Tuesday, October 19, 2004

How to shoot fast-track auto races - Part I

Mark M. Hancock / © The Dallas Morning News

Vitor Meira (No. 17, left), Tony Kanaan (No. 11, center) and Helio Castroneves (No. 3, right) battle for the lead during the IRL Chevy 500 race at the Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth on Sunday, October 17, 2004. Castroneves won the race. Kanaan had sewn up the series win before the race began. He is the only racer to complete every lap of every race of the entire season of any major motor sport series.

I shot my first major auto racing events this weekend. I had a steep learning curve (Ouch!). Consequently, most of the issues in this post are from the "I wish I had..." category.

I thought horse racing was difficult and stressful. The horses move fast and only cross the finish line once. At least with the cars, I figured I'd have several attempts at them – you know - since they go round and round. Silly rabbit. No horse runs this fast. BTW, cars only cross the finish line once as well -- at 212 mph.

After the first day’s Silverado 350K (NASCAR trucks), I realized how hard it is to shoot races. So, I went back to the office and studied each and every photo in our archive and tried to figure out what the other PJs did and what makes good shots. I did much better on the second day with the Indy cars during the IRL Chevy 500K (they’re even faster).

Since this is an expanding sport (it’s already big, but it’ll get even bigger), I’ll share what I’ve learned from a weekend’s worth of panic, frustration and mistakes.

Get proper credentials
Luckily the desk handles most of the pre-race credentials legwork. Additionally the paper is a major sponsor, so we get some preferential treatment. For those who want to run the gauntlet solo, start early to get everything in proper order well before race day.

Even if PJs work for mid-sized newspapers, they may want to talk with their editors about acceptable double-dipping with a regional magazine to bump up their credential bid request.

Most speedways will probably require written requests for credentials. Go to the nearest track’s Web site and find credential information or the media relations coordinator for inquiries.

Like most other big events, the number of credentialed PJs will be limited. It’s not only an access issue, it’s a safety issue as well (at least two PJs were gruesomely killed while covering races in recent years). Additionally, people who’ve invested huge money into speedways and racing teams want the widest possible publication for their efforts. They need to draw fans and additional resources to keep the biz going.

Even with all the previous requests and authorizations, the PJ is required to present a photo ID and personally receive the access badge and parking permit as well as sign a waiver of liability. Get it as early as possible to avoid lines and chaos.

If the PJ has highly-limited access (roof, pit), make sure to get the additional credentials or stickers. If additional safety vests are required, pay the deposit early and get it before the last-minute rush.

Practice wherever possible
I’d strongly suggest shooting time trials (and anything else) to get a grip on handling the long lenses, speed and course design. Obviously the time trials are the best option. Try several locations and angles. Find the best locations to cover the most corners (where accidents are most likely to happen).

Practice panning skills to get proper rhythm for good images. Track vehicles through turns to access how much depth-of-field will be required (during a pan from start to finish without blind [mirror up] focusing).

Although I’m accustomed to big lenses, this kicked it up a notch for me. I maxed-out everything the second day (600mm with a 2X converter on a dit – effectively a 1,800mm lens).

If logistics don’t allow PJs to go for time trials, at least practice on a nearby highway. Make this practice as hard as possible on yourself. It’ll be worse on the track, so get good before the pressure hits.

Find the fastest road nearby. Set up a tripod and the longest lens available. Work to get sharp images of smallest cars on the road (preferably in a fast curve). Next, try to frame up only the drivers’ faces. I already hear the squeaks out there. The point is to be prepared for a relatively small object traveling at aircraft speeds (about 1/3 the speed of sound).

To do this, the PJ must get long glass, then double it, then move it as close as (safely) possible to the moving objects. Each level of expertise requires a smaller target to keep within the viewfinder frame.

Bring the right equipment
The standard PJ gear is needed for racing. Obviously, long lenses and a tripod are preferred. However, the PJ will need to bring some extra items as well.

Hearing protection
High quality earplugs or gun range/industrial hearing muffs will do. Try to get protection for at least 21 decibels of sound. In either case, protect your hearing.

If opting for earplugs, choose the right size. Try to find U.S. Army issue earplugs, which come in different sizes. These can also be easily cleaned with soap and water. Use foam rubber earplugs only as a last option since they aren’t as effective nor as sanitary after the first use.

The muffs allow PJs to listen to a radio play-by-play of the race by also wearing earbuds inside the muffs. When choosing muffs, research before buying. These aren’t horribly expensive (compared to photographic equipment), but it's important for them to work well without creating additional distractions for the PJ.

Choose muffs with well-padded ear covers and headband. Additionally, make sure it's solidly constructed rather than snap-together plastic. The headband should be made of flexible metal.

For PJs planning to pursue this sport, high-quality ear covers with built-in speakers can wire directly to Bearcat-style radio scanners. The allow PJs to hear drivers talk with their pit crews during the race.

Food and water
Eat well before getting into position. PJs will need energy to make it trough each race. Additionally, take extra bottles of water in belt holsters. Most races are held in during the afternoon with no overhead shade. It gets hot, and PJs need enough water to make it through the race without needing to run to the restroom.

Radio with earbuds
Most tracks have radio agreements for race days. Find out the proper frequency and preset tuner buttons. Get a small armband radio or a small one that can clip to a camera bag or tuck securely into a shirt pocket.

Attach earbuds (miniature earphones which insert into the ear) to the radio, and cover them with protective ear muffs.

The radio will be about 10 seconds behind actual action, so it isn't much use to let the PJ know what's happening on the track. However, between peak action moments, the announcers will talk about side issues of importance. Make sure to address visually as many side issues as possible (track conditions, records, milestones, etc.).

Security rope
Security ropes are critical for anyone shooting from the roof. Securely tie each lens onto each tripod or monopod. Then use a separate rope to tie the support to posts atop the building. No PJ wants to even consider what would happen if a gust of wind tossed a 600mm on a tripod off the roof and onto the spectators below.

Even if the camera is securely attached to the PJ with a camera strap, I’d still suggest a secondary rope attaching it to the PJ’s waistbag or photovest.

Additional precautions such as taping lenses onto cameras with gaffer's tape might be a good idea. If it could be a problem, it’s best to fix is first.

It isn’t as large a problem for the infield, but the vacuum of cars passing can easily pick up light items and create major problems. Make sure coolers, chairs and such are secure and won’t blow away under any circumstances.

Other safety gear
This is a sport where I don’t think anyone could be too safe. If the PJ has access and funds for fireproof suits or a helmet (for infield shooters), go ahead and get it. Everyone else is wearing helmets and fireproof suits, so you won’t be the only nerd in the infield.

As a side note, photographers aren’t allowed to wear shorts at major race tracks. They will be told to put on long pants or leave because exposed skin can lead to fire-burned skin and nobody wants it.

Camping equipment
Some PJs bring collapsible lawn chairs, small ice chests and other creature comforts. Make sure they are out of major pathways and all items are tied down.

Get there early
I got to the Texas Motor Speedway hours before start times. Judging from the traffic snarl near the speedway, I can only imagine how miserable it must be for a big NASCAR event. Probably it’s best to camp overnight for the big events.

From what I understand, more than 100,000 people attend the Texas NASCAR races. About 94,000 attended yesterday’s Chevy 500, the IndyCar series finale and championship. This is almost 15,000 more than attended the 2004 Texas/OU shootout football game (79,587).

Learn the game
Start with NASCAR 101 and the Indy Car overview. Knowledge about the driver/team stats and personalities as well as the track itself is vital to shooting the right cars in the right places at right time.

Without being a "gearhead," the visual concepts are simple. Key elements of the game are speed, passes, wrecks, pit stops, and the finish. These determine who wins the race. Every major race has the same elements plus a victory celebration.

Get the start sheets
Get a list of participants and pole positions (where they start). The sheets should be available in the media center. If PJs did as suggested above, they already know who the racers, owners and sponsors (cumulatively the players) are. They’ll also know which (if any) of the players are local or about to break some significant record or milestone.

Otherwise, scan the information sheets for any clues. If nobody appears to be local, ask around. Local players are needed for future stories. Get help from the media relations professionals (they are walking encyclopedias of information). Likewise, the team members and even fans can point PJs toward interesting sidebar stories.

At least find the closest racer to the PJ's readership. This is most important in IRL (Indy Racing League) because the teams tend to be international.

Then PJs are ready to get in place and get the job done.

Enough for now,

Please see Part II.


Michael Rubenstein said...

Race tracks just sound like a freakin nightmare. I'm glad we don't have one in Portland.

Mark M. Hancock said...

NASCAR is slowly marching in that direction.
Shooting track is like fishing. Most of the time, you leave disappointed in yourself for not catching a record fish. But you want to go back to try again. Then again, everything I shoot is this way for me.