Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Chilly Atlanta NASCAR Weekend Wraps First 2015 Racing Road Trip

Jeff Gordon ended up on the hook in his last Atlanta race; teammate Jimmy Johnson won
Atlanta Motor Speedway did nothing to live up to the ATL nickname "Hot-lanta" last weekend, but the racing was sure intense. It was my first racing road trip of the 2015 season, but it almost didn't happen. Until last Thursday, I was not even sure I would make the drive down from Indianapolis as another swath of abnormally snowy winter weather hit the area between Chattanooga and Atlanta Wednesday night. But the forecast for Friday was good and I made the drive under sunny (if not warm) conditions to start my Atlanta weekend "on the cheap". I've got a lot to say in this post but if you'd rather just look at my photos from the weekend, then scroll to the bottom for slideshows for each of the three NASCAR series that ran this weekend.

My view of the "Big One"
Some people think being a wire service stringer at major motorsports events is glamorous and exciting. I have yet to experience the glamour part but it is definitely exciting, and it starts with the journey to the racetrack. This weekend was no exception. My assigned position for AP was in Turn 3 and I did a lot of waiting for something to happen on track that would be newsworthy. That "something" finally did occur with about 25 laps to go in the Sprint Cup race as Atlanta had its own "Big One" and I got to make some pictures. Experienced Atlanta photogs told me that multi-car crashes rarely happen at the track but AP didn't use any which was disappointing after but not surprising,  I don't think it was the best crash sequence I've ever shot, and AP got shots from another photog shooting from the roof of the main grandstand who had a better angle and, frankly, better photos of the wreck than I did.  But the long weekend of waiting wasn't for naught as there are lessons I learned that will make me a better photographer and help in future races.

Joey Logano won two pole positions at Atlanta
After spending much of the early part of the previous week trolling weather websites and looking at online traffic cams for the area around Chattanooga, I had not booked a room for the weekend. I  had made the trip with the intention of getting a hotel room if the weather really got nasty, but my weekend "on the cheap" was in full force once I decided to stay at the track in my car. Some people think I'm crazy for doing a race weekend this way but stringers don't typically get paid unless pictures are used. I was excited to get there and have the chance to work. I got to the track around 3:30 Friday afternoon after leaving Indy at 6:00 a.m. The drive down was beautiful and I made all the right moves going south, including taking a well timed detour when I-65 was closed by an accident near Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. When I got to the track, I knew Sprint Cup group qualifying was going to be run under the lights, and after the mess the drivers made of it at Daytona, I was hopeful that I might see some action. Sadly that didn't occur and Joey Logano took pole position after a qualifying session that had zero drama. Nonetheless, I knew I still had three races and much more track activity over the next two days, with the trucks race scheduled to run 130 laps, the Xfinity series  race set for 163 laps and the Sprint Cup race 325 laps.

Saturday's truck race was run under the lights
I typically do a lot on Twitter when I am on the road, but this weekend I decided to do short video updates on Facebook to document the trip. These were off the cuff and unrehearsed, so it was fun to use my Android capabilities to shoot the one-take videos. I was also excited to test out the new Canon 7D Mark II camera body as a loaner from Canon Professional Services. With track action extending into the evenings under the lights, this was the perfect opportunity to test the camera's vaunted low light capabilities. I was extremely pleased with the results and must say that this camera has now been added to my gear wish list. Night racing is always exciting anyway, as the lighting adds another dimension to the speed and color of an event. And I had almost forgotten how fast Atlanta really is, with speeds close to 200 mph in the Sprint Cup Series.

Matt Crafton dominated the truck race
By now, everyone knows that Jimmy Johnson won the Sprint Cup race at Atlanta, and joins Daytona 500 winner Joey Logano in the Chase for the Championship. After Saturday's action in the Camping World Truck Series, it was looking like a weekend for the 88's, since Kevin Harvick won the Xfinity race Saturday afternoon in his #88 Bad Boy Buggies machine while Matt Crafton won the truck race at night in his #88 Menards sponsored truck. Crafton was utterly dominant the last two-thirds of the race and led comfortably. Youngster Erik Jones looked strong early on but couldn't maintain a leading pace as Crafton's truck came on in the increasingly cooler evening temperatures. Harvick also won in an 88 and being a numbers guy, I started to wonder if Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s 88 would win on Sunday. That almost happened as Earnhardt looked strong in the Folds of Honor 500 whether he was rim riding along the wall or hugging the yellow line on the bottom. Johnson, meanwhile, seemed to be biding his time all afternoon Sunday and made 500 miles look easy in his #48 Chevy. Just another day at the office for JJ, who now can start to get excited about the possibility of winning a 6th season championship.

Fan favorite Earnhardt thrilled soldiers with autographs and selfies
It rained overnight Saturday and the track was wet Sunday morning but showers were predicted to end by 11 a.m. When I was checking the weekend forecast from Indy earlier in the week, it looked like Sunday might be a washout, but once race day arrived, I felt pretty confident that NASCAR would get the race in, even if it meant running into the night under the lights. But man it was cold, and the damp air made it worse once the Sprint Cup machines starting whipping up a 200 mph breeze every time they roared by me in Turn 3. Most of my morning was spent hanging out at the media center just waiting. I was glad the driver's meeting finally rolled around so I could get some people pictures to go with all the race car shots I get as a turn shooter. I got to talk with a very young Army private from Augusta, Georgia who was at his first race, and the throngs of enlisted personnel around Earnhardt, Jr. was a joy to see as their faces lit up at the chance to meet Dale Jr. Lunch came and went and then it was time to suit up and go to work, albeit about an hour past the originally scheduled start time, which was pretty good all things considered.

A nice couple I met in Turn 3 said they owned one of these trackside condos
I had lots of company in Turn 3 including an older gentleman who said he had been coming to Atlanta Motor Speedway for 40 years, another younger guy with his father who had attended almost as long, and a couple of twenty-somethings who had brought their sons to see their first ever NASCAR race in person. Race fans love to talk racing, and it doesn't seem to matter what track you go to, the conversations about history are always interesting. If you ever see me at Indy, don't get me started or you may not be able to shut me up!

Once the race was over Sunday, there was more waiting, this time to get my CF card back before I could hit the road. By then, it was 7:45 p.m. and I had originally hoped to banzai home to Indy, but made the decision to get to Nashville, Tennessee and stop for the night. This turned out to be one of the best decisions I made all weekend as it started raining around Chattanooga and I had a white knuckle drive on I-75 through heavy fog and mist over the mountains. Thank God the NASCAR hauler from Furniture Row Racing led the way past Monteagle and I finally got to Nashville after midnight and found a Comfort Inn in Goodlettesville. I was happy with my work for the weekend, shooting anytime there were two or more cars in the frame to show the close racing. I was also happy to have a real bed to sleep in after two nights in my car at the track. When my alarm went off Monday morning, there was no bad weather and I knew I'd be able to get back to my teaching job in Indy for my first class at noon. That was until I outsmarted myself looking for cheap gas, and had a cross country detour that wasted an hour at the beginning of Monday's drive home. I only ended up 45 minutes late as it turned out and after driving over 1200 miles on the weekend, it was good to be back home again in Indianapolis.

I am a teacher and photographer who loves to drive. I don't have another road trip until mid-April when I will go to Nashville for ARCA, but at least I have one under my belt to start the 2015 season. It will be a busy one for me so perhaps I'll see you at a race somewhere down the road. Safe travels!

Atlanta Sprint Cup Folds of Honor 500

Atlanta Xfinity Series 250

Atlanta Camping World Truck Series 200