Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Hoosier Chase Briscoe Tames Winchester For First ARCA Win

Chase Briscoe continues the winning tradition of the Cunningham 77
For a young man who had only raced on dirt tracks prior to 2016, Chase Briscoe is showing the ARCA field he's a quick study every race this season. After starting from pole position for the fifth time this year, Chase finally got his first ARCA Racing Series win last Sunday in the Herr's 200 at Winchester Speedway. The win was hotly contested as Chase and his Cunningham Motorsports machine had a stout challenger in Dalton Sargeant of Venturini Motorsports.

Chase Briscoe (77) and Dalton Sargeant (55) raced hard but clean all day
On a late restart, Chase and Dalton traded a little paint coming out of Turn 4 and Chase was able to drive away from there. Prior to that, Dalton and Chase had a race long battle and traded the lead several times with margins see-sawing from half a straightaway to nothing on a regular basis. For two young guys with limited experience in ARCA, they put on a whale of a show, racing side by side on a regular basis, and never seemingly in danger of crashing one another out. Very impressive!

Kyle Weatherman (98) and Matt Kurzejewski (52) are talented future stars
This race provided another example of why I love the ARCA Racing Series: there's so much young talent in these race cars and most people don't know it since ARCA doesn't get the publicity of some other series. That's a shame but it's the fans who really miss out as now is the time to get to know these young drivers and help them build a fan base for the day when they move up the ladder to NASCAR Trucks, Xfinity and Sprint Cup. You will be able to get up close, get an autograph, have an actual conversation, and say "you knew them when..." if you get out to an ARCA race. Don't stay home because you think it's not "big time" auto racing. That is just wrong thinking as these teams have sizable investments in equipment and ARCA has the most diverse 20 race schedule of any national touring series, with superspeedways, medium and short ovals, dirt tracks, and even a road course. Don Radebaugh would be proud that I worked that in here as I hear him say it all the time during pre-race ceremonies when he is on the public address system at tracks like Winchester.

Josh Reeves (42) battled Dustin Knowles (14) in his second start this season
I find ARCA interesting for other reasons as well, aside from the fact that I get to take pictures and do what I love at the racetrack. One big reason is every race is kind of like Forrest Gump's box of chocolates - you never know what you're going to get. More than 100 drivers have earned points in ARCA already this year and the next race (at Iowa in two weeks) only marks the halfway point in the season! Not every driver obviously makes every race but there are opportunities to get into decent equipment and race, which is more than can be said for most any other series out there right now. If you have talent, work hard and maybe have a little money to throw in, then you can find a seat and get track time in a highly competitive environment. Who know what will happen then? A perfect example is Josh Reeves, usually a crew member for the 42 car normally drive by Bo LeMastus. Josh got to start at Madison and then ran the whole race at Winchester. Talk about "living the dream"! Yeah baby! People outside the sport may never know about these stories so I am fortunate to be able to get to know everyone behind the scenes and enjoy their successes when things go well.

Mason Mitchell did his Superman routine last year at Iowa
From here on out to the finale in Kansas in October, I will only miss one ARCA race so the next time I will see everyone is at Iowa Speedway July 9-10 when the series pairs up with my beloved Verizon Indycar Series for the weekend. Last year's Iowa race felt like we were working on the surface of the sun, it was so damn hot, so it might be that way again this year. Iowan Mason Mitchell won last year in his home race and I asked his dad this weekend at Winchester if Mason was going to bring out the 78 car again this year at Iowa. I got a funny response from him that I can't really repeat here, but it was another reminder of how fortunate I am to be shooting for this series and getting to know the people behind the teams. And ARCA is full of good people. I hope you come out to a race and get to experience that yourself. Please look me up if you do!

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

ARCA Beat Goes On: 8 Races - 8 Winners

Brandon Jones took the Michigan win
Prior to this weekend's race in Madison, Wisconsin, the ARCA series had started off the season with eight different winners in its first eight races and Brandon Jones kept that streak alive with his one-off race win at Michigan International Speedway (MIS) on Friday June 10th. I had worked four of those first eight ARCA races as the series photographer but was on vacation this past weekend and could not get to Madison to see Josh Williams break that streak and become the first dual winner in 2016. Just prior to leaving for vacation I had worked the Corrigan 200 at Michigan and was never more relieved to get to lap 51 of a 100 lap race than on that  day, as we had plane reservations the next afternoon for our vacation that I did not want to have to change if weather had intervened. And if you have ever been to southeastern Michigan in June, then you know how a pop up thunderstorm can happen just about anytime, but everything came off without a hitch, we made our Allegiant flight the next day and were off to Sunset Beach, North Carolina for a week of sorely needed rest and relaxation.

Great side lighting is a feature at Michigan in the afternoon
Now my summer of racing really gets going as I will work 10 of the final 11 ARCA races beginning this weekend at Winchester Speedway Saturday and Sunday. Billed as the "World's Fastest Half Mile", Winchester is another "home" track for me since it is only 70 miles from our house and I can commute for the weekend. I've lost track of how many times I've been to Winchester since I started shooting there in the 1990's. It is a fast and bumpy racetrack with many similarities to Salem Speedway. It has some unique features as well with a curving pit lane that dives down to the bottom of the banking inside Turn 1 being one of them. Winchester weekend also includes other support series so local fans get a solid two days of track activity. If you've never been to Winchester for a race, then you need to get over to east central Indiana and check it out. From Muncie on State Road 32, you will go through Farmland and Maxville, Indiana as well as a few other small towns before you see the race track lights rising out of a corn field on the north side of the highway.

Brennan Poole got his first ARCA win in 2013 at Michigan
I started going to to Michigan in the 1980's so it's another track which has a lot of personal history for me. The contrasts between the two tracks couldn't be more extreme although both ARCA events are two day shows with practice one day and racing the next. This June's Michigan race was the fourth year in a row that I have worked for ARCA as its official photographer at Michigan. Not coincidentally, it was the first track where I filled that role on my own in 2013. The last two years my trips to Michigan have involved family drama as my Mom's health deteriorated, so this was my first trip back to MIS since she passed away last July. I called her last year leaving the racetrack in a torrential downpour but couldn't do that this year, so driving away from the track Friday night this year was bittersweet even knowing that we were leaving for vacation the next day. I've shot there enough now that I know where to go to get the right lighting I want, and since the race itself starts in the late afternoon, there's an opportunity to get some very nice side lighting on the front stretch as the sun sets behind the grandstands. I was fortunate to have plenty of help this year as the big Michigan oval is hard to cover by myself. I will have no such issue at Winchester since it is such a small bowl and easy to get from one area to another.

Brandon Jones' first ARCA win in 2014
There's another connection between Winchester, Michigan and ARCA for me that seems ironic now but I guess I shouldn't be surprised. Two years ago Brandon Jones won at Winchester with a last lap, last corner bump and run move to win in his first ever ARCA race. Now he's moved up the ranks in NASCAR and I would bet he probably doesn't remember me telling him in 2014 that I was his lucky charm as I took his headshot photo before his first Winchester race. There was a stretch where it seemed like every race I worked for ARCA was being won by a driver who had never even raced in ARCA before and I told Brandon then that he might be the next one to do so. So now two years later, Brandon continues his winning ways in ARCA and I got to shoot pictures of him celebrating in Victory Lane once again. Brandon is not on the entry list for Winchester this year but season points leader Chase Briscoe is due to pick up his first ARCA win after numerous pole positions and close calls already this season, including at Michigan where he led a ton of laps but still finished second to Jones after issues in the pits. The Winchester entry list right now is a bit light but you can count on an action packed race whoever shows up.

I hope to see you at the track soon. If not at Winchester, then maybe at Iowa in July when ARCA is paired up with Indycar for a race weekend in the heat of summer! C'mon out and say hello. Or follow me on Twitter @alleygroup to stay in touch as the season unfolds. For the time being, here's a gallery of photos from Michigan to tide you over. Go to www.arcaracing.com for more!

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Rookie Alexander Rossi Steals Indy 500 Win on Fumes

Rookie Alexander Rossi impressed everyone
As I walked away from shooting the traditional kissing of the bricks ceremony featuring the winner of the 100th Indy 500, Alexander Rossi, this past Sunday, I texted my brother and asked "How did Rossi do that?". His response was "No freaking clue". I had to agree as I sure didn't understand what had just transpired the previous three plus hours. I am certain that there were a few hundred thousand other people who left the Speedway Sunday feeling the same way. The race had unfolded in surprising fashion as the ultimate darkhorse - a rookie running only his second oval track race ever - snuck under the checkered flag at a greatly reduced pace and then ran out of fuel in Turn 4 on his cool down lap. On a day of perfect Tony Hulman weather at Indianapolis, in hindsight it seems fitting that an unheralded and relatively unknown rookie should take the win for Andretti Autosport in the 100th Indy 500 for a team whose owner, Michael Andretti, led more laps than any non-winner at Indy without winning but now has four wins as a team owner. The fact that Rossi is American was an added bonus in winning this Memorial Day holiday weekend classic.

Indy's large crowds are back!
Race weekend in Indianapolis actually starts on Friday with Carburetion Day, which includes final Indycar practice, the Freedom 100 Indy Lights race and a concert. This year the Carb Day concert featured one of my favorite bands, Journey. The crowd Friday was the biggest I can remember since the 1990's, and Journey had people standing clear back to the Northwest Vista stands as they rocked the house with a non-stop hits playlist. I was extremely happy to have paid an extra $20 to get in the VIP area up front by the stage and just enjoy the music with my brother and my fiance while taking a few pictures without any deadline pressure. If I could make a living as a photographer just shooting racing and rock concerts, that would be incredible. By the end of the weekend, conversations with my new colleagues from France led to a serious discussion about going to shoot LeMans in 2017, so that might be some small consolation as I continue my regular job as an algebra teacher! As it is, I still get to pursue my passion and do something not many others get to do, and I am well aware of how fortunate I am that the hard work through the years is paying off.

IMS is a special place, especially before dawn
This was my 41st straight Indy 500 and I'd have to say it was one of the best overall experiences I've ever had at IMS. I always have a hard time sleeping the night before the race and this year was no different, as I first woke up at 1:48 a.m. Sunday morning and then tossed and turned for an hour before I finally decided to get up and get ready. We rolled out from home on the northeast side a few minutes before 4:00 and were at the media parking area along Georgetown Road by 4:15 a.m. We didn't encounter any traffic except a couple of Jug's catering trucks, which was a little surprising given the large crowd that eventually descended on 16th and Georgetown Sunday. I wanted to be inside the track to watch the sun come up over the Pagoda on race day so we took our gear and headed in through the media gate at about 5:45. We spent about an hour in the penthouse seats  on the main straightaway shooting the scene and then I headed for the media center to set up and get ready to work. There is something really special about being inside the Speedway before dawn that I have always loved. Many family members and friends who have gone in early with me through the years have expressed similar sentiments. It is a mammoth facility with over 100 years of history and now that there has been 100 Indy 500 races, I am still thrilled to be a part of so many of them since my first one in 1970 at the age of 13.

Takuma Sato's day did not end well for the hard charger
I didn't leave IMS on Sunday until I had finished editing and uploading to motorsport.com around 7:30 that evening. I shot over 2300 photos on race day, walked over 18,000 steps during the day and had to stop and take deep breaths several times during the race while looking skyward and giving thanks for the experience I was having. I started the race on the roof of Stand E at the entrance of Turn 1 for the panorama of the start. After about 10 laps, I went down to trackside and worked outside of Turn 1 for about 30 laps then headed over to Turn 2 during the yellow for Montoya's crash to shoot there for awhile. As the race neared the halfway mark I started walking over to the frontstretch through the infield and Sage Karam crashed in Turn 1, so I was able to get up on top of the F1 garages to shoot the restart at about halfway. From that point to the finish, I was either in the pits or up on the garages shooting, until I went to find a spot along the Victory Lane barricades to shoot the winner drinking the milk. One of my French colleagues had the Victory Lane pass so I had to get creative to get any photos through the throng of well wishers that gathered around Rossi's car. The same thing happened in 2014 when Ryan Hunter-Reay won. I was hoping Rossi would do something dramatic so I could grab some photos, but I think he was in shock and really didn't seem to know what to do, so I concentrated on getting some candids of him through all the arms, heads, hats and cell phones. I looked at that as a blessing as I felt comfortable with the work I had done all month and knew this ceremony was the beginning of the end of the Month of May.

All hail the 2016 Indy 500 Champion
When I left the Speedway that evening and drove north on Georgetown Road from the media parking lot, the city already had a street sweeper truck out trying to clean up. The area was quiet again, like it had been 16 hours earlier, and there were few signs of life among the campers and motorhomes that were still parked in the area. I was tired and hungry, but satisfied with my month at Indy, so I called my brother to talk about what we had seen that day. I always used to call Mom on the road leaving races, but she's gone now so I have to talk to someone while I am still flush with adrenaline from the day. There's nothing bigger or better that I have experienced in racing than the Indy 500, and everything came off like clockwork this year, so I was again counting my blessings. Maybe next year after I go to LeMans I will have a different view about the world's biggest single day sporting event, but Indy is still my home track and I will always be there the last weekend in May. You should be there too!