29 April, 2016

Confident (Stories from the 25, part 2)

"I feel confident all the time. I'm an old man."

I bumped into Timothy "Red" Bray under the Thunderhill Grill canopy, warming himself by a small fire pit during the final rain-soaked hours of the race. He had a way of cutting to the chase that made each response seem like a nugget of hard-earned, well-worn wisdom. After a short false start, where he told me "I don't give a s___ about motorsports," we spent most of the interview discussing something he does care about: fires.

Bray fights wildfires as an equipment operator. He used to work across the 11 Western States, but has since come to focus on California. He started off driving a bus (to move the firefighters around), then moved to operating water trucks and hauling equipment, like showers and laundries. He says, "It's a lot of fun and it pays real well. It's a little bit dangerous, y'gotta pay attention to what you're doing, but they pay you for the danger. That's okay. If I'm going to be in danger, pay me for it."

Earlier in 2015, Bray had gone out 5 times on 4 different fires. Now, he was at Thunderhill, waiting for the race to end so that he could pick up trailers that the organizers had rented for on-track shelter. Talking to him reminded me of the sheer diversity of supporting roles that are required to stage an endurance race, hot or cold, day or night, rain or shine.
And it certainly did rain. This is a course worker whose job was to control the track entrance. If the entrance was closed for a serious incident, or if a particular car had to serve a timed-stop penalty, he was in charge.

But during the times in between, he sat against a concrete wall, huddled in a tent-like outfit, and did his best to stay warm amidst the blowing wind, rain, and spray from cars flying by at 100+ mph.
It's easy to watch a race without realizing how many people are tasked with rule enforcement. For instance, the race rules disallow any mechanical work on the vehicle while it's being fueled during a pit stop. Pit lane course workers like the one in this picture spend their entire shift on their feet, observing pit stops, and issuing warnings and penalties when appropriate.
Even things as fundamental as verifying that all the right cars are on the track, and that they're in the right order for the start, are double-checked by hand prior to the green flag.
If a car jostles a barrier hard enough, those get fixed by hand as well. Here, NASA founder and executive director Jerry Kunzman waits for cars to pass by at low speed before continuing to direct the repair of a tire wall on Saturday evening. The National Auto Sport Association is the sanctioning body of the 25-hour race.
And finally, if a serious injury should befall someone at the track, there's a medivac helicopter on standby.

31 March, 2016

The Crowd (2016 National Pole Vault Summit, part 2)

When it comes to sports, heroes are always personal. They're people you can identify with; who are just like you in a lot of ways, but who are extraordinary on certain dimensions. But whatever those dimensions, the feeling is that the differences are in magnitude, not in substance.

Every year pole vaulters make the trek to Sparks, Nevada not just to see their heroes, but to listen to them, to learn from them, and to be like them.

The National Pole Vault Summit is relatively unique in how thoroughly the essence of pole vault permeates the event. By and large, attendees are (or have been) pole vaulters, or pole vault coaches, or friends and family of pole vaulters. They're folks who somehow have pole vault as a significant part of their lives. And the entire event is a celebration of advancement and excellence in the dimensions pertaining to the vault.

(Vaulter: Victor Weirich)
So when people show up Friday evening for the elite vaulter competition, it's not just because they want to see something amazing; it's also because they want to be inspired to accomplish something amazing. We want to imagine ourselves achieving those same triumphs, and that empathy also causes us to share the stumbles as well.

There's a special kind of kinship that develops when you look out and see people who are role models in some sense. People who have already encountered and overcome some of the same challenges, and who can shine some light when our efforts to improve feel more like stumbling through the dark.

(Vaulter: Scott Kendricks)
The pros show us how to be vaulters. Or, rather, they show us all the ways that amazing vaulters are still everyday people. They show us, for example, that despite your pre-competition nerves, there's always time to pause for the national anthem.

(Vaulters: April Steiner Bennett, far left. Kayla Caldwell, far right.)
Sometimes they awe us with their ability to jump high.

(Vaulter: Shawn Barber)
And sometimes they awe us with their grace in frustrating situations.

(Vaulter: Ashton Eaton)
Sometimes they invite us to share the ridiculous, giddy feelings of being surrounded by so many people who are where we once were, and so many others who are where we'd like to be. The sense that we're all kind of in this together, and that when we do our best, we help everyone else to do their best also.

(Vaulter: Mary Saxer)
Part of the Pole Vault Summit's magic is the proximity. I have never been so close to people jumping so high, and that sense of physical closeness also makes it feel just like a normal meet. It makes it that much easier to imagine myself standing on that runway, clearing those heights, and basking in that spotlight.
And when it's all said and done, you can walk up and say "hi."

(Vaulter: Daichi Sawano)

29 February, 2016

Humans of Thunderhill: Stories from the 25 (Introduction)

Every year that I cover the 25 Hours of Thunderhill, I strive to find a different angle. A new perspective that shows me something novel about a race that is becoming increasingly familiar. Moreover, as a photojournalist at heart, I often come back from the race frustrated that I didn't spend more time talking to the people I photographed. Frustrated that I can always tell a story about what's happening, but often not about how those stories affect the people experiencing them.

So I bought a voice recorder.

At this year's race, I took a leap of faith. And while a bunch of things didn't go to plan, I took some baby steps in a direction that is already incredibly promising.

Who?

What kinds of people find themselves at car races? Certainly drivers, crew, fans, and friends. But who else? Track and safety crew. Support staff. Others? The people who perform in the opening ceremonies are… well… people. Maybe a sanitary worker rolls through the paddock, clearing out porta-potties. Or a standby helicopter pilot hangs out, biding time.

All of those people have stories, and those stories all help to convey the various ways that the 25 Hours of Thunderhill influences and is influenced by the surrounding community. The goal of this project was to collect and share some of those stories.

What?

Fundamentally, for me, stories are about emotion. They're about identifying with some aspects of another person's life, and experiencing some feeling as a result. So I decided to cut straight to the chase. For each interview, I asked a single question:
"Tell me about a time in motorsports when you felt furious." Or "nervous." Or "Embarassed." Or some other emotion.

I wanted to give each person some control over the interview, without making it easy for a person to jump straight to the easy (but shallow) emotions. I wanted people to describe their experiences of emotions that would be deep and personal, but also consequently interesting and unique.

So I wrote out a numbered list of 20 emotions, and had each person roll a 20-sided die to pick a topic. If they got one that wasn't relevant, or that they didn't want to answer, they could re-roll once, and then I'd just move on.

When?

I was planning to carry out interviews throughout the race, alongside all of my standard coverage. Unfortunately, that's not really how things worked out. I did my first interview Sunday morning, around 10:30 AM (with only 1.5 hours left in the race).

Fundamentally, the challenge for me was that I didn't want to interview a person in a large group (which might make them feel self-conscious, or to otherwise react to the group). But I also didn't feel comfortable trying to pull a person away from a group for an interview.

I have some ideas on how to navigate this the next time around, but those ideas didn't emerge until I had done some post-race reflection. Baby steps…

Where?

In the 32-hour period that I spend walking around Thunderhill, I find myself in a bunch of different places, and around a bunch of different people. I'm generally pretty comfortable talking to most of them, and so the plan was to run short interviews of interesting folks as I bumped into them throughout the time that I was there. As mentioned above, this didn't quite happen, but it's still the plan for next time.

Why?

When you tell someone you love about why you enjoy something, it's always about the emotions, right?

What you tell them isn't "I enjoy turning a wrench" so much as it's "I love feeling this sense of accomplishment and relief when I finish putting this thing together, and there aren't any parts left over, and it actually works! It's like: I did that! I made that!"

You don't say "driving is fun," but rather, "I love when I get angry, and then I manage to ride that balance of rage and self-control to push even harder than normal, but still avoid making mistakes."

Or maybe, "I remember back when my dad used to take me to watch the races. At some point, I started taking him. Near the end, he'd be pretty foggy most of the time, but whenever I took him back to the race track, he would always come back to reality, if only for those few hours. I miss him so much…"

Those stories are all hypothetical, but they're based on snippets of actual stories that I've heard here and there. I'm sure that people around the 25 Hours of Thunderhill have stories that are equally deep and meaningful. I want to find those stories and share them, because I feel like that's an aspect of motorsports that touches so many of us.

What's next?

Even though things didn't go to plan, I did actually run 5 interviews, each of which produced some awesome perspectives. So the next five Thunderhill posts will each center on one of those stories, and will convey how the theme of each story shows up repeatedly throughout the race.

20 January, 2016

One Jump: Barber Joins 6-Meter Club

What does it feel like to surpass a pole vault milestone?

In the 120-year history of the pole vault as an Olympic event, the first 6-meter (19' 8") clearance happened only 31 years ago, in 1985. Since then, a total of 18 vaulters had cleared the mark. With this jump, Canadian pole vaulter Shawnacy "Shawn" Barber became #19. And at age 21, Barber was also the youngest person ever to join the club.

First, though, let's take a step back…
The annual National Pole Vault Summit invites vaulters from around the world to unite, mingle, and compete under a single roof in Reno, Nevada. The Summit makes space for all skill levels, from brand new beginners, to elite competitors at the top of their games. The elite meets take place Friday evening, with most of the other meets following on Saturday.

At this point in the competition, Barber's last competitor, Seito Yamamoto, had exited the competition after failing to clear 5.83m. As the lone remaining vaulter, Barber could set the bar at whatever heights he wanted.

Having previously set a personal record of 5.93m, his first stop was 5.94m. After two close misses — his first misses of the competition, after clearing 5 heights on first attempts — he set a new P.R. on his third attempt at the height. So where do you go after 5.94m?
If you're Shawn Barber, you go to the back of the runway, sit down, drink some water, and look up at a 6-meter crossbar.
Then you stand up, decide which pole to grab, and get ready to go for it.
You run. Plant. Jump. Swing. Extend. Turn. Pike. Release…
One jump.
Then, after the arena has already erupted into cheers, applause, and shouts of disbelief, you celebrate. As people (this photographer included) marvel at what they've just witnessed, you spend some time with some of the people closest to you.
Barber was visibly bewildered for a moment as the flock of fans surrounded him, hoping for autographs, but came to his wits quickly. He hung around signing autographs, posing for pictures, chatting with people, and so on until the crowd had fully dispersed.
Then one of his former Akron Zips teammates sprung a surprise hug on him. What a day…