Monday, April 22, 2013

Racing Roots & Road Trippin'

When I was a kid, all I wanted to do was play basketball. Eventually I began to take  a wider view of the world and decided I wanted to be a writer. So what did I do when my hoop dreams didn't pan out? I started writing, and one of the results was this blog when, as an adult, I was thoroughly consumed by the racing bug. I always tell people I came by my interest in racing naturally, and particularly Indycar racing, as I was born the day after Sam Hanks won the Indy 500 and retired in Indy's Victory Lane. Fast forward a few years and I got my first chance to shoot at Indy in 1984 after the infield crowd I had hung with started to dwindle in numbers. I knew I had to find a better way to be involved in racing after I had gone through the royal treatment in 1982 in the company of an Indy 500 princess at a race which had arguably the best finish ever at Indy when Gordon Johncock held off Rick Mears in a late race duel that remains the stuff of legends. The little camera I borrowed that year was woefully inadequate so then I had another itch to scratch - racing photography.

My roots in racing run deep as my grandfather and namesake helped build a dirt oval at the Kosciusko County Fairgrounds in my mom's hometown of Warsaw, Indiana. He would take me in the pit area outside the fence by Turns 3 & 4 where I could get up close to the cars and drivers. I'd hang on the board fence, still not of school age, and get pelted with dirt from the sprint cars and local stockers which ran every night during the County Fair every summer. If we weren't at the track, we could hear the races and watch through binoculars from the backyard of Grandpa's house across the canal from the fairgrounds, eating watermelon and Penguin Point fried chicken as the night darkened. I found out later that Grandpa also had flown planes and barnstormed with Eddie Rickenbacker in the roaring 20's, and that he used to come to Indianapolis in the 30's when Rickenbacker owned Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Grandpa always seemed to know everyone so I was never too surprised to hear these kinds of stories. Mom even has stories about coming to the 500 as a kid in a converted school bus with Grandpa, watching the men help themselves to the contents of large metal wash basins full of iced down beer. Even at 78, Mom still comes to Indy for the 500. Not bad for a little gray haired "old lady".

So now we're coming to the time of year where my racing obsession really starts to take hold. I've shot one race already, at Barber Motorsports Park, and the next two months are going to be hectic. This weekend, we go to Salem Speedway in southern Indiana for the ARCA series race at a track I have come to love. Covering ARCA at Salem consistently since the Fall 2006 race, this will be my 14th straight ARCA event at this rough and rugged high banked half mile. Some track grinding and repaving has been done to smooth out some of the bumps, so I expect the track to be faster than ever. The Hoosier Lottery has come on board in the last two weeks as a naming rights sponsor so the track will be known as "The Salem Speedway Fueled by the Hoosier Lottery". ARCA has run more races at Salem than almost anywhere else and 200 laps always brings out their best, both the young guns like defending series champ Chris Buescher, and wily veterans like 9-time ARCA champion Frank Kimmel. A fan at the track once told me "I growed up out here" and I could relate, since I feel the same way about Indy, having attended my first 500 in 1970 and  then every single 500 since 1976. Salem has become a second home track for me, and the ARCA series has some of the best young stock car racers anywhere. One of the great things about Salem & ARCA is you get to meet and know these guys before they hit the big time, and they are happy to pause for a photo and they already know to look straight into my lens for the eye contact shot. Check back here next weekend for updates.

The following weekend, I am headed back to Alabama to shoot NASCAR at Talladega. This will be my third spring race in a row at "Dega" and it is an awesome facility. Indy seems big but Talladega is mammoth as the high banks create the sort of high speed stock car racing I enjoy the most. You can have your paper clip tracks but give me a good high bank show any day. I should get there in time for Saturday and Sunday action and will be posting from the road and the track once I have met my photo obligations with AP. The folks down there have been great to work with and have given me some wonderful shooting spots the last couple of years so I am looking forward to "making some pictures" for the wire as they say.

Then the next weekend, practice starts for the Indianapolis 500 here in my hometown. The Month of May isn't what it once was at Indy but it's still the biggest race in the world and the one every open wheel driver wants to win. Steeped in tradition, the billiard table smooth racetrack invites risk taking at every corner of the rounded rectangle and there's nothing like the sounds and smells associated with Indycars at 230 mph flashing down the front straight. I have digital audio recordings from a handheld recorder in my iTunes so it's always refreshing when a snippet of Indycar sound comes up during shuffle play when I might be at the gym or riding my bicycle. As my lady friend likes to say, the "Month of Jay" is almost upon us and that means three straight weekends and numerous weekdays spent honing in on the speed stories from the Brickyard. More photos, more blog posts, and more stories for the memory banks when friends & family come around every year to see who will be the next one to get their image emblazoned on Indy's Borg Warner trophy. 

Funny thing is, there once was an Alley who raced at Indy - Tom Alley - but there has never been anyone with the surname "Smith" in the 500. And when people ask me how I spell my name, I tell them it's like Gasoline Alley. If you've been to Indianapolis you know where that is. I will see you there very soon and the cries of "Is it May yet?" are just about to be answered.

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