Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Salem Speedway Done; Talladega Superspeedway Next

Christopher Bell won for Venturini Motorsports in his first ARCA race
Now that the Rolex 24 Hours, my first two ARCA races and a handful of NASCAR races are in the books, it's time to get serious about racing and motorsports photography! Up until a few weeks ago, all I could do was watch from my couch and follow my friends at the races on social media. I have to admit it was driving me a little crazy. What has made it worse some days was Facebook: the "memories" it pulls up and suggests that I share, such as the memories of the first couple of Daytona 500's I had the chance to shoot for Associated Press in 2011 and 2012.  I drove down by myself both times and in 2012 had to drive back home to Indianapolis without seeing the 500 due to the race's first rain postponement ever. Then in 2013, an ice storm in Indy cancelled my flight south and I missed the whole weekend.

Pole winner Chase Briscoe was quick all day but had problems late
But that has not been the case in April as I did a banzai trip to Phoenix for the Indycar weekend as a spectator, then shot the ARCA race at Nashville's Fairgrounds Speedway in early April. Last weekend I shot ARCA racing again at Salem Speedway and now I am preparing to hit the road tomorrow for a trifecta with ARCA and NASCAR at Talladega. I haven't been to Talladega in two years so I am anxious to get back and see all of my Alabama friends, plus it will be the first time I have shot the ARCA race there as the official photographer for the series. It will be fun and exhausting; then I have to be back at work Monday morning to teach Algebra! I will be posting some big numbers in terms of photos taken, steps tracked on my pedometer and miles driven on the road after this weekend, I am sure. And be sure to check the ARCA Racing Series websites for more of my photos.

After Talladega, I have an off week and then preparations for the 100th Indy 500 begin the second weekend in May with the Angie's List Grand Prix. In rapid succession will be a week of Indy 500 practice, qualifying weekend, Carb Day and the 500 itself over the following two weeks when I will be shooting for once again. Before all that though, I have to tell you about Salem.

Salem Speedway is one tough half mile
If you have never been to Salem Speedway in southern Indiana, then you need to get off your butt and get out there. It is a fast, rugged, historic track that has now held 99 ARCA races. The 100th ARCA event at Salem is this September so make a point to be there. I have been going to Salem off and on for nearly 30 years, and since 2006 I have only missed one of the ARCA races there. This year's race was met with the best weather for the spring race in memory, as skies were crystal blue all day Sunday. It made for a great spectacle and wonderful scenes with intense racing among a cadre of young talent that any series would be hard pressed to match. I've said it over and over again but it bears repeating: if you want to see the future stars of stock car racing, then you need to get to an ARCA race. Up and coming talent Christopher Bell won in his first ever ARCA start; this has become the new normal ARCA as new kids come in, saddle up and go win their first time out. Another youngster Justin Haley hounded Bell and finished second while another newcomer Dalton Sargeant snagged third in his first ever ARCA race. Lord knows what we will see at Talladega Friday and that is part of the reason why I enjoy working for the series so much.

It was a gorgeous day for racing at Salem 
I have some great memories of working down south at places like Talladega and Daytona. I've had good luck shooting and always managed to get something memorable so I expect this weekend to be no different. As ARCA's photographer, I will have more freedom to roam than I will the rest of the weekend shooting for AP, and I plan to take advantage of it. While I couldn't afford the trip south or the time off from the teaching job I have now for either the Rolex 24 Hours or the Daytona 500, until this month I've had to be content with couch racing and following my photographer friends on Facebook and Twitter who have been able to be out shooting racing. That is a thing of the past, however, with my fourth race weekend out of five weekends in the month of April about to get underway. On top of that, I am still tobacco free since my last cigarette January 31st and I expect to stay that way. By Sunday, the Month of Jay will commence and the heavy lifting begins at Indianapolis so if you're looking for me, you need to just check Twitter @alleygroup or the racing calendar. Get out to the racetrack; I'll take your picture. Godspeed and safe travels everyone.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

ARCA Winner Josh Williams Overjoyed at Nashville

Josh Williams with the spoils of victory
This past weekend was a weekend of firsts. It was my first race of the season as a working photographer and I could definitely feel the rust crackling off as Saturday wore on. By the time the night was over, I felt I was in the groove and was reminded again how great it is to experience the raw emotion in racing as I have been blessed to do. It was a long chilly day beginning with an officials meeting at 7:30 local time and ending back at the hotel after midnight. In between, the competitors for the The Music City 200 in the ARCA Racing Series practiced twice, qualified and raced on Nashville's historic half mile Fairgrounds Speedway oval at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds. It was the 25th ARCA race at this track but the winner Josh Williams got his first one after several seasons of hard work. As I said on Twitter after the race, rarely will you see a happier driver and team after a race win, and some of his family members were literally in tears afterwards. It was a sight to see and I am glad I got to be there to document the event for the ARCA series as its "official photographer". If this race is any indication of what's to come this season, then 2016 will be one for the record books. For those of you who follow ARCA, you know that after last year's run of consecutive first time race winners, that is saying a lot.

Winner's tears from Mom
 It was great seeing and working with all my friends at ARCA again, and some of them might have been a little rusty too since it was their first race since Daytona at the end of February. For ARCA's second race (and first short track event) of 2016, a stout field of cars turned out with 17 drivers entering their first event of the season. Of those, there were seven (7) drivers who were competing in their first ARCA race ever - anywhere! So naturally, on a weekend of firsts, veteran Josh Williams got his first win in the series after several close calls the last couple of years. As the race was nearing its end, I made sure I was near their pit box as I anticipated quite a celebration and I got it. As it turned out, their pit location also put me in position to get a decent checkered flag shot, so I grabbed that and turned my attention to the crew members who had leaped out onto the pit  lane to congratulate each other. Josh's parents celebrated from on top of their war wagon while he did a decent burnout before climbing out to claim his new acoustic guitar memento and do interviews with ARCA's new television partner, American Sports Network. It was fun to be in the middle of all of that taking photos; it reinforces why I love to do what I do at the racetrack.
Autograph sessions bring ARCA drivers and fans together

I had a "first" of my own as I got through my first working race weekend tobacco free. A long drive in my car from Indy on Friday, a very long day at the race track Saturday, and the return drive home Sunday without smoking - that's never happened before! Going to Phoenix for the Indycar race last weekend was more of a pleasure trip and although I took some photos, it was not the same as working a race for ARCA as the series has some very specific preferences on what they want covered and how the image files get catalogued. The kicker (as usual) early in the season is the driver headshots which are supposed to be done before practice begins. In this case that meant 17 different drivers had to pay me a visit before they would be allowed to run in practice, and with many of them also involved in car preparation, getting them corralled is always the challenge. Plus there are other things I need to shoot while waiting for the new drivers to arrive. Thank God for radios and the fact it was a short track so I was never far from the "office" where the headshots needed to be taken. Many times, that is my first chance to meet and talk to a lot of these new drivers. I love to chat with them and find out about them - where they are from, what other kind of racing they've done, etc. I also tell them I might be a good luck charm as lots of other guys who I photographed won the very first ARCA race they entered, so they might be the next one to do it!

Josh was all smiles before the race and ecstatic after winning
I had another first on the weekend as I was breaking in a new camera which was just incredible. It's the first new body I have acquired in several years and it lived up to its billing, even if I did not quite know how to use all of its capabilities. I will learn all of that, just like I have learned everything else I know about photography - by doing it - but the things I sought the most from the camera were as true as advertised. The firing speed and low light capability were simply wonderful to utilize so I am really excited for some more night racing this ARCA season when I can really put it to good use. Next stop for me on the ARCA tour this year is Salem Speedway in southern Indiana, my second home track of sorts, so if you want to see the future of big time stock car racing, then come on out and join us.

Look me up if you do! I'll take your picture. Here's a few I took for ARCA Saturday. For more, go to

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Great Weekend in the Desert

The Phoenix oval was made for Indycar
So now the Indycar race is over and I am back in the Phoenix airport getting ready to head back home. A Friday night to Sunday night trip from Indy to Phoenix and back may seem extreme to a lot of people but I love it. I don’t know if I will feel the same tomorrow at work but that’s tomorrow; today I am happy to have gotten the chance to spend time with my brother sharing something we both love - Indycar racing - and talking about where we’re at in our lives. I don’t get to see his son, my nephew, very often as they have lived in Tucson for more than 14 years and the last time I was in Tucson was in December 2009 for my niece’s wedding, so our times together are hard to come by. Racing, or meeting over a race weekend, is turning out to be something we can manage and it gives us the chance to create some new memories together. Our next opportunity will be the Indy 500 in May and we plan to meet at Iowa in July for the ARCA and Indycar weekend. I know those will be a blast.

The gang's all here - at Phoenix together
I rarely get to go to a race these days where I can just spectate; I am usually working and have photo assignments to manage. So this weekend was an opportunity to just sit in our seats and enjoy the racing, exchanging commentary about what we were seeing and who was doing what, while not being worried about producing “award winning” photographs. Mind you, I don’t like shooting through the catch fencing from a distance as there is no way to get rid of it in the image, but I used this race to tune up for the rest of the season. What I found was my instincts are still sharp, and I can anticipate trouble many times well before something actually happens. So I was ready with my finger on the button, but didn’t stress over the results so much.

The Mayor of Hinchtown had a tough weekend
Never was that more true yesterday than during driver introductions as I knew it would be my best chance to get driver candids, and we were able to enjoy the crowd chanting and fighting for t-shirts being thrown out by the Firestone Firehawk, or reacting to the driver interviews and laughing about sponsor plugs like Josef Newgarden’s for Fuzzy’s Vodka. And we were able to do it together. We got to hang out as a group and just talk at a picnic table while we waited for the race. I got to know my nephew’s girlfriend and enjoy my nephew’s sense of humor and see how much he’s grown up, now a drummer and aspiring musician, and listen to him and my brother rattle off baseball trivia.

Today my brother and I ate breakfast and hung out by the pool at the hotel in Phoenix before the whole group went to a restaurant in Scottsdale to kill time before they had to take me back to the airport this afternoon. We went to the Old Town Scottsdale area and walked around the tourist shops, acted silly and then got ice cream and milk shakes before heading back towards Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix. They still had to drive back to Tucson so we said our goodbyes at the American Airlines area and I went in to go through security, find a place to charge my phone and type this blog post. This has been one of the toughest years of my life, with my Mom’s death and other family troubles we’re having to overcome, so it’s hard to put into words how much this weekend together means to me. And how much I miss seeing my Arizona family and being part of their lives. Love you guys. Next stop Indianapolis. Then Akron Tuesday to close on the sale of Mom’s house and then to Nashville, Tennessee Friday for my first ARCA race of the season. I can’t wait to get back again.

By the way - Scott Dixon dominated and won the 250 lap race at Phoenix. 
Scottie D. had everyone covered on this night

Friday, April 1, 2016

Off to Phoenix for Indycar: Normal Is New

Mom loved racing too
This post is already surreal and I've hardly written anything. I had been sitting in the Indianapolis airport waiting to board a flight to Chicago when I started this and now I am at O'Hare waiting for my next flight. This afternoon, I had been following the Indycar qualifying from Phoenix on Twitter and through text updates from my brother, who is in Tucson and who I will meet in Phoenix tomorrow to go to the race together. Now it's evening and my layover here in Chicago is only a couple of hours so I am excited to get on another plane and head to Phoenix where I will arrive late tonight.  Then we get to spend all day tomorrow at the racetrack, Phoenix International Raceway, to watch the Indy Lights and Indycar races. My brother and I have been talking about doing this race weekend ever since the event was announced late last year. I never had any idea that it would end up being my first race of 2016, or that I would end up making a banzai trip out of it, as I will be back late Sunday night and into work Monday morning to help with orientation for our new students.

Mom didn't mind the infield either and loved Turn 3 at Indy
But the surreal part is not that I am in Indy one day and Phoenix the next: it's that I can't stop thinking about my Mom. This trip is also quite bittersweet, as I am posting on April 1st, a day that most people associate with April Fool's Day, but in our family, that has been my Mom's birthday. She would have been 81 today had she made it this far but God had other plans for her last July 5th so we are doing our best to try to celebrate her memory today with her spirit present. My brother, sister and I participated in a conference call earlier this afternoon and I know Mom was listening in as she would be glad that Steve and I were going to get together at a race this weekend. It's a shame my schedule is so tight or I'm sure our sister would have gone west too, but we will do our best to uphold the family honor at Phoenix International Raceway for the Indycar festivities. We tried to do this race together back in 2002, but Mom got sick and couldn't go, but I have her event shirt from that race with me and will wear it tomorrow at the track in her memory.

Mom loved her life in Akron
While my blog has historically been about racing, it has morphed into something else this past year with the travel and Mom's health issues becoming ever present on my mind. We are supposed to close on the sale of her home in Ohio next week and that will mark another transition in our grieving process, as that was a place Mom made her own for 25 years and we won't be going back there for anymore birthdays or Christmases, or to help get the house ready for the winter as I used to do every year. Or a million other reasons I used to come up with just to talk and see how she was doing.

Mom's in Victory Lane now
Even with all of that, it occurred to me that this race weekend in Phoenix is a nod to normalcy (whatever that is) in our lives. Next week I will take another step in that direction after a final trip to Ohio to handle the closing on her house and my week will end with a road trip by car to Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway to begin my 2016 photo work for the ARCA Racing Series.

And so we begin. Mom was a big race fan and one of our biggest supporters so it is still extremely difficult to know she isn't around to talk to while I am on the road, or having trouble with a student, or to plan for the Indy 500 weekend when she used to come home almost every year. Not many women her age were still going to the Speedway each May, and she loved to say "Not bad for a little white haired old lady." Not bad indeed Mom. Here's to you. Godspeed and safe travels to us all.