On February 18th, 2001, I became a NASCAR fan. Race fans know that date by heart. That was the date of the first win by Michael Waltrip at the Daytona 500. It was also the day Dale Earnhardt Senior died. It was my first NASCAR race ever. As an MW fan, I admired that he never gave up. He raced 462 times before his first Cup win. I remain a MW fan to this day.
Thirteen years ago, I attended my first NASCAR Coca Cola 600 race in Charlotte. I was going to make a day of it with my then son in law, but he canceled out on me at the last minute. I was able to trade two tickets for one upgrade ticket. I spent the whole day in the sky above the exit of pit row. Great time, but I would watch from home on TV after that.
This last Sunday, I returned to the Coca Cola 600, not as a spectator or fan, but as a photojournalist. I wanted to capture the event in pictures. I had seen the glossy Sports Illustrated pictures of cars and finish lines. May be I can get just one great shot.
The race starts at 6pm, so just to make sure I was there on time, I arrived at 9:45am. You can stop laughing, yea, I was a bit overthinking it. I waited my turn to receive my credentials. One of the first surprises was the word HOT across the front and back. A Hot pass means you are able to be in pit row and by the track when the race car engines are running.
The traffic was super light, and parking was provided, with a shuttle to the media center. I made my way inside and was directed to the photographer’s room. Rows of tables with small white cards designating a spot. I took an empty space and positioned one of my business cards to say this was my seat. I acted like I belonged there, well because I did. It would have been easy to be intimidated sitting in front of the Getty group, or beside the NASCAR production crew, or next to a 58 year veteran photographer who was here to get pictures of just one driver. Yet, I belonged. I was here to bring photos and news back home for the people of my community.
I had toured Daytona a few years back, so I was not in awe of the size of the Charlotte track. The media center is right behind Pit Row. As I walked out to the garage area, I reflected back to my Barbeque completion days, and this did not seem all that different. A group of, in this case drivers, gather on a weekend and put their skills out there to see who the best is this week.
As race time grew closer, I walked the front stretch, and stood at the finish line. I wanted to bend down and write my kids’ names on the checkerboard, but did not. You see, being a working photographer vs a fan means giving up the fan experience. Writing on the finish line is a fan thing, so I shot some shots of other’s signing. The day was filled with small reminders of that.
Fans sit in the stands behind tough fences, I was trackside with just a safer barrier between me and a car traveling 138 MPH or faster. I stood in the pits as lugnuts came whizzing by. Near me, fuel was being wheeling from the gas station to the cars. I was walking in places where my life was in my hands.
Fans can look away if they need to, I had to keep watch for wrecks, out of control cars and flying anythings. Yet what separates me from the fan, I am constantly evaluating the scene in front of me in terms of shutter speed, quality of light, correct f stop, framing, focus points, moving with the cars, shooting into a car vs across it, and a myriad of tiny things that work together to make a great picture.
I am often asked by my friends if I enjoyed my events I photograph. Their questions come from the fan experience perspective. Not discounting the question, for me it is a qualified I guess. I enjoy the picture of the winning car crossing the finish line, and the pictures of the fans enjoying themselves. The soldier kneeling and signing the finish line. I smile the day after for I know I succeeded in capturing great pictures. I made pictures to tell the story of the 59th running of the Coca Cola 600, and It was a great story