Friday, April 19, 2019

Back In The Saddle at Salem Speedway

Race day teased us with sunshine
Last weekend was one of the strangest race weekends I have had and it had nothing to do with the ARCA Menards Series itself: it was all about factors in my personal life that created some unique circumstances to deal with. While it was strange, it was also beautiful. Plus there was the issue of "moisture" on Sunday that turned out to be perfectly timed on a number of levels which was another complicating factor. Michael Self won the race for Venturini Motorsports in an event that was originally scheduled for 200 laps on the high banks of Salem but barely made it to the halfway point before more rain hit on Sunday and shortened the race to 101 laps. For his second straight short track win, Michael and his team were not complaining and from the ARCA side, we were all glad to get the race in.

Michael Self
Ever since I had my lung cancer surgery in mid-February, I had been targeting last weekend to return to the racing photography I love so much. As smaller track, I thought Salem would be an added advantage as I continue to build my strength back up just a little more than seven weeks since I went under the knife and had the upper lobe of my right lung removed. But I felt great and I couldn't have been more excited to be back at a racetrack. When I decided to change careers in 2009, I told my girlfriend (now my fiance) that I wouldn't be able to do it without her support  and this past weekend was a perfect example of how great she and her family have been in helping me pursue a dream. This is also what made the weekend so strange but beautiful at the same time.

We did get gorgeous light on Saturday but not as much on Sunday
Before I tell you what was strange, I have to tell you about my beautiful fiance and her kids. Not long after I was diagnosed with lung cancer at the beginning of this year, she found out that she had breast cancer and that her brother also had lung cancer, so since February we have all been dealing with uncertainty and the prospect of surgery or other treatments. My surgery got scheduled first but for hers, two surgeons were involved so it took awhile to coordinate their schedules. Naturally it ended up being scheduled the Thursday before the Salem weekend I had been targeting to get back to my photography. So Thursday and Friday I took off work from my teaching job and was at the hospital with her and friends and family. The whole time leading up to her surgery, she was encouraging me to stick with my plans for Salem as it appeared she would be in the hospital the whole weekend as her cancer surgeon had told us she could expect a four or five day stay. 

ARCA has raced at Salem 105 times now, 25 of which I have worked
Naturally, if you know my fiance, you know how much she cares for other people, always putting others first, which is one of the reasons I fell for her. As you can imagine, I am so grateful that she didn't waiver in her support of my ARCA work commitment. She has three grown children who have all stepped up to help their mother and even though I am not their father, I brag on them all the time as they have become such exceptional adults. My fiance is a nurse and each of her children have found their way into the medical field in one way or another and have embarked on great careers with Fortune 500 companies here in Indiana. The oldest child works for a major pharmaceutical company and is married to a rising star executive at an Indiana industrial company with two little girls and a third baby on the way. The middle child is a nurse practitioner specializing in children's care. Her youngest child is a Purdue educated biomedical engineer for another major Indiana company. Among themselves, they figured out a schedule where they could come help their mother following her discharge from the hospital which indirectly supported me as well, since I had burned up all my leave time following my surgery and wouldn't be available much. As it turned out, they were needed early too as my fiance exceeded everyone's expectations following surgery and was released from the hospital after only three days which turned out to be Sunday, my race day at Salem.

Christian Eckes was MIA with food poisoning
You can imagine the stress that we have all been under the first few months of this year so I can't begin to express how grateful I am for the support of my fiance and how proud I am of her kids in how they stepped up to support their mother (and indirectly me). The strange part of the weekend was simply all the traveling and hospital time. Thursday was my fiance's surgery day and I got her there at 6:00 in the morning and didn't see her again until 6:00 in the evening. She was not moved to a room until 8:00 that night and I then went home to the house we share with two cats and a dog who all seemed to know something weird was going on. Friday morning I was back at the hospital by 8:00 in the morning and spent the day with her. Saturday morning I was at the hospital by 7:00 and it takes about 2 hours from Indy so I left for Salem at 8:00 to shoot the 11:00  practice session. The weather was gorgeous on Saturday and I was back on the road to Indy after qualifying at about 4:30 and back at the hospital by 6:30. I made a quick trip out to Chipotle to get my fiance and I some dinner and finally made it home about 9:00 pm.
The race started as planned under mostly sunny skies
The weather forecast for Sunday in Salem was not favorable, showing rain and storms most of the morning and again at around 2:00 when the race was supposed to start. Having worked with the ARCA series for quite awhile now, I know how persistent ARCA officials are about getting a race run even when there might be some moisture around, so I was still planning on heading south no matter what my Accuweather app said! I went back to the hospital early Sunday morning and kept an eye on the weather radar to determine if (or more accurately when) I would leave Indy.

Michael Self was singing in the rain at Salem
As it turned out, my fiance was doing great and the weather system kind of split around Salem so I decided to leave Indy around 10 and as I hit the southside it was still raining. My fiance's younger daughter, the nurse practitioner, was also at the hospital and was going to make sure she got home and situated alright. I knew she was in good hands so I headed south on I-65 and got to the track at noon just as the track drying was wrapping up and learned that everything was on schedule for the live MAV-TV coverage to start as planned. And the sun was out shining brightly with some nice fluffy clouds in the sky for the most part. There were some dark clouds to the west that were worrisome but it was time to go racing and I had my rain gear, so I went about my pre-race shooting duties and prepared as though the whole 200 laps would be run. So while the recurring travel and the hospital time made for a strange combination amid a roller coaster of emotions, the beautiful light at the start of the race more than made up for all the tension and stress of my fiance's situation. After all was said and done, the rains came just past halfway, the race was called, we shot Victory Lane under the General Tire awning and I was able to get home by 6:30 that evening to take over caretaking duties. It was a whirlwind weekend and the perfect way to get back in the saddle while hitting another milestone in my own recovery. Thank God for friends and family. I love you all! Until we meet again, here's a few more photos I took at Salem.

I still think Michael Self's Sinclair sponsored car is one of the prettiest in the ARCA series - and he wins races!
In what has become one of my signature photos, Travis Braden goes through Turn 4 through an old ESPN camera hole in the wall
The weather on Saturday was perfect for practice and qualifying
Sixteen year old Carson Hocevar won his second ARCA pole position; at Berlin last season, it also rained!

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Defining Normalcy Again

My brother Steve (left) and I at Daytona 11 days before my surgery
I went back to work at my teaching job three weeks and one day after my lung cancer surgery, and it feels great! The surgery itself was seven weeks and two days ago and if you read my blog regularly then you know I am a full time teacher in an adult high school called The Excel Center in Noblesville, Indiana. Now that my surgery is behind me, I have to define a new normal for myself as I have never missed so much work in all my life and I am still testing out what kind of limits I will have physically since I had the upper lobe of my right lung removed. And just so you know, I don't claim to be a cancer fighter since I haven't really done anything - the doctors did it all - but I am relieved that all the pathology shows I am cancer free. Thank God for early detection so if you've been a smoker like I was for 40 years, get yourself checked out. My journey started with a $49 heart scan last October and now five months later, I have cleared a significant hurdle in my life journey thanks to the medical professionals at IU Health.

The oddest thing in all of this is that there are times when it feels so surreal - as though it all happened to someone else. Throughout the process, I have found support in areas I would never have anticipated, especially through my social media contacts, many of whom I've never met in person but who have given me a boost nonetheless through their comments, feedback and encouragement. I have really appreciated that and during my recovery have spent a lot of time trying to thank people for their support. I apologize if I've missed anyone but please know that it has meant so much to me. This whole experience has helped me to start looking at life differently so I am extremely grateful for that. Who ever says they are grateful for having had cancer? I don't know but I am, and it feels like I have a second chance at life so I don't want to waste a minute.

My jump shot in 1976 
Growing up all I wanted to do was play pro basketball but I didn't quite make it there. I was fortunate to play high school football and basketball and then play Division III college basketball at the University of Chicago. I have been lucky to be an athlete all my life and I remain very active even now closing in on 62 years young.  I even played 30 minutes in my UC alumni basketball game in January a few weeks before my surgery so when the doctors were asking me the last few months if I could walk up two flights of stairs, I would just laugh. Now I'm not saying I'm ready to get back on the court and play ball again, but the racing season is upon us and I will be getting thousands of steps at racetracks this year starting this weekend with the ARCA Menards Series race at Salem Speedway. 

Before my diagnosis I had planned on going to Sebring last month for the combined WEC and IMSA sports car races. Instead I got to watch a lot of it on television after returning to work at my teaching job on Thursday of Sebring week. I was pretty worn out from the renewed level of increased activity so having the Sebring races on television was some consolation for not being able to attend. I knew  several photographers who were there and it was great to follow their work on social media both Friday and Saturday. My next race with the ARCA Menards Series is at Salem Speedway and while I realize that bumpy little high banked half mile in southern Indiana bears no resemblance to the flat Sebring airport road course in central Florida, it will be great to get back to my racing photo work nonetheless.

Jasper's Fairview Cemetery overlook to St. Joseph's church and beyond
In the meantime, I have my Indiana Arts Commission photo book project on older Indiana cemeteries to complete. I have a couple more road trips to complete to gather photos but I have a lot of material to use already and the concept is becoming more clear in my mind as my completion deadline approaches this June. If you have not seen my Facebook page for "Hoosier Cemeteries: A Photo Study", then please check it out and give me feedback. I also have a page on my Alleygroup website at this link with other photos from my various trips. So far I have been able to hit all corners of the state except for the southwest so that is where I need to go next to find some older cemeteries that have been overlooked or perhaps are now surrounded by newer development. It's been especially interesting visiting some "pioneer" cemeteries and a few that have genealogical significance for my own family. surname "Alley". You start to see some patterns and similarities with headstones and grave markers according to time periods across the state when you visit ones that date back to the early- to mid-1800's as I have.

Today I am sitting in a hospital waiting room as my fiance undergoes breast cancer surgery so finding a new "normal" is being thrust upon our family in ways we could not have envisioned even when we went to Nashville, Tennessee at the end of December. To top it off, her brother also has cancer so this dreaded affliction has hit us hard emotionally so if it is true that bad things come in threes, then we should be done with all of that and our luck surely must be changing soon. I sure hope so. In any case, we are going to carry on and live our lives as best we can, trust the process and do the things we are meant to do. Thanks to everyone for the love and support. See you at a racetrack somewhere soon. And if you want to know more about my Hoosier Cemetery photo project, then please drop me a line!

Vevay, Indiana cemetery along the Ohio River in southern Indiana contrast with the mills in Kentucky across the river
Alley-Jones-Gloshen pioneer cemetery near Brookville
St. Ferdinand cemetery with the Immaculate Heart nunnery in the background