Thursday, July 18, 2013

400th Motorsports Blog Post - Milestones From the Road

Yours truly hard at work at Chicagoland Speedway 2009
When I started this blog in 2007, I had no idea where it would lead. My road to racetracks around the Midwest and Southeast United States has brought many interesting experiences, the stories of which I have tried to capture here. Along the way, I have passed through a few hundred towns which end in -ville and hope you've been there with me from time to time. I officially became an "oldtimer" in 2009 when I was accepted into the Indy 500 Oldtimer's Club as a media member with more than 20 years involvement in the Indy 500, so please bear with me as I reminisce!

I certainly didn't envision writing 400 posts, and I am far from done. This will also be one of my longer posts but I will try to spare you the agony of too many of my words at one sitting. At the time I started this blog, I was between jobs, trying to expand my photography opportunities and searching for meaning in life after going through a divorce and a number of other personal travails the previous two years. None of that matters now and all of it has fueled my desire to express myself through writing and photography. Life seems to have come full circle for me, since I am again between jobs and seeking new creative outlets. I have been blessed with luck and opportunity, and today I recap some of my greatest memories from life on the road as a racing photographer who lives for the smell of racing exhaust and tire smoke. Hopefully you get that feeling too, while I recount other significant milestones on this journey.

Lost Friends

Dan Wheldon at Kentucky Speedway, October 2011
As time marches on, there is no escaping the fact that many of the people I have gotten to know through racing are no longer with us. People like Steve Snoddy, who always had spot-on advice and seemed genuinely concerned with how I was doing when I was struggling. I wrote about Steve's passing here and he was a photog for whom I will always feel a debt of gratitude. For Steve and others like him, I try to pass along what I have learned. Two other people fall in that same category - people who were shooting races when I first started and who helped me along the way: Keith Pritchard  and Carl Pendleton. These men both signed my  500 Oldtimers application and fought brave battles with cancer over the last few years of their lives. Then there's Don Hamilton, publisher of American Motor Journal. Don helped me get back into shooting races on a major scale in 2006 when he asked about helping out with his publication. By the time of Don's unexpected passing in late 2012, I had provided thousands of images from races since that day in June 2006 when I bumped into him at Mid Ohio during the Rolex event. I jokingly tell people I bought camera gear instead of furniture after my divorce, and Don gave me the chance to put it to good use, to stretch my creative limits and try to help him make AMJ a success in the topsy turvy media world which has evolved since then. Sadly, AMJ died along with Don and his dream along with it. Lastly, I have to mention Dan Wheldon, whose demise hit me quite hard, as it did so many others in the Indycar community. Having shot dozens of Indycar races where Danny was a participant, the photo above is from the last event where I saw him compete, at Kentucky Speedway, just two weeks before he was lost in Las Vegas. I'm sure my friends Steve, Keith, Carl and Don are swapping racing stories and pulling pranks together with Danny today, as they are all in a better place. Godspeed to you all and others in racing heaven.

Found Friends

Helio & Sam Hornish, Turn 1 Indy May 2006
I was out of racing photography in 2004 & 2005 after Agence France Presse, for which I had been shooting Indy the previous five years, decided to no longer cover the Indy 500. Towards the end of 2005 I began to swap out my old film, manual focus camera equipment for high speed digital and I got the itch to get back to shooting races again. The person who helped me do that was Greg Griffo with the Indianapolis Star. I had known Greg for quite a few years and had shot for the Star in the late 1980's so Greg picked me up for Indy in May 2006 and gave me invaluable tips on shooting digital. He kick started my motorsports work that May and gave me a chance to shoot from the outside of Turn One on Pole Day that year. It was an unforgettable day and I had the spinning car of Thiago Medeiros come right at me during qualifying where all I could do was duck down behind the wall. I still remember the sound as the car hit about ten feet away and showered me with carbon fiber and rubber dust on its way past. After Indy, the next big steps I took were with AMJ and then I started this blog in early 2007. Over the last two years, I have been fortunate to branch out and make many new friends at racetracks and media outlets. In Indycar, I kept running into Eric Schwarzkopf with Trackside Online and Paul Hurley with Paddock Talk. Regis Lefebure gave me great advice during an ALMS event at Mid Ohio. I've gotten to work for ARCA with Doc, George, Deb, Bev, Rocky and others to support its website. The folks at Associated Press in Atlanta,  Daytona, and Talladega have been extremely gracious and I can't thank Mike, Butch, Mullet and Rainier enough. Working with Rainier at AP led me to this year where I've had the chance to continue learning and growing as a shooter. Special thanks to Rainier, Eric, Ken, Nancy, Covy and their whole crew. This also led to my first international publication this year through Autosport Japan, courtesy of a lead from Eric Gilbert. It's been a long road since Alex Persons gave me a chance to work at Indy for UPI in 1984. I'm sure I've left out the names of others who've helped along the way, so I apologize for that!

The Spectacular

Mike Conway's Turn 3 Indy 500 crash
Racing is by nature a spectacular sport and I've been lucky to be in the right spot and ready to shoot for some amazing race action over the years. By far the most spectacular situation I've shot was the 2010 Mike Conway crash on the last lap of the Indy 500. There have been plenty of other big moments but none like that one. This year I got to shoot Victory Lane at the Indy 500 for the first time and caught a great four-wide photo finish in the Freedom 100 Indy Lights race for In 2009, I captured Vitor Meira upside down during the Indy 500 in Turn 1 and have shot Indycar and Indy Lights photo finishes at Kentucky Speedway and Chicagoland Speedway. I've been in hundreds of victory lane celebrations, doused with water, Gatorade and champagne, chased out of the pits for not having on my firesuit at Mid Ohio, and climbed untold number of hills and grandstands to get the shots I needed. But you will get no complaints from me as it's a small price to pay for pursuing my passion.

The Mundane

When I started as a credentialed photographer at the Indy 500 in 1984, I was just happy to be there. UPI stuck me in Turn 2 and told me to wait for spins and crashes. Being a turn shooter at Indianapolis involves long hours of waiting for three seconds of action to have a chance to get a picture used. But the payoff is huge emotionally, if not financially. Gone are the anxious days of waiting for the runners to bring your exposed film back to see if you "got the shot" and if it was used on the wire. Now the result is instantaneous and there's no doubt once the image viewer is opened on the back of your camera. You either got the shot or you didn't, and there's been plenty of times where batteries have failed, my framing wasn't right, or I cut off half a car during an accident sequence. Those moments and the long hours waiting for something (anything) to happen seem like distant memories since I have been able to shoot much more than just car action the last few years. I feel like I have graduated in a sense, but I still learn something every time I shoot a race. I hope I never stop learning.


Chad Boat at Kokomo 2009
If I could catalogue all the races I've shot or the racetracks I've been to over the years, it would take up too much space here today but it would include everything from Kokomo and Lincoln Park dirt tracks to the Daytona high banks, from the streets of Toronto, Detroit and Columbus to Talladega Superspeedway. Not to mention Indy, Michigan, Mid Ohio and a host of other tracks in the Midwest. There's an alphabet soup of racing series I've worked as well: ALMS, ARCA, GrandAm, Indycar, NASCAR, NHRA, USAC, IROC, plus all types of cars from midgets to full blown prototype sports cars and Top Fuel dragsters. My best guess is I've captured a couple hundred thousand images in all, and that's probably conservative since I've had hard drives crash, CF cards that got corrupted and three camera bodies whose counters have turned over numerous times after hitting 9999.

The Road

I love to drive. It's a good thing too, as I've logged tens of thousands of miles the last few years, most of it solo, involving long hours at the wheel, often at night. Most of the time I keep the car stereo off and just listen to the 5th gear 3500 rpm hum of my 1999 Acura engine and the tires on the road. Sometimes I think of Dustin Hoffman in "Rainman" when he says "I'm an excellent driver" and just keep on rolling despite all kinds of road conditions, terrible weather, traffic jams and detours. But I've been lucky too, and only had one warning from gendarmes all these years. There have been crashes on the highway where I've arrived on the scene before the emergency crews; I have thanked my lucky stars that I wasn't there a few seconds earlier or I might have been involved. Then there's the ratty overpriced hotels that are jammed on race weekends but vacant most of the rest of the year. I also recall lots of  nice people on the road who share their travel stories along the way. Let's not forget that all that travel often involves making a 7:00 a.m. photo meeting the next day, shooting all day, and then editing and transmitting photos until long past darkness. And then doing it all over again the next day, and maybe the next day as well. 


Mid Ohio ALMS 2011
Did I mention the weather? My photog friends will not let me live down the time I refused to come in out of the rain at Mid Ohio in a monsoon that hit near the end of the ALMS race in 2011. I got pictures but also almost lost both my cameras to "moisture" and I still had the Indycar race to shoot the next day. I have come to enjoy the teasing over being the "rainmeister" but there have also been times when it seemed like everywhere I went, it rained. My 2007 season was like that, beginning with leaving my sunroof open at the Nashville Indycar race when a downpour hit just before the scheduled start and the inside of my car got soaked. I didn't damage any equipment that night but the race got postponed to the next day and I had to scramble to find a room. Of course the Indy 500 was rain shortened that year. I almost turned back while driving to the Michigan Indycar race on a rain swept day later that summer but I followed a rule I adopted years ago after missing the start of the Brickyard in 1995:  get to the track first and then worry about the weather. I have gotten better prepared to deal with rain as the years have passed. There have also been times during rainy road course events where I think standing next to a metal catch fence under a big tree might not be the best place to be during a thunderstorm filled with I move and keep shooting.

As I wrap up this post, I am noting how often I have used terms like lucky or fortunate. Do all these things happen by coincidence or fate? I have heard people say that luck is where preparation meets opportunity, so I try to keep that in mind. At the same time, the older I get the less I believe in coincidence. First and foremost, you have to be at the track to have a chance to do good work. When I'm there, I don't listen to a scanner or radio. I put my earplugs in and dial in to the sounds of the cars, since most of the time I can't hear the public address system over the race noise anyway. It's when it gets quite and the engine notes change that I know I better start pushing the button. If I'm lucky, or fortunate, or it's just meant to be, I hope I can do another 400 posts in the years to come. At any rate, you can find me at a racetrack somewhere and it will feel like home. Just be sure to bring your rain gear.

Mid Ohio Rolex  GrandAm action in 2008

No comments: