What Helped Me Get Through 2020 - Motorsport Photography
Photographing my first professional race: the IMSA WeatherTech Series round at Laguna Seca.
As I look ahead to capturing this coming weekend's GT World Challenge America race at Wine Country's Sonoma Raceway, I wanted to look back at my highlight of the past year: my first professional motorsport event behind a camera.
So there I was at work on a boring Wednesday afternoon. However, that boring Wednesday was about to become something very exciting. Upon checking my email for the 17th time that day, I discovered a late media approval from WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca for that weekend's IMSA round. Yes, a race weekend only several days from then. Didn't matter, I was beyond excited. Initially denied due to COVID-19 restrictions, this was finally some good news in 2020.
I've gotten serious about photography about a year ago, and ever since, one of my goals for the year was to shoot more racing. Well, you know how it went. Pandemic, global lockdown, races canceled and/or postponed - it seemed like the year's ambition was doomed. But alas, Laguna Seca was calling. I did luckily tag along with my best friend to several track days at Thunderhill, Sonoma, and here at Laguna for practice before the IMSA race.
Normally, whatever 'normal' now means, I attend Monterey Car Week each year, including the Monterey Motorsports Reunion at Laguna Seca where I've covered BMWs for the past few years. More importantly, I had little to no idea what I was doing with a camera back then. But, this was different, being a global professional racing series. And, I was taking this more than serious with my newfound desire to be like Jamey Price behind my Nikon.
Being a race in highly-impacted California, spectators were not allowed, but Laguna Seca is a public recreation area with many campsites. So, if you camped, you could see the race and go just about everywhere besides the bleachers. A very neat and convenient loophole.
I left my house near Sacramento at 4:30AM Saturday morning. Camera and gear all packed, I had to arrive before the 8AM practice start time for IMSA. 3 hours later, I was walking into the media center and feeling hopelessly and hilariously outgunned. Armed with my modest Nikon D7500 and Sigma 150-600 superzoom, the sheer value of photography gear in this room was someone's hard-earned 401k; There are 400 and 600mm telephoto primes left and right, with photographers going into battle with multiple Nikon D5s and Canon 1DXs. I couldn't let this put me off, I was here to get the best out of the equipment that I had.
Some get excited to meet actors and other celebrities, but meeting several of my favorite motorsport photographers like Jamey Price and Camden Thrasher, had me on a cloud. But, cars were starting, the sound a cracking whip in the morning silence, as the sun was barely peeking over the rolling Salinas hills, signaling the official start of the weekend. I made my way to above turn 2 to shoot cars cresting turn 1 on the front straight. The soft autumnal morning light was simply perfect.
The cars were released, and instantly the entire valley erupted in a flare of revs and combustion. Racing, for me at least, was back. You can watch Formula 1 or any racing on TV, but it's never the same as being there. Practice lasted an hour, and it could have been minutes. It sounded like medieval warfare across the track between the blaring and exceedingly loud Porsche RSRs, the C8 Corvettes, American muscle Cadillacs, and then of course the highly-boosted BMW M8s. They make an interesting cocktail of a sound, part rumbling V8 coupled with a metallic crescendo that makes it sound like its revving much higher. Off-throttle, you can hear what must be an anti-lag system to keep the twin-turbo V8 on the boil plus the gorgeous whooshing noises of boost pressure building. I forgot how great race cars sound in person.
First thing I noted was, compared to being at Laguna for track days, is how bloody fast race cars actually are. Not just the speed on the straights, because actually a stock 720S can outdrag any GTLM or GTD car...but it's the braking performance and cornering speeds. Last time I was here, it seemed like most people in their Porsche GT3s and BMWs were just crawling around corners and braking oh so early compared to this new perspective. Approaching the turn 2 hairpin, where you're carrying 130-150 MPH on the front straight (depending on the class of car), these guys go so deep before applying any brakes, and then it just seems like they go into sudden slow-mo because the braking forces are that strong. It's bewitching to watch after not seeing modern race cars in person for so long.
Then came race day on Sunday, with a 1:05 start time. I decide to shoot the beginning at turn 4, with a long look down towards turn 3 to capture the train of cars exiting one corner and onto the next. I couldn't see the green flag wave, but I needn't use my eyes - the artillery fire of the entire field mashing the throttles were an easy tell. The field came around 3 corners later, led by the Penske Acura DPis. The rush and adrenaline were things that I forgot existed, and being only feet from the track peering through a photo window in the fence was the perfect way to regain that buzz.
I was glad I brought ear plugs. Damn, are these cars LOUD when you're right along the fence as the whole pack comes by. The DPis were immediately in attack mode on one another, looking left and right on corner entry to my station at turn 3. Within a few laps, they were barging through lapped GTD traffic, which made for some great photo opportunities with cars in each direction possible. After exploring multiple angles at just one corner, an hour had seemingly just flown by. First memory card was full, so pop a fresh 64GB Sandisk in plus a new battery and it's time to head to the Corkscrew.
I wanted to capture a few cars at a slow shutter speed through the trees of the Corkscrew, I'm talking 1/20th of a second, slower than I've ever even tried before. I threw out about 90 % of them, but a couple came out as close to perfect as I imagined. I alternated between 1/80th and 1/125th shooting vertical aspect of cars descending the corkscrew. This proved tricky on autofocus keeping up as the cars are both getting closer to you, and also traveling downwards. Probably should have manual pre-focused but then the weirdly changing perspective, the cars basically morphing into different shapes in this section, would still have proved challenging. The resulting motion blur around a sharp car made for a dreamy effect on the famous, free-falling Corkscrew.
The World Famous Corkscrew that makes up Turn 8. The elevation change is dramatic, dropping some five stories in just a manner of seconds.
It was walking over to Turn 9 that I discovered this bush's end that just so happened to perfectly frame the apex of 9. Some of my favorite shots from the weekend were here at this surprising location as it emphasized the banking/camber of the ultra-fast 9. I finished the race opposite the top of 7 and 8A (the Corkscrew), gathering high shutter-speed, wide-open shots of the race cars coming right at me. It's so neat how, whenever there was a gap in cars, you'd hear an exhaust coming up the hill in the distance and then suddenly appear over the crest of 7 and into view with the Salinas mountains behind it. After a late caution and subsequent restart, the cars were bunched back up which was an awesome sight and noise at my current position. The two Acuras were nose to tail battling for the overall win, while the Porsche RSR was barely hanging on in front of the number 3 Corvette. GTD had at least the top 5 all within a couple seconds. As my favorite John Hindaugh has said before on Radio Le Mans, "This is motorsport!" Before I could comprehend, the two hour and forty minute sprint had concluded. So many spots I was yet to shoot from still!
And so just like that, it was over. Some 7,000 photos later, my work here was done, only waiting for the same race next year. But, where does that leave this as an experience? The privilege to be shooting motor racing alongside some of the greats in the sport is something that few can relate to, but surely all can appreciate. To be part of a global racing series itself, and the organization involved and professionalism sets itself apart, too. On a grander scale, in such a strange year like it has been, we all need something to look forward to and keep us going. For me and many others, it was cars and racing. I never thought I'd get to see live racing in 2020, but the year ended up having a couple good surprises after all. I'm still doing this more for fun than as an actual pro photographer, but I have no complaints. This is supposed to be fun, remember? That's why we do what we love.
Heading to the track, being around sports cars and race cars, and having my camera were what gave me the buzz in 2020. We're all always looking for that fizz, and as much as I love driving and being on track myself in a sports car, capturing moments trackside ranks right up there, and I have no intention to pass by more opportunities. I'm excited, no ecstatic! to continue more shooting into 2021.
Up next for me is Sonoma Raceway for the Fanatec GT World Challenge America this coming weekend, March 5-7. You can visit their website for more information on the coming race weekend.
You can see more of my photos from this race weekend here at The Road Beat. Otherwise, enjoy the photos here.