Friday, May 30, 2014

Ryan Hunter-Reay Swipes 2nd Closest Indy 500

Ryan Hunter-Reay celebrates winning his first Indy 500 in bold style
Ryan Hunter-Reay has clearly learned his lessons well at the Indy 500 as he boldly passed Helio Castroneves with less than two laps remaining to win the 98th edition of the race on Indy's hallowed ground. Thirty-two years after the closest Indy 500 finish ever, RHR put his name in the record books with the second closest winning margin of 0.06 seconds, a distance of barely more than a few feet from what I saw.

RHR's win was dramatic and the 2nd closest ever at Indy
I was on the mezzanine roof of the Pagoda Tower overlooking the yard of bricks for the finish and after Friday's photo finish in the Indy Lights Freedom 100 race, I was ready for another photo finish in the 500. While Helio couldn't quite pull it off to finally get his fourth Indy win and assume legend status, he and RHR put on a thrilling late race duel which was accentuated by an unprecedented red flag stoppage with eight laps remaining to repair the SAFER barrier in Turn 2 after Townsend Bell's accident. I thought the 2013 race would be hard to top with its dozens of lead changes but 2014 may have topped it for drama and excitement in the end.

Friday's Carb Day Indy Lights win by Gabby Chaves (#5) in the Freedom 100 was a photo finish
I was at the 1982 500 standing above the old Victory Lane for the finishing duel between Gordon Johncock and Rick Mears, and I think this year's finish was better in some ways. In '82, Mears was catching Johncock but never passed him, while this year Helio and RHR exchanged the lead several times over the final laps so the winner was truly in doubt right until the checkers flew. Shooting for again this year as I did last year, I had the chance to cover Indy from all over the place, and my race day plan involved moving every 20 laps or so and ending up in the pits for the last third of the race, and on the roof for the finish. While it would have been nice to have Victory Lane access like 2013, I knew early in the day I hadn't gotten that coveted pass so that just meant I had to change my strategy for the end of the race. I knew I would get a checkered flag shot no matter what, and that my photos would be far superior to anything I shot back in 1982 with a borrowed Pentax.

Indy's Pagoda before dawn on race day
It was a hectic finish to an exhausting and very special day for me for a number of reasons. My first Indy 500 as a credentialed photographer was in 1984 so it was daunting to think about how fast those 30 years have gone by. The day began at 4:00 a.m. as we got up to head to the Speedway and my mom, who has been battling cancer, was able to go with us for the whole experience. We were inside the track and parked by 5:00 a.m. and I've always loved that time inside the Speedway in the pre-dawn darkness when the Pagoda is all lit up, flags flying and the date displayed across its message boards near the top. At 79 years of age, we didn't really expect Mom to go out that early with us and she made it through the whole day with flying colors, able to sit in our Stand B seats in the shade and enjoy the race with my brother, his son and my beautiful and talented photographer assistant. That was quite an accomplishment on her part but then she's a true Indy 500 fan and didn't want to miss a thing. We got her a golf cart ride to the seats around 10:30 race morning and the seats my brother and I share were excellent from all accounts. That's when we parted ways and I began to put my race day shooting strategy into effect.

Pre-race pageantry for the 500 from on high
I started off the race on the roof of the Penthouse in Stand E with a view down the front stretch as I did last year. The panorama from up there is spectacular and the lighting conditions were perfect for low ISO, high saturation shooting, so my pictures were dense and colorful. My original plan was to move to ground level if there was an early caution period but I quickly scrapped that when I saw how hard and clean everyone was racing. So I put my 20 lap plan in motion and went to the slot at ground level where the cars enter Turn 1, then to the outside of Turn 1 and then to the inside of Turn 1 as the race got close to the halfway mark. From there I went on the roof of the F1 garages to shoot down on the cars as they entered Turn 1 and could get shots of passing attempts going into 1. I couldn't believe how fast the first half of the race went by and I managed to get into the pits to shoot a couple of late pit stops before heading to the mezzanine roof for the finish. That's when Indy started cranking up the pressure on the drivers and some ill-advised moves led to accidents and cautions which ultimately set up the frantic finish. After the ceremonies in Victory Lane and the kissing of the bricks, I then had a couple of hours of editing and uploading to do before finally leaving the track sometime after 6:00 p.m. By 8:00 p.m., I was all used up and the "Energizer Bunny" was out of juice; I crashed hard for 12 hours without even trying to watch the race replay on local television.

Turn 1 stands in the Southwest Vista were packed
I had been fighting an upper respiratory bug since the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, so now it was two weeks later, the 500 was over, and the end of Indy's "Month of Jay" had taken its toll. I felt like I had been kicked in the chest by a mule and my head was about to explode. Over the previous five weekends, I had shot at Salem for ARCA, traveled to Talladega and back to shoot ARCA and NASCAR for Associated Press, then worked the Grand Prix and the 500 for It was a schedule that looked daunting last winter and reality proved that to be true. Did I mention working in different time zones, dealing with crazy extremes in weather, long distance driving, and still managing my regular teaching job? Anyway, I made it to a medcheck the night after the 500 once we got home from driving my Mom to her sister's in Warsaw on Memorial Day. All of a sudden, it seemed, another Indy 500 was in the books. As I write this now I am feeling much better with the antibiotics on board, our school year has ended, and my 57th birthday is this weekend. All is right with the world.

I only have one question:  Is it May yet?
Ryan Hunter-Reay (#28) got the best of Helio Castroneves (#3) in a colorful duel of yellow cars

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