Saturday, September 20, 2014

Mason Mitchell: The Making of an ARCA Champion

Mason Mitchell leads Grant Enfinger by 200 points with only Kansas race left
The 2014 season in the ARCA racing series has only one race remaining and Mason Mitchell is in position to outlast Grant Enfinger for the season championship. Having worked for ARCA this season and shot seven of the 19 race events run so far in the series, I have had an inside view into the ascension of Mitchell into the champion's role and it has been a thing of beauty to behold. What I've witnessed is the maturation of a race driver into a championship favorite who has learned his lessons well and applied them from race to race in a calculating manner. Barring a catastrophe at Kansas, the pilot of the #98 machine will go to ARCA's season ending banquet in Indianapolis in December as a deserving champion and someone to watch in the future as his stock will surely be on the rise.

Mason racing door to door at Talladega
My first ARCA race of the 2014 season was at Talladega where I was shooting for AP. Tom Hessert won that day but Mason ran in the lead pack. The team's equipment was nicely turned out, but I didn't really know who he was at that time. That isn't surprising since ARCA is renowned as a training ground series and race grids from event to event often feature a revolving door of different young drivers. Mason is one of only six (6) drivers this season who made every ARCA race and no less than 140 different drivers have scored some points this year! A couple of months later at Salem Speedway, Mason was beginning to attract attention for his speed and aggressive style, yet unlike many young drivers, he kept his equipment off the fences and didn't wreck anyone else either. I would not see ARCA compete again until June at Michigan, but it was a big weekend for Mason as he won a hotly contested pole position and could easily have won the race. He seemed shy and reserved at the time when he was outside the car, but his confidence inside the car was clearly growing. I was ARCA's main photographer at Michigan and it was great to be there and  personally see his growth over those two days at the track.

Mason earned a hard fought pole position at Michigan in June
Three weeks after Michigan, Mason got probably his biggest lesson of the season at Winchester Speedway. He was clearly not happy after the race when another young lion, Brandon Jones, barged into Turn 4 on the last lap and body slammed Mason's #98 into the wall and stole a sure win away. It was the first ever ARCA race for Jones and I'm sure Mason had no idea what to expect that last lap when the #4 car loomed large in his mirrors near the end. But he learned and it would pay off later in the season.

Brandon Jones (#4) stole a Winchester win from Mason
Two weeks after Winchester, Mason had his big breakthrough for the season:  that coveted first win. That came at Chicagoland Speedway where I was again shooting for ARCA and I was really glad to be able to capture his honest jubilation in Victory Lane, along with the epic burnout he did on the frontstretch. Those will two enduring memories of my summer of ARCA racing and I'm sure Mason will not soon forget that Chicagoland weekend where he was in control of the race most of the evening and won without being seriously challenged.

An epic burnout followed Mason's first ARCA win - at Chicagoland Speedway in July
The very next weekend, ARCA was at Lucas Oil Raceway outside Indianapolis and as the racing gods so often seem to do, it was a forgettable weekend for Mason following on the heels of a most memorable one at Chicagoland. Rear gear troubles cut short a promising run at Lucas Oil and Mason had to face the highs and lows of racing head-on which he did with class. You could see the disappointment in his family and crew after they thrashed for many laps with the car up on jackstands in the pits trying to fix the problem and get him back on track to earn some more points. That weekend also brought a measure of disappointment for me as well, since my summer of shooting for ARCA was at an end and I was going to be back in the classroom resuming my teaching duties a little over a weeks' time.

Mason got a Gatorade bath after winning at Chicagoland
The next time I would get to see ARCA in person was at Salem Speedway last weekend, and the lessons learned from the first 17 races all came together for Mason that night. He had a very strong car all night and seemed to be able to lead the race at ease most of the night. Veteran Tom Hessert made a late charge to snatch the lead from Mason with just more than 10 laps to go, but Mason regrouped and mounted his own charge on the final lap, where he and Hessert went side by side the entire lap, making contact coming off of Turn 4 which caused Mason (on the inside) to spin and finish the race in second place while crossing the finish line backwards. Hessert held onto his banged up car for the win and Mason was gracious afterwards, acknowledging that he wanted to race Hessert cleanly and didn't want to get a dirty win. Everyone within earshot knew Mason was referring to the one that got away at Winchester in June and yet this time when the roles were reversed, he did everything he could to fight for the win without crashing another competitor. I know Hessert appreciated it and understood what a challenge he had just overcome.

Last night the ARCA series raced at Kentucky Speedway where Mason started second and finished third with his main championship contender Grant Enfinger winding up 30th, which benefited Mason tremendously in the series points race with only Kansas remaining. Now his points lead is up to 200 and Enfinger has his work cut out for him to mount any kind of challenge in the season finale. Grant has had an interesting and rewarding season in its own right. Despite changing teams in mid-season, he still managed to rack up six (6) wins, eleven top-five and 15 top-10 finishes. Mason's work is not done yet but a there's no denying he's had a breakout season and the ARCA championship is within his reach now. Adding another win to his Chicagoland triumph would be icing on the cake, and his record of ten (10) top-five and 16 top-ten finishes is no small feat in this highly competitive series. It has been a pleasure working with ARCA this year and watching Mason Mitchell mature as a racer. If he is ultimately successful and wins the series title at Kansas, I can't wait to congratulate him personally at the banquet in December. Either way, he has represented the series well and made some lasting memories for everyone involved, myself included. Best wishes at Kansas to both Mason and Grant. I will be there in spirit.

Mason's last ditch attempt to pass Tom Hessert at Salem Speedway came up short

Taking the green flag at Michigan in June
Avoiding an opening lap crash at Winchester
Racing hard with Grant Enfinger (#90) at Lucas Oil Raceway in July
Mason almost got his second win of the season at Salem in September

ARCA fields are always strong at the top end  with young talents taking on seasoned veterans

Friday, September 12, 2014

ARCA Racing at Salem as Season Title Race Heats Up

Season points leader Mason Mitchell must hold off Grant Enfinger
I haven't been to a race since the end of July when I worked for ARCA at Lucas Oil Raceway, but that drought is about to be over tomorrow when I head down to Salem Speedway for the fall night race. It will be my 17th straight ARCA race at Salem, a streak which began in the fall of 2006 when I was shooting for the now-defunct American Motor Journal publication which was run by my friend, the late Don Hamilton. I hope to see Don's brother Larry this weekend, but even if he's not there, I know there will be plenty of other friends to see at this great little short track which has recently received a facelift of new asphalt. So I expect the action to be even faster than usual, and the boys in the pits better be ready for some right front tire failures if they don't have their setups correct. Lots of teams have been testing there this week so hopefully that work will translate to the race. ARCA better give them eight tires in the pits for the race, but they might need 12!

Four wide racing at Salem was possible in September 2006.
This weekend I am not working but I will still be taking some pictures, and shooting night racing is a special challenge since lighting conditions are variable depending on where you are at the track, and I will need to balance higher than usual ISO settings with fill flash to get natural looking photos. I prefer to shoot without flash as much as possible nowadays and just use available light as I think the photos look more natural, a lesson learned from other shooters over the years. Since this will likely be my last race for 2014, I plan to touch base with all my ARCA friends and have some fun shooting without the pressure of meeting deadlines or public relations requirements. Other than the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, there's no track I've been to more than Salem and this is the 96th time ARCA has raced here so it should be a great night. It looks like the weather will cooperate too, although it will be rather cool for this time of year. They don't call it the "Fall Classic" at Salem for no reason so let's hope it lives up to its history and the ARCA gang puts on its usual good show.

Grant Enfinger is chasing his first ARCA title with only three races left
The entry list for this race shows 34 cars which is outstanding. Even with a few that will start and park, the top of the ARCA field is always highly competitive and this race will be no different. Mason Mitchell leads Grant Enfinger by only 20 points in the season standings but has only one win compared to six (6) for Enfinger. I expect both to qualify and race well but a DNF for either one will hurt their title hopes with only Kentucky and Kansas races left after Salem. The local favorite will be 10-time ARCA champ Frank Kimmel; his nephew Will Kimmel will be attempting a double duty race day by running the Nationwide race at Chicagoland in the afternoon and then flying to Salem to race ARCA at night. Justin Boston turns 25 today and hopes to add a third win to his season total which would be a nice birthday gift. Last year's Fall Classic winner Kyle Benjamin is back to lead another crew of young drivers hoping to steal the spotlight from the older veterans like Kimmel, Ken Schrader and Tom Hessert, all of whom have won at Salem in the past.

ARCA's youngest winner is Kyle Benjamin
The campers started arriving at Salem earlier this week to stake out their territory and if you haven't been to Salem before then you might not appreciate how big this little race track is for local fans. This has turned into their speedweek with all the testing that has occurred to adapt to the new asphalt. I had one fan a few years ago tell me "he growed up out here" and I knew exactly how he felt, despite the Hoosier-ism of his words. Shooting at Salem and working for ARCA and others the last eight (8) years has helped me grow up as a photographer and I have been truly blessed by the opportunities I've had to pursue my passion for motorsports photography. One of these days, I will have to write a blog post that gives thanks to all the people who have helped me over the years. I am not done shooting racing by any means and you can bet you'll see me at a racetrack near you somewhere down the road. This weekend, that means heading south on I-65 into the hills of southern Indiana to the fast and rugged high banks of Salem Speedway. It's only two hours from Indy so get on down there Saturday and enjoy the show. I know I will. See you at the track!