Sunday, February 5, 2017

Wet and Wild Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona

The winning Wayne Taylor Racing team enjoyed Victory Lane
Lately I have had to pinch myself to be sure I wasn't dreaming about some of the events in my life. Last weekend I celebrated one year tobacco free by photographing the IMSA WeatherTech series Rolex 24 Hours race at Daytona. It was my second Rolex 24 and my first race to work for 2017. The only other time I went was in 2014 and I shot for AP but this time I was fortunate to go as a contributor to On top of an exciting race event to wrap up January,  earlier in the month I was interviewed by two different websites about my experiences as a racing photographer. One of those interviews was the first time I had ever been on a podcast as a guest so that was fun and humbling. Links to those interviews are here: Wide Open Wheel (article) and Formula One Blog (podcast). Special thanks to Paul Henry and Doug Patterson for those opportunities. Above all, I have to thank my friends and the editors at for the chance to contribute to its coverage of the season opening sports car event at Daytona.

I planned for rain and it came in buckets during the race
As cool as it was getting interviewed by friends in the media, the coolest was flying to Florida and working the Rolex 24 from Thursday practice through the end of the race Sunday afternoon. I don't often get the chance to fly to races so I viewed the Rolex weekend as a real tune-up for Le Mans. I had new camera covers in case of rain, I had a 400 mm I borrowed from Canon and it was the first trip I relied on my backpack bag to cart all my gear on the plane. The trip started with a 2:30 a.m. alarm Thursday morning to catch a 6:07 flight from Indy and I actually got to the Delta ticket counter at Indianapolis before any of the airline staff, so that was a first. I got lucky on the flight when a very large man who was ticketed in the seat next to me couldn't get his seat belt buckled so he got moved and I had two seats to myself on the emergency exit row so I had lots of room. 

I enjoyed the pre-race pageantry IMSA displayed
The flight got to Orlando ahead of schedule so I got my rental car and headed for the Daytona credential office. I got inside the track near the end of the first WeatherTech practice session and was super excited to get set up in the media center for my first race of 2017. I remembered how to get in the infield even though the last time I was at Daytona was in 2014, but the parking security people sent me away to "Lot 6" which turned out to be outside the track Ali g the backstretch. My first thought was how to get my gear inside the track, which turned out not to be a big deal since there was a shuttle operating nearby and there were lots of team personnel who were parked in the same getting back and forth didn't turn out to be a big deal after all. My second thought was about sleeping Saturday night during the race. I had a hotel room for Thursday and Friday nights and my plan was to catch a few hours sleep Saturday night in my car inside the track like I had in 2014. I had to adjust that plan to include the shuttle ride but that worked out OK too as it turned out, and I was able to get through the race with a couple hours of sleep.

Night pit stops were quite a sight to behold
The Rolex 24 is such a unique event compared to most of the rest of the racing I cover. The ARCA races I shoot are seldom even two hours long and even the Indy 500 or NASCAR at Talladega seldom go four hours at most. My goal going into the race was to shoot for a couple hours and then edit and upload photos; rinse and repeat, and that's pretty much how it worked out. The race itself is a wall of sound for 24 hours and once it was over, it was amazing how quiet Daytona became. I got to test out my camera covers during the night and was out shooting at 4:30 in the morning in the rain after my brief nap in the rental car. I went in to the media center around 5:15 as the rain really started to pour down and the race went under caution for a long time so I just stayed at my computer and watched the TV monitors as I edited. It was fun hanging out with FoxSports commentator Justin Bell during that lengthy rain caution just chatting. I asked him why he was slumming with us photogs and we talked about the Facebook live report he did for the Roar Before the 24, and just generally talked about racing. By that hour Sunday morning, people were sleeping on their computers in photo room or catnapping wherever they could but by 7:00 a.m. everyone started heading back out to shoot as the race went green again.

A happy Jeff Gordon in the winning team's pit when the race ended
It seems funny now in hindsight, but I remember thinking throughout the race every time I stopped to edit and download that I had plenty of time left: 16 hours to go, 11 hours, 9 hours, etc. But when it was all over, I was ensconced next to the Wayne Taylor Racing team pit box taking a chance on them being the winning team so I could get reaction shots, wishing I had done more throughout the race. From the time I got there Thursday until I left Sunday evening, I shot about 6,500 frames and walked almost 70,000 steps, so maybe the thought of "doing more" was just my perfectionism talking. In the end I was generally pleased with my production and how I met the challenges of pacing myself, shooting at night and dealing with the rain. Starting around noon Sunday, I had done a final lap around the infield from oval Turn 2 and the pumphouse where I had shot several Daytona 500's, down the backstretch to the bus stop and then back into the pits so I could be ready for the last 90 minutes. My flights back were uneventful and I was pleasantly tired after a long weekend which seemed to go by so quickly once it was over. I am grateful to feel like I am still learning after all these years shooting racing and I think the lessons learned at this year's Rolex 24 will help me at Le Mans this June. I can't wait for the next chance to show what I've learned. To hear that roar of engines singing through the night once again will knock another bucket list item off so stay tuned and I will tell you all about it here. For more of my photos please check or follow me on Twitter @alleygroup. Safe travels everyone!

Wayne Taylor Racing Cadillac DPi was flawless in its debut race

The GT category was hotly contested with the Ganassi Ford GT40 program showing the way

Night racing is a thing of beauty - lights, sound and fury

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