2009 Toronto Honda Indy Race: Friday Practice Session

I'm shooting the Honda Indy this year with an all -access photo pass, so I can walk around the course and shoot through various openings in the chain link fence known as 'photo holes'.
Thought people might like to know what this experience is like as it might offer some insight into the challenges of shooting high speed motor sports.

The day begins with a mandatory 7:00 AM photographers meeting where they discuss such things as 'how to recognise someone is on fire' (they added some gasoline to the fuel mixture for the Indy Series this year so you can now see the flames) or 'what to do in the event of a high speed crash near you' (when the car hits the wall the carbon fibre splinters, these shards come through ther chain link fence like shrapnel. If you stand there with your mouth wide open or try to run away you might get injured, so the best thing is to drop behind the concrete wall - but not too close because the impact will move the barrier a couple feet)

We line up to get our photo bibs, which are numbered. You give them your cell number so if you do something stupid, dangerous, or give security a hard time they can use your bib number to identify you and call you to the office to take your bib away.
Head out onto the track and the first couple photo holes seem perfectly safe, the action is at a distance, any danger seems like an acceptable compromise.

But heading along the back straight-away you get to the holes that are placed right at the apexes of curves and corners - the point the drivers aim for as the closest they come to the wall.
You watch these little missiles on wheels scream right past at close quarters and it slowly dawns on you why everyone else around you is encased in layers of Nomex flame retardant clothing with gloves, boots, and in some cases racing helmets on. Meanwhile some of the photographers are standing around in shorts and flip-flops.

You also come to realise that not shooting from these areas, despite the danger, means not getting the best pictures.
So you slap on a wide angle lens, pre focus on a spot and set an aperture for max. depth of field.
Then put the camera in manual focus so it's locked in, and watch as a race car hurtles towards you, closer, closer, heading directly right at where you are standing, growing from a small dot to a full sized racing vehicle with alarming speed, brain starts screaming 'Holy Sh*TTT!!!!', then try to trip shutter in the millisecond an object travelling at 150 mph passes 2 ft. in front of you.

If you are patient enough or lucky you end up with a photo like this - the car that made me quit this hole after 15 minutes of shooting. This was the closest pass anyone made to that apex. The Track Marshall said the cars do between 140 and 150 mph. at this point. His rear tire is about 12 inches from the wall right in front of me. Despite a shutter speed of 1/2500th of a sec. there is still blur in the image.

The wake from the car going past blows your shirt up and makes you stagger back. Like a freight train going by.

And after half a day of this and it starts to become your new normal.

I'm walking around the track with another photojournalist who shoots a lot of sports, and he suggests we go to the photo hole at 'Carnage Alley' - so named for the number of spectacular crashes that have occurred there over the years.
And by this point you are so numbed to the danger of it all that this actually sounds like a great idea.

So after walking for miles - there are only three points where you can cross from the inside of the track where the pits are, to the outside of the track where this photo hole is, so it turned out to be quite a hike - we're all set up catching the end of the afternoon practice run.
The location is at the very end of the straight-away, a sharp right hand corner (corner 1).

I've photographed it from the other side of the track before, and from there the cars look like they are tracking through the turn precisely, but when you shoot it from the opposite side where we were you realise that most of them are really in a controlled skid heading right at you and then turning the car at the last moment.

Although they go into the corner at slow speed, the drivers accelerate right through it (an Indy car can go from zero to one hundred miles per hour in about three seconds) so at the apex these little rocket sleds are moving. And they are headed directly at us at the one place on the course most notorious for accidents.

If you are shooting from the inside, like Canadian Press's Frank Gunn, who can be seen leaning out of the inside hole in the background, if there's a crash all the wreckage will go away from you.

But, if you shoot it from where we were, everything will land in your lap.

This was definitely the scariest thing I did all day.

Towards the end one driver got a little sideways, smoking the tires, headed right at us and both of us ducked down. It freaked us out so much we ended up laughing our heads off behind the wall, with only a slight trace of hysteria in it, surrounded by smoke.

I'm actually glad that by the time we got there the practice session had only 10 minutes left because that was enough for me. He wants to go back on Race Day and shoot the start from there. I'm not going along for that ride. Thirty drivers all gunning it, going for the first corner.
Don't think so.

Also, a photo of Danica Patrick - the pioneering female Indy driver - who had a rough time in practice ending up last as her car gave up on her for the entire last session.
She attracts the most photographers along pit row.

All photos copyright Torontowide.com. No reprodution in any form is allowed without written permission from the author. All rights reserved.Photos shot with Olympus E30's, 200 ISO, auto gradation, AF-C, spot focus, IS mode 2 (for panning), 50-200mm and 12-60mm Digital Zuiko lenses.

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