Tuesday, February 25, 2014

2014 Daytona 500: A Long Day At The Race

Fans autograph the start-finish line; I did too
My second Daytona 500 was another interesting day in my journey as a motorsports photographer, replete with monsoons, tornado warnings, wildlife sighting, signing the start-finish line before the race, and a popular winner in Dale Earnhardt, Jr. It was almost unbelievable that they ran the entire 200 lap distance after the initial red flag for "moisture" after 38 laps had been run. The day had started off beautiful but the forecasters had the timing of the rain nailed quite well as it turned out, and I am glad that there were some other people in Turn 2 who helped me out when the worst of it hit the area. Seven hours later the race resumed and it got crazier as the night wore on since it looked like another batch of rain might cut the 500 miles short after all. I'll get back to that in a minute...

The Brickyard Lounge menu
Thursday and Friday nights I had slept in my rental car in the infield parking area but Saturday night I crashed on a pullout sofa bed in the suite a couple of Indy friends had invited me to share. We had gone to dinner at "The Brickyard Lounge" on International Speedway Boulevard after the Nationwide race on Saturday which was pretty cool. The restaurant was in a shotgun of a building, probably less than 20 feet wide, and it's theme was all racing: "Where Indy and NASCAR Fans Meet" according to the menu and the sign on the front window. My friends John & Mike had been to Daytona many more times than I had so after we hung out at their hotel room for awhile following dinner, we hit Main Street in Daytona Beach to see the sights. The Boot Hill Saloon was the primary destination but we stopped in a few other places they knew of and of course I had to check out the gaudy souvenir shop at the corner of Main and A1A. It was a fun evening with loud music, quite a few gorgeous Harley Davidson's and lots of race fans. I went back to the hotel before midnight with the intention of getting up early and heading back to the track early Sunday, not knowing what traffic would be like on race day. I was up by 6 a.m. on Sunday, back inside the track by 7 and in the media center by 8 getting my laptop set up and checking all my camera batteries.

Luke Bryan
After breakfast in the media center, I made a trip around pit lane and the frontstretch to experiment some more with the 8-15 mm fisheye lens I had on loan from Canon. On my way out, I saw country music star Luke Bryan and some other celebrities and after signing the start-finish line as my brother had requested, I was back in the media center by 10:30 to rest my legs for what promised to be a long afternoon on my feet. I had no idea at the time how long it would actually turn out to be and I did not want to believe the Intellicast reports of rain coming in sometime after 1 p.m., which naturally was about the time the race was to start. By 12:30 I was packed up with my rain gear and everything else I needed to shoot from the inside of Turn 2 at the pumphouse where I had been for all the races during the weekend. It was starting to cloud over as pre-race festivities were winding down and I started to feel a few raindrops around lap 30 but it didn't look too bad so I just bagged my gear and stowed it on the fender of a flat bed truck nearby used by the track fencing crew.

Fifteen minutes later, I was crouched beneath that flat bed seeking shelter from the downpour which had erupted. Then a car backed into a space next to the truck, the rear door opened a crack and I heard someone ask "You want in?" Without hesitation I jumped in the back seat as my car was still a mile away in infield the parking area and there was nowhere else for me to go. I have been through plenty of rain delays over the years where any kind of shelter will do but this time seemed different. It turned out the guys in the car were all with FOX and one of them was the camera operator who had been on the tower near the pumphouse all weekend. His name was PK and the driver introduced himself as "Turtle" who manned the camera at the entrance of Turn 3. Ironically Turtle said he was from Carmel and Terre Haute originally so we had a Hoosier connection. Over the next 30 minutes as they figured out when the best time was to cover their video gear with what they called "elephant bags" the rain worsened and announcements were made on the track PA system that a tornado warning for the area had been issued and everyone should seek shelter. We were all checking weather radar on our phones and trying to sort out what to do and they thankfully took me back over to the media center before they took off for the TV compound which I learned was outside the track near Turn 3. So I got dried out in the media center and joined everyone else checking weather reports and radar, Facebook, Twitter and whatever else we could find to kill time waiting for news on when (or if) the race would be restarted.

Rumors had gone around that the race was going to be moved to Monday at 5:00 p.m. so FOX could do a live broadcast and that bummed me out since I had to catch a flight back to Indy at 8:00 Monday morning. After driving home and missing the race in 2012 due to rain, I was hoping against hope that the same thing wouldn't happen again. Around 6:00 Sunday evening it was looking more realistic to get the race in that night so I was relieved and starting to feel more optimistic. The fried chicken dinner they served in the media center was just what the doctor ordered. By 7:30 I had driven back out to my position in Turn 2 and was ready to work, so if it did rain again I had somewhere to retreat. I was hoping the whole 200 lap distance could be run, not just a rain shortened version, as no one could say how big of a dry weather window we had to work with. I really didn't care: I had quit looking at the weather radar hours earlier praying that the racing gods would smile down on us and keep that window open to "get this thing in".

Trevor Bayne (21) almost caused another "Big One" where I was positioned
After the restart a lengthy green flag run ensued and then it started to get a little crazy with big wrecks on the frontstretch and also in Turn 3 and 4 where my Indy friends John and Mike were positioned. I knew they would get some pictures so I was happy for them but not much had happened where I was. After watching and shooting packs of cars roar by all weekend without anyone getting even the least bit squirrely, I finally got some action with Trevor Bayne hitting the wall and spinning so I was happy to have a chance to turn in my memory card for AP. I also felt that I probably didn't have much chance of moving a picture from Bayne's incident since it was not spectacular like the other wrecks had been. That didn't matter to me. It was just as important for me to know that I had nailed the sequence and for AP to know that I hadn't missed it. With about 40 laps to go, my new friend the FOX cameraman "PK" whistled down from his video position in the tower and shouted that "Rain and lightening are 30 miles away" and then the racing really started to get intense. After my experience at Talladega last October with huge crashes on the last lap in both the truck and Sprint Cup races, I knew I had to stay ready for anything to happen right to the end. But nothing did and it was back to the media center to get my gear packed up to leave.

My view from the Turn 2 pumphouse
By half past midnight, I had said my goodbyes and thanked everyone for the opportunity and started to head out of the track and back to Orlando. I turned in my rental car at the airport around 2:00 a.m. and waited for the hotel shuttle to pick me up and finally got to sleep around 3:30 after getting my boarding pass ready to print. I was up at 5:00 a.m. to catch the 6:00 a.m. hotel shuttle back to the airport and slept almost the whole flight back to Indy. Strangely enough, I think I got more sleep during the night at the Rolex 24 Hours race in January than I did after the Daytona 500, but I ran on adrenaline all day yesterday through my teaching job, shipping the loaner lens back to Canon, and a nice dinner out with my lady friend. It was good to be home again after more than four days on the road and I hope my blog posts have helped give a sense of what it's been like. I tell people all the time that I am still waiting to be discovered, and until I find that sponsor, benefactor or hit the lottery, there may be other weekends like this one where roughing it a little to get "the shot" is more than worth it in hindsight.

Did I mention that Dale Earnhardt, Jr. won the race? I will be back with more pictures in a complete Daytona 500 gallery soon. Until next time, be safe and happy shooting!

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (88) raced to the front of the pack to win his second Daytona 500
Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

No comments: