31 December, 2016

Fractal Nature (Behind the 25, part 2)

Chilly. Again. It's race day — Saturday morning. It was below freezing overnight, and now the ground's cold. The cars are cold. The tires are cold… Everything's cold, really. But it'll be sunrise soon, and it's already time to get back to work.

Race day is really day four of the race — most teams got here on Wednesday. And that's not even counting the months or years of car and team development to even get to this point.

If you take a step back and think about it, though, racing has a fractal nature to it. Every little piece is kinda similar to every other little piece, and then each little piece gives you its own little glimpse of the big picture. And no matter how close or far you get, what you see tells you a bit about the details that you'd see from other distances.

So even if you only show up on Saturday morning, you can still get a sense of the preparation that happened in the days, months, and years prior. There are multiple cars, because endurance races are all about contingencies, and unfortunate situations do happen. There's a pit cart, because you can't have a race team without logistics, and the essence of logistics is movement. And it's this pit cart, because the details of the race effort reflect the personalities and identities of the people involved. The details show you the bigger picture.

16 December, 2016

Behind the 25: A Journey to the Center of the Race

Sunrise. The warm, orange glow of a brand new day starts to soften the chill of another Thunderhill night. It's not really day yet, but things are moving in that direction. That's how it always goes. Park. Pop the hatch. Get your stuff. You know the drill.

Five years, huh? That was quick…

The amazing thing about this race is that there's so much depth. Everyone who returns brings a little more experience. The same tenacity as last year is a little more effective now than it was then. Somehow, the relentless march of 25 Hours is a little more fluid; the surprises are a little less surprising. You spend less time figuring out how to handle each situation, and more time figuring out how to handle it better.

Make no mistake, there'll still be curve-balls. If you don't keep your eyes open, things'll go pear-shaped in a hurry. But every December, you come back a little bit better, and those same curve balls don't seem to curve quite as much as they once did.

28 November, 2016

…And then you drop things in it (Timber! part 3)

At last! The first part in this series described how to navigate and use tools in and around a tree. The second covered how to build a bed of branches — itself a kind of specialized tool for catching large tree sections. What's next?

03 November, 2016

Embrace the Rain

The sun shone as we found our way to the Treasure Island Music Festival shuttle buses, but dark clouds loomed in the distance. Soon enough, sun would give way to rain.

As we walked, I explained my perspective on biking in the rain — after a long enough ride, you end up wet regardless. Either with sweat, if you don a fully waterproof outfit, or with rain, if you don't. So eventually, it makes sense to focus on staying comfortable rather than staying dry. And it's a small mental switch, but once it happens, you feel like you can embrace the rain, instead of just hiding from it.

It's surprising how much your perception can change when you see something from a different perspective…

25 October, 2016

First, you make your bed… (Timber! part 2)

Part one of this series showed how Matt (the professional arborist in the picture) moved himself and his tools around the tree. Once he had the tools where they needed to be, it was time to put them to work: the next step was to trim the remaining branches, and to arrange them on the ground so as to create a reasonably soft drop zone for the logs that would eventually follow.

The process of trimming the branches (and dragging them into position) was straightforward, but included some unexpected nuances. Our standing orders were to never approach the tree until Matt gave the all-clear.

First things first, he would cut off a branch. Easy enough…

30 September, 2016

Timber! How to navigate a tree

Imagine you want to cut down a single, very tall tree. How does it work? How do you do it safely, without damaging surrounding trees, and in a way that allows the lumber to be put to use when all is said and done?

When the opportunity to witness just such an adventure came across my radar, I jumped on it. I've always enjoyed watching people work, and this was a great chance to see someone work in a way that was completely different from what I'm used to.

Mark (bottom, in the photo) owns land somewhere in the forests of the Santa Cruz mountains. As part of a road rerouting project, he brought in his friend Matthew (top; a professional arborist) to cut down what we would later discover to be a 200-foot-tall Redwood tree. Mark mentioned that he plans to use his small sawmill to mill the logs from the tree into lumber, and to use the lumber to build a deck for a house overlooking the site.
As with a lot of work projects, the most important aspects of a job like this are tools and infrastructure. You have to be able to move around, you have to be able to move your tools around, and you have to be able to put those tools to use.

In the photo, Matthew continues climbing after setting a rope 75 feet above the ground. The rope gave him a handy re-belay (aka rope transfer) point, in case his fixed top rope ended up too short to reach all the way to the ground.
On previous days, Matthew had cleared out some of the lower-hanging limbs on the tree. This particular day, he would essentially climb the full tree twice. On his first pass up, he finished off the limb removal, followed by a lunch and rest break back at ground level. He rigged a 2-to-1 rope system for the top half of the descent/ascent — he would climb twice as much rope to travel a given distance, but he'd only need to use half as much force.

In the photo, he grabs his fixed top rope to keep track of it (and, presumably, to keep it from twisting around the tree) on his way down for lunchtime.
And what's lunchtime without some goofing off? Matthew told us that this was the tallest tree he had ever climbed, and the effect of being the weight at the bottom of a 150+-foot pendulum was that he could practically fly by pushing gently off of the trunk.
And as he sat down for some food and rest, some of the kids took turns on the rope as well.
After lunch, Matthew gave us a short course on chainsaw safety: how to hold it, how to start it, how the safety mechanisms worked, and what to wear to keep safe while using it. Then he cut down a short tree to demonstrate, at ground level, the hinge cutting technique that he'd be using to cut down sections of the actual trunk.

Once that tree was cleared out of the way, he grabbed his gear and started his second climb, this time using a variety of rope ascent devices that made the job more efficient than the first climb.
Finally, once he was situated near the top of the tree again, he dropped a rope and had us attach his saw. Time to move the tools into position and get to work…
The full Timber! series:
  1. Timber! How to navigate a tree
  2. First, you make your bed…
  3. …And then you drop things in it
  4. Run the ground game

31 August, 2016

Eager (Stories from the 25, part 6)

There's a saying (commonly misattributed to Winston Churchill) that a pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity, and an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty. I was reminded of that saying when I spoke with A.J. Singh (far right, in picture) about eagerness in motorsports, 8 hours after his team's car was retired due to a major fire in the engine compartment. Here's what he had to say:

"The eagerness occurs every time we get ready for a race. That typically is about a month before we start getting ready; there's an excitement that you can see just start to infuse itself amongst our team members."

I asked what they're eager for — a win? The experience? Just to be out on track?

"Our first perspective is to finish, and to improve. Our thought process is to always be better than the last race. If we can do that, we've come away a success. Perfect case in point, we've got a car that just got burned up and we're going home, but we felt, quite honestly, that we performed better than we did last year…"

The 25 Hours of Thunderhill is a race that is nothing if not difficult. But Singh's response reminded me that it's the combination of eagerness and opportunity that brings teams to the race in the first place. The teams that only see the difficulty don't show up, and the teams that focus on the opportunity come back year after year, even when things don't go as planned.
The V/M Racing Lotus Exige is one of the most easily-recognizable vehicles in the race. The mirror finish glistens at the start of every race that I've seen it contest. It's easy to imagine that the team's eagerness to improve also motivates a certain level of pride in their vehicle.
Unfortunately, the team's race came to an untimely end at Thunderhill's corner 1, after an engine failure spilled hot oil onto an even hotter exhaust manifold, causing an immediate, intense fire. The driver (pictured) drove straight off the track and jumped out; it was the only time I've heard the Thunderhill safety crew use an audible siren while responding to a situation. Back at the team's paddock space, other teammates noticed that the back of the driver's Nomex racing suit had been singed from the heat.
This was the first year for the Ryno Racing team's Ginetta LMP3, and it was set to be a good one, with the car starting on the front row. Once the flag dropped, the car demonstrated the speed to stay near the head of the field.
But as day turned to dusk, a slight misjudgment on the corner leading into the front straight sent the car spinning straight into the hot pit wall, causing damage on all four sides. During the team's wrap-up meeting, the summary was pretty matter-of-fact: it was a racing incident; these things happen. We'll be back next year.
Fresh off their 2014 victory, the Davidson Racing team was gunning for another great result. Around the team's paddock area, you could sense a bit of tension as they started their engines and warmed up their two cars. Once on the track, though, both cars were turning incredibly fast laps — fastest overall for the #17 car (pictured), and within the top 5 for the #16.
That good form didn't last, though. The cars experienced electrical and mechanical issues, which ended the team's hopes for another podium. The #16 (on the lift, in the photo) was retired first, and the #17 (under the canopy) would follow.
The #00 Porsche GT3 Cup car, fielded by Award Motorsports / Ehret Family Winery, was also looking for a repeat. I saw the car take the outright at my first 25 Hours of Thunderhill, back in 2012. It had always been a car that combined speed with reliability.
Sometimes speed and reliability aren't enough, though. The team was forced to retire, by race rules, after three incidences of significant vehicle-to-vehicle contact.

In the end, though, racing is like a roller-coaster ride. No matter how many ups and downs you've seen, there's always a chance that a new upward turn is right around the corner. And maybe that's something to be eager about as well…
The full Stories from the 25 series:

31 July, 2016

Concerned (Stories from the 25, part 5)

AIM Tires is the permanent tire-mounting shop at Thunderhill Raceway. Alan (right) runs the shop, and his brother Nick (left) helps out during the big races. Just watching how they work together, you can tell they've been at this for ages. During the race, I asked Alan about a time when he's felt concerned, and the two stories he shared reinforced the notion (which I've shared before) that fuel and tires are the two currencies of motorsports.

"I was working on our tire machine and just putting the tire on the rim. And the bars just happened to snap right down and kinda break on me while I'm in there. And I had a line of tires to go through… I had to stop everything, fix that machine, get it going before I could continue, you know? And I was the only one in the shop working on it."

The common theme of the stories seemed to be that "tires always come first, but sometimes, they have to come second for a little bit." He continued,

"And last year, during the 25-hour event, our shop actually flooded… [we had to] block off this entrance right here, so water couldn't get in any more. It just kept comin' and comin' and comin'. Kind of had to slow things down a little bit, kinda scoop the water out too…"

The other thing I noticed was that the concerns he shared centered on situations that were out of his control. When it came to challenges that he could impact directly, they didn't seem to merit concern so much as, just, awareness. When he mentioned them, he simply told me "you gotta watch out."
The echoes of Alan's two stories appeared throughout the race, but particularly Sunday morning, when rain and mechanical breakages combined to make the going that much more difficult for the teams who were still putting in laps. And the factors compounded — the tough conditions induced mental fatigue, and mental fatigue leads to mistakes. And then the rain makes it more difficult to recover from those mistakes, leading to more work and more fatigue.
The race had started off simply enough, though: tall stacks of rubber, and teams eager to put that rubber to use.
When a car would slide into the pits for a tire change, the teams leapt into action. Off with the old rubber, and on with the new. Out with the old driver and in with the next. Add some fuel to the mix and get back out on track.
And when the rain finally arrived, it was a similar story. The still-hot slicks steamed as the rainwater evaporated into the cool night air. The wet-weather tires went on — less rubber to grab the track surface, but the gaps would let the rainwater get out of the way as the teams struggled to keep pace in the worsening conditions.

But the strategy was still simple: do your best to deal with the uncontrollable issues as they arise. And as for the challenges that you can impact directly…
You gotta watch out.
The full Stories from the 25 series:

20 July, 2016

Life, Death, and Lack of Closure: The perpetual struggle of the inadvertent historian


This post is serious. These thoughts and feelings have haunted me for at least the last 5 years, and I've meant to discuss them, but haven't yet, because it's difficult. It's difficult in the same way that I imagine it's difficult to write down that you're suffering from depression, and that it's something that's going to be a part of you for the rest of your life. That you never really escape — you just manage. I have to imagine that other historians face this same kind of conundrum, but what follows is my own version of the story.

Life and Death

What does it mean to remember? What does it mean to forget? Culturally, our sense of the past is tied up in the historical records that surround us, and consequently, the keepers of those records become the tailors of our institutional memory. But with that power comes responsibility. And with that responsibility comes, in some cases, an inescapable sense of duty.

As a documentary photographer, I relish the opportunity to record the moments that reveal the humanity in every story. The moments that demonstrate what we care about and why. And I aspire to retell those stories, so that people might look back and understand what made us tick in those instants.

But that aspiration is also a trap. I knew that I wanted to be a photographer, but I didn't realize that becoming a documentary photographer was an irreversible process that drags you down even as it lifts you up. That once you become an inadvertent historian, you become acutely aware of the ways in which your own inaction affects the world around you.
The trap is that historians wield the twin powers of addition and omission. This means that inaction — the failure to add — is still an expression of that power. Do you add a piece to a museum, or do you not?

When a person or thing goes away, what remains is the legacy. Everyone and everything has a legacy, but what differs is how widely-appreciated aspects of that legacy may be.

Just like a musician, a person might be known only by their family, or also by their friends, and community, and state, and country, and so on. And as with any celebrity, certain aspects of that person's existence might be remembered, and other aspects might remain unknown — nuances can be retained or discarded.
It feels like I sometimes have the power to decide between a person being remembered and being forgotten. Between their legacy becoming better-known or flickering into antiquity. It feels like if I share the record that I've captured, I can create a new memory in a broader group of people; or if it already exists, I can add nuance and depth, to paint a more complete picture of the person or thing that was.

And yet, sometimes, I don't. I let them be forgotten. I let them slip away. And the knowledge that I could do something, but I don't… it haunts me. It gnaws at my sense of self. It undermines my sense of pride at being the best photographer that I can.

The Catch-22 is that by doing anything, I realize that I could always do more. That I can always do more. Why would you stop at a deeper appreciation by friends, for instance, when it's still a shame that their community hasn't heard of them? But why stop at this community when that other community should learn about them also? Knowing about those possibilities, and knowing that I haven't pursued them; that gets to me.

I mean, each step is just a matter of doing the work that I already know how to do. But the aggregate of those steps will never reach an ideal that is not only unreachable (the more things people try to remember, the less of each thing they will actually remember) but also unknowable (who wants to be remembered? Who should be remembered? How should they be remembered?)

The Catch-22 is that knowing that an ideal exists makes me feel guilty when I decide to take steps that don't lead up the mountain. But the knowledge that the mountain is unclimbable — that there is an "up," but there is no "top" — doesn't help me feel any less guilty.

Let Me Count the Ways

This trap comes in three varieties. The easiest to deal with happens when I shoot something voluntarily, and it's not clear that anyone really cares about it. Rationally, someone must have, at some point, but it's not clear whether anyone still does. It's like, who cares about this particular dollar bill, as opposed to any other?

A few years ago, I documented parts of the demolition of a building. One has to imagine that, at some point, that building was someone's pride and joy, whether the people who designed it, the ones who built it, or the folks who worked and created memories within.

Even so, I understand that generic buildings typically don't typically leave much of a legacy, and that there's a vanishingly small possibility that my coverage would reach someone who finds the building (or its demolition) emotionally meaningful.
The second variety occurs when I go into a situation with the a priori understanding that it will be emotionally meaningful to people. I've photographed memorial concerts for two historically-prominent musicians — Herb Pomeroy and Dave Brubeck — and I knew at the outset what I was getting myself into.

Of course, that doesn't mean that my falters and doubts around the coverage of those events don't follow me. It just means that I knew going in that they were going to follow me. Cold comfort, for certain.
The most personally jarring version happens when I walk into the trap unknowing and unprepared. I take photos every day. Sometimes I do a good job, and sometimes I don't — sometimes I take a passing snapshot so I can catch a train or get to a meeting on time. Thus is the nature of compromise.

And sometimes it happens that those snapshots become historically relevant. Then I kick myself for not having given the moment the attention it deserved. Or sometimes I take good photos but don't publish them, and I kick myself for that as well.

The example that's been on my mind of late deals with Airship Ventures and the SF Bay Area airship rides they used to offer. I had the good fortune to go for one of those rides — aboard the largest airship in the world, at the time — and I took photos of the adventure. I never did anything with most of them.

A few years later, I discovered that the business had shut down, and that the airship itself had been dismantled and sent back to the manufacturer in Germany. How... what? So what to do? Do I put the effort into writing a post — adding a memorandum to the institutional record — or do I deal with my never-ending pile of more recent work?

Here's a hint: I still haven't published anything, and I still feel guilty for continuing to not do so.
The most infuriating thing, of course, is that I know about the trap, and yet I have no idea how to avoid it. Worse, the better a documentarian I become, the more situations I'll find myself in where I hold a canonical concrete record of that situation. Perhaps, the only canonical record of that situation. And, consequently, the more situations that will come to haunt me.

Like a Sisyphean Pokemaster, I hold onto the demons of my past, even as I work to collect the demons of my future. Perhaps the only winning move is not to play. But then again, inaction is action.

30 June, 2016

Devastated (Stores from the 25, part 4)

A car race is an environment where pragmatism and optimism can go hand-in-hand. I interviewed my friend Andrew during the race, and when I asked him about a time in motorsports when he felt devastated, his answer was simple:

"I think that is yet to come. Motorsports is pretty much the most fun thing I've ever done, and I haven't lost a car or anything irreplaceable yet, so it's always been worthwhile."

In the photo, he sits in the driver seat as the team gets everything ready for his first night-racing experience. I've mentioned in previous years that optimism alone typically doesn't get you through the night safely. It might be one piece of the puzzle, but it's still only one piece.
Vehicle lighting is essential at night. Both so that the driver of a vehicle can see the track, the vehicles, and any unexpected obstacles; and also so that other drivers can see that vehicle. A stopped vehicle that has no lights (or, that has lights that aren't visible to approaching traffic) is a sitting duck, and a recipe for disaster.
Lights make it possible to for the driver to see what they are approaching, and flaggers make it possible for drivers to know about situations that they can't actually see yet.

For the 25-hour race, two rotations of flaggers switch off during four ~6-hour flag shifts during the race. And just like the pit lane workers, they have to bundle up and be prepared for whatever climate conditions may occur during the race. The flaggers are so important that the race pauses (full course yellow, cars circulate but no passing is allowed) during the shift changes.
Spotters offer more of a competitive benefit than a safety benefit, but that competitive advantage might mean that a driver can be more conservative during stretches of the race that are more treacherous. For instance, if you can maintain position without having to dive-bomb slower cars into the corners in the rain, you're a lot more likely to avoid contact when mistakes inevitably happen. Generally, the spotters find a spot with a clear view of the track, and relay any relevant details back to the team over radio.

Here, a spotter stands on a hilltop bench above the back half of the track (near turn 9), and looks on as cars pass over turn 5 in the distance.
For drivers and crew, it also pays to stay warm and to avoid hunger and dehydration. The inevitable fatigue of spending dozens of hours on alert, and of dealing with a deluge of rain for half of the race, will add up on their own. Other sources of physical discomfort just make things worse.

Fundamentally, endurance races are about extending that comfort as long as possible — the more comfortable you are, the better you can focus, and the less likely you are to make mistakes. The fewer mistakes you make (as driver or crew), the more time you spend turning fast laps, and the less time you spend waiting for the tow truck, or fixing things that broke.
When you put enough puzzle pieces together, this is what it looks like. The #45 Flying Lizard Motorsports Audi R8-LMS dominated the race from sundown onward — they outlasted the faster cars (none of which made it to sunrise), and once the rain started falling, they passed other cars everywhere imaginable. Corner, straight, it didn't seem to matter. By the end, they placed first overall with a 35-lap margin over second place, and a 59-lap margin over third.
The full Stories from the 25 series:

31 May, 2016

Together and Alone (2016 National Pole Vault Summit, part 3)

Pole Vault is kind of a team sport, but it's kind of not. At the end of the day, it takes an individual effort to clear the bar. Regardless of the size or strength of a vaulter's support network, the support network can't grab the pole and step on the runway.

(Vaulter: Hiroki Ogita)
But at the same time, the support network helps to inform, guide, and motivate that individual effort. A good coach will learn the strengths, weaknesses, and idiosyncrasies of a vaulter, and will strive to provide feedback that helps that particular individual perform at their best.

(Coach: Tim Mack; Vaulter: Mark Hollis)
But then it's again up to that single vaulter to figure out whether and how to incorporate that guidance into the next attempt. There are no substitutions. No pinch hitters. It's just you, the pole, and the crossbar, every single time.

(Vaulter: Mary Saxer)
And then when the attempt is over, regardless of whether things went well or poorly, it's just you on that mat. At least for a moment.

(Vaulter: Kylie Hutson)
When the moment is up, though, the "I" often turns back to "us." Vault friends are often close because they can commiserate. They can understand the feelings that might seem irrational to someone who only watches from the sidelines.

(Vaulters: Tori Peña (left), Kylie Hutson)
And sometimes their congratulations are a little more meaningful as well. Here, Seito Yamamoto (left) and Daichi Sawano join hands after Yamamoto eclipsed Sawano's Japanese National Indoor Record, with a 5.77m clearance.

(Vaulters: Seito Yamamoto (left), Daichi Sawano)
At the end of the day, it takes an individual effort to clear the bar. But it feels so much better when you're with family.
The full 2016 National Pole Vault Summit series: