Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Mayor Hinchcliffe Completes Epic Comeback, Takes Indy 500 Pole Position

James Hinchcliffe won his 1st Indycar pole
Comeback stories are nothing new at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS), but what we witnessed Sunday may top them all, as James Hinchcliffe took pole position as the last driver to run in the Fast Nine session which concluded Indy 500 qualifying. Barely a year removed from a life threatening Turn 3 crash which left him bleeding profusely after being speared by a suspension piece, the Mayor of Hinchtown loudly proclaimed himself fully healed and ready to win Indy with a stirring qualifying effort that had fans cheering every lap as it was announced on the Speedway's public address system. I was holding down a spot on Pit Lane for photos of the pole winner throughout the Fast Nine shootout, and when he finally wheeled into the Verizon Pit View stand area after four very intense laps, the ensuing scrum was absolutely crazy as people poured in from everywhere to congratulate James on his stunning achievement.

The grand prize - The Borg Warner trophy
Every year at Indy when I see something like this, it reminds me that these drivers are not like the rest of us. They are not supermen but their will to go fast and be first runs seemingly runs contrary to the basic survival instincts with which most of us "normal" people are familiar. Hinch came back from a near death experience at Indy in May 2015 to win the pole a year later. Buddy Lazier won the 500 in 1996 with a broken back. Mario Andretti won in 1969 with burns so severe on his face that his twin brother Aldo had to sit in for him on many official photos. Will Power overcame a broken back from a wreck at Sonoma to ultimately win the Indycar Series championship. And these drivers think nothing of hopping in a car whenever the track is green to try and run 230 mph laps for the first starting position in the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500. They are not like us, I'm telling you. All the more reason for me to be out there every chance I can to grab those photographs which may help document Indy's history in some small way. At the very least, they help cement those moments into my memory and provide fodder for future story telling.

Lighting in Turn 1 Wednesday and Thursday was simply gorgeous
This year my time has been somewhat limited at IMS due to my teaching schedule. The best I could do was race to the track from Noblesville for Happy Hours during the week so I had only about 5 hours of shooting from 30 hours of track time last Monday through Friday. Saturday and Sunday were a different story however, as I was out there essentially dawn to dusk. I would not have wanted it any other way. One of the coolest things to every happen to me at IMS started on Wednesday and carried over into Thursday. Many times when I have limited track time to work, I don't go out with a preconceived idea of where I am going to take pictures. The Speedway is a big place and you can't physically cover it all when time is limited. Wednesday I thought I would go to the pits to get driver and people candids, but as I walked across Georgetown Road from our mudhole parking area, something told me to go to the Stand E Penthouse area at the south end of the front straightaway.

Simon Pagenaud's Dallara was never prettier
Once I got up there, I noticed an unusual pattern of sun and shadow in Turn 1 that I didn't think I had ever seen before. When I say "ever", that means since 1984, so I was drawn to work with this lighting in a way I could not have foreseen that day. It was incredible to see these cars blast out of the black shadows into the bright sunlight - roller coaster trains emerging from a tunnel. I went back there on Thursday afternoon as I wanted more of those shots and apparently the word had gotten out as there were quite a few other photographers up in the Penthouse whereas I had been the only one the day before. Lighting is everything so it has really been cool to see what everyone did with those conditions, which I surmised was a direct result of the new grandstand construction that created these most unusual light and shade patterns.

I was near the yard of bricks and grabbed Alex Tagliani's crash with Canon's 200-400 zoom
Another really cool aspect of being a credentialed photographer at Indianapolis is the opportunity to work with Canon USA, which sends technicians to the track to clean and check our gear, and provides loaner equipment. So it's fun to try out expensive gear like a 500 mm f4 lens or the 200-400 zoom with a built in 1.4 converter. While these are fantastic pieces of glass, one thing I noticed later is that my pictures don't immediately benefit. There's still a learning curve I have to go through to adjust to their weight, plus the framing and focusing is different than what I am used to on the gear I own and typically use day in and day out. Nonetheless, it's a great chance to try out equipment that I would hope to have someday. For the week, I shot about 3100 pictures last week for motorsport.com, submitted about 670 and they used 200, so it was a good week by just about any measure.

Now we prepare for Carb Day Friday and the race this Sunday. Friends and family from all over will be in town, and my new colleagues from France will get their minds blown Sunday morning once the green flag flies. I am already feeling the butterflies and can't stop thinking about my race day plan and where I will go to get pictures that tell the stories of the day. Strap in and hang on as this race promises to be as epic as the Mayor's comeback. I hope you have your tickets! Godspeed and safe travels everyone.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Pagenaud Rules Grand Prix of Indianapolis

Simon Pagenaud claimed the pole and race
On the coldest race day at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway since the 1992 Indy 500, Team Penske ace Simon Pagenaud continued his winning ways in 2016 with a dominant win on the IMS road course last Saturday in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. It was not surprising since he also started on pole position and seemed to have the field covered in almost every track session. Teammate Helio Castroneves took second while James Hinchcliffe prevented an all-Chevy podium by taking third with his Honda powered machine. The Verizon Indycar Series put on a good show for the fans who turned out over the three day event as there was plenty of track action to follow from Thursday morning through Saturday evening. The Mazda Road to Indy support series were on the card and the Indy Lights series ran two full races, so fans got a lot of racing for their dollar if they came out to IMS for even part of one day.

The weekend started off beautifully
I was there all three days shooting for motorsport.com while covering the Indycar and Indy Lights series. In typical Indiana Spring fashion, our weather was ultra changeable with everything from rain showers to bright sunny skies and temperatures in the low 80's to Saturday's overcast, windy and cold conditions. It made no difference whatsoever for what I had to do, however, as I still had to make some pictures and get them transferred for the website to use. To do that, I covered a lot of ground and loved every second of it, as I was on a mission to add variety to the photos I was delivering. On Thursday's practice day, I walked over 27,000 steps around IMS. I followed that up on Friday's qualifying day with more than 18,000 steps and another 18,000 plus on Saturday's race day. My Thursday numbers were a personal all time best according to my pedometer app and equated to more that 16 miles hoofing it around the Speedway to find those photos! I was glad that Sunday was an off day as the Speedway got converted to oval track configuration!

Pagenaud winning pole was no surprise
Once the race was over Saturday evening, I was not the last to leave the photo "cave" in the media center but it was close. What I call the cave is the second floor area where photographers work with the main room lights turned off so it is dark and we can all see our computer monitors better. May has become somewhat of a singular pursuit for me since I am not working with any photographer colleagues at Indy yet nor is there a photo editor on site for me to report to. I love being in that cave when everyone has finished shooting as you hear other photogs discuss what they got (or missed) and what they may have encountered during the day while trying to get photos they needed.

John Menard's reaction in Victory Lane was priceless
I got rebuffed once during the Grand Prix when I tried to get above the F1 garages which had suddenly become off limits to photographers. Something like that seems to happen every year at IMS as the rules seem to change willy nilly about who can go where on the property, so we just have to adjust. That happened to me late in Saturday's race so I had to find another place to shoot the finish. I finally decided to give up on that and just get ready for the checkered flag to get a shot and then be close enough for the winning driver's reaction as they exited their car. That turned out to be a great decision as I was right in the middle of all the celebrations in pit lane as team owner Roger Penske, primary sponsor John Menard, and even competitor Scott Dixon came around to offer congratulations. It was an awesome feeling to be in the midst of that and hear all the conversations that were going on at the time, so I would make the same decision again if I get the chance.

Now we move on to the big show - the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500. I have been to every Indy 500 since 1976 as a spectator or photographer so this is my 41st consecutive race and 43rd 500 overall. Since I started shooting at Indy for UPI in 1984, I have seen and photographed a lot at Indy but I still get goosebumps every year.  I expect this year's race to be even more intense as the drivers vie for the title of Indy champion for the 100th time. It used to be called an "International Sweepstakes" and I know media interest in this race worldwide is higher than it has been in years, so I am grateful for the chance to be a contributor. I will even have a couple of colleagues on race day this year as I'm told there are two photographers from France coming over, so that will be something fun and different as well. It still looks like a Chevy will win this year if you ask me, but I hope it's a fast, safe month for all concerned. Let's go racing, ladies and gentlemen. See you at the track!

Monday, May 9, 2016

Talladega Tougher Than Ever

There was fire in the Xfinity race at the end
If you believe that stock car racing is a religion in the South, then the sermons that were delivered at Talladega Superspeedway last weekend were full of fire and brimstone. All three races ended under caution due to wrecks near the finish. Friday's ARCA race was the the calmest of the weekend's races but a last lap accident led to a video review to determine that Gus Dean won rather than Josh Williams. Saturday's Xfinity race had a similar conclusion and Sunday's Sprint Cup race looked like a short track demolition derby, as almost every car was bound up with duct tape at the end - except for winner Brad Keselowski. While I haven't been to Talladega in two years and have only been shooting there since April 2011, even the veteran local photographers were talking about how crazy the races were this year with numerous "big ones", race cars getting airborne, lots of torn up equipment, and drivers wrecking at every corner of the track. And fire; plenty of it.

I started the ARCA race in the flagstand with officials and a General Tire contest winner
This year I pulled double duty at Dega, working all day Friday for ARCA as its official photographer along with friend and mentor "Doc", and then Saturday and Sunday shooting for Associated Press (AP) as a stringer for the Xfinity and Sprint Cup races. Those assignments could hardly be more different in terms of expectations, but it was great to get back down south and see my AP friends again. Friday started very early with a 6:00 a.m. visit to the credential office and ended after midnight once I finally shut my computer down back at the hotel. In between, I logged over 20,500 steps on my pedometer app. After patrolling the ARCA garage, pit lane and checking out the Turn 1 photo tower during the day to get photos the ARCA series needs, I started the race in the flagstand which was exciting. After a few laps, I walked around the outside of Turn 1 to the Turn 2 tunnel to get back in the infield, then shot for awhile in the Turn 1 photo tower, then walked to the pits to shoot the last third of the race before doing Victory Lane. Talladega is a HUGE track and if you've never been there then you really need to go to comprehend how massive the turns and banking are for yourself.

Keselowski took the Sprint Cup checkers with the wrecking behind him
Saturday and Sunday's work for AP is no less demanding, but it involves a different kind of creative pressure as well as the expectation to produce newsworthy images for AP and its members to use with stories about the event. For a stringer like me, that usually means it needs to be something spectacular. It also happens to involve a lot less walking as AP assigns me to a location and expects me to cover anything that happens on that part of the track for the day. My vantage point this year was down track from the start-finish line and across from the flagstand on the inside of the track. I got a checkered flag shot from that spot a couple of years ago for AP so I knew what I was going to be doing both days and was just hopeful I would get something transmitted from one of the NASCAR races. A funny thing about that location on the track: I had tried to go there on Friday to get some shots for ARCA but a track security guy told me I needed to have clearance from "Homeland Security" to shoot there. I laughed about it later but I couldn't believe it at the time since I knew the guy was clueless but I wasn't going to argue with him. Apparently my clearance came through overnight as I was able to go where I needed both Saturday and Sunday! Give a guy a badge...

Sprint Cup 4 wide past the flagstand
Going from Indianapolis to Talladega and sandwiching it in between work on Thursday and Monday is no mean feat, but I earned my "Energizer Bunny" nickname in the process as the weather cooperated and everything came off like clockwork. I was depending on that too, as I needed to be back in my classroom to teach at 9:00 Monday morning. After looking at threatening skies all day Sunday, the rains that finally hit the track came after the Geico 500 was over and I drove out of bad weather by the time I got to Birmingham. It was smooth sailing from there all the way home. So for the weekend round trip, once I left Indy after teaching a half day on Thursday, I drove almost exactly 500 miles south to the hotel in Birmingham that day, then repeated the trip north Sunday evening after the Sprint Cup race to arrive home at 2:30 Monday morning. Altogether I drove 1249 miles, spent about 16 hours driving and shot 1000 miles of stock car racing at a track I have come to love. And I made it to class Monday with no problem. It's amazing what caffeine and adrenalin will do for you.

It is hard for me to believe that this spring it is almost 10 years since I got back into motorsports photography through the Indianapolis Star and then the late Don Hamilton and his American Motor Journal publication after a hiatus around the time of my divorce. I joke with people that I bought camera equipment instead of furniture after the divorce, but it became a serious matter once I hit the road in earnest in 2006. I got my first Canon, a 20D in 2005, then added the 30D in 2006 before May at Indy, and I haven't looked back since then. Now in 2016, I've worked three ARCA races already and have 11 more to go, I have the rest of May at Indianapolis for motorsport.com, and my birthday closes out the month so it's the best time of year if you ask me. In the meantime, here are some photo galleries from Talladega before I get immersed in Indycar this week with the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and then the 100th Indy 500 the following week. Follow me on Twitter @alleygroup if you want to know what I'm doing this month. Or just go to 16th and Georgetown and look me up.