Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Life in the Rear View Mirror

"Mr. Photographer" at the racetrack
What a year this has been! I couldn't be happier that 2019 is almost over, and if you've been reading my blog this year, then you already know why. As 2019 comes to a close, I think back to twenty years ago today, when I was managing a sewer utility and watching the news with trepidation all day, waiting for the lights to go out as "Y2K" hit (what a scam that was BTW). My life has changed in so many ways since then. Today I am excited for the New Year to come because of what I believe lies ahead for me as a teacher and photographer!

I made it to Daytona and had surgery 10 days later
So now it's my turn to do a recap of the last 12 months. I am also going to provide a glimpse at a few favorites from the more than 50,000 photos I shot at races this season. Last year at this time, I was concerned I had lung cancer following a CT scan, and that diagnosis was confirmed January 4th. Thankfully the only treatment that was being recommended was surgery to remove the cancerous spot and the upper lobe of my right lung. My concern instantly shifted from uncertainty about cancer to whether or not my plans to shoot the first ARCA race of the season at Daytona in early February would be effected by the surgery. Thankfully the surgery was scheduled for after I got back from Daytona and I only missed three weeks at my teaching job and one ARCA race in March.

My "hole in the wall" shot means it's Salem
Getting back to "normal" was a challenge and my goals shifted to improving my breathing and my stamina and my racing photography helped me do that, starting with the next ARCA race near the end of April. I also had a deadline coming up in June to complete my "Hoosier Cemeteries" photo project under the grant I had received from the Indiana Arts Commission. While I was getting back to work and finding my feet again, my fiance was hit with her own cancer diagnosis, and we found out her brother also had cancer, so we had to deal with a trifecta of bad news the first quarter of 2019. Just before the Salem race, my fiance had breast cancer surgery and I was running back and forth between southern Indiana and Methodist Hospital in Indy the whole weekend.

Tommy Vigh, Jr. spun right at me at Talladega
Two weeks after Salem, I drove to Talladega for the next ARCA race event which started a string of ten straight weeks with racing to shoot. The Nashville ARCA race followed Dega, then the Indycar Grand Prix was the next weekend, followed by Indy 500 practice during the next week. A weekend in Toledo was next for ARCA and then on Wednesday I headed to Charlotte  for ARCA, driving back to Indy on Friday to shoot the Indy 500 on Sunday. The Thursday following the 500, I drove to Pocono for ARCA, then went to Michigan the following Thursday, then to Madison, Wisconsin the following weekend, then to Gateway near St. Louis the next weekend and finally to Chicagoland Speedway the next week to wrap up the month of June. I was feeling stronger but I was also exhausted having really only taken one day to relax with no commitments that entire ten weeks, as I was still teaching through the first week of June.

After one of my longest drives (to Elko , Minnesota) fans were great 
The first weekend in July, my fiance and I flew to Dallas to see her brother over the 4th of July holiday. When we got back my teaching job was resuming the very next day and then I had three more race weekends in a row in July: Elko, Minnesota for ARCA, then Iowa Speedway for Indycar and ARCA and then back to Pocono for ARCA for the second time in less than two months. August was a piece of cake by comparison as I only had one ARCA race (on the mile dirt track at Springfield, Illinois). Labor Day weekend ARCA had its second dirt track race of the year at the DuQuoin State Fair and I was finally feeling like I was able to catch my breath a little. I only had three more ARCA races to work between Labor Day and the end of October (Salem again, Lucas Oil Raceway and Kansas), and only one of those involved a long drive  (Kansas). That stretch brought my 2019 season to a close with a final tally of 19 ARCA races (out of 20 on the schedule) and three Indycar events.

The Indy 500 is always on my calendar - thanks Simon!
I put over 13,000 miles on my 2015 Honda Civic Si and had six race trips of more than 1000 miles, three of which were over 1300 mile round trips. I had flown to Daytona in February or my mileage total would have been even higher! I did all but one drive solo and the only time I had company was on the DuQuoin weekend when my brother went with me to help cover the race and that trip was only 535 miles! All of that driving and 21 of the race events occurred over the 27 weeks between the first Salem race in April and the season finale in October at Kansas. It was a grind but I loved it all - except for that moment in Shelby, North Carolina in May where I met one of the City's finest while passing through.

See you in June
I had another CT scan in September so I continue to be cancer free and don't have any other follow up scheduled until the next CT scan this coming March. I do not know what 2020 will be like but it has to be better physically than this year. I know I am going back to LeMans in June 2020 but I do not have any ARCA race assignments yet, mainly because new people are involved in the decision making since it will be the first year under full NASCAR control of the series. I know there is a new website in the works for ARCA and I am comfortable with the contribution I made this year to photography for the series. I did everything in my power to be in a position to be considered for future work so I trust that will pay off at some point. When it does, you can bet I'll be writing about it here, so stay tuned.

That's my life in the rear view mirror so the only thing left to do is show you some of my favorite photos from this season. What drove me this year was just getting to the next race. My body was tested but my faith never wavered so I greet the new year with renewed energy and commitment to my goals. Godspeed everyone. Be safe and have a prosperous 2020!

Gotta start them young like this fan at Toledo Speedway!
Where else but Pocono?
The future of racing is here: Ty Gibbs (left), Michael Self and Carson Hocevar (right)
Weather was often an issue this season.

Charlotte with "Big Willie"
Ty Gibbs 

Travis Braden has his game face on.
Indycar under the lights at little Iowa Speedway is always spectacular.
Race fans come in all shapes, sizes and ages.
ARCA races on dirt tracks twice every season; this is Springfield from the groundhog's view.
Shooting from the flagstand is always a thrill and Daytona was one of the best!
Grabbing private moments like this with ARCA rookie driver Tim Richmond makes it even more fun.
Getting dirty again.

Future flagman gives the green to the ARCA field.
Ty Majeski was ARCA's hottest driver during the middle of the year.

You see all kinds of people at the races!

I always look forward to throwback weekend at Salem Speedway.
Hailie Deegan was popular with fans every time she raced this season.
Christian Eckes got the guitar trophy this year at Nashville.
ARCA Veteran Bobby Gerhart is still fast whenever he races.
Waiting is the hardest part, right Christian?

Rain brought out the checkers at Toledo for Chandler Smith.
Christian Eckes won at Kansas and clinched the season title in the final race.
Christian Eckes (left) and teammate Michael Self fought for the ARCA driver's championship all season.
Sunrise on a race weekend is something we catch a lot to start long days.
NASCAR executive Mike Helton (left) conferred with ARCA President Ron Drager often this year.

Will Power at Iowa Speedway
Kids making their mark at the racetrack is a common sight.
Travis Braden sparks on the front stretch at Gateway.

Short track racing is a staple of  the ARCA Menards Series.

Carson Hocevar's eyes tell the story .
The trophy at Gateway was almost bigger than winner Ty Gibbs.
Simon Pagenaud swept the month of May at Indianapolis.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

ARCA Awards Banquet Ends 2019 Season

Your 2019 ARCA Menards Series champion: Christian Eckes
Two weekends ago, the annual awards banquet for the ARCA Menards Series was held in Indianapolis in conjunction with the Performance Racing Industry trade show and I was fortunate to photograph all the festivities again this year. It's a black tie formal event and it was my seventh consecutive time shooting the event. It's so odd to see all the race personnel in their tuxedos and fancy dresses - I found myself struggling to remember the names of people because they all seemed so out of context. It's a very different kind of photography than working a race but it still comes down to the same basics: working with the available light. Color temperature is the biggest challenge to address for shots where people are on stage speaking or accepting awards.

Cathy and "Big Bill" Venturini team cars dominated the 2019 season
I do not like using flash in these situations for a couple of reasons. I was encouraged a few years ago by a photographer I respect to use available light whenever possible so I have become somewhat of a snob about it. Crank up the ISO and let it be a little underexposed if needed! Using flash on camera is inherently a little unnatural but if I had access to strobes and remote lighting, you can bet I would be using it. For an event like the banquet, however, I don't want big background shadows which you almost always get when you blast a flash straight at your subject. The other issue for me while shooting the banquet is I don't want the flash to be disruptive. When people are making acceptance speeches, I want the speaker to be featured and not have the audience distracted by a big flash pop so working with low light is a must. Most of the banquet I shot at 1600 ISO, 1/250th f4 which has other benefits. Shooting at f4 with my 70-200 is essentially shooting wide open and the lens has a nice soft bokeh so the subject is isolated in the foreground with a softer background behind them.

ARCA President Ron Drager (left) with team owner Wayne Peterson 
For the most part I don't care about shooting at high aperture settings as I learned a long time ago that depth of field is great for landscapes but not for sports and most other shooting. In 1987, I was shooting a boxing match for the Indianapolis Star during the Pan Am games in Indy and a photographer told me depth of field won't matter if you're not in focus, so I've tried to take that to heart ever since then. Even for the reception before the banquet, I didn't stray much from my available light settings as I tried to add just enough flash to illuminate the party goers without the exposure ending up too bright and seeming unnatural. I had another photographer tell me when I first started shooting digital to set the camera a third to a half stop underexposed all the time in order to add saturation and that's another little tidbit that has served me well for many years.

I made sure I got a selfie with  runner-up Michael Self  (center) and  Christian (right)
Before the banquet we got a sneak peak preview of some of the website design changes that will be implemented in early 2020 for the ARCA Menards Series now that NASCAR will be in full control and I am even more excited about supporting the series at the races next season! I don't yet know which races I will be assigned to work or exactly what my role will be so I am looking forward to sorting out those details early in the new year. The traditional first race of the 2020 season is at Daytona  February 8th and it will be here before you know it. In the meantime, I am looking for clients to support at LeMans next June and anxious to finalize my 2020 photography plans overall, which could include the St. Petersburg Indycar weekend for the first time!

To the victor go the spoils
So if you need photos, then I'm you're guy: I always bring back pictures. I don't mean to sound like I'm bragging but that has been my history so I am confident in what I can do at the racetrack. My dad used to always tell me it's not bragging if you can do it, and I believe I'm past the point as a photographer where I need to prove myself. In my next blog post, most likely my last one for this year, I will show you what I mean about always bringing back pictures. I will showcase a selection of my favorite photos from the 21 race events I worked in 2019. Thanks for staying with me this year!

The Top 10 finishers in the 2019 ARCA Menards Series
Ron Drager (left), Billy Venturini and his wife Emily look on as driver's champion Christian Eckes receives an award
Nic Moncher shows off a previous ARCA championship ring in front of the white screen backdrop we used for portraits.
Tommy Vigh (right) took home Rookie of the Year honors

Saturday, November 30, 2019

A Different Kind of Racing Photography

More than 250 runners competed in  each of the men's and women's races
Last weekend, I got the chance to photograph the NCAA Division 1 Cross Country National Championships at the Lavern Gibson championship course in Terre Haute, Indiana. I have photographed a lot of different sporting events over the years but this was one of the coolest for a number of reasons. First, the weather was cold and rainy with the temperature never cresting above 35 all day. Second, I got an inside look at the culture of top level collegiate cross country racing for both men and women. Third, I was amazed how many fans showed up with flags, wearing school colors, clanging cow bells and using all sorts of noise makers on a thoroughly miserable November day in little Terre Haute. After the men's race, I said to one of the finishers, "You guys are crazy!" and his response was "Yeah. It should be illegal!" That alone summarized my experience of the unique culture of this sport and how much it meant to each of the competitors who splashed through the mud and rain to the finish line last Saturday. One of the coolest things I saw was the "shoe tree" off the back of the course where athletes have created a tradition of "retiring" one's cleats by throwing them up in a big tree. Like the twisted cypress tree oceanside at the Pebble Beach golf course, the shoe tree has given this facility a unique trademark image.

The shoe tree near the course
So how did I get this opportunity? It's a testament to the power of social media. A Twitter contact had referred a competing school's athletic director to me and also shared my contact information with the event staff. Out of nowhere I started getting emails from schools wanting to know if I was available to photograph their athletes. I ended up with university clients with individual runners in the both the men's and women's races. I have photographed a lot of sports over the years so I was pretty confident I could do a good job, but I didn't want to get in over my head. I actually had to turn two other schools down so I wouldn't get overloaded. That Twitter contact, Dave Wegiel (@pinolaphoto), was the person who had helped me connect with the ISC-Purdue website last year which led to an opportunity to shoot the Purdue football team's Music City Bowl game against Auburn and a home basketball game for the Boilers against Minnesota early this year. It was extremely gratifying to be the recipient of that sort of support and it gave my confidence a real boost going  into what would be a most unusual event for me as a photographer. It's nice to know people have faith in my ability to deliver photos even when the event is a bit out of the norm for me.

The woman's winner  Weini Kelati 
Since the mid-80s, I have photographed football, basketball, soccer, team handball, boxing, track and field and a boatload of auto racing, but no cross country since taking pictures of my younger brother racing when he was in high school. No matter what event I shoot, I always have a plan and go into a shoot with a strategy. I was able to do a lot of internet research into the sport of cross country in general and the Lavern Gibson course specifically, so I knew the course and felt comfortable with what to expect. I was hoping for good weather for the race as good lighting always makes for better photos but I didn't have any control over that so I just packed all my rain gear and went into the day as prepared for the elements as I could be. That turned out to still be a learning experience which will help me in the future. I learn something every time I have a photo assignment and this one was no different in that respect. I knew the start of each race would be dramatic and I was hoping to get photos at the finish, but I knew getting photos in the middle section of each race would be a challenge. The women's race was 6 kilometers and would only take about 20 minutes while the men would race 10k in about 30 minutes, so I knew I would be on the move. I also expected it would take a bit of luck to find my runners in the packs since there were about 250 runners in each race. I'm not quite sure how I merited it, but the event organizers selected me to get one of the special NCAA photo vests that allowed me access to the finish line chute where the runners finished. There were only eight (8) of those vests given out so I felt very fortunate to get one and it made my job so much easier.

Race finishers came in exhausted in both races
That finish line area not only gave me a chance to get good photos of the winners in addition to the runners I was covering, but I saw another aspect of the culture cross country racing that thoroughly impressed me. Much like an auto race, I could feel the excitement building as the start times grew nearer for each race. With legs instead of horsepower propelling these collegiate runners to the finish, seeing their effort and exertion at the finish line was very different than the racing I am most accustomed to photographing. I saw runners collapse, some were puking, others could barely walk on rubbery legs, and all the while event officials were yelling at them to keep moving through the finish area so it wouldn't be blocked! I've felt that level of exertion as an athlete when I played college basketball at the University of Chicago, but I was never involved in anything with the stakes as high as these athletes experienced.

Teams raced away from the start together 
Overall, the event was a really great experience. Even though I had a lot at stake as a photographer, I knew it was going to be a good day even before I got to the Lavern Gibson course. On the drive over to Terre Haute from Indianapolis that morning, I had said a little prayer and asked God to guide my efforts. Within 30 seconds of saying amen, a large redtail hawk flew up into a tree along the highway as I drove past. Hawks have been a personal spiritual totem of mine for years, so anytime I see one I know everything is going to be alright. The whole day I kept thinking of advice I had gotten over the years from other photographers I had worked with and the main thing that stuck with me was "Go make some freaking pictures" and that's what I did. It reinforced the belief I have that I am a photographer, not just a motorsports photographer, although I consider that to be my specialty. I can't wait to do more sports and other unique events like this one. And in this season of Thanksgiving, I am extremely grateful for the trust people have put in me to deliver photos they can use. Thank you all! If you want to see more of my photos from the event, then please click here for a photo gallery.

Despite the cold and rainy conditions, most runners didn't seem to feel it
One of my runners was from Kenya so I was hoping he would win. Alex Masai (589) was strong early.
Many teams took their morning warmups on firm ground since the course was muddy.