Saturday, September 21, 2019

10 Years After

At Le Mans in 2017
Ten years ago this month, I made the decision to leave a thoroughly unsatisfying municipal job to change careers and go into teaching. It was the best decision of my life. As I get to the end of the racing season each year, it's normal for me to get a little melancholy and reminisce. I've been feeling that way all week since I got back from the last ARCA race at Salem Speedway where Ty Gibbs kicked everyone's butt, so this blog post is intended to fill in some of the blanks in my recent history. Please bear with me. If you read on, then maybe you'll see something you didn't know and I hope maybe even surprise you a little.

I had pieced together a decent career in real estate development and in leadership roles at municipal water and sewer utilities up to that point but I just wasn't happy. I had several of those "is this all there is?" moments in 2009 before I finally pulled the plug on that last utility job and embarked on this new journey. I wanted more time to pursue my passion for photography and I wanted to get involved in education to give back something to the community which had given me so much through the years, so I decided to teach. There's an old adage that goes "Those that can, do; those that can't teach". Frankly that is just bullshit. If it were true then how could you explain all the things I've been able to do since I made that career and life changing decision? It's not just luck or coincidence.

Ty Gibbs dominated and won at Salem last weekend and Grandpa Joe was there
So why write about this now? Well there are only two races left to photograph for my 2019 season and my final tally for the year will be 19 ARCA races and three Indycar races. And that's after having had lung cancer surgery in February which caused me to miss one ARCA race. I have to count my blessings every time I start to prep my gear for a race and I'm already planning for 2020 which I know will include a return trip to the 24 Hours of Le Mans next June. By this time next month, the full ARCA schedule for 2020 will be out so I'll have a much better idea about my racing photography obligations for next season and I couldn't be more excited! My ultimate dream would be to do that kind of photography on a full time basis but I haven't gotten to that point yet where people who need a racing photographer would automatically think of me. I have been working hard to change that!

Long, tall Mr. Photographer
The first two years after I decided to change careers in 2009 were very hard financially. I did not have a full time job and I had just built a new home in 2008. I worked as a substitute teacher in three different school corporations, coached and refereed basketball and soccer, and took every odd job I could get. With all that I still worked about a dozen races in 2010 and started working on really expanding my photo network. A friend helped introduce me to the Associated Press staff over the winter and I got to work my first Daytona 500 in February 2011. This led to also working for AP at Talladega twice and Atlanta for other NASCAR races that year. I also met other photographers and soaked up every little tidbit of expertise any of them would share. I got into Marian University that winter also and started as a full time student in January 2011 while still coaching, refereeing and substitute teaching. I can't begin to describe how many lessons I learned during that time - not just about photography, but about myself and what I wanted to do with my life.

My "signature" Salem photo through the wall - this is Sam Mayer
I started bugging my friends at ARCA about this same time to see if I could get some work with that series too, as I had been working ARCA races at Salem and around the Midwest since 2006. I finally got my teaching license in May 2012 and my first full time job as a teacher started in August 2012. I have been off and running ever since. I had met one of the principals at at Indy that year and I started doing some races for that website in 2013. I did my first ARCA race solo in 2013 also and then things took off as I have done at least 10 ARCA races every year since then. The teaching and officiating continued through 2014 and 2015 as my Mom fought lung cancer so I was lucky enough to have a flexible schedule where I could go help her essentially at the drop of a hat and during school breaks. Mom passed away in July 2015 and I was back at an ARCA race less than two weeks later to grieve and create with my racing family. Through the contacts I had made with, I was lucky enough to go to the 24 Hours of LeMans in 2017 on a most epic trip to France and Italy. The roller coaster ride of racing, travel and photography continues with barely a break through any of it. I couldn't be happier about the good fortune I've had and the great people I've met in this whole career changing process.

It was a gorgeous night at Salem for ARCA short track racing
My one regret is that I wish I had done it sooner. People say "it takes what it takes". You know I'm pretty damn stubborn sometimes (well, most of the time) so it took a bunch of life lessons for me to finally decide to do what I love doing. I tell my adult students all the time not to wait until they are in their 50's like I did. As a kid, all I wanted to do was play pro basketball so when that didn't work out and I came home to Indy in 1979 from the University of Chicago during a severe recession, I had no real career plan and I just took whatever job I could find. Up until 2009, every time I took a job solely because it paid more, I've been unhappy. So don't do what I did. Find your passion. Follow it to the ends of the earth. Don't ever let anyone tell you that you can't do something. And if you fall and fail, get back up and try something different. Go check out some of my photo galleries at this link and see the dream I am chasing.

Ty Gibbs won Salem in dominant fashion
Grandpa "Coach" Joe Gibbs was on hand to help Ty celebrate his Salem win
ARCA was racing at Salem Speedway for the 106th time and a good crowd was on hand
Ed Pompa had the best looking car in a throwback paint scheme
Michael Self is still leading the season points standings with two races to go but only by 5 points

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Done With The Dirt: ARCA Championship at Stake

Christian Eckes was in control at DuQuoin and won
Christian Eckes grabbed another win for the Venturini Motorsports gang last weekend on the dirt at  the DuQuoin State Fair and crept just a little closer to teammate Michael Self for the ARCA Menards Series championship. Now that the Southern Illinois 100 on DuQuoin's "Magic Mile" is in the books, everyone will focus on finishing this season strong with just three races remaining. Now if we can just get these young guys to climb out of their cars and face the series photographers in Victory Lane to begin their winning celebrations, my life would be complete! Seriously though, I don't blame these young guys for wanting to celebrate and recognize their teams in the process since the drivers are only as good as the people who prepare the machines. And this year, the Venturini machines have been the class of the ARCA field, winning 12 of 17 races so far, so it's clear they have great people supporting their drivers. If Christian hadn't had to miss the spring race at Salem, the points chase would be much closer than the 70 points it is now in Self's favor.

The Brothers Alley (me on the left and Steve) got to work DuQuoin together
This was the fifth straight season that I've shot ARCA's back to back dirt races at the two  fairgrounds in Illinois and this year my brother worked with me at DuQuoin which made it even more fun. It was special too since he lives in Tucson and we don't get to spend that much time together these days so making a race together outside the Indy 500 is a real bonus. Next season I will be headed out his direction in March when ARCA races at Phoenix and I couldn't be more excited about that. I expect we'll have an Alley family gathering out there since my brother's kids and their families all live in Arizona. These dirt track races are quite unique and even though he had been to the ARCA race at Springfield with me in the past, the one at DuQuoin is a different animal and it was his first time actually working rather than just enjoying the show as a spectator. I'm sure he had fun but it's still different when you've got a job to do.

DuQuoin is unique - there's a lake in the infield!
There are two big differences between the Springfield and DuQuoin tracks for me. The first is that DuQuoin  has a lake in the infield that takes up most of the inside of Turns 1 and 2. Second, and this is huge - Springfield has tunnels to get back and forth between the outside and the inside during the race. At DuQuoin, with just two photographers we have to stay inside since there's no way to get back and forth. This year's Southern Illinois 100 was over in record time too so there wasn't much time to get the kind of variety I normally like to provide. I still followed my "10 laps and move" strategy that I normally use but the laps went by awfully fast and there was no late yellow to create a green-white-checkered finish like we had at Springfield. I was able to shoot from the outside during the sole practice session in the afternoon but for the race I worked inside exclusively.  I still haven't been able to successfully predict where to go to get a good photo of "Big Bill" Venturini when he plants "the kiss" on his winning drivers though, so there's always room for improvement.

Getting any closer to the action is just about impossible!
Since I started this blog in 2007, I have often wondered how many words I've written to describe races or events I've covered and I suppose I won't know until I compile everything for the book I want to write about my experiences in motorsports photography. One thing is certain, I have a lot of people to thank and I've probably taken a half million photos over the last 12 years as I've pursued this dream. Having the chance to shoot for the ARCA Menards Series is a true blessing as there are only a few jobs like it and I understand how fortunate I am to be in this position. I've also worked damn hard to get here and learned so much from so many great people in the process. I was telling my brother this past weekend about how I have studied (and continue to study) the work of other photographers in order to continue learning. I trust that will never stop and you may hear me say more than once that a bad day at a racetrack still beats good days at lots of other places. Mind you I love my teaching job so don't take that the wrong way, but when you're involved in something you have a passion in your soul to do, it's just different somehow. Photography is like that for me. Sometimes I wish I had come to that realization earlier in life but then I wouldn't be who I am today so I have no regrets.

Michael Self leads the season points standings but it's still a close fight
The way this year has gone has been special in so many ways - from shooting the ARCA opener at Daytona in February, then undergoing lung cancer surgery 10 days later, then getting back on my feet with races that stretched 10 consecutive weeks from the end of April through June, through this past couple of months when a new granddaughter joined the fold, to this past weekend with my brother. I never saw this coming last fall when I committed to doing all the ARCA races in 2019. Next year promises to be even bigger and better so get out to an ARCA race this year to see what all the excitement is about. You only have three more chances this season to see who will be crowned champion: Salem Speedway in southern Indiana later this month, then Lucas Oil Raceway west of Indianapolis and the finale at Kansas Speedway in October. Look me up if you make it to any of these. And by all means keep clicking on the ARCA Menards Series website for more of our photos! Here's a few I shot last weekend to tide you over.

Carson Hocevar is another up and coming driver in the series - he's only 16!
The ARCA Menards Series has been racing on dirt for more that 50 years and we'll be back next year!
The two dirt races in Illinois bring out local fan favorites like Ryan Unzicker to challenge series regulars
Ageless Kenny Schrader became the oldest pole winner in ARCA history in his Federated #52
Overheating from dust accumulation is a common problem on the dirt
Teams come up with some creative ways to keep the Illinois clay from gumming up the works