30 December, 2013

Safety in Numbers (25 Hours of Camaraderie, Part 4)

Safety is often a nameless, faceless concept at a racetrack. Generally, by the time the safety crew comes a-callin', you're already having a bad day, and it's the problems that occupy your mind.

At the race this year, I had an opportunity to meet some members of the safety crew; to see their antics, to witness their personalities, and to experience their unexpected hospitality. For a short period of time, I got to see that nameless, faceless group as a family of hard-working, caring individuals. And after I left them, that impression stayed with me.
During every running of the 25 Hours of Thunderhill, the safety crew organizes some kind of dinner. In years past, there were catering and BBQ. This year, they roasted a whole pig on a spit.

As I was walking around the track, I spotted the rotisserie and went to take a few pictures. Upon noticing me, one of the folks manning the rotisserie offered, "Hey, if you hang around for a bit, this is almost ready."

Well, don't mind if I do.
Spending time at the safety crew's dinner was a revelation, for me. As a guest in other circumstances, I've often felt a subtle obligation to stick by my host. As if anyone who hadn't heard the invitation might wonder why I was there. They might not out and say it, but at times I definitely felt it: "Did someone invite you? Because if not, you should probably leave."

Chilling with the safety crew, I felt 100% welcome, at home, and at ease. When people came out of the trailer and saw me, there was no hesitating moment of confusion. When it was time to eat, someone just stuffed a plate into my hands. When I hung back to document the experience, another person admonished, "get some while it's hot." And when I finally stopped shooting and started eating, yet another person asked if he could get me anything to drink from inside.

The middle of a racetrack was the most unexpected place to find hospitality, but I suppose the best kind of gift is one that's unbelievable until it happens.
As people hung around and ate, I also saw glimpses of their personalities emerge. Some people made smart-aleck comments about my hat. Other people jumped into my pictures. All told, I was struck by how joyous everyone seemed.
The man in blue seemed like a patriarch of sorts. He's the one who had offered me the initial invitation. He's also the one who seemed to know the most about how to butcher a pig. I watched as he taught another crew-member how to cut along the pig's spine, and at some point he took over the knife.
After leaving their company, I kept hiking toward Turn 1 to shoot the front half the track from the infield. On my circuitous route back to the paddock (through the infield, along the T14 wall, past Mordor, then up the hill and over the T14 bridge), I passed by again, and they were busy giving the deeper bits of meat a little more time over the fire.
A reunion, of sorts
Sometime that night, I got a few hours of sleep, and then woke up in time to catch the morning twilight and sunrise. The first thing I spotted, though, was a banged-up racecar being dropped off in the paddock. I said hi to the crew, and one of them suggested that I should take a quick portrait of them.

In some ways, this photo is an odd juxtaposition, and in other ways, it's completely natural. Over time, I've found that a lot of tradespeople have pride in the work that they do, and this group was no exception.
As the checkered flag flies, the safety crew gathers near the front straight with lights flashing to watch the finish. I feel honored to have been able to spend the time with them that I did.
Coming tomorrow: An unlikely race to the finish between the #62 Melhill Racing/TFB 330i and the #08 GMG Racing R8-LMS.

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The full 25 Hours of Camaraderie sequence:

29 December, 2013

Nine Secrets (25 Hours of Camaraderie, Part 3.5)

Hi, y'all. I hope you've been enjoying "25 Hours of Camaraderie" so far. I decided to break from the plan, today, so that I could open my heart to you, and ask you to help me to keep producing my best work.

First secret:
Writing these blog posts takes a whole bunch of time. I write from the heart, and each post is lovingly hand-crafted. Even in the case of the 25 Hours of Camaraderie sequence, where I already have the image set narrowed down (to ~100 images, from the 3,200 I shot at the race), it's still taking me between 6 and 10 hours to produce every single post. So for this 6-post sequence, I'm planning to spend 36 to 60 hours doing final selections, retouching, writing, editing, and publishing. And that's not counting the tens of hours I spent doing the initial image classification.
Second secret:
Photography, for me, is equal parts love and obsession. To quote noted photographer Alfred Stieglitz, "Photography is my passion. The search for truth, my obsession." Mine as well.

I love witnessing and experiencing things. I also love sharing the things I have the good fortune to witness. I feel like there's a lot of stuff out there that people will want to remember, and my goal is to capture those moments, truthfully, so that when people try to remember, they will have a record.
I love learning. My favorite kind of adventure is one where I jump in, camera in hand, completely confused and struggling to stay afloat. If I can manage to stick it out, learn some things, and end up better prepared for the next time, that's a leap of faith that was worth taking.
I love teaching. One of my favorite things about photography is that it lets me bring you along for the adventure. I can present things to you, focus your attention, and share with you the way that I see the world. I love to spot the humanity in all of my adventures, and I love to share that as well. I feel like there's always something to appreciate in every new activity, and I strive to produce work that anyone can appreciate, even if the subject is something you wouldn't normally pay attention to.
I feel like there is beauty all around us, all of the time. Even though we might not stop to appreciate it, it's still there. Even at times when it doesn't feel like there's much to appreciate at all, it's still there. My goal is to see and to capture a glimpse of the everyday beauty that we might overlook in our lives. A touch. A glance. A smile. A moment that is so simple, but that means so much.

To borrow a quotation from someone simply called levelbest:
"It is not my job to create beauty. It is my job to witness it, to frame it, and tell the story of it. Even in tragedy there is a glimpse of humanity, just as at night there is a promise of the dawn."
One of my favorite things to do is to make big, beautiful prints of the images that I capture.
I love knowing that you appreciate the work I do, the time I invest, and the content that I produce. I would love to have closer contact with the people who enjoy this blog, and I would love to empower you to help shape where this blog goes in the future.
Every year, I shoot thousands and thousands of images that I would love to publish, but I don't. One of the realities of running a focused publication is that there's a lot of deserving content that never sees the light of day. Every image in this post is part of that set. If you'd like to see more of these images, then please consider the following…
I would love for you to consider supporting me on Patreon. Patreon is a site that enables you to sponsor the posts that I create, starting at $1 per post. I really like that model, since it lets you have a direct impact on the frequency, quality, and audacity of my work.
For instance:
  • it lets me know that you care about my work, which helps motivate me to keep shooting and keep writing when I'm feeling uninspired.
  • it contributes funds toward my photo business, which helps me to take care of my equipment, and sometimes to speculatively print images.
  • it allows me to share extra images that will never be on the blog with the people who are supporting my work.
  • it gives me a place to share blog ideas, and get feedback, suggestions, critiques, etc. Essentially, it helps me enable you to put your stamp on the blog.
Again, I love what I do, but I would also love to have your camaraderie and support as well. Please consider putting one dollar per post toward my work, so that I can continue to write and produce informative, truthful, heartfelt, high-quality photo essays for everyone to enjoy.

And for folks worried about me posting up a storm, fear not. It's really easy to set a monthly cap, so that you're always in control.

Regardless of whether you choose to help, or whether you decide that now isn't the right time, thanks for reading, and I hope you continue to enjoy the blog.
The full 25 Hours of Camaraderie sequence:

28 December, 2013

Rebirth from Fire (25 Hours of Camaraderie, Part 3)

At the start of every endurance race is a hope for the finish. You design, you build, you plan, you prepare. You make contingencies, and backup plans for the contingencies.
As the start draws closer, you double-check everything you can, cross your fingers for the things you can't control, and you get ready to rock and roll.

The start was looking pretty good for the #4 Prototype Development Group GTM. By their second lap, they were already running ~2.5 seconds faster than their 2013 qualifying time (which was likely run on a damp track), and ~1.5 seconds faster than their 2012 qualifying time.
On lap 3, less than 5 minutes into the race, disaster struck. A fitting on the fuel rail of their LS3 engine detached and started spewing gas around the engine bay, which quickly ignited. A teammate later told me that it was getting so hot in the cockpit that when the car came to a stop, the driver jumped out without even activating the fire suppression system.

Everything in the engine bay was deemed a loss, as were some components mounted near the firewall (such as the safety harnesses). At that point, I figured the car was done. At the start of every endurance race is a hope for the finish, but sometimes, reality intervenes.
It turns out, the team had other plans. One of the other photographers mentioned offhand that the GTM was being rebuilt, and I went to see for myself. Sure enough, I got to their paddock space to find them hard at work.

The car had caught fire at around 11:20. This photo was shot at 22:00. During the intervening period, they had removed all of the fire-compromised components from the car, and had also sent a subset of the crew on a 5-hour round trip to fetch their backup engine and other replacement components.

In the photo, the team works to run a new engine harness through the vehicle, as the backup engine isn't electrically compatible with the original engine.
By 8:30 Sunday morning, the car was completely back together and would run. According to a team-member, the replacement engine first came to life around 1:00 am on Sunday morning, but they had spent the time since that point trying to hunt down electrical gremlins that were keeping the engine from running properly.
A mechanic sprays solvent on the Mass Air Flow (MAF) sensor as the engine runs. He told me that the engine was running very rich (air/fuel ratio too far toward the "fuel" side), and they suspected that the MAF wasn't properly communicating the amount of incoming air to the Engine Control Unit.
As morning turned to day, the team decided to just get the car back out on track. It came in every couple laps for driver changes, just so everyone would get a chance in the car. I was curious whether they'd been able to fix the electrical issue, but a surge of backfires during every deceleration confirmed that the car was still running extremely rich.
Seeing the car run down the front straight again reminded me of a discussion I'd had overnight with one of the team members. The car wasn't just a car; it was a symbol. He seemed to feel that having the American flag painted on the car raised it to a higher standard, in a sense.

"[The car] always finishes," he told me. And while not strictly true, I understood what he was saying. Just as the members of a color guard have a special sense of honor and pride about them, the team surrounding the star-spangled GTM had a similar sense of honor and pride for their own mission. The question of finishing the race wasn't "do we or don't we?", it was "how do we make this happen?"
In a surprisingly symbolic finish, the GTM leads the field into the pits after the checkered flag.
At the awards ceremony, the Prototype Development Group team received an award for embodying the spirit of the 25 Hours of Thunderhill.

In the photo, team managers Richard Migliori (left) and Yvonne Migliori (right) receive the award on behalf of the team, as Jerry Kunzman (center, rear), co-founder and executive director of the National Auto Sport Association sanctioning body, looks on.
Coming up tomorrow: A story of the Thunderhill safety crew, and how they made the track feel like home.

If you're enjoying this series, please help encourage my work by supporting me on Patreon. It really helps keep me going, and it makes time-intensive posts and series possible. I would sincerely appreciate your help.
The full 25 Hours of Camaraderie sequence:

27 December, 2013

A Hope for the Finish (25 Hours of Camaraderie, Part 2)

At the start of every endurance race is a hope for the finish. You design, you build, you plan, you prepare. You make contingencies, and backup plans for the contingencies.
As the start draws closer, you double-check everything you can, cross your fingers for the things you can't control, and you get ready to rock and roll.

In the photo, members of the #33 Tiger Racing / Bavarian Tuning Motorsport team stand by as the engine fires and starts warming up Saturday morning, about two hours before the race start.
As the #33 car took the green flag, the race was already going poorly. The car was significantly off the class pace, a fact which the team must already have known after posting mediocre qualifying results the day prior. They qualified in 13th position in their class of 16 cars, running 4 seconds off the median pace (and 3 seconds off their 2012 pace). Their fastest actual race lap was another two seconds slower.
As the race progressed, the #33 spent increasing amounts of time in the pits. Here, two race mechanics clean the row of fuel injectors on the M3's inline-6 engine during a long stop in the hot pits. Inside the cockpit, a crew member speaks with the driver, team principal Bill Maher.

After heading back out on track for a lap or two, the car came back in again, the hood opened again, and focus again returned to the top of the engine.
Bad turned to worse as the team rolled the car from the hot pits into the paddock. Here, the mechanic investigates the throttle bodies (and you can see the fuel injector rail directly above the throttle bodies). By this point, around four hours into the race, the #33 had completed 31 laps, 17 laps down from the nearest class competitor, and 85 laps down from the class leader.
A few minutes later, the team had a meeting where the decision was made to retire from the race. What struck me about the meeting was that as Maher (center) spoke, he emphasized that the even though this race didn't go their way, the team should remain thankful for the safety of the team members and the safety of the car. In essence, "we'll live to race another day."

There was obviously a rational component to the decision (as there is in any retirement), but this struck me as a particularly heartfelt acknowledgement that sometimes luck isn't on your side, and sometimes there are downsides to just sticking it out for the finish.
Maher hugs another team member as the group prepared to pack everything away after the meeting.
Until next year…
Coming up tomorrow: The story of a rebirth from fire, with the stars-and-stripes #4 Prototype Development Group GTM.

If you like these blog posts, and would like to see more posts like it, please click here to support my work on Patreon. Writing is a significant time commitment, and your support really makes a big difference for me.
The full 25 Hours of Camaraderie sequence:

26 December, 2013

25 Hours of Camaraderie: Introduction

Earlier this month, I traveled north to shoot the 25 Hours of Thunderhill, an endurance car race that welcomes both pro and amateur teams to run through day, night, and day again before they see the checker. I shot the race last year, and wrote it up in two parts: a more visceral reaction in "A Night of Rolling Thunder," followed by a more analytical piece, in "How to Survive an Endurance Race."

This year will be an experiment. At every event I shoot, there are a hundred different stories transpiring all at once. They're all interesting, but I generally pick one and run with it. But for this race, I'm in the unique position of having witnessed a couple of them from beginning to end, and also in having the time to write about a number of them. So why not?

I'm planning to publish a post every day for the next couple days. The theme is camaraderie. This post will be an introduction of sorts, and then each of the next posts will focus on a different team, and a different story which somehow illustrates that theme. Here we go!
So, what exactly is camaraderie? For me, it's a blend of teamwork and friendship. A group can work well as a team without really liking each other — you just keep your eyes on the prize and do your job. Camaraderie goes beyond that. These people aren't just teammates or coworkers; they're friends and family. They care about each other, and if you watch closely enough, you can see how much they care.

Above, two members from the #44 Achilles Motorsports team embrace on the starting grid.
Geri (left), a driver for the #07 Sampson Racing Radios/Pacific Throttle House team, shares a moment early on Saturday morning.
A person faces the American flag at the Turn 5 flag station during the singing of the national anthem.
Two members of the event staff embrace just before the start of the race.

I generally found the folks staffing the race to be incredibly nice, and after an unexpected act of kindness just as dusk fell, I felt like I had discovered a few comrades of my own. More on that in the coming days, but I felt like my experience with the safety crew was a particularly bright spot in what was already an amazing experience.

For me, this race also reinforced the notion that motorsports can help connect people from different generations. Sometimes it's a bond with the future…
Sometimes with the past…
And sometimes it's with the friends who we knew along the way.

As the orange glow of the sun graced the track Sunday morning, only a subset of the starting field remained in the race. Of the 57 vehicles that crossed the start line, only 41 would cross the checker under their own power. And while it was among those 41, the #05 would later be disqualified for technical reasons.
The sunrise found many teams ready to race the last three-hours-and-some until the finish. With temperatures in the low-to-mid-twenties (°F) overnight, many crew members huddled for warmth in front of propane heaters as they waited for the morning light.
But as the track finally started regaining temperature, friendships appeared to rekindle as well. During the night, people generally walked alone (and heavily bundled against the cold) when they were forced to leave shelter, but as day broke, companionship again became the norm rather than the exception.
And as the checkered flag flew, determination gave way to celebration. Drivers and crew-members reunited with loved ones, and awards were distributed. One of my favorite cars, the heavily-modified #24 Rotek Audi TT-RS, took the overall victory, in a stark contrast to their early retirement after a transmission failure last year. More on that one, too, in the next couple days.
In addition to the safety workers, I personally found friends among the other photographers and videographers who covered the race. I saw a few familiar faces (Hi, John), as well as a bunch of new ones, but I still felt like I was among friends. That's a big step from last year, where I got the job done, but by and large felt somewhat isolated.

After the race, a couple of the photographers sat at a table and rested while waiting for the awards ceremony to begin. Some shenanigans also took place. In the photo, Andrew (left) and Larry smile as they look at some shots that Joe (not pictured) rattled off on Andrew's camera as Larry walked past.
Coming up tomorrow: I follow the story of the #33 Tiger Racing/Bavarian Tuning Motorsport team.

If you like these blog posts, please become my supporter on Patreon to help me keep them going! Your support really makes a big difference for me.

Correction [26 Dec 2013]: The original version of this post misidentified the driver in the second photo as "Gina." Her name is actually Geri.
The full 25 Hours of Camaraderie sequence: