Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Daily Photo Challenge Week 3: Up In the Air

Midgets and sprint cars are prone to getting upside down
Rarely does anything good happen when a race car leaves the ground. The best that one can hope for is that no one gets hurt when a car goes airborne. It's almost expected that open wheel cars like sprints and midgets will catch air at some point, since the risk of wheel to wheel contact or interlocking wheels is ever present. Anytime you see it happen, it's scary and the result can be tragic. Thankfully, even though I have been shooting racing for over 30 years and have seen plenty of flying race cars, I have never been in a position to shoot an incident which ended tragically. I hope I never am. In my lead photo, USAC driver Shane Hmiel was able to walk away from this flip in his midget at Lucas Oil Raceway in 2008, but he is still recovering from serious injuries suffered in a dirt track race a couple years later.

That's the ugly side of being a motorsports photographer: getting pictures of incidents where drivers or spectators are injured or worse. As a photojournalist, you just know you have a job to do - bring home the stories of the event in pictures - and incidents often take center stage. Eventually, if you do this long enough, you will shoot all kinds of havoc. You may also run into other gremlins that make the job even more difficult. I wrote about the vagaries of bad weather in  my last post which gave the background on the seven pictures I used for my Week 2 theme of "water". But awful weather is just the beginning! If a car catches air, sometimes you're too far away to get a decent shot. Sometimes you're just in the wrong position through luck or timing. Or your equipment fails. Or you were tracking another race car. But sometimes it all comes together and you get "the shot". At those moments, when you've recorded something spectacular, it's a special feeling - one that I keep chasing from track to track.

I recently completed Week 3 of my 42 Day personal photo challenge after covering the themes of fire and water the first two weeks. For Week 3, I chose "air" as my theme. Some people say it is better to be lucky than good but I've never agreed with that. I do believe that luck is where preparation meets opportunity and I try to live by that at the racetrack. The stories behind the following photos will expound on that mantra so be prepared!

Air: Day 15

The following photo of Mike Conway's horrific last lap crash in Turn 3 at the 2010 Indy 500 was the most spectacular incident I have ever photographed. Race leader Dario Franchitti had already taken the white flag and I had just switched on my Sony digital voice recorder to get wild sound of the final lap and the public address system. I heard (and felt) a loud thump off my left shoulder so I turned and started shooting, at first picking up Ryan Hunter-Reay's damaged car, then following him until Conway's flying Dallara came into the frame. This photo was taken an instant before Conway's left front wheel snagged a catch fence pole and the car basically exploded. The race was over, the crowd behind me was absolutely buzzing, and I ended up with an incredible photo sequence along with about 15 minutes of sound from before and after the incident on my Sony recorder. Occasionally that sound file comes up in shuffle play in my iTunes and I am instantly taken back to that afternoon. I was prepared to shoot all the way to the checkered flag but have to say I got lucky that day too when the opportunity arose. Thankfully, despite serious injuries he sustained in this crash, Mike Conway returned to race again and win in Indycars and sports cars.

Air: Day 16

Everyone knows how much I enjoy shooting at Mid Ohio Sports Car Course. It's a scenic track, less than four hours from Indy and not far from where my Mom lives. The weekend is usually a three day feast of race cars and on-track action from dawn to dusk. The 2007 Indycar weekend was not marred by "moisture" which usually seems to hit the track on race weekends, and I had already logged two full days of walking and shooting when the Indycar race rolled around on Sunday afternoon. The Esses at the end of the backstretch is the place to be for race starts at Mid Ohio as the whole field must funnel into a downhill right hander then the track turns left almost immediately over the crest of a little hill. I like to go on the inside of that crest where the corner workers are stationed to get the fans in the background and get as close as possible to the racing surface. This photo is from the start in 2007 when Marco Andretti and Tony Kanaan tangled. Marco got the worst of it, ending up on his head in the grass across the track from where I was shooting.

Air: Day 17

During the Indycar weekend at Chicagoland Speedway in 2007, the ARCA series also raced and this photo was as much about luck and positioning as anything. I had gone to the inside of the first turn to shoot the start and early laps of the ARCA race, but since it was a relatively short race and would probably only involve one pit stop, I didn't plan to stay there long. After a dozen or so laps, I was walking back to the pits to shoot pit stops when I noticed three cars getting together near the start-finish line, so I stopped walking and started shooting. One car caught a little air and the carnage continued past me down into the first turn where I had just been. So I hustled back there and got photos of Josh Wise walking away from his wrecked race car, which was now crumpled and burning in the background as he walked toward me. This one had both air and fire: the only thing missing was water.

Air: Day 18

I don't get the chance to shoot dirt track racing as much as I would like, but this shot of Brian Paulus flying over the berm at Lincoln Park Speedway during a 2006 National Sprint Tour event almost didn't happen for me at all. Lincoln Park is less than an hour from Indy so my original thinking was that shooting winged sprinters would be a fun, short road trip. I had started shooting for American Motor Journal that summer but when I got to the track, I was told that they never received a credential request. So I walked around to see if I could find other angles that might work if I decided to pay my way in. I stopped at the concession stand for a Diet Coke and to gather my thoughts and decided if I couldn't shoot from the infield, then I would just go home. I was walking back to my car when a young man I didn't know introduced himself as a PR assistant for the Tour and asked me if I needed access. I was wearing my favorite photo vest, had two cameras, flash and battery pack mounted and I guess I looked the part, so I was able to shoot that night after all. I'm glad I did as the Tour only lasted this one season (2006) and I got to see Steve Kinser, Danny Lasoski and a bunch of other winged sprint car stars do their thing on some Indiana clay.

Air: Day 19

Another track where I've really enjoyed shooting is Kentucky Speedway which is a little more than two hours south of Indy. Indycar always put on great races there which seemed to end in photo finishes every year. The track was plenty wide enough for some real wheel to wheel racing, which is even more true for the smaller cars of the Indy Lights series. Right after the start of the Lights race, there was a massive pile-up coming off of Turn 2 onto the backstretch and I saw two cars get airborne. I was shooting with my 70-200 and Canon's 2X extender to have more reach and I'm glad I did. After the race, I went in to the media center to talk to the late Ed Reinke of Associated Press about whether he wanted to look at what I had since there were no other photographers around when the crash occurred. I wasn't even shooting for AP that weekend, and I had only done Talladega and Daytona earlier in the year for the wire service, but Ed found something usable and I ended up with a photo of the day on some websites as a result. Godspeed Ed, and thank you!

Air: Day 20

This photo of Joss Moffatt flipping in USAC Sprints at Kokomo Speedway in July 2009 was another event that almost didn't happen for me. While it may not have been the most spectacular flip, I loved the evasive action being taken by the driver in the foreground and the wall completely caked with mud in the background - except for the one shovel width of concrete which had been cleared by the track crew so the drivers would know where the clay surface ended and the wall began. One of my "fire" themed shots (Casey Riggs) also came from this race so I was especially pleased to be able to get into the infield and shoot with all the regular USAC sprint car shooters.

Air: Day 21

Another track where I have come to love shooting is Talladega Superspeedway. NASCAR's high speed pack racing is always edgy and anything can happen, right up until the checkered flag falls. My October 2013 weekend proved that point as both the trucks and Sprint Cup races had airborne racecars on the final lap. Both races were fairly uneventful from my position and I remember saying to myself over and over "Be ready, be ready". This shot was from my sequence of Austin Dillon flying on the backstretch. Dillon was subbing for the injured Tony Stewart that weekend and I was positioned clear across the track at the top of the frontstretch grandstands. Little did I know that weekend would be my last opportunity to work with Associated Press staffer Dave Martin who passed away unexpectedly the following New Year's Eve while shooting the Chick-Fil-A Bowl. "Mullett", as he was known by his friends, always took care of me at Talladega and gave me a chance to "make some f-king pictures". I will never forget that and will try to pay his kindness forward.

This story brings me halfway through my personal 42 Day challenge! My next weekly theme will be "earth", so stay tuned race fans.

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