Monday, April 30, 2018

Talladega Nets Closest Ever ARCA Finish; James Hylton Lost En Route Home

Zane Smith grabbed his second win of 2018
It has been said that fate is a cruel mistress. The ARCA family got an unwelcome close up view of both her good and bad sides this past weekend. Friday at Talladega Superspeedway was a gorgeous day and the 76 lap race produced the closest finish in ARCA history with Zane Smith inching ahead of Joe Graf, Jr. The finish was so close that the official order of finish showed the margin of victory at 0.000. Smith and Graf traded paint the entire last lap after the race went 11 laps longer than the scheduled distance due to wrecks, red flags and multiple green-white-checker attempts. It was an exhilarating evening and we finished our photo editing after the race in record time so I was all pumped up leaving the track that night for our hotel in Irondale.

The hard work of James Hylton's team does not go unnoticed
The next day brought the bad news which I learned upon arriving back home in Indianapolis once I had the chance to check my social media accounts. One of ARCA's team owners, James Harvey Hylton, had been involved in a highway crash earlier Saturday morning which claimed his life and the life of his son, James Jr. Mr. Hylton was 84 years young and a mainstay of the ARCA series the last several years, first as a driver who begrudgingly stepped out of the drivers seat in 2013 and as a car owner, fielding the #48 entry for Brad Smith and others. His crew chief Terry Strange was seriously injured but survived and judging by the reaction on social media since Saturday, the ARCA community has clearly been reeling since the news came out about the accident. It is really going to be odd not seeing Mr. Hylton and the 48 team in the ARCA garage area and I hope someone can pick up the pieces and allow the team to carry on. I can only imagine how tough that is going to be. I will miss his smile and the fact that he always called me "young man". As a man and racer, he will be sorely missed by everyone in ARCA and I am glad I got to talk to him Friday morning at Talladega as the team arrived and hear him call me young man one last time.

The Hall of Fame Museum has a wall featuring ARCA champions like Austin Theriault
I got to Talladega Thursday when there was no track activity but all the teams were going through tech inspection since our first practice session was going to be at 8:30 Friday morning. Even though it rained virtually all day Thursday, I was glad I was there since last year's ARCA champion, Austin Theriault, was being formally added to the ARCA Wall of Fame in Talladega's International Motorsports Hall of Fame which is located just outside the track's main gate. I got to talk with Austin again and get photos of the brief ceremony which was very cool. I also got the chance to check out the museum exhibits which are heavy on stock car history, but also included Indycar and sports car memorabilia. I have been going to Dega since 2011 and that was my first visit to the museum so I was happy to finally check it out. Now if someone can just give Austin a good ride in the Cup series (which I think he deserves), then a lot of other people will be happy too.

Mike Helton joined Ron Drager to talk about  NASCAR's acquisition of ARCA
After going out to dinner that evening with several other ARCA officials, I made sure I got a good night's rest since we had to be at the track for a 6:30 a.m. officials meeting the next morning and I knew it would be a long day with lots of walking. Little did I know what was in store for us at that meeting but we found out quickly that there was big news ready for release later that morning. We heard that NASCAR would be acquiring ARCA and effective with the 2020 season, ARCA would become a NASCAR property, albeit operating independently similar to the way IMSA operates the WeatherTech Sports Car championship (also owned by NASCAR). In the process of ARCA principal Ron Drager breaking the news to us, NASCAR bigwig Mike Helton walked out and joined Mr. Drager to make a few comments.  When the news conference occurred after the ARCA practice session was over, Ron had the best quote of the day when he said he "...wanted to be on a bigger boat..." after using an analogy of paddling a small boat on the ocean as larger ships passed by and stirred up the surf.

ARCA's Ron Drager and NASCAR's Jim France broke the news of the deal
I have often wondered why something like this hadn't happened sooner since NASCAR is the 900 pound gorilla of motorsports and ARCA has been a family owned business for more than 65 years. I was really excited to hear the news in person and can see how this deal will help ensure the longevity of the ARCA series and increase its marketing reach so that more people will find out what a great series it is. The hardest part of the morning was keeping the news quiet but everyone did a great job of that. The best part for me was that I got to be a part of stock car racing history by photographing the news conference later Friday morning when Jim France and Ron Drager announced the deal to the world.

So this Talladega ARCA weekend was historical from beginning to end and I was thrilled to be a part of it, and to have the chance to help document the moments in pictures. For more photos, be sure to visit the ARCA Racing Series website and you can click here for a brief photo gallery of my work. Thanks for reading. I will see you next at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for Indycar racing.

Zane Smith (41) barely edged out Joe Graf, Jr. for the win
I started the race in the flagstand where the view is spectacular
Michael Self put his  good looking Sinclair machine on the pole
There's really no place like Talladega in my experience
They say rubbing is racing, and Zane Smith's right side tires had all the lettering rubbed off after the last lap battle

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

These Kids Are Alright in ARCA 200 at Salem

Youngster Christian Eckes got his first ARCA Racing Series win at historic Salem
Legendary rock band the Who sang "The Kids are Alright" and that statement was never more true that at Salem Speedway this past weekend where the ARCA racing series raced for the 103rd time! Chandler Smith won his second straight ARCA pole position at the ripe old age of 15 and led the most laps before crashing on the last lap when a tire went down as he attempted a last gasp pass from second place. Christian Eckes came home the winner as another stellar teenager who isn't even old enough to run on the superspeedways yet! Both of these young men were piloting machines for the  Venturini team and Eckes snagged the team's second win of the season in the #15 car following Michael Self's survival of Daytona in February.

Nice weather made the weekend enjoyable for everyone attending
The ARCA series usually races twice per season at Salem Speedway and the two races are often quite different. The spring race is usually held on a Sunday afternoon with practice and qualifying conducted on Saturday. That makes for a much more leisurely pace around the garage area and gives me more time to edit and select images than a typical one day show offers. The Fall ARCA race is one of those one day events with practice, qualifying and the race all the same day, and it's a night race so visually it is much different than the Spring race. Everyone was happy with the weather at Salem this weekend after we all froze our butts off at Nashville two weeks earlier! I think this was my 23rd ARCA race at Salem since 2006 so I've been here more often than any other track besides the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. I can't help but feel like Salem is a second "home" track for me and I have made a lot of good friends there that I look forward to seeing every year. The racing has changed a lot since that Fall 2006 race when I first started going back to Salem and it's for the better in my opinion.

Rookie Natalie Decker was again impressive in another Venturini car
Looking at the finishing order, I know Smith had to have been disappointed to be scored in 10th place after a fairly dominant race, but he took a hard lick on the Turn 1 wall in his last lap crash so I'm also sure he will leave Salem with some great memories as well as some bumps and bruises. These Salem races used to be wreckfests just a few years ago but the level of talent coming into the ARCA series has escalated year after year over the last decade and now these young drivers race hard and clean without a lot of the bump and run tactics you see in some stock car series. And they don't tear up a lot of equipment anymore so the composite bodies often look just as good after the race as when they started. Gone are the days when racers tape and bear bond was needed by half the field to patch cars back together and I am glad for that. 

At only 15 years old, Chandler Smith has amazingly qualified P1 for his first two ARCA races
Following Eckes to the checkered flag was Zane Smith, winner at Nashville for MDM Motorsports and another youngster with a good team. Zane was chased by his MDM teammate Sheldon Creed and two other young newcomers, Josh Berry and Chase Purdy. The first "veteran" to finish was Riley Herbst in 6th and he's only in his second year racing ARCA but is already a winner, taking Pocono last season as a rookie. Gus Dean followed Herbst home in 7th and now we go to Talladega this week where Gus already has a win in his brief ARCA career. Two other "kids", Colby Howard and Brandon Grosso, took 8th and 9th ahead of Chandler Smith. I doubt that any of these guys are even old enough to buy alcohol legally yet but there they all are - at the top of the charts in 700 horsepower stock cars. It is really amazing to me how they are able to race this way at such a young age. It sure is fun to be a part of it as a photographer for the series.

Gus Dean (32) has a win at Dega so he will be glad to get back south
Now that the series has raced on a couple of short tracks, it's time to head to the biggest track of the year at Talladega Superspeedway. If you've never been to "Dega" then you need to go at least once to see how huge the place is, especially the banking. It's a gigantic bowl with sides just as steep so the racing action is frenetic, side by side, nose to tail drafting at its best. Sometimes the worst happens too as the tendency for pack racing can lead to some big wrecks, although not nearly as bad in ARCA as you often see with the NASCAR races since the speed variance from top to bottom in the ARCA field is much greater. I started going to Dega in 2011 at the spring race and I think this will be my 12th visit to the home of the Alabama Gang. I have made a lot of good friends working races at Dega and the track itself is so different than anything up north that it is a special event in its own right no matter what series I am shooting. The track itself promotes its events as "More Than A Race" and that is certainly the case if you spend any time in the infield with the motor home crowd. Plus I've had the chance to make some great pictures of some of the wildest racing action I've ever been around, so that alone makes the opportunity to travel there worthwhile. Who cares if it's 500 miles to the track from my home in Indy? Not me. I will see you at the track! Until next time, click here for my photo gallery from Salem and enjoy these photos.

Pole winner Chandler Smith found the wall on the last lap after leading most of the race at Salem
Richard Petty's grandson Thad Moffitt had a rough day but the car sure looked good in Petty blue!
Race winner Christian Eckes hits the restart line in Turn 4 during Saturday's practice session.
Rookie front row starter Josh Berry (22) (shown here racing against Bret Holmes) took 4th place in his first ARCA start.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

The Eyes Have It In ARCA

ARCA Driver Natalie Decker said it all with her eyes at Nashville
William Shakespeare is quoted as having said "The eyes are the windows to your soul." I happen to believe that is a true statement and I will regularly shoot photos which concentrate on a subject's eyes for exactly that reason. If you were at Nashville's Fairgrounds Speedway last weekend for the ARCA Racing Series Music City 200, then you know that the driver's eyes were about all we could see most of the day. The weather was so cold that everyone was bundled up in hats and coats, or just plain hiding out, so getting candid driver photographs was a huge challenge. That got me thinking about the driver's eyes, and whether I could catch them in appropriate lighting to help tell the story of the event. I don't know if I was successful with the story element, but seeking photos of eyes became my mission for the day prior to the start of the 200 lap race that night.

An ageless wonder, team owner 79 year old Wayne Peterson waiting his turn to qualify
The best place to get these photos turned out to be during ARCA qualifying late in the afternoon as the drivers were in their cars waiting their turn to establish their starting position. I can imagine that these moments are their most serene during the day as the teams have done everything they can to get the car ready for their qualifying attempt, and it's just the driver's and their thoughts before they roll off to take the green flag. Then a few minutes later their qualifying attempt is over, they are back in the pits and they have to start thinking about race strategy. They know there's no more time to work on their cars prior to the race as ARCA employs an impound after qualifying so nothing can be done once the checkered flag has flown on their qualifying run. This time they even got an extra lap to warm up before they qualified due to the cold track and I'm guessing that just magnified each driver's trepidation before going out. Of course it doesn't work out for everyone as some will spin and hit the wall, which is exactly what happened to Wayne Peterson.

Travis Braden was all smiles before qualifying
One of the things I try to tell the ARCA drivers when I am working is to ignore me - pretend I am not even there - so I can capture those unposed, candid moments. Some drivers are better at that than others and sometimes I will sort of sneak up on them to get a photo. Other times, there's no denying them an opportunity to pose and put on their happy face. I don't blame them for that. After all, they are in their happy place and on this weekend with the frigid temperatures, the drivers were probably the warmest people around when they were in their race cars. One of the biggest challenges in getting these photos is simply getting the exposure correct, especially for me since I prefer to shoot with available light and not use flash. I think skin tones are more realistic without using flash but the interior of the cars is always several stops darker than the outside but I've been doing this long enough now to know generally how to set my camera before I more in for a photo. Sometimes I will experiment with camera settings but this weekend I didn't really need to for these kinds of photos as Saturday's skies were uniformly gray without the harsh lighting contrast you can get on a bright sunny day.

Youngster Christian Eckes before qualifying
Once qualifying was over, then everyone was ready to concentrate on racing. It was by far the coldest race day I can ever remember being a part of. There were times in the afternoon when there were actually snow pellets falling! From pre-race driver introductions through the Victory Lane celebrations, there was no chance to warm up and my fingertips were numb by the end of the night, even though I was wearing my leather baseball batting gloves so at least I didn't have bare skin touching my cameras.

Michael Self is the season points leader after the first two races of 2018
The race itself was highly competitive and was another great ARCA race among the "kids", the youngsters who seem to thrive in the ARCA RAcing Series. Zane Smith was in charge most of the night, but he had significant challenges from his teammates at MDM Motorsports to overcome en route to his first ARCA win. Sheldon Creed took second ahead of Harrison Burton. Daytona winner Michael Self took fourth ahead of another youngster, 15 year old Chandler Smith who had won the pole. The series moves on to Salem Speedway next weekend and I will be there again. It will be the 103rd ARCA race at the old Salem bullring and I'd bet everyone is praying for warmer weather. I know I am! I think I have only missed one of them since the fall race in 2006 and I am excited to be going back again. I've got a signature photo spot at Salem so stay tuned for more photos next week. Here's a few more from Nashville's Fairgrounds Speedway to tide you over, or you can click on this link for a photo gallery.

Sheldon Creed won a Trans Am race in the rain at Road America last summer so an ARCA win is coming
It was great seeing Zane Smith (41) get his first ARCA win after racing for two different teams last season
The Fairgrounds Speedway oval is a great venue for the ARCA series and MAV TV showed the race live

Monday, April 2, 2018

On the Road Again: Back to ARCA Racing

My third Rolex 24 was a great experience
I haven't felt like I've had much racing related news to write about lately but that's all coming to an end since I am going back on the road this weekend. While I haven't been to a race since the Rolex 24 at the end of January, I've been busy with my full time job as a teacher and planning out the rest of this season. I've also been looking for new photography opportunities to fill some gaps this summer. In the meantime, I've continued to update and expand my redesigned website, I shot some games in a girls travel volleyball tourney in Indy a couple of weekends ago, and I I had planned to shoot the open Indy 500 test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway last week while we were on spring break. But alas, spring weather here in Indiana is notoriously volatile and we've had snow this week followed by predictions of a week of rain for next week so the test was postponed.

The ARCA short track racing at Nashville's Fairgrounds Speedway is intense
This weekend, however, I will be back in the saddle at the ARCA race in Nashville, and I recently got confirmation from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway that I will be shooting for French media company MPS Agency at Indianapolis in May, so those developments make me excited to get back to work at my racing photography. This off season has seemed especially long for some reason, and the schedule for my ARCA racing work currently only includes 10 races right now but more could be added. The MPS Agency has been recently created by principals of the former Vision Sport Agency (who I shot for last year and who helped me get access at  Le Mans last summer) so I hope I will be able to build on that relationship. Part of the reason I only have 10 ARCA  races for now is I had held June open in case we were able to go back to Le Mans this year and by the time I learned my grant request had not been funded, ARCA officials had filled those races as part of their planning which I understand. So as I said, I have some gaps in my racing schedule for June and we will probably use at least one week for a bona fide vacation once my school year is over.

Natalie Decker leads the 2018 crop of  ARCA newcomers 
One of the coolest things about shooting for the ARCA Racing Series is seeing all the officials again after several months away. I haven't seen most of the ARCA gang since the annual awards banquet last December. For others, you'd have to go back to Kansas Speedway in October and the final race last season. I know it will take me awhile to remember everyone's names and since I couldn't be at Daytona in February, I'm sure there will be some new war stories that will be going around that will be fun to catch up on. Another cool aspect of the series is all the newcomers behind the steering wheel that come to ARCA every season. Since this will be my first race of 2018 with the series, it will take me some time to put the new names, numbers and faces together but once I start taking their pictures and downloading them into the proper team folders, that gets really easy. And then there's the racing...

Grant Enfinger won in 2015 en route to the ARCA championship
My first visit to ARCA's Nashville race was in 2015 so this will be my fourth trip to Fairgrounds Speedway. I've seen the racing improve each year as teams gather more data for the aging half mile track. The ARCA series has a much longer history at the Fairgrounds track however, as the series tends to try different venues out from time to time. I hope this event draws its biggest crowd ever so we can keep coming back here each year. The support racing this year should be spectacular as three different Super Late Model series are joining together for a 100 lap feature that is always action packed. There will be plenty to photograph all day Saturday with practice and qualifying for ARCA and the Super Late Models, in addition to the main event, the Music City 200. Once the Nashville event is over, then my racing photography schedule starts to shift into high gear with ARCA races at Salem Speedway and Talladega later in April, and the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, practice and qualifying for the Indy 500 and then the 500 itself consuming most of the month of May. Needless to say, I am starting to get excited!

This year Toyota will probably win Le Mans but I can't be there to get shots like this
My one disappointment so far this year is not being able to return to Le Mans in June. If that is my only setback for 2018 then I will fine as we are doing everything we can think of to be able to go back in 2019. When I say "we", I am referring to my fiance and I since our 2017 trip was monumental and we want to see more of France and maybe some other parts of Europe while we are there. It would be hard to top our 2017 trip but we will certainly try! Part of the fun is in the planning anyway and you know I will be writing about it here as our plans progress. If I am fortunate enough to be a contributor to the Automobile Club de l'Ouest again with the help of my French colleagues, then it will all be worthwhile. Even if that opportunity doesn't materialize for some reason, going back to Europe will be a blast regardless, especially if I can learn some more French!

For now, I will leave you with a few more photos from my 2017 racing work and from the Rolex 24 this past January to prime the pump just a little more for this weekend. Enjoy, and be sure to check my website for more. Most importantly, don't forget to call me if you need a photographer!

ARCA races are wheel to wheel battles at Nashville
Lighting is everything in photography and sports cars during the Rolex 24 provide great photo opportunities
I feel like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz during May: "there's no place like home"
Going to Le Mans last year was a dream come true and I can't wait to go back