Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Theriault Does It Again: Grabs Win #7

Austin Theriault Celebrates Win #7
This is no Lucky 7 I'm talking about, even though the number on Austin Theriault's car, 52, adds up to seven. I'm talking about a champion in the making who came out of the pack late in the race once again to win an ARCA Racing Series race for the seventh time this season! This time he did it at Kentucky Speedway after another green-white-checker finish. Now there's only one race left in a 20 race season that has turned into the Austin Theriault comeback show and I have enjoyed every minute of it. He's won four of the last five races so his hot streak has come at exactly the right time to stake his claim to the 2017 ARCA season title. And this win comes at the conclusion of a grueling stretch of six races in 33 days that has shown the true mettle of the Kenny Schrader Racing (KSR) team and showcased the experience of their driver Theriault against his mostly younger competition. As the Chief Photographer for the ARCA series, I have witnessed this run and it's almost been like watching a modern day tortoise and the hare story. Austin lets the young guys rush out in front and burn up their tires while he bides his time and waits for the right moment to pounce. Don't forget he finished second in the other race of these last five and he's built up a nearly insurmountable 400 point lead in the championship chase heading into the finale at Kansas Speedway on October 20th. I can't wait to see the entry list for the Kansas race fill up and see who decides to join in the hunt for the checkers one last time this season.

The 2017 season as a whole has kind of followed the same pattern as Theriault's racecraft. Youngster Dalton Sargeant started off the season on a hot streak and won three races but hasn't been able to get his Cunningham machine to match Austin's pace when it counted. Sargeant's results have been good enough to place him second overall this season but I'm sure he was looking for more than that this year after taking over the #77 machine that Chase Briscoe drove to the season title last year. Sargeant's teammate Shane Lee hasn't been able to muster a win but he's still third in points after posting 13 Top 10 finishes in the 19 races run so far. I know he's chomping at the bit to get the 22 car into Victory Lane, but Theriault's dominance has been such that only one other ARCA regular has been able to win a race in 2017, and that was rookie Riley Herbst at Pocono in June. Herbst is currently fifth in series points behind his main competition for Rookie of the Year, Gus Dean. That battle will go right down to the wire since their points totals are extremely close with just  one race remaining.

Sheldon Creed tried to run and hide but couldn't get the win
This season ARCA regulars have accounted for 11 wins of the 19 races contested and Austin Theriault has seven of those. The remaining list of eight race winners reads like a who's who of stock car racing's future stars with Justin Haley winning both times he raced this year, 2015 ARCA champion Grant Enfinger, Christopher Bell and Harrison Burton each winning in the only races they ran, plus Chad Finley, Kyle Benjamin and Brandon Jones each swooping in for a race win apiece. I admit that I am biased with my insider's view, but I tell people all the time that you need to get out and see these kids run for yourself. I'm sure you will be favorably impressed with the level of skill and the quality of equipment at the front of the field. Most importantly, I know you will enjoy the racing as these kids get after it, especially as the laps start to wind down and they sense it's time to go. I love it and after more than 10 years covering the series as a photographer, I believe the series has never seen better racing and it just seems to get better every season. Granted, ARCA is regarded as a training ground for drivers, mechanics, crew members and team owners, but the talent level is there and there is no questioning the desire of everyone involved.

The MDM team with drivers like Vinnie Miller (41) has been impressive at every race
The biggest challenge for me at each race is just getting editing done once the race is over. By the time we are done shooting Victory Lane and we get back to the ARCA trailer to edit, any ARCA staff who aren't involved in post-race tech inspection are busy packing up all the gear in the semi trucks and getting ready to hit the road. Our first priority is to get a Victory Lane photo or two out to marketing for use on the ARCA website. Once I start editing from a race, I usually have 700 or more photos to comb through which includes everything from pre-race festivities through the completion of the extensive hat dance in the winner's circle. We have to download files, select the best images, export them to folders, then copy all the files onto ARCA's external hard drive in less than an hour. This means hardly anything can be cropped or adjusted so I mostly pick the ones that are correct coming right from the camera and skip the rest for another time.

Ty Majeski has looked like a winner in his ARCA appearances this year
I do wish I had more time to be even more selective - to crop more images and set them up the way I'd like - but we just don't have that luxury right now. Maybe someday we will. My main goal shooting for the series is to showcase ARCA with the best quality images we can produce and I think our photography work would stand up against that being done by about any other racing series out there right now. I am quite proud of that and it's a true blessing to get to work with other photographers like Doc Hunter, Rich Corbett and Doug Patterson who share the same philosophy and passion. It's all part of the job and I have no complaints as not many people get to do what we do on a regular basis so I am very grateful for these opportunities. It's surreal to think this season is almost over, but it's been a whirlwind which began with the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona back in January for me, but that's another story which I will leave for another day. For the time being, I am going to enjoy being at home for the next few weekends before I start officiating girls basketball! Oh yes - did I mention I registered 21,873 steps on my pedometer app at the Kentucky race? Yeah baby! Now I can relax a little.

This effect was done in the camera and not with Photoshop or Lightroom
This was originally a color image that I transformed in Lightroom
Restarts were crazy at Kentucky
You know you're in Kentucky when you see the Colonel

Monday, September 18, 2017

Fantastic ARCA Finish at Chicagoland Speedway

Christopher Bell celebrated his Chicagoland ARCA win in style
This past Thursday, the ARCA racing series raced at Chicagoland Speedway and the future stars of stock car racing put on one helluva show with Christopher Bell sweeping around the field from 8th on a final green-white-checker restart to steal the win. It was yet another fantastic finish for the series in 2017 and this one was set up by the misfortune of Michael Self who blew a right front tire with less than 10 laps to go while leading to spoil an otherwise brilliant run for the Sinclair Oil "Dino" schemed car fielded by Mason Mitchell Motorsports. It was a mad scramble for all the top 10 positions on the final restart and Austin Theriault had jumped to the front when the green flag came out but Bell's Venturini team had fitted Bell with four fresh General Tires under the caution for Self's misfortune. With grip and a clean lane on the outside, Bell simply motored around everyone to nab his third win in his last four ARCA starts. Theriault continued to cement his season points lead with a second place finish and it's hard to believe that Bell's win was the first one for Venturini all season. But it came at a good time and location at the "home" track for the family run team and there was genuine excitement in Victory Lane. Plus Big Bill Venturini got to land his trademark kiss on Bell during the post race celebrations and you knew that was coming!

The final restart was crazy!
Brandon Jones had won the pole in another of his periodic ARCA appearances but faded at the end on worn tires. Noah Gragson brought another Venturini entry home in fourth while Nashville winner Chad Finley rounded out the top five. The race had included quite a few drivers who were dropping in for the experience and as a result there was a lot of good, strong equipment at the front of the pack. Travis Braden got a shot in the 27 normally driven by AJ Fike and led quite a few laps. Myatt Snyder made an appearance and looked really good on the 78. Most impressive to me was ARCA Midwest Tour champ Ty Majeski in the 99 for Cunningham Motorsports. Ty was very imprssive in leading a bunch of laps in the first half of the race and really looked like he might win even up until the final restart. Kyle Benjamin had a strong night as well. The addition of this kind of driver talent to the regular roster of ARCA drivers is another reason why I enjoy working for the series so much. You never know who's going to show up, top flight equipment is available, and you can come in and win even if it's a one-off appearance to gain experience. I am pretty sure that our next race at Kentucky Speedway this Friday will involve more of the same.

We were greeted by fog in the morning when we got to the track
After a night of furious but clean racing, my post race editing was a challenge as I started out in the flagstand and worked the outside of the track until about 20 laps to go. You would be surprised how fast a 100 lap race goes when there are only a few cautions and non of them are very lengthy. By the time my day was over at Chicagoland, I had logged 21,365 steps on my pedometer app so I got plenty of exercise and I had taken about 2100 photos for the day! The day had started off foggy and I knew I had two driver headshots to take before practice started, but the fog was wreaking havoc with some teams' travel schedules as many flights into Chicago were being delayed. I got the last headshot done just as our only practice session began and what had begun as a more laid back morning became a scramble for the rest of the day. I had worked the outside of the track during practice, then pit road during qualifying, and then shot a hospitality gathering with drivers and sponsors. All of a sudden it seemed, it was time to go racing!

Scott Towels sponsored the race and their people got the race started
After the race, I drove straight to Indy from Joliet and got home about 3 in the morning Friday so I could get back to my teaching job later that day. I have to admit that I have begun to feel the effects of the dual schedule of my teaching and racing jobs lately. There have been 27 calendar days between last Friday when I got home from Chicagoland and the day I went to Springfield, Illinois August 19th to work the dirt race there, I had 11 days traveling to or from or working at a race (five races altogether in three states), 14 days on my teaching  job and just two days off. There was a movie in the '60's titled "If it's Tuesday, this must be Belgium" and I have kind of felt like that lately as there have been mornings when I woke up and wondered what day it was and where I was supposed to be. It got so bad last weekend that I got all the way to the hotel in Joliet Wednesday night before I  realized I had left my flash at home, along with the pouch that held all of my memory cards. Luckily I had left a memory card in each camera and my colleague Rich Corbett had a second flash I could use for Victory Lane so it all worked out. I don't know if that qualifies as a senior moment or whether the short turnaround from Salem had gotten me out of my regular routine, but it's been a crazy and hectic period.

Getting up close and personal on a restart is quite a thrill
The good news is, I love it, and my ARCA boss has already started talking about next season so with only two races to go, it's about time to start planning for 2018 believe it or not! So I will make sure all my gear gets packed this week as I will be back on the road Thursday evening for Kentucky Speedway. Every time I go to one of these tracks, I find my mind drifting back to memories of prior years and Kentucky is no different. I went to the very first Indycar race ever held there in 2001 and have shot a variety of races there since then. At Chicagoland, I couldn't help but think of the ARCA race in 2014 when the rains hit us in Victory Lane and I had to race to Akron, Ohio to be with my Mom who had been admitted to the hospital the day before. Granted it's not always good memories that get conjured up on the road, but when you have a lot of windshield time on the highway getting from Indianapolis to tracks all over the place, the mind does tend to wander. I love that part of the job too and I always tell people I love to drive. But I love taking photographs and writing even more. See you again soon and spread the word!

Pole winner Brandon Jones won the first ARCA race he ever entered and I was there to photograph it in 2014
Gus Dean had his game face on at Chicagoland and could win Rookie of the Year
The view from the roof of the main grandstands is spectacular
Scott Towels did a great job with the race sponsorship and team support; here Bret Holmes collects some shop towels

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Theriault Does it Again! Nets 3rd Straight ARCA Win

Austin Theriault added another checkered flag for his trophy case
This is the time of year when champions start to make their charge and I think we are seeing that with Austin Theriault and his Kenny Schrader Racing (KSR) team as Austin snagged a thrilling come from behind win at Salem Speedway last Saturday night. It was his third straight ARCA win on three vastly different types of racetracks in three different states: the the four mile road course at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, then the one mile dirt track at DuQuoin, Illinois and now the half mile high banks of Salem Speedway in southern Indiana. There's a better than average chance he could make it four in a row this Thursday at Chicagoland Speedway on this very quick turnaround week for the series. With only three races left in the season now, Austin is taking the season championship battle by the throat and it will be fun to watch how the KSR team approaches another different kind of track, the mile-and-a-half superspeedway in Joliet, Illinois.

Austin (52) passed pole winner Zane Smith with less than five laps left to win
I continue to be amazed and impressed by the patience Austin has shown in these races. He led a lot of laps early in the race at Salem but then fell back and bided his time to ultimately make the pass for the lead with a handful of laps left. He seems to have a knack for being in the right place at the right time, preserving his tires and keeping his equipment clean until it is time to pounce. And boy does he ever go after it when he senses it is time. I felt bad for Zane Smith who set fast time and took pole position in qualifying in a new ride with MDM Motorsports as he rose to the top of the charts late in the race and looked to be driving away from the field. But then came Austin, and Zane had no tires left to hold him off when Theriault dove under him in Turn 1 where I was shooting at the time.

The KSR team gave the Jack Bowsher throwback themed 52 some great brakes
A few laps before the big pass, Theriault's brakes were glowing red hot but he saved enough to make the pass stick when he needed to. He is showing veteran savvy which belies his experience in ARCA and while I would love to see him back in the series next year, I can't imagine someone in NASCAR Trucks or Xfinity wouldn't give him a ride. Guys that know how to win races like Austin seems to are in short supply in my opinion. When I sat down to write, I hadn't planned to make this all about Austin but he has just been so damn impressive that it's hard not to say good things about the kid. I know he's a grown man but so many of the current crop of ARCA drivers are in their teens that they all look like kids to me! But then I'm more "experienced" than they are and I have the grey hairs to prove it.

These kids are alright: Christian Eckes, Chase Purdy, Riley Herbst, Zane Smith
Even so, I still got my steps in at Salem last Saturday as my pedometer app registered 16,233 steps for the day which started at 6:00 a.m. when I got up in Indy and drove to Salem. I got home at midnight after shooting all day at the track on an absolutely perfect day in southern Indiana, where the locals call it "God's country", and I know why. I started shooting ARCA races at Salem in earnest in 2006 so I've seen a lot of crazy stuff happen at that rugged old speed plant, but rarely have I seen a more entertaining 200 laps than these guys raced last weekend. It was spectacular under the lights and it wasn't because there were a lot of crashes, which has often been the norm at Salem. It was because they raced so damn hard for the entire 200 laps! The top runners never seemed to falter, plus you had guys like Josh Williams charging through the field to finish fourth (in his first ARCA race of the season). Pole winner Zane Smith had to go to the tail of the field for unapproved adjustments after qualifying, so he flew to the front and passed more cars than anyone it seemed! It was a sight to behold. 

Dalton Sargeant has had a great season but hasn't been able to match Theriault's
I am looking forward to Chicagoland as the entry list is looking quite strong with drivers like Christopher Bell, Brandon Jones and others "dropping in" to race ARCA Thursday. The ARCA Scott's 150 kicks off race action for NASCAR's playoff system weekend, which ARCA does not have, by the way, and I am glad for that. Will Austin Theriault be able to continue his roll or will KSR get conservative? Will a NASCAR interloper steal a win from the ARCA regulars? We shall see and I head to Joliet tomorrow night to work the ARCA race Thursday to document it all in photos for the series. Come on out. It will be a blast. I promise you will not be disappointed. Until then, here's a few more from Salem.

It was good to see Josh Williams (31) back in action again; his throwback colors were great
Up close and personal with Shane Lee of Cunningham Motorsports
Close racing is a hallmark of Salem Speedway
Where else can you shoot through a hole in the wall? AJ Fike zooms by in Turn 4

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Austin Theriault Snags ARCA DuQuoin Win

Austin Theriault has won on all types of tracks this year
For the second straight race, Austin Theriault emerged from some late race carnage to snag an ARCA Racing Series win - his fifth on the season. Not only was it the second race in a row where he emerged from on top from his wrecking competitors, but it was the second straight weekend where craziness at the end resulted in a cherry picked victory for the Kenny Schrader Racing pilot. On a hot but breezy southern Illinois day, Theriault pounced on the lead at the last restart of the second attempt at a green-white-checker finish and managed to hold off the rest of the pack. for two laps to the flag. From what I have seen of him this season, Austin has an amazing knack for biding his time, keeping his equipment in good shape and then taking advantage of late race situations to grab wins even when it may seem unlikely like he did at Road America last weekend. It's also very cool for me to see him have so much success on his comeback trail as the first race I shot for ARCA as their sole photographer was Austin's first ARCA race ever and he won it! By all rights, Austin should be a Cup series driver by now if he hadn't been injured.

There's only one way to get closer than this: be in the car
Photographing the ARCA dirt track races is a special challenge, mainly because the schedule is so abbreviated. We had a little more time at DuQuoin than we did at Springfield, but not much. Since the series practices, qualifies and races all on one day, it's a crush of activity from the first moments the teams get set up. The day starts before sunrise at both tracks so I make it a personal creative mission to find some interesting sunrise photos to set the scene. The series never uses any of those photos since they tend to be on the artsy side, but I take them anyway since the early start to the day is part of the race event story. I got up before 4:30 and was at the track before 6:00 Monday morning to make the officials meeting and I didn't stop working until after 6:00 that evening when I was finished with my editing and file storage of the days images.

The pre-dawn light  over the lake at Duquoin was gorgeous this year
DuQuoin has another interesting feature: it is a mile dirt track similar to Springfield but it has a lake in the middle. It appears that the lake was dug in order to get clay for the race track surface as the corners do have a slight banking and the front and back straightaways drain to the infield. I don't know the whole history of the facility so I am speculating on the reason for the lake, but I'm sure that drainage is a part of it. I spent 30 years in site construction so that part of the facility seemed obvious to me. With the lake inside the track, teams and the ARCA officials actually have not garage area except the grass infield between Turns 3 and 4 and the lake. It's quite a unique setup and I've never been to another track like it. During the race, teams pit along a narrow access road that parallels the front stretch; their pit boxes and other equipment are adjacent to this road and back right up to the lake, with no more than 10 or 12 feet of grass between the road and the water in some places.

The "garage area" viewed from the flagstand
Another thing I like about DuQuoin is the visibility. At Springfield, the concert stage is in the infield and teams must navigate around it to pit. Not so at DuQuoin since the stage is outside the track adjacent to the main grandstands which make visibility of the whole racetrack possible from just about every seat which I'm sure is very nice for the fans. One side effect of this layout is the start-finish line is almost at the end of the main straight since the flagstand is mounted on a support post for the stage and grandstand roof.

Ageless wonder Kenny Schrader is a true racer
My first visit to DuQuoin was in 1990 or 1991 when I traveled with three other photographers to shoot the USAC Silver Crown race for the Indianapolis Star. I remember it being very rainy and track activity was delayed quite a bit. I also remember all the mud adjacent to the inside guardrails as the track preparation consisted mainly of using a road grader to scrape off the top several inches of track surface and push it under the guardrail. What a mess! I also remember that Tony Stewart, George "Ziggy" Snider and Johnny Parsons, Jr., were racing that day. Ironically, Tony was racing this weekend at DuQuoin again, but in a UMP Modified car owned by Kenny Schrader! I was so busy I never got to see Tony or get any photos as the Modified feature race (which Schrader won ahead of Stewart) was run during lunch and I was trying to choke down a very messy Fair food Italian Beef sandwich during the few minutes I had to eat! Funny how I can remember a race event from more than 25 years ago but can't remember what I had for breakfast most days!

So now the ARCA season is down to just four races: this weekend on the high banks of Salem Speedway in southern Indiana, next Thursday at Chicagoland Speedway, then the following Friday at Kentucky Speedway before the finale in late October at Kansas Speedway. Austin Theriault is looking like the 2017 season champ unless something drastic happens. That is certainly possible and if he falters, then Cunningham Racing teammates Dalton Sargeant or Shane Lee will be there to pounce. Come on out and join us. Look me up if you do!

This melee erupted after the first attempt at a green-white checker finish
It was great to be at the race where Will Kimmel got his first  ARCA pole position
Sideways isn't always the fast way in a stock car but Sheldon Creed didn't seem to mind
ARCA is known for close racing among the Top 10 and Ryan Unzicker got to 4th in only his second  race this season