Thursday, October 24, 2019

Eckes and Venturini Team Snare ARCA Championships

Christian Eckes celebrated two wins at Kansas
What a year this has been in the ARCA Menards Series! It's also been a roller coaster ride for me both personally and professionally so pardon me if I take a moment to unwind and reflect on all that has happened since the beginning of the year. This past Friday, the ARCA season concluded with the Kansas 150 at the 1.5 mile Kansas Speedway and Christian Eckes completed his comeback with a race win that clinched the driver's championship for him in the #15 Venturini Motorsports entry. Meanwhile, the Venturini team picked up the owner's championship for its #20 car and Michael Self took second place in the race and the season championship in the team's #25 car. It was a glorious finish for the Venturini gang who dominated this season like no other. It was fun to watch and an absolute pleasure to photograph all season long.

Rich Corbett (right) and I worked together again
As I enjoyed the last day of racing I had scheduled to photograph in 2019 at Kansas last Friday, my thoughts often went back to January 4th of this year when I heard news no one wants to hear: I had a spot on my right lung that was cancerous and surgery was needed. I wasn't sure what 2019 would entail for me then and my immediate thoughts were would I still be able get to Daytona for the season opener and what was going to happen to my plans for shooting all the ARCA races this year! As it turned out, I only missed one race out of 20 and was able to plan my surgery for right after Daytona in February so it all worked out. My most recent CT scan shows no signs of cancer now so I am looking forward to living life and doing more traveling for races in 2020. I count my blessings every day for early detection so if you smoked like I did, go get a heart scan and quit using tobacco products! Thankfully when the diagnosis was made, I had already been smoke free for nearly three years. I turned 62 this past May so I know how fortunate I am that my cancer was detected early. I've been an athlete my whole life so my overall physical condition is pretty good and working the races actually became a huge part of my recovery. I would routinely walk 15,000 to 20,000 steps a day carrying 20 pounds (or more) of camera gear on race days so I got a great workout every time I went to the track. You ought to try it - come on out and see if you can keep up with me. But I digress...

Getting to shoot from the flagstand is a huge thrill
The people I work with at ARCA have been fantastic to me throughout this whole year and I love seeing everyone at the track. The series includes a hard working bunch of people who have been very supportive of what I try to do creatively for the series. I've also found the drivers to be excellent subjects for photographs and they've all seen me around enough by now that they know I won't create images that aren't flattering or that make them look bad. With the 2020 schedule already out and featuring some new races, I am extremely excited about next year already and can't wait to find out which events I will be assigned to work. The way things sound right now, it doesn't look like I will get to do all the races like this year. There are some new people getting involved from NASCAR marketing since who will be overseeing the ARCA series which it purchased last year. From what I've been told, lots of decisions still must be made so stay tuned! In any case, I won't be available next June since I'm going back to LeMans. I thought this year was going to be my best ever in racing photography (and it has been) but next year could be even bigger!

ARCA President Ron Drager meeting with Christian Eckes after the race
If you've read my blog before, then you know I'm a math teacher and a numbers go so you should expect what I'm about to report. I drove 13,360 miles this year to get to 18 ARCA races which is an average of 742 miles per racing trip. I flew to Daytona in February or my mileage total would be even bigger. I had six road trips longer than 1000 miles, three of which were over 1300 miles round trip, plus I had another that was over 900 miles. My shortest trip was to Lucas Oil Raceway last month since it's just west of Indy. I did every trip except one solo. Before I drove to Daytona for the first time in 2011, I never imagined that I'd be able to handle long drives like these by myself but now a seven or eight hour drive seems routine - I know I will have to stop twice and it's no big deal. With the ARCA series extending from Minnesota to Florida and from Pocono to Kansas, I cut a wide swath across America by car to chase race cars and pursue my passion for photography. I hope to keep doing it as long as I am able and as long as people are willing to pay me to do it.

Christian (left) and Michael seemed to enjoy being teammates
The Kansas finale was an extremely interesting race to photograph, knowing that two teammates were vying for the season championship. I knew going in that I'd need to get a lot of photos of both Christian Eckes and Michael Self as there were a number of possible scenarios that could play out where either could have won the title since Christian started the weekend only 15 points ahead of Michael. The two hour practice session at mid-day was uneventful but qualifying was another story as Christian had an engine problem and didn't qualify well at all. With only a couple of hours before the race was set to start, the team had to change the Ilmor engine in Christian's #15 machine and it was quite a scene with all hands on deck. Guys from all the Venturini teams were pitching in to complete the change and even though Christian would have to start from the back of the field, he didn't seem worried about it at all. Talk about a cool customer! He defined that phrase which was pretty amazing for an 18 year old kid. I expect he will do well as he continues to move up the ladder in NASCAR so keep an eye out for him.

Billy Venturini and his wife Emily had reason to celebrate at Kansas
The scene in victory lane was unreal afterwards as the confetti flew and the Venturini teams all gathered to celebrate the individual and team championships. I've never been around a series where one team had so much success across all its platforms. The 20 team won the owner's title with several different drivers scoring wins, Christian won the drivers title in the 15 car and Michael Self ended up second overall in the 25 car. Add in the occasional appearance of the 55 car for rising star Hailie Deegan, you had a juggernaut of an organization that could not be denied in 2019. Our efforts to capture a photo of "Big Bill" Venturini giving his winning drivers a big smooch became almost comical. We knew it was coming every time they won a race but Bill would always seem to have his head turned the opposite way we expected, so catching a good shot of that moment became a recurring challenge.

Nice burnout by the new champ Christian Eckes!
Now the only thing left for my racing season is the ARCA awards banquet in Indianapolis this December and I look forward to photographing that again event this year. I have to remember to get a photo of myself with the new champ! In the meantime, click here to go to the ARCA Menards Series website to see more photos from Kansas and albums from the entire 2019 season. I have a separate Kansas photo gallery on my Google page (click here) as well so check it out. In the meantime, I hope you like these photos I shot last Friday. Keep following me on Twitter @alleygroup and if you see a blue Honda Civic Si coupe coming up on you from behind, please slide over the right lane. That would be me heading to a race somewhere. Let's go! See you at the track.

I've been to Kansas Speedway five times now but never to the casino!
These guys have been great to work with all season - Michael Self (left) and Christian Eckes
It's been interesting watching these young kids mature at the race track - Christian has what it takes!
Michael Self played the role of the grizzled veteran this year
Congratulations champ!

Friday, October 11, 2019

19 Down - One to Go

My game face on race day
This has been the busiest year of my life as a motorsports photographer by far, but the end of my season is just around the corner. Next weekend I will make my last long drive of the season for the ARCA Menards Series when I hit the road for Kansas Speedway just west of Kansas City. That will be the 19th ARCA race I will have worked this year for the series since starting the season at Daytona in February. When you factor in my lung cancer surgery later in February, I am still amazed that I only missed one of the series' 20 races all year! Add in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and the Indy 500 in May, and the Iowa Indycar race in July, I worked a total of 22 races with 21 of them in the span of six months (April through October). The work and all the walking at the racetracks have been instrumental in my recovery this year so I am grateful for the chance to work all these events.

Youngster Chandler Smith got his 5th ARCA win in only 10 starts this season
This past weekend was a "home" race of sorts, since I only had to drive to Clermont on the west side of Indianapolis for the Herr's 200 ARCA race. It was a beautiful day and evening until a rain shower cut the race 33 laps short and one of the young firebrands of the series, Chandler Smith, made a pass for the lead shortly before the rains hit to snag his 5th win of the year. This kid is barely 16 and he's kicking butt on short tracks across the circuit so I am excited to see what he does as he gets a little older. I felt bad for another youngster Saturday night though, as Ty Gibbs was on his way to a second straight dominant win until he got hip checked into the wall by Joe Graf, Jr. who made a desperate move for the lead on new tires when Ty was just nursing his until a final pit stop could be made. Joe's lead didn't last long as Christian Eckes came to the front and stayed there until Smith got past him in the nick of time. Second was still a great result for Christian as he took over the series points lead from teammate Michael Self and grabbed the Sioux Chief Short Track Challenge trophy as well. So now it all comes down to Kansas in about 10 days to see which one comes out on top.

Michael Self could be the 2019 series champion
Last weekend's ARCA race event actually started on Friday evening for me as we did a studio photo shoot with both Michael and Christian to prepare photos for whichever one wins the season title. We had lighting and a backdrop set up at the hotel where the Venturini team was staying and got a lot of great photos of each guy with the championship trophy and other candids of the two of them together enjoying the moment. I don't get to work with studio quality lighting very often so I thoroughly enjoyed it. Afterwards I realized there were a few other things I would like to have tried but couldn't, so those went into my notes on Evernote for next time.

Ty Gibbs (18) was dominant at Lucas Oil Raceway
On Saturday at Lucas Oil Raceway, we got to meet with the NASCAR person who will be overseeing the photo operations for next season so it was very exciting to hear about the plans and expectations for 2020 when NASCAR has full control over the series. The week before the Lucas Oil Raceway event was a big one for news about the ARCA Menards Series. NASCAR and ARCA announced the extension of the ARCA brand over the current K and N East and West Series so next year they will be known as ARCA East and ARCA West. Multiple championships are going to be available for teams and drivers who will now have a unified platform of car specifications with marketing support regardless of which part of the United States they come from. The full 20 race ARCA schedule just came out yesterday (read all about it here), and I am really looking forward to 2020. There will be 20 races on 20 different tracks, with two road courses including one of my favorites - Mid Ohio! I've already identified ARCA races I can work next season to go along with my Indy 500 and LeMans commitments. I'd like to think that my work for the series as Chief Photographer since 2015 would speak for itself but you never know what decision makers are thinking in a transitional situation like this, so I am just glad to have the chance to be considered. They did use one of my photos with the press release for the 2020 schedule, so I am proud of that contribution. Photographer assignments for next season's ARCA races are likely to be decided by Thanksgiving so stay tuned! I can't wait to see how it all plays out.

Christian Eckes has fought back to take the season championship lead
Once the season is over, I will have more time to reflect on how this year has gone and do a "Best Of" photo compilation which I think will be fun. No matter what happens going forward, I have loved every minute working with the folks at ARCA. I have to thank ARCA officials Ron Drager, Mark Gundrum, George Mergen, Tom Legeman and a person I consider a friend and mentor, Doc Hunter, for putting their trust and faith in me to do the job. I hope I've made them proud. Since 2013, I've worked more than 80 races for the series as a photographer and the experience has been invaluable to my growth as a photographer. As the drivers always say, "I can't thank them enough" for the opportunity and no matter what else happens, I know I gave my best. Here's a few more from Lucas Oil Raceway. For full photo galleries go to the ARCA Menards Series website here which includes photos from colleagues Rich Corbett, JD Scott and Mike Alley. Or you can check my Google page here. See you in Kansas!

Ty Gibbs was on his way to a second straight dominating win when he got taken out.
The Bashams (Mike, left) and Darrell (right - blue firesuit) have been ARCA mainstays
Chandler Smith has been amazing to watch this season!
This young guy got to sit in Travis Braden's car - I want to do that!
Hailie Deegan was the big attraction during the pre-race autograph session.