Race Weekend Central

Lights, Camera, Action

In the 16 seasons I’ve had the pleasure of making a tiny contribution to this beautiful corner of the motorsports universe, there are few elements I’ve enjoyed more than the opportunity to be an official race photographer. Well, to be fair, I love it when you guys rip me a new one in the comments section. I always know when that happens that I’m doing something right. Provoking a reaction, however vociferous against my viewpoint, is far better than engendering indifference, after all. But I digress. Back to the point in hand.

A couple weeks ago, I was at Auto Club Speedway in Southern California on photo duty for Frontstretch for the second race of the season. The weekend itself began with literally all the weather. We had a deluge and even some snowflakes on the Saturday, a real rarity in that part of the world, and it looked like the longest of long shots, at the very best, that we would get both the NASCAR Xfinity and Cup series races — 700 miles in total — on the Sunday. But as it turned out, we did on what was an emotional final day of racing in front of a sold-out crowd on the weather-beaten two-mile circuit.

For me as a photographer, there are several components I know I need to capture on race day. First, I need to make sure I get quality shots of the winner of the race both on track (burnout, interview with TV, flag celebrations etc.) and during the more formal victory lane celebrations. I also need to make sure I have good coverage of the field so that I can have a shot ready for whatever angle that weekend’s writers take with their race day stories.

Then I need photos and video for social media (Twitter and Instagram), and finally, I need to make sure I have a good range of general imagery that can be used across the season. One area, for example, I always try to focus on are solid shots of as many drivers as possible during the driver introductions. And at Auto Club Speedway there are two additional shots you absolutely must get. One is the full field’s five-wide salute to the fans before the drop of the green flag. The other unique element is the scenery, and specifically the San Gabriel Mountain range which, weather permitting, provides a phenomenal backdrop to the track.

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Every NASCAR race has a unique and distinct flavor. No two races are the same, even at a track at which you’ve shot at multiple times. The stories are always different, and most of the time you have no idea where they will come from. Often, you think you’re shooting one story but a late race caution or a pit road miscue will change the picture entirely. So you need to be nimble, to go with the flow, or to put it another way and quote the tagline of the long-running CBS reality show “Big Brother,” to “Expect the Unexpected.” The key here is not to put all your eggs in one basket and make sure you think through all the options.

One of those “unexpected” moments in Fontana came during my grid walk pre-race. There was a young kid, back to me, sporting a NASCAR jacket looking in clear reverence at the 24 car of Hendrick Motorsports’ own William Byron. Someone I assumed was his dad was talking to another gentleman just to the kid’s left.

So out of an abundance of caution, I quickly asked the dad if I could snap a shot or two. And when the dad turned around, I got quite the surprise because it was none other than 2009 Formula 1 champion Jensen Button. It was a nice moment for me, a fellow Brit, as a huge fan of the veteran champion. After he said yes to the photo, I asked him, more flippantly than seriously, if we were likely to see him in a stock car anytime soon, and he smiled and said maybe on a road course. As it turned out, shortly after, Button was indeed announced as driving for Rick Ware Racing in three road course races this season.

But perhaps the most exhilarating parts of photographing Auto Club Speedway are the photo cage holes that are dotted around the track. These cages are built into the exterior fence (behind the SAFER barriers) and provide a small opening in the main catchfence from which you can shoot unimpeded from a matter of feet away from cars going 200 MPH.

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And let me tell you, sitting in these cages when the entire full field roars past is quite the sensory overload. It’s not just the noise and the raw power of the cars, and yep it’s loud and you need ear plugs if you value your hearing for the long term, but it’s the wind displacement from the cars which almost knocks you off your feet. Plus, at a worn track like Auto Club, little bits of the surface fly up and hit you. In short, and for want of a better word, it’s epic — absolutely epic. My heart rate monitor would attest to this fact too. Equally important, it gives you an angle for shots that is pretty special. In turn 4, for example, you get the cars coming right toward you along with the San Gabriel Mountains.

As you’ll know by now, we did indeed get all 700 miles across two races in on the Sunday in question, and it was certainly a busy day. As I was uploading pictures of Kyle Busch’s celebrations, the engines were fired on the Xfinity race, and by the time I was done the second race was several laps in. All in, I walked around 14 miles on the day including one full loop around the outside of the track and took something in the region of 3000 photos, of which around 50 made my final cut.

My day finally finished some 14 hours after I had arrived at the track with a video shot with my fellow Frontstretch contributors, Jack Swansey and Stephen Stumpf, on the finish line, the stands quiet and empty for one last time — a poignant moment certainly — at a track at which we’ve seen some stellar racing in recent years. Here’s hoping that the planned short track does indeed get built. But on that, like so many other things in life, we’ll just have to wait and see.

About the author

Danny starts his 12th year with Frontstretch in 2018, writing the Tuesday signature column 5 Points To Ponder. An English transplant living in San Francisco, by way of New York City, he’s had an award-winning marketing career with some of the biggest companies sponsoring sports. Working with racers all over the country, his freelance writing has even reached outside the world of racing to include movie screenplays.

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Kevin in SoCal

Awesome, thank you for the backstory on taking pictures. I’m going to miss this track.

Donarae Dunwoody

Me too

Donarae Dunwoody

I too will miss this track. I know exactly what mean as far as track debris. I turned away, whilst you faced it head on, with a smile no less. I will never forget that day and I will never forget that 2mile stretch of beauty.

Bill B

Wish they would actually start the race with that five wide set up.