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 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!

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