Tuesday, January 28, 2014

My First Rolex 24 Hours Is In The Books

The #5 Action Express wins the 2014 Daytona Rolex 24
Daytona: my work here is done. At least for the month of January, as I will be back in less than four weeks to shoot the Daytona 500. But my first Rolex 24 Hours race at Daytona was an incredible experience, more like six races rolled into one as the event ran twice around the clock from the 2:10 p.m. drop of the green flag Saturday January 25th. My impressions of the event are positive, although I know there are folks who are upset with technical issues and glitches which have resulted from the merger of GrandAm and American LeMans under IMSA's new TUDOR United Sportscar Series banner. I'm sure those issues will be worked out in due time and I was simply ecstatic to have the opportunity to work this event and check it off my bucket list of races I want to shoot. The next big one on my list is the 24 Hours of LeMans so maybe someday I will get to do that one as well. I'm sure it is a much different event as Daytona seemed wholly American to me, with the self contained circuit and infield hairpins comprising the road course. The noise inside the track was heavenly and only stopped one time, following Saturday's red flag for a wicked accident involving the Gainsco #99 driven by Memo Gidley who ran up the back of a Ferrari driven by Matteo Malucelli. The accident occurred just before 5:00 with slightly less than 3 hours run in the race and may have served as a wake up call for everyone at the track that the festivities are indeed serious.

Matteo Malucelli's Ferrari rests against the guardrail after the wreck with Memo Gidley
I was walking out from the media center after downloading pictures I took during the first two hours when I saw crash trucks on the track in the infield and all the competitors stopped in a long line behind them. I knew it was something serious so I walked to the scene and got there in time to photograph the extrication of the drivers. When I first got there, the Ferrari was against the ARMCO and didn't look too bad as the rear end had what looked like moderate damage. It seemed like all the track's safety and medical crew personnel were on the scene though so I knew someone in the accident may have been seriously hurt. As it turned out, that was Memo Gidley, but I couldn't see the Gainsco car with all the safety team surrounding it, but as time went on and I kept shooting, the gravity of the situation became obvious.

Memo Gidley receives medical attention from Daytona safety crews
I had to put that out of my mind and make some pictures, since shooting as a stringer for a wire service like I was this race almost always means capturing the details of any serious incident, including the aftermath and extrication of drivers. I learned some more photo lessons in the process of shooting the scene, and it was one of those times where I had to quell any emotions I was feeling and just do my job. I had originally gone back out to shoot around 5:00 to get to a spot for some sunset pictures, but by the time the race was restarted, the sun had fully set behind the main grandstands. Those sunset pictures will have to be taken another time.

Indycar's Graham Rahal was one of the drivers of the  #56 BMW
After the restart from the red flag, it was time to grab some dinner and go through the race photographer's cycle in the media center. That cycle reminds me of the old shampoo commercials which recommended "lather, rinse, repeat", only the photo cycle would be "shoot, download, backup, edit, repeat". It was a cycle I was to repeat during the Rolex 24 hour at least six times and keeping track of images became the challenge as time wore on. I was glad I had used Friday to find my way around the road course as it came in handy for the start of the 24. I had walked out about 1:00 to get in position for the start at the place where the cars go back onto the oval track and then proceeded to work my way back around the infield in my first photo cycle. It was a nice vantage point for the start with great lighting and a position where I could get up on a concrete retaining wall with a corner worker and look down on the cars as they took the left hander back onto the oval.

The Deltawing at night
My second cycle started after dinner and extended into the darkness and past the fireworks which were set off around 9:00 p.m. I had time to experiment with some long exposures, fill flash, and straight available light with high ISO settings. I was looking for glowing brake rotors, trying very slow shutter speeds on pans and all sorts of ideas that I would not often get the chance to play with during the course of a normal two or three hour race event. My next cycle took me down into the infield by Turn 1 of the oval and I found someone who let me get up on the platform they had on top of their motor home to shoot cars on the high banks. I then went into the pits for awhile and by 11:30, I was getting hungry so decided to try to get some food and rest back at my rental car in the media parking lot. I had intended all along to spend the night at the track to soak up the whole atmosphere and I'm glad I did. The day had been chilly and blustery and the night brought more of the same but while I was out walking around the track, I was plenty warm. Settling in at the car I began to get cold so I bundled up, kept the earplugs in and put the driver's seat in full recline to rest. I think I slept about four hours and woke up about 4:30 with Entemann's powdered donuts and Diet Coke before I headed back to the media center around 5:00 a.m. to start the next cycle. The race car serenade that night was symphonic and quiet loud, although I couldn't sleep for long as I had plans for the sunrise.

Dawn at Daytona
By 6:00 a.m., I was headed back to the bus stop chicane on the backstretch as I knew the sun was going to come up around 7:15 that morning and I wanted to shoot cars going through the chicane in the darkness. I had to walk through an infield tent camping area to get to the bus stop and there were a few people up but it what struck me immediately was the smell of all the burning campfires. Occasionally, I could see someone behind me popping a flash photo but I was intent on using available light as much as possible, so I cranked the ISO out to 5000 and went at it. By about 8:00, I had walked back around Turn 4 of the oval and headed back to the media center to complete that photo cycle. I was hoping there would be something hot for breakfast so I could eat and get ready for the next cycle.

The Magnus Racing Porsche limped to the finish in 12th
Before heading into the homestretch with about 6 hours to go in the race, I decided to take a shower at the facilities in the infield and change clothes. Downing several Diet Cokes and some Excedrin in the process, I got energized again to finish out the race with a couple more photo cycles in the pits, garage area and then finally Victory Lane. I loved how dirty the cars looked in the morning light after about 20 hours of racing. A few racers had engines which had gone off-song while many had incurred damage at some point and appeared to be kept together with duct tape and bailing wire. I spent the last couple hours of the race in the pits and went looking for a spot to shoot the checkered flag with about 45 minutes to go. I saw a bunch of photographers at one of the few openings on pit lane so I headed to Victory Lane as I had remembered from the Continental Tire Series race on Friday that there the risers there were high enough in some places to see over the teams' pit lane tents and I got the angle I wanted. That photo is the lead for this blog post.

Action Express driver Joao Barbosa, wife and son in Victory Lane at Daytona
Then there was just the Victory Lane ceremony to shoot and the last cycle for the event was done. I tried to look for something unusual and there it was: Joao Barbosa's son holding back tears as his dad and mom embraced once Joao climbed out of the car a winner after 24 Hours. I could go on and on with the stories from this experience at Daytona, and I'm sure there will be more to say at another time. Needless to say, it was the longest day of my racing life and I hope I get the chance to shoot here again. And then there's LeMans...

The Action Express machine driven by Barbosa, Fittipaldi and Bourdais in the bus stop shortly after dawn Sunday
The Skyactive Mazda diesels were beautiful and so very quiet, but only one finished.

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