Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Note To Self: Nice Burnout Kid!

Winner Austin Wayne Self
For the seventh consecutive ARCA Racing Series race, a first time winner found their way to the Winner's Circle. This weekend, it was Austin Wayne Self's turn to take the checkers first in the #98 Mason Mitchell Motorsports car. Austin hip-checked last year's winner Brandon Jones in Turn 4 after a late restart to take the lead with only 6 laps left in the 200 lap event at Indiana's historic Winchester Speedway. It must have felt like payback for team owner Mitchell who lost this race last year in almost the same location and fashion to Jones. I have been egging Austin on via Twitter for a month now to do a burnout rivaling Mason's at Chicagoland last year and I have to say he did well in the tight confines of Winchester's front stretch. Adding insult to injury for Jones was the fact that ARCA series points leader Grant Enfinger stole second place right at the checkered flag!

Saturday's weather was irritating!
For the third straight weekend, weather was a factor for ARCA as Saturday's schedule was effected by a persistent misty rain. Qualifying was washed out and the teams only got a one hour practice session that didn't start until almost 6:00 in the evening. The previous two weekends, rains came after the races at Michigan and Chicagoland were finished thankfully, but our luck ran out at Winchester and Saturday's undercard events for modifieds and winged sprint cars had to be cancelled. It led to a frenetic hour of practice, for the teams and for me, as I had to get a lot of photos taken that I can normally grab over the course of multiple on track sessions. After starting the day with an 8:00 am officials meeting, I got home after 9:00 knowing the starting field would be set based on car owner points.

Sunday turned out to be a beautiful Indiana summer day
Sunday's forecast was much better and we were greeted by blue skies with temperatures quickly rising into the 70's and it turned out to be a spectacular weather day. Typical of Indiana weather, Sunday was as good as Saturday had been bad. I had one of my best photography days of the season although the bright sun overhead created its own challenges. One of the best things about working a short track race is the ability to cover the whole facility without having to cover long distances. This race day, it seemed that almost every move I made was the right one to catch key moments of action and I was right in the middle of chaos in the pits on more than one occasion. In the process, I got photos for the ARCA series that I'm sure the teams will be happy with. Race cars always look better in good lighting and I like to have my camera settings a tad on the underexposed side to help ensure a proper level of saturation to accentuate the colorful paint schemes and deep blue sky.

Michael Lira added fire to the weekend's elements
Winchester has been around as a racetrack for over 100 years, so every time I go there I am aware of documenting a part of racing history. It's only a little more than an hour from my home in Indy and ARCA has been racing there since 1957, the year I was born. Indiana has always been a hotbed for racetracks and this weekend felt like a homecoming, all comfortable and friendly. Winchester is a track which survives based largely on local support and it was heartening to see a sizable crowd turn out on Sunday to see ARCA's highly competitive series attack the ancient high banks. The track is known as the "World's Fastest Half Mile" and the surface is rough and weathered, much like Salem Speedway in southern Indiana, another "home" track for me. Even the heavy ARCA stock cars are quick at Winchester and it was no surprise to me that the race was decided with a bump and run move close to the end of the scheduled 200 laps.

Now ARCA is off for a couple of weeks until it teams up with Indycar at Iowa Speedway the third weekend of July and it will be nice to have a couple of weeks off after shooting four straight race weekends for the series (Pocono, Michigan, Chicagoland and Winchester). I'm sure I'll have something to write about between now and then. You know I'll be taking some photos! See you at the track.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Chicagoland ARCA Scott 150: My Weekend Adventure

Ryan Reed came from the back to win at Chicagoland
For the second straight week, the rains came just after ARCA completed its race - the previous weekend it happened after 20 miles at Michigan and this time it was at Chicagoland Speedway Saturday June 20th as severe weather rolled in before we could complete Victory Lane ceremonies for the Scott 150. Unfortunately the Xfinity Series, which was to follow ARCA at Chicagoland, got washed out until Sunday. Ryan Reed was pulling double duty in both races and took the his first ARCA win and the first for Lira Motorsports in a heated battle at the front of the field. Reed outlasted current ARCA season points leader Grant Enfinger, Will Kimmel, Matt Tifft and Frank Kimmel to pull into Victory Lane before the track announced that people should seek shelter. Reed had to bolt to the Xfinity garage in the midst of our Victory Lane photos due to the severe weather approaching, so I quickly finished shooting the Scott Rookie of The Race award with sixth place finisher Matt Kurzejewski and commenced one of the fastest post race editing jobs I've ever done for ARCA. For the rest of the finishing order, click here.

Tom Hessert teamed with Josh Williams at CLS
I kept an eye on the sky as I wrapped up my ARCA work that night at the track as I still needed to drive to Akron, Ohio (again) to be with my siblings who had already gotten there to help Mom who was having another scary medical episode. I left the track at 9:50 pm (eastern time) and could see on the weather radar that there was another huge cell of severe rain coming into the Chicagoland area from the northwest. I thought I had a window to outrun the worst of it as I headed east to Akron, and even as the skies were lit up all around me with spectacular lightning, I made my way east on I-80/94 and only encountered scattered rain showers which dissipated around the South Bend area. After that I was in the clear and other than one stop for gas, I rolled 389 miles eastward and got to Mom's in Akron at 4:30 Sunday morning. It was a banzai trip and I stoked up on Mountain Dew and Diet Coke to stay alert, but not surprisingly there wasn't much traffic on I-80 in the middle of the night, so it was a pretty uneventful drive once I got east of the Chicagoland weather.

The ARCA field funnels into Turn 1
The reason I've titled this post as an "adventure" is because I knew before the weekend even started that I would have to make a loop from Indy to Joliet to Akron and then back to Indy over a five day period. Starting at 7:00 a.m. Friday, I left Indy for an easy drive to Joliet and got set up to shoot for ARCA. There was no track activity until later in the afternoon, so I had a chance to catch up with friends I knew on the Chicagoland Speedway photo staff and get some preliminary shooting out of the way. My Friday ended around 10 p.m. once I finished editing for the day. The next day didn't start quite as early so I had time for breakfast at the Clarion where we were staying and then there was more down time at the track before ARCA qualifying. Even early in the day, people were talking about the weather forecast for the evening so I kept my fingers crossed and remained optimistic that we would get our race in. Over two days at the track, I logged over 33,000 steps on my phone's pedometer app, and shot from outside Turn 1, along the frontstretch outside wall, in the garages and pits, and on the roof of the main control tower atop the frontstretch grandstands.

Backlit pit action was a challenge
One of my main goals every weekend is to deliver photos to ARCA taken from a variety of angles and get something on every car and driver entered for the event. When I left Saturday night, I was sweaty and tired but generally satisfied with my work when I hit the road for Akron Saturday night, and felt like I had produced some of the best Victory Lane photos I have taken in awhile. Other than cropping and adding a touch of clarity, I still prefer to deliver images straight from the camera, so I was extremely pleased with my exposure settings and how everything looked. The late afternoon sun and shadows during the race were especially challenging but I thought the backlighting made some of my pit stop shots especially dramatic, so I felt good about meeting the lighting challenges.

Xfinity Series regular Daniel Suarez
With Chicagoland being my third straight weekend and fifth of the season overall shooting for ARCA, I think teams and drivers are getting used to seeing me around and have come to just ignore me, which is what I really want them to do when I am looking for candid photos. I find myself hiding around a corner or behind some equipment and using a long lens to get some shots so they don't even know they are being photographed. I have also really been concentrating on using only available light in the majority of situations, which automatically means I am constantly adjusting ISO, shutter speed and aperture settings, so I have to be alert all the time to  the lighting conditions around my subjects. I love that aspect of photography at the track!

I got back to Indy about 7:30 Tuesday night and am writing this Wednesday June 24th, the first day I've really had a chance to reflect on the weekend since leaving for Joliet last Friday. I am getting more and more opportunities to just have casual conversations with drivers or team members and owners. I haven't met anyone yet in the ARCA garage who isn't genuinely nice and I see every weekend how they help each other out when someone has trouble on the race track, i.e., someone has found the fence and bent a race car. I know it is like that at a lot of levels in racing, but I have a feeling that it's more prevalent in ARCA since the budgets aren't anywhere near what they are in other national series. It's all about "the show" and making sure everyone can race who wants to and I admire that communal spirit tremendously. I'm happy to be a contributor and hope some of that comes across in my photos. My fourth straight ARCA weekend is just a few days away now, and it's close to home at Winchester Speedway in east central Indiana, when ARCA headlines a two-day event which also includes Saturday features for the "King Of The Wing" sprint cars and the Top Speed Modifieds. Until next time, here's a few of my photos from Chicagoland. If you want to see more, then go to www.arcaracing.com and click on the ARCA sites link or just click here. C'mon out to Winchester Saturday and Sunday! Hope to see you there.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Ross Kenseth Takes Ken Schrader Racing Ride to Michigan Win

Ross Kenseth led 51 of 100 laps in his Corrigan 200 win
The first time I went to Michigan for a race was in 1981 for the CART Norton 500 and it got rained out. Summer weather in the Irish Hills always seems to involve "moisture" and this past weekend's trip was no exception, although thankfully the ARCA Series race did not get rained out. There was a point just after halfway where Grant Enfinger's crew was begging for officials to throw the checkered flag early as there was mist in the air and he was leading at the time. But race control waited it out and ARCA managed to get the entire 100 laps run. Ten minutes after we started the hat dance in Victory Lane, the downpour hit us so we were quite lucky to get the day completed more or less on schedule, especially since it had rained hard the night before as well as earlier Friday afternoon. Everyone involved was glad to get the full race distance in on Friday and Ross Kenseth made the most of his opportunity with Ken Schrader's #52 Federated Auto Parts machine to take a fairly convincing win. Frank Kimmel looked like his old self in Venturini Motorsports' #25 with a second place finish and Austin Wayne Self snagged an impressive third for Mason Mitchell Motorsports after a crash at the last race in Pocono ended his day early.

One of the last Victory Lane pix before the monsoon: Ross and dad Matt
Once the rains came, we had to move the rest of the Victory Lane photos under a covered area beneath the pit lane suites which was something new for me but it was fun anyway as it was just Ross Kenseth and a cadre of photographers as the crew members and usual Victory Lane crowd had run for cover elsewhere. The rains continued to pound down until I had to clear out of the ARCA hauler which was ready to leave, so I had to run to my car which was parked in a grass lot in the infield so I could drive it back and load up my gear. From the track to Coldwater, Michigan, the rain was coming down sideways but it was fairly early so I didn't push it as I had to stop for gas before getting on I-69 anyway. Once I hit the interstate, I drove south out of the rain and had a nice drive back to Indy, arriving home about 1:00 a.m. Saturday which wasn't bad at all.

Frank Kimmel leads Enfinger, Hessert & Kerzejewski in Turn 1 at MIS
Working for ARCA as its photographer is really a blast: I get to do what I love and see my work published on the websites of teams and the series. The racing is always entertaining and I am getting to know quite a few people involved in the series. The teams and crews are also starting to recognize me which makes my job easier. The days may be long at times and there's lots of walking involved at the tracks - last Thursday I logged over 20,000 steps and Friday over 15,500 on my pedometer app - but the people are great and it's very rewarding supporting the teams and series. Michigan was the second of four straight June weekends where I will be working for ARCA. We go to Chicgaoland this coming weekend, paired up with the NASCAR Xfinity Series, for the Scott 150. Then the last weekend in June, we are back home in Indiana at Winchester Speedway where ARCA will be the headliner for two days of racing at "the world's fastest half mile". I love Winchester, partly because it's close to home and partly because I get to sleep in my own bed rather than in a hotel on the road!

Mason Mitchell's 2014 Chicagoland burnout was epic
It might be hard to top last year's race at Chicagoland Speedway where eventual season champion Mason Mitchell got his first ARCA win and executed a burnout for the ages with tire smoke billowing above the main grandstands. While I can't say that his win was unexpected last year, you just never know who will be entered each week that might be a serious contender to win. At Pocono, it was Trevor Bayne. Ross Kenseth did it at Michigan. This weekend, Daniel Suarez will pull double duty with the Xfinity race, and there are easily a half dozen ARCA regulars who could win, not the least of which is current points leader Grant Enfinger who started off this season like a house afire with three straight wins. Tom Hessert is second in points and is overdue for a win. Third place Josh Williams gets a shot in the Cunningham Motorsports #22 machine while fourth in points Austin Wayne Self is ready for a breakout win in Mitchell's #98 anytime now. Matt Tifft will be back in Schrader's #52 to try and duplicate Kenseth's Michigan win for the team. I could go on and on but in case you hadn't noticed, I am already getting excited about the race this weekend, and I'm writing this on Tuesday!

I don't think a lot of people give ARCA the credit it deserves for a number of reasons. Having worked inside the series now for awhile, I may be biased but if you want to see hard fought racing and some of the best young talent in stock car racing, then you need to get to an ARCA race. Come on out and join us! Until next time, here's a sampling of my Michigan photos. To see the rest, you'll have to go to ARCA's photo site at this link. Let me know what you think and we'll see you at the track.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Bayne Takes Pocono ARCA 200 in First Series Start

Sprint Cup regular Trevor Bayne was a happy winner
Trevor Bayne made his first trip to Pocono Raceway last weekend and so did I. We both ended up in Victory Lane: Trevor as the pole and race winner in his first ever ARCA start, and me as the ARCA photographer documenting the occasion. When I took his headshot photo on Friday, I told him I was shooting Daytona in 2011 when he became the youngest Daytona 500 winner ever, and now here we both were crossing paths again more than four years later at a different two-and-a-half mile racetrack. I told some of my ARCA friends that I was beginning to think that I am some kind of a first time charm for some of the these ARCA newcomers since this is now the third race where I've been shooting for the series and a driver has won in their first ever ARCA start. In 2013, Austin Theriault did it at Michigan. Brandon Jones did it at Winchester last year, and now Bayne in 2015. Now we go to Michigan so I wonder who might be the lucky charm recipient this time!

ARCA vet Frank Kimmel chases Bayne at the start
Bayne was pulling double duty at Pocono and was using the ARCA event to gain experience for his first Sprint Cup start on the track known as the Tricky Triangle, unique among modern oval tracks for its lengthy front straightaway, its distinctive triangular shape and three differently banked corners. He piloted the Cunningham Motorsports #22 normally driven by Kyle Weatherman and did a masterful job of showing everyone else the fast way around. The ARCA regulars gave it their all and some were apparently trying too hard as Michael Lira hit the wall in the last minutes of Friday's only practice session, and then Kyle Benjamin and Matt Tifft spun and hit the Turn 3 wall during qualifying Saturday morning. All three were able to start the 80 lap, 200 mile race in backup cars and no one was hurt, but there were some bruised egos and lots of bent sheet metal. Needless to say there were some tired ARCA crews when all was said and done as the Benjamin and Tifft accidents happened barely two hours before the scheduled 1:00 pm starting time.

A lonely scene in the garage area with Michael Lira's crew working
I started off the race in the flagstand and was able to play with my new GoPro camera at a racetrack for the first time. I used it around the garage area on Friday and from the flagstand and in the pits during the race on Saturday. Since this was my first time at Pocono, I had to learn my way around on Friday and found that walking takes too much time to get from place to place. I joked with the ARCA folks about loading a golf cart in one of the series haulers, but even if we had one, I doubt I would have gotten to use it. That's OK as I racked up some pretty good step counts on my pedometer app both Friday (16,00) and Saturday (13,500). I actually drove my car outside the Tunnel Turn Friday at the start of practice to shoot in Turn 2, then I went back inside and parked, then walked up into Turn 3 to shoot cars at speed before finishing the two hour practice in the ARCA garage area getting people and scenic shots. It was a weekend of firsts for a lot of reasons. Here is one of my first Go Pro track videos, taken from the flagstand at the start of the race:

I also logged some serious miles on my RSX-s this road trip as I went through Akron to visit my Mom on both ends of the drive to tally 1,434 road miles for the round trip. I love to drive and going through Pennsylvania on Interstate 80 gave me the chance to see a whole lot of new towns that end in the suffix "-ville." Some of the best names I saw were "Barkeyville", "Broadheadsville" and "Limestoneville". I never saw another car with Indiana license plates the whole time I was in the Keystone State which told me I was quite a ways from home. I think our road crews in Indiana could learn something from their counterparts in Pennsylvania, as the twisting, hilly I-80 was in beautiful shape. Coming back into Indiana on Monday, I was quickly reminded of the contrast as our interstates are in terrible shape by comparison to the smooth stretch of highway I experienced on I-80. It was quite an enjoyable drive overall, and I managed to avoid most of the serious rainstorms that were rolling through the Hoosier state on my way home Monday.

Venturini Motorsports driver Kyle Benjamin had a rough weekend
The weekend was quite memorable for a number of reasons and reminded me once again how fortunate I am to be working with ARCA and its teams this season. There are some really nice people involved in this series and even though they compete like crazy on the racetrack, there is still a sense of camaraderie in the paddock that I think is rare in modern day racing. For example, I had a very nice conversation with last year's ARCA champ Mason Mitchell on Saturday morning before qualifying. A similar situation occurred with Tommy Venturini who had come in to the ARCA trailer Friday evening as I was wrapping up my editing for the day. Perhaps my biggest takeaway will be how supportive everyone is, and my weekend was by no means perfect as I had technical snafus during and after the race on Saturday that I had to overcome. In the end, I have to say it was a challenging and rewarding race weekend and this week I get to go to Michigan and do it all over again. Hope you can come out and join us. If you can't then be sure to check the ARCA website for news and more of my photos. Until next time, here's a sample gallery of my work from Pocono.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Next Stop: ARCA at Pocono Raceway

Recent high school grad Michael Lira was fastest in ARCA open test June 3
My summer adventure is underway and I am on the road again. This week I am headed to Pocono Raceway for the first time ever, a track I have wanted to visit for years, and now I have the chance to go and work for the ARCA Racing Series Presented by Menards. The 200 mile ARCA race is Saturday afternoon and it will kick off a string of racing weekends for me which involves shooting 11 of the final 12 ARCA races. I couldn't be more excited, and now that May is over and the Indy 500 is in the history books, I can get back to racing's roots working with the most diverse stock car series around. After this weekend, I go to Michigan, Chicagoland and then Winchester before a break in the ARCA schedule, and if you've never seen an ARCA race in person, then you need to go so you can say you say these future stock car stars when they were just kids.

Grant Enfinger (#23)  won at Nashville; here racing Kyle Weatherman
And the ARCA kiddie corps is leading the way this season after Grant Enfinger got off to a hot early season start. Enfinger already has three wins this season, but his last was at Nashville in April. Since then its been all the young guys racing at the front, with Kyle Weatherman winning the most recent event on the New Jersey Motorsports Park road course. At the open test June 3rd, 18 year old Michael Lira set fast time but Wetherman found the wall in the test so it will be interesting to see how one of the series' best teams, Cunningham Motorsports, bounces back to start practice on Friday. Another youngster, Trevor Bayne, will race the 22 this weekend in order to get experience at Pocono for the Sprint Cup race. You may remember Bayne as the youngest Daytona 500 winner just a few years ago, so his addition to the ARCA regulars like veterans Frank Kimmel and Tom Hessert will make things very interesting. Last season's champ Mason Mitchell will be back behind the wheel as well so I'm sure he's anxious to get a win for his own team.

ARCA vet Frank Kimmel is back in #25 this weekend; Matt Tifft returns in Ken Schrader's #52
I have wanted to go to Pocono since the 1980's when Indycar raced there and the walls were steel boiler plate, but somehow I was never able to make it happen. I've already heard stories from some of my photographer friends about snakes in Turn 1 that I need to watch out for, and I expect near-record days on my pedometer both Friday and Saturday. I've been thinking a lot about my shooting strategy for this race and I will let everyone know after the weekend if my plan was successful or not. Since I've never been there before, I expect that much of Friday will be spent just finding my way around and scouting shooting locations for the race. No mater what my plan is, I also expect that I will have to go with the flow as there will be situations I couldn't anticipate that will force my plans to change. That's part of any race weekend to a certain extent, but even more true at a track I've never been to before.

ARCA pit action is always interesting and could determine Saturday's winner
Since ARCA is racing with NASCAR this weekend, track time will be limited but the race is being televised on FoxSports 2 so it will have a good field of 32 cars at last count. The ARCA TV races bring out competitors who don't race the full season and I've heard there are quite a few drivers who haven't raced at all with ARCA yet this season. That means I will have lots of headshots to shoot Friday morning before the sole two-hour afternoon practice, and that can be a challenge rounding drivers up who are focused on getting their cars ready. The headshots are used on ARCA's website with driver profiles and on the television broadcast during starting lineups so the green screen shots must get done before they hit the track. Then they will qualify Saturday morning and race at 1:00 pm Saturday afternoon for 80 hectic laps. I need to find out what the pit window will be and see how many tires each team will have in their pit box for the race (typically either six or eight in addition to the four on the car at the start) to get a feel for what kind of pit strategies may play out so I can be in position to shoot final pit stops which often effect the outcome of ARCA's races. It's the 60th time ARCA has raced at Pocono but my first time shooting so I'm sure I will earn my rookie stripes this weekend and hope to make it back again. And again. See you at the Tricky Triangle!