega last October
The last time I shot pictures of Austin Dillon in a race, he was airborne in Tony Stewart's #14 car at Talladega this past October. Now he's back at Daytona in the legendary #3 car for Grandpa Richard Childress and will start on the pole for next Sunday's Daytona 500. Skeptics have wondered if there was any favorable treatment from tech inspectors since this is the first time the #3 has been on the track in Cup racing since the late Dale Earnhardt crashed and perished on the last lap of the 2011 Daytona 500. I am not one of those skeptics, but it's a fun argument to have in social media and I will be listening in to see how it all plays out. I am really looking forward to getting back to Daytona this weekend. I leave Indy in 3 days...

Tony Stewart at Indy 2013
Tony Stewart will also be back, although his car and the team car of Danica Patrick will have to start at the back Thursday in their qualifying races and Sunday in the 500 after blowing engines last weekend before qualifying. Tony has been awesome historically in everything at Speedweeks except for the 500 itself so it will be very interesting to see how he manages a run from the back this Sunday in his first major test since breaking a leg last August in a sprint car accident. And no repeat of last year's pole winning form for Danica this year. She will also have to contend with lots of traffic to get to the front. Maybe she can make Richard Petty eat some crow after his recent comments that she couldn't win in NASCAR unless everyone else was off the track. Tony has the better chance to win so I think the King is safe this weekend.

Jimmie Johnson
The true list of favorites begins and ends with 6-time NASCAR Jimmie Johnson, although he crashed out of the Sprint Unlimited early in last Saturday's all star event. Stewart and another favorite Carl Edwards got collected in "the big one" Saturday night which was started by an ill-timed blocking maneuver by still another 500 favorite Matt Kenseth. Of course fan favorite Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has to be on the favorite's list as well since he always seems to run well in the restrictor plate races. I would also consider Kevin Harvick and Kasey Kahne among the contenders but they will all be chasing Dillon and Martin Truex who have the only two "locked in" positions for the 500. Dillon and Truex will each lead the field in a qualifying race Thursday so it will be interesting to see if their qualifying form can hold up in those 150 mile races.

Little E
Speaking of qualifying races, this will be my first chance to shoot them as I finally have been able to get my travel schedule worked out to get to Daytona in time. The change to night races certainly helps. This should be my fourth Daytona 500 but it will actually only be the second one since 2011 that I have the chance to work. I drove down in 2011 and everything went off like clockwork. I drove solo again in 2012 and the race was postponed by rain for the first time ever and I had to drive back to Indy without actually shooting the race. Then last year I decided I had had enough of the 16 hour drives so I decided to fly down, but I never made it as my flight was cancelled the day before I was to leave for an ice storm in Indy. I am flying down this year so hopefully the weather gods will shine on me for the whole weekend this time. Five races to shoot from the Thursday night duals through the 500 on Sunday means five chances to "make some f-ing pictures" for Associated Press, so wish me luck. I have to admit that it is a bit surreal to be going back to Daytona barely four weeks since I was there for the Rolex 24 Hours, but it's a great opportunity and I don't know if it will happen again so I have to go.

Back on the road again to "Indiana-ville" in just 3 days folks! Photos to follow soon (but not soon enough)!

Daytona 500 favorite Jimmie Johnson pits at the Brickyard in 2013
Could 2014 be Matt Kenseth & Toyota's year?
Kasey Kahne & Kevin Harvick share a lighter moment in 2013 before hitting the racetrack at Indy
Jimmie Johnson knows how to win and is the man to beat (again) in 2014