Sunday, February 4, 2018

Cadillac Dominates 56th Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona

It was cool to be back in Daytona's Victory Lane with Action Express Racing again!
I worked my third Rolex 24 Hour race last weekend as a photographer and it was an  incredible experience once again. It was also my third 24 Hour race in the last 12 months and I have to admit that there is something unique about these overnight endurance races which keeps drawing me back. This race was dominated by two Action Express Racing Cadillac powered machines from the first few hours, so there wasn't a lot of drama at the point for most of the race. Watching the #5 Mustang Sampling car take the lead and stay out front for hours on end, including the last 293 laps, I kept wondering if they could maintain it or whether something was going to break and hand the win to the sister #31 Cadillac but they just rolled on to Victory Lane with the Whelen car on the lead lap but no real threat at the end. In the process, they set a new distance record for the event and driver Philippe Albuquerque got redemption for 2017 when a Rolex 24 win at Daytona slipped through his fingers with less than 10 minutes to go. Co-drivers and veterans Joao Barbosa and Christian Fittipaldi each got their third Rolex watches to go with the ones I saw them earn in 2014. Ironically, that 2014 Rolex 24 was my first one 24 hour endurance race; I trust that 2018 will not be my last one.

The #5 Mustang Sampling  team had everyone covered
I was most amazed that the race only had 20 laps run under caution. That is almost miraculous considering the variety of cars spread across three different classes that must share the track and the hundreds of drivers involved who bring a broad spectrum of skills and experience. Last year's Rolex was effected by lengthy cautions during the night for monsoon conditions so this race had a whole different pace to it than any enduro I had experienced previously. Every race has a "feel" to it that develops as the laps add on but I've found that to be even more true for these 24 hour races. There's a certain rhythm I feel at these races that I don't experience anywhere else other than Indianapolis. In the night, when I have my earplugs in and I am concentrating on getting from one part of the circuit to another to get a certain shot I envision, the drone of the various engine sounds is a unique visceral experience that goes right to my bones. Perhaps that's what activates my adrenal glands and sends a rush of endorphins through my brain every time I get to do one of these 24 hour events. I understand now why my photographer friends gravitate to sports car endurance racing to be able to experience those feelings over and over again throughout the event.

The United Autosports LMP2 car finished fourth
While I have only worked four 24 hour races (Daytona 2014, 2017 and 2018, plus Le Mans 2017), I know the rhythm these events have and this year I was able to get to Daytona on Thursday and experience a full immersion through the end of the race Sunday night. For the first time going to Florida for a race, I did not go to the beach at least once to see the ocean as I was consumed with the photography opportunities which the Rolex 24 provides. The rock band Scorpions had a song called "Rhythm of Love" and I could say that's what the weekend was like for me this year, as I truly felt the rhythm of the race as the weekend went on. Most other races I shoot only last two to four hours but at these 24 hour events, that is just getting started. For this event, the green flag flew at 2:40 pm Saturday afternoon and the checkers at the same time on Sunday. I was on the grid at about 1:00 pm, shot driver introductions and then went to the outside main grandstands for the first hour of the race. I then walked back inside the track and went to the infield where the racetrack rejoins the banking. From there I worked my way backward around the infield circuit so I could be back at the media center to complete my first download around 5:00 pm and grab something to eat. The next phase centered on being out shooting around 6:00 pm to see what kind of sunset would develop and then shoot for a while during the golden light dusk period.

An Audi casts a cool green glow on the backstretch as its brakes heat up
Sunset wasn't all that much to get excited about as Saturday it was mostly overcast. The next photo target was the fireworks which were scheduled for 11:00 pm so I stayed out and worked the infield, experimenting with some slow shutter speed pans, fill flash and other techniques during the darker hours. I got caught out by an unexpected rain shower around 8:00 pm and had to find cover since I was nowhere near the media center and didn't have any of my rain gear on me. I found a place at a concession stand to wait it out and as it turned out, my gut feeling was right - the rain didn't last long. It lasted just long enough to wet the track down and create a nice reflective surface so I worked my along the inside of Turn 2 of the oval, then down the backstretch to the bus stop chicane before finally heading back to the International Horseshoe in the infield to shoot the fireworks. After a quick download and backup of my files, my buddy and I headed back to his motorhome shortly after midnight to grab a few hours of sleep.

I finally got my special Daytona sunrise in my third Rolex 24
After getting about three and half hours of sleep, we got up at 4:30 in the morning and headed back to the track as the next photo target was sunrise. And what a glorious sunrise it was. Of the three Rolex 24 races I have photographed, this year's sunrise was by far the best I had seen. I know it's s small sample size and last year it was raining cats and dogs when the sun came up, but I have seen other photographers' work over the years and I had a few different photos in mind that I was going to try and capture. The sunrise was technically around 7:00 that morning so the race had been running for over 16 hours  with about eight to go but that didn't deter a gaggle of photographers gravitating to the West Horseshoe where I went to try and take advantage of the morning light opportunities. It was everything I'd hoped it would be and as I worked my way back around the infield portions of the track to go download my files and get some breakfast, I had a very satisfied feeling come over me as I felt I was achieving all the photo goals I had set for myself before the event.

The rest of the day repeated the same pattern of shooting, downloading, getting refreshments or food and then going out again. I went to Victory Lane about 45 minutes before the scheduled finish and watched for the first time all race, shooting an occasional frame when I could get multiple cars together as well as the checkered flag shot.. After the Action Express team celebrated, I headed back to the media center and packed up to leave as I had to get to Orlando for an 8:30 pm flight that evening and I wasn't sure what to expect as far as traffic was concerned. I made it to the Orlando airport around 6:00  pm, returned my rental car, went through security and got something to eat so I had about an hour to spare before my Southwest fight would be boarding. I was pleasantly exhausted. Once on the plane, I told the woman next to me to feel free and elbow me if I started snoring, and I was asleep before the wheels were even up on the plane. I woke up later as the Captain announced we were in the final descent. After a fantastic weekend at the racetrack, I was back in my own bed by midnight and back in reality with my regular job looming a short eight hours away. I'd do it again tomorrow if I had the chance. Meanwhile enjoy the photos and check out my new website for so much more.

Shooting at night is a wonderful  photography challenge
Seeing 50 cars roaring to the start line is an incredible sight to see
Morning light creates great chances to see the drivers at work inside the cars
After 24 hours of hard racing, the cars all appear peppered with rubber and dirt
Photography is all about the light so we chase that while drivers chase a win