Monday, December 31, 2018

Music City Bowl Photography Experience

Alabama friend Greg McWilliams and I  worked the game at field level
If you follow my blog posts on a regular basis, then you know that most of the time I am writing about my experiences on the road as a motorsports photography. You might not know that I have been shooting all kinds of sports since the late 1980's and that I have been trying to get an opportunity to shoot a college football bowl game for at least 10 years. Well I finally got my chance to do just that last weekend for the website Indiana Sports Coverage when I got an assignment for the Music City Bowl in Nashville, Tennessee to provide photography of the Purdue Boilermakers. The game turned out to be a bust for the Boilers but I quickly remembered how much I love shooting football when I walked out on the field at Nashville's Nissan Stadium during pre-game warmups. My fiance traveled with me so we were able to take in the Nashville night life on Broadway Thursday and Friday nights plus I got to hang out with friends from Alabama who were up for the game as well. We had a blast!

Purdue All American Rondale More was very impressive
When I decided to change careers a decade ago so I would have more time to pursue my passion for photography, I envisioned photographing lots of different sporting events but in hindsight, my timing was not the best as print media outlets were shrinking and the whole media landscape was changing as internet  outlets grew. When publications like Sports Illustrated lay off their photographers, you know the opportunities to restart a photography career are going to be tough. That has definitely been my experience, but it hasn't stopped me from trying. I decided if I were going to make a change, then I had to be "all in" and I couldn't turn back no matter what so opportunities like this bowl game are investments that I feel are worth making. Back in 1987, I had the chance to shoot for the Indianapolis Star during the Pan American Games in Indianapolis and probably could have pursued a full time position with the Star back then but I didn't think I could make enough money as a photographer. That was a life lesson that took me another 30 years to learn. Now I tell my grown son to pursue his passions and not worry about the money. I wish someone had told me that back then but it's never too late for second chances and I am living proof of that.

One of my goals was to get the Gatorade bucket shot of the winning coach: nailed it!
I have been to Nashville numerous times to cover auto races for ARCA and Indycar but this trip was the first chance I had to experience more of the city. We decided to splurge and stay in the downtown media center hotel for the bowl game and we were two blocks from the hub of nightlife in the Music City on Broadway. It was simply amazing. The number of clubs with live music was astounding and some of them were multi-level bars with a different band on every floor. My fiance didn't go to the game with me but she found some nice boot shops to explore and found the downtown area quite walkable and enjoyable herself. And everyone we met was just so doggone nice! When some young ladies from the Auburn band addressed me as "sir" in the elevator, I was quickly reminded that we were in the south and were experiencing southern hospitality. I can't wait to go back again.

Auburn was just too big and fast for Purdue
Already this investment of time and money to travel to Nashville is generating dividends as the Indiana Sports Coverage website has offered me the chance to shoot some Purdue basketball and I already have a game scheduled for February 3rd in West Lafayette. I am grateful for the contacts I have made through social media networking as that is how I got the bowl game opportunity in the first place. I know these games are going to help rebuild my portfolio with current examples of what I can shoot in big time sports so these games are welcome additions to my motorsports schedule which is already looking quite packed for 2019. Back in 2006 and 2007 I shot all kinds of high school sports for the defunct website, including state championship level games in basketball and football. I can't even begin to tell you how excited I am to take these next steps with a website that specializes in covering Indiana-based schools and teams. So stay tuned and follow me on Twitter @alleygroup to see where  I go to next on this journey! Until next time, here are a few more photos from my bowl game weekend in Nashville.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

2018 Motorsports: My Grateful Year in Review

Click Here To View My Best Of Racing Photo Gallery
From Daytona Beach in January to Kansas City in October, my year in racing crisscrossed the country from my home in Indianapolis, and all but the trip to Daytona was done by driving. By the time of the ARCA Racing Series annual awards banquet in Indianapolis earlier this month, I had racked up some serious miles on my Honda Civic Si coupe and catalogued more than 50,000 images in the process. Indycar, ARCA, CRA, USAC Silver Crown, IMSA WeatherTech sports cars - these were series I was lucky enough to cover this year. Next year promises to be even better with more travel and some surprises I hope to be announcing by the end January.

Danica Patrick raced into retirement this season
During the course of this racing season, as always the Good, the Bad and the Ugly sometimes reared its head. The Good was in evidence at each of the 10 ARCA races I covered as we endured 2 rainouts yet everyone came back each time ready to put on a show. The Bad was losing one of racing's seniors when ARCA team owner James Harvey Hilton lost his life in a tragic highway accident going home from the Talladega race in May. The Ugly occurred at Salem in September when two of the ARCA youngsters got caught up in some retaliation, but thankfully only race cars were torn up. Along the way, I got to see Scott Pruett race his final sports car race and Fernando Alonso get experience in the same event at the Rolex 24 at Daytona. I photographed Danica Patrick running in her last race during May at the Indianapolis 500. Will Power got the 200th win for Team Penske in Indycar at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and then followed that up with his first Indy 500 win at the end of May. So many memories and yet the time seems to have just sailed by since I boarded that Southwest Airlines flight to Daytona last January.

Indianapolis from the roof
Dirt track racing, small ovals, superspeedways, a road course and medium ovals were all on my schedule this year and I got to do and see some amazing sights that I tried to memorialize with my cameras. Shooting the start of the Indy 500 from the roof of the penthouse seats overlooking Turn 1 is always a thrill, and if I do have to fight off a little vertigo. Standing in the flagstand at places like Talladega Superspeedway and Kansas Speedway shooting the start of ARCA events is equally thrilling and offers unique perspectives that very few people ever get to experience. At the dirt tracks of Springfield and DuQuoin, there's no way to get any closer to the action than I do there while hugging the guardrail as the USAC Silver Crown or ARCA machines roar by literally inches away from me. Then there's Indianapolis, where everything takes on more epic proportions due to the history at the famed oval. I live for that rush of adrenaline standing at the drop gate in Turn 1 as Indycars exit the turn and head right for me at 225 miles per hour. There's nothing else quite like that, and the common thread of all these experiences is that racing photography is a totally visceral and all encompassing experience with sound, motion, vibration and potential mayhem unfolding in front of me on every lap.

Daytona in January is always a blast
Then there's the weather: there might be "moisture", there will definitely be heat and humidity, and there might even be snow and frigid temperatures. Regardless of the conditions, I might walk 20,000 steps during an 18 hour day at the racetrack and then get up early and drive home the next day, totally satisfied yet hungry for more. I have to pinch myself sometimes to be sure I'm not dreaming as I often can't believe my good fortune in being able to do some of the things I get the opportunity to do. I have worked hard and been blessed with some fantastic opportunities over the last decade. My life has totally changed since I decided to change careers and allow more time to pursue my passion for photography and I have a lot of people to thank for the chances I have had. I've said it before but I must give credit to people like Keith Pritchard, Larry Coles, Steve Snoddy and Dave Martin who are no longer with us but gave me great inspiration, support and taught me so much about photography. As a self taught photographer, I needed their help and I continue to try to learn from everyone I can.

Love the view from the flagstand
I also have to thank my friends at ARCA like Mark Gundrum, Tom Legeman, Doc Hunter and others for their faith in what I try to do to support the series. I can't forget my French friends Pascal Saivet and others at MPS Agency who allowed me to represent them internationally at Indianapolis last May. I am also grateful for the continuing opportunities to work for AP staffers like John Raoux at Daytona and Brynn Anderson or John Bazemore at Talladega. As this year comes to a close, I know I will have left someone off of this gratitude list and I apologize for that. I will try to make it up to you in the new year. Until I see you all again, be safe and enjoy the holidays. See you at a racetrack somewhere soon. Let's make some freaking pictures.

Turn 1 at Indy
Stock cars on dirt: a ground shaking thrill every lap when you are up against the rail
Kids like this one are the future of racing
USAC Silver Crown cars dance on dirt like skaters on ice
I chase the best light at every race and follow a "10 laps and move" strategy to cover it all

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Thanks Mr. Hylton. #RememberHarveyAndTweet

Godspeed Mr. Hylton
That's what I always called James Harvey Hylton: Mr. Hylton. When I left Talladega Superspeedway and headed home last April after working the ARCA race, little did I know that I had seen Mr. Hylton for the last time. This silver haired legend of a racer lost his life in a highway crash as his #48 race team was headed by to their South Carolina base after that same race. His son, James, Jr., known to everyone in the ARCA garage as "Tweet", was also killed in the same accident. It was a surreal experience to get home and find out about their accident and the tragic outcome. In the years I've been photographing ARCA races, this was the first time I had lost someone from racing I had worked with so closely. I have mourned the loss of many race car drivers I had admired, but grieving over someone I knew so well was a different matter entirely. And it hurt to know I wouldn't see Mr. Hylton again. God rest his soul and that of his son's.

Mr. Hylton got a special gift from Salem Speedway in 2013
As part of my year end review of my life and my photography work, I decided I needed to add my own personal tribute to the many others which have been posted since that day in April by sharing these words and some photos I've taken of Mr. Hylton through his years in ARCA. I never saw Mr. Hylton get upset and every time I greeted him, he would smile and say he was doing great and call me "young man", which was nice. He often had an unlit stogie in his mouth or so when didn't have one, it was very unusual and it was hard to get a photo of him without one. You could tell from his demeanor that he was always happy to be at a racetrack. He had been involved in racing for more than 60 years so the racetrack was a second home for him. And we were his second family.

After a 2017 accident, they arrived at DuQuoin after sunrise towing their car with a school bus
I have always found it especially ironic when a race car driver dies in a highway accident as you know they have all escaped calamity on racetracks many many times. Mr. Hylton's team hauler had been in an accident the season before his death but they still made it to the next ARCA race when they showed up at the DuQuoin mile dirt track Labor Day weekend 2017 with a short school bus towing his car on an open trailer. I had never seen a school bus used as a race team hauler before, but the open trailer was not a new sight. Making it to the next race was in doubt right up to the minute they arrived at DuQuoin as they were the last team to arrive. But they made it like the true racers they are.

Sponsorship was always hard for the team to come by
Mr. Hylton's was a low budget team, even by ARCA standards. With veteran driver Brad Smith behind the wheel the last few years, the team carried on in 2018 after Mr. Hylton's accident and they were there every week. I remember a race weekend not that long ago when Mr. Hylton was still driving when the team had fans (or anyone who happened to walk by) taping dollar bills to the #48 car. Some people might have thought it was gimmicky but my guess is they really did need the money as there were many times when they would show up with hardly any decals on their car. You have to give them credit for uniquely drawing attention to the team and it showed that they loved to race. It's one of the reasons I always had so much respect for Mr. Hylton since you knew they probably weren't going to be competing for race wins but they were at every race working hard anyway. That spirit continued on even after his death as Brad Smith continued to make each race and the crew was always working their butts off to get out for practice and run as many laps as they could in the race.

I think Mr. Hylton fancied himself as somewhat of a ladies man and he always impressed me as someone who fit the definition of a southern gentleman. Everyone seemed to like him and he was a fan favorite everywhere that ARCA raced. For someone who had been competitive in NASCAR during the 1960's and 1970's, it was amazing to watch him work the crowds anytime there was an autograph session. He was really in his element at the annual black tie gala ARCA holds at the end of each  season - it seemed like everyone wanted their picture taken with Mr. Hylton. As the event photographer for ARCA since 2013, I was more than happy to oblige. I really felt his absence at this year's awards banquet and the ARCA staff did an excellent photo tribute to Mr. Hylton with numerous photos that pre-date my regular involvement with the series. In this photo from 2011, he is sharing a light hearted moment with the Winchester Speedway trophy girl during driver introductions prior to going out to race. You can tell by the reaction of others around him that was loved by everyone.

Losing people you care about is never easy and not having Mr. Hylton around the ARCA garages this season after the accident was tough on everyone in the series. I know there are plenty of other stories about Mr. Hylton that others can add, but I just wanted to add my two cents worth and do what I could to honor a gentleman racer who I liked and respected. And for James Jr., and the whole Hylton family, I say Godspeed and thank you; I'm so glad I got the chance to know you. More of my photos of Mr. Hylton can be found by clicking here.