Down In Monterey

T H A W L E Y | © 2008Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca is definitely one of the highlights on our season's schedule. Monterey is a wonderful part of the country. The track is spectacular. And four hours of American Le Mans Series racing is always good. I will say, though, traveling against the clock is brutal and I never seem to get in sync... at least not until the day I leave.

The week did not get off to a good start as my connecting flight out of Houston got around to being about three and a half hours late. This was on top of a three and a half hour layover. So... total seven hours hanging out in Bush International. Continental has several President's clubs there... and membership has its privileges... but hanging around is still just hanging around. And the last three and a half hours came in "just another few minutes" incremental lies via our ground crew at the gate.

T H A W L E Y | © 2008 LAT Photographer, Mike Levitt was on the same connector so we got to spend time commiserating on the "state of the photographic union" for a while and I got to pick Mike's brain about Leica cameras... a subject he's extremely knowledgeable on. Speaking of Leica, my next journal entry will diary my most recent adventures in my never ending pursuit of the perfect "personal" camera. I'm almost there. LOL

We eventually got into San Jose and I made it to my hotel in Monterey by about 1:3AM PDT. Whipped and wired, I caught up with some email and online stuff and made a plan of attack for Thursday at the track. Fortunately there would be nothing happening until late afternoon. Not that it mattered... my biological clock had me up around 4:30AM anyway.

The nice thing about the ALMS schedule at Mazda Raceway is Thursday's practice is one two hour session that runs into darkness. So, for photographers, you hit the ground running. It also gives you a little time in the photo room to have a few laughs with everyone and catch up with some of the west coast "locals" you only see once a year.

T H A W L E Y | © 2008 I went out on the first session with Dave Lister from Great Britain. Dave is a fantastic shooter whose work is regularly featured over at SportscarPros. He wanted to "steal" one of my favorite shots... a wide shot off the straight between turn 6 and the corkscrew that takes in the whole valley and mountains behind it. I laughed, telling him that was no problem, as I had stolen the shot from Rick Dole!

Once up on the hill, Dave and I parted company. I haven't seen his take yet... but I'm anxious to see how he saw it. Over the next two hours I made my way around the entire corkscrew starting at drivers left just above turn 6 to the backside where they enter the corkscrew on driver's right. For the purpose of this journal entry, I'll document some of the "looks" I got.

T H A W L E Y | © 2008 Starting off, was the afore mentioned wide shot. As I said, I've seen others try this shot and so far I've only liked Rick Dole's take. I haven't seen Lister's look yet. But for me, you need to get the cars along the bottom and keep as much valley in the shot as possible. Rick Dole complimented his take with a very dramatic morning cloud cover coming in off the bay. We were shooting at 4PM. Nice light... but not great light. This year I also tried another look just further up. I like it... though it's not nearly as dramatic.

T H A W L E Y | © 2008 Next is a pretty neat going away shot that incorporates a "sky shot" type of feel. It doesn't look as dramatic in person. But if you shoot it long and tight, it's pretty powerful. This shot will give good results pretty much anyway you shoot it, but... a little though and you can really coax a GREAT shot out of it. Think this one through... there's more there than meets the eye.

T H A W L E Y | © 2008 The next shot is not always available. It basically depends on the mood of the emergency worker... these are the guys in the orange fire suits that ride around in the IMSA trucks. I'm not going to give up the exact location... but, this year I was asked to move back... and, of course, that took away the shot. I love this shot. This is another one, like the valley shot, that really embraces how amazing the location of Laguna Seca is. For me, if you can come home with pictures that leave a non-race fan in disbelief of where this track is situated, you've done your job.

T H A W L E Y | © 2008 As I approached the top of the corkscrew at driver's left, the sun was getting lower and the light was hitting the side of the cars with a nice warm color... strong.. but great color. There are several photo holes there, but the trick is to get tight enough to keep a reasonably clean background. The challenge in that is the cars come over the top of the hill without a lot of warning and they move around quite a bit. You just don't know where they're going to pop over the top. Obviously, you want to keep good motion in the shot.. so it can be pretty tough shot if you want to get it right and tell the real story.

T H A W L E Y | © 2008I didn't spend a lot of time at the apex of the corkscrew... I just think this shot is overrated. Ever since they put the fence on the backside of the downhill, the shot has lost it's drama. So, I only spent a few minutes shooting wide and then moved on down the hill all the way to the crossover bridge. I knew I'd spend a little time in the corkscrew on race day, so I took this time to get things that played more into the late light.

T H A W L E Y | © 2008 At the bottom of the hill I get right up against the fence and the front side of the bridge. The fence cuts back toward the pedestrian sidewalk on the spectator side. By moving over there I can just snake my 500mm through the trees and up to the top of the turn. It's a pretty narrow window but it gives the appearance of being shot from the other side of the track. You can just squeeze of a frame or two between the radio tower in the background and the corner workers at the apex in the foreground. It's kind of a nice sky shot... though don't count on getting a whole lot of wheel blur. It's pretty quick and not enough room to really pan.

T H A W L E Y | © 2008 After crossing the bridge to driver's right, I tried a few shots panning through the trees, but to be honest, I was probably a little late. There wasn't a lot of sun on the track and the color was pretty flat. In short, I didn't like what I was getting, so I moved on up the hill to start work on the back side of the track.

T H A W L E Y | © 2008 There are new holes in the run-off of at the very top of the corkscrew. Even with a 500mm, it's not as tight as you'd like and the cars start turning in before they get to a position you'd like. However, it is a spot where they will come at you in groups and you can get some interesting looks. Sadly, the porta-toilet was place right in the background of the shot... and no matter how nice the shot looked, there was a toilet in the background. Too bad, because the photo hole was a good addition. I can't help but wonder if they ever really look through these holes before they place them.

T H A W L E Y | © 2008 The next shot is one of my favorites. It's a going away shot of the cars dropping off and entering the corkscrew. While the color wasn't great this year, the bay was fairly visible in the background. There are a bunch of things to think about here and ways to get a little more out of the shot. While there is still plenty of light, I'll tend to underexpose the shot so I can pull more color out the sky when I post process the shot. Basically, you're going to have more of a twilight look by doing that. Even has it gets later, if you underexpose, you'll end up with a bit more a night time look... and the taillights will emphasize it. In both cases though, don't do this if you plan on bringing the exposure up too far in processing. You're going to induce noise and muddier look. On the other hand, if you get it right, you get a nice shiny look on the car's colors and pretty nice effects on the color in the sky.

T H A W L E Y | © 2008 The last shot got later than I wanted. There were photographers in the hole shooting toward the turn and I wanted to pan the opposite way coming into the turn. There's not a lot of room to catch the pan and with 5 or 6 photographers there, it was out of the question. Luckily, they dispersed during the last red flag and the cars came out with three minutes left on the clock. So I was able to get of a few pans and to my surprise, the sky went absolutely acid red and orange. Right place, right time... who knew? LOL

So, that was the tour of the opening practice session for the season finale. IN 12 months, we'll give it another go and see what's changed.