A Little "Me" Time

Just a brief addition this week as things are ramping up getting ready for the American Le Mans Series' season opener at Sebring International Raceway. It's quite an eye-opener to kick of the year with the 12 Hours of Sebring... it pretty much comes and goes before you've caught your breath. And then it seems you wake up and it's the middle of July and you're in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. On the road again.

Last week I did put in a little time on my Canon gear, though. I ventured over to Sebring where they were holding an HSR Historic Race. Then Saturday and Sunday I took in the swamp buggies... this time with credentials. I have to say, the swamp buggies were photographically more productive than the historics and frankly, a lot more fun.

The historic event was... well, slow. There were not a lot of cars and the schedule seemed to drag. Whenever that happens, it's really hard to get into any sort of shooting rhythm. I always set off to shoot vintage cars with a picture in my mind and the hope that I can recreate a look that fits the era of the car or cars. Unfortunately, and I'm sure it's a matter or economics and scheduling, the organizers group types of cars together in an arrangement that doesn't suit the "look" I'm after. When the opportunity to shoot a stack of traffic presents itself, there's always one or two cars that visually don't fit the mix.

Then of course... there are the helmets. Believe me, I fully understand and respect the need for proper protective headgear, but can't someone come up with something that's more authentic? Obviously, they don't care about ME!!!! No respect, I guess. (Kidding of course.)

Lastly, Sebring is an odd place when it's empty and void of spectators. Not that it isn't a weird place when there are spectators... trust me, there is plenty of weirdness to go around during the 12 Hour... but when it's empty, it's very awkward to shoot. It's one track that you rely on the visual cacophony to add interest to the backgrounds. Being a flat abandoned air field, when it's just you and the cars out there, it looks a bit desolate.

What had prompted me to take the drive over to Sebring was the schedule called for a 6:15PM start to a 40 minute race. My initial though was "great... sunset into twilight... should make for some nice shots." Well, had they started on time, my plan would have been sound. Sadly, the sun dipped just before the late start and twilight wasn't anything to write home about.

The day did produce a few nice shots of a few nice cars... but I don't think we were making any "art" out there.

Here's a sample gallery.

Swamp Queen takes her traditional dunk in the mud af the end of the event!To the contrary, the World Famous Naples Swamp Buggy races lived up to their promise. I had a great time. I had contacted the organizers early on to let them know I'd be shooting the event. They were most gracious in granting me Media credentials and extended the courtesy of having the safety crew transport me to and from the center island. Everyone there, especially the safety workers, was very friendly and helpful.

This spot in the paddock/pit area gave me a clear view of the buggies coming off the front stratight with the grandstand in the background.One of the things common between both events I shot over the weekend is shot selection. Backgrounds always coming into play. Sometimes you can find a good clear shot, other times you have to play the hand you've been dealt. As I mentioned earlier, at the 12 Hours of Sebring you need to make the crowd and the clutter work for you. At other tracks, that's not always an option. The swamp buggy track is a strange configuration and shooting from the inside presented some new challenges.

Tempers flair... this jeep driver got capsized coming into the sippy hole on the front straight. The helmet didn't find its intended target, though.First, it's important to understand that the track "surface" is below where you are standing. And, there are no protective barriers. Per the request of the track officials, I was required to stand 20 ft. back from the water's edge. The water is only about 18"-24" deep with the exception of a couple of "sippy" holes... those are about 5' deep. The big pro-modified buggies basically ignore the "sippy" holes, whereas the jeeps and smaller buggies follow the contour of the track bottom. While every driver gets wet... the jeeps get drowned.

I finally figured out that the front wheels on these suckers DOES NOT spin under race conditions.So your sight lines are much different than shooting cars. The wheels are partially underwater and when shooting the buggies, so is the second place driver. The rooster tails and spray is amazing. I found I liked the long 3/4 - head-on shots the most. To me, that shot showed the violence of the vehicles and the water displayed a fantastic contrast from the front of the vehicle to the back. If you catch them right on the first lap (of two), the lead buggy comes flying of the apex of the sweeping end-turn, completely out of shape... I mean just evil. As they line up off the corner pulling onto the front stretch, the water in front is dead calm.. like glass. This gives you a beautiful frame into the cockpit showing the driver wrestling the wheel, the front wheels (actually rudders) coming up out of the water... then what appears to be a tsunami unleashing behind him at the rear wheels and trailing in his wake. It is spectacular.

Panning is somewhat challenging. You don't really have the luxury of changing your shooting position to fit your focal length to where you can hit the comfort zone you need for your swing. If you've read my entry on panning, you'll know what I'm referring to. The speeds aren't so great that you can really drop the shutter speed and blur out the background clutter. There were a couple of locations where I could bring the grandstands into play, and one apex where the foreground added interest, but for the most part, the pan shots didn't do much for me. I should also add, that while I was shooting on the island, the "corner" workers actually run along the edge following the race so they can be in the water quickly should something go wrong. So panning would also include a running safety worker now and then.

Sunday I limited my shooting to the outside of the course. This meant, with exception of the front stretch, the back side of the track was off limits. Fortunately, I was able to position myself by a large double gate where the buggies would exit the course. This provided a clear open look as the buggies came out of the start/finish turn heading into their second lap. This also put me behind the false "grid" and in the working pit/paddock area. With the time between heats, I got to meet and talk with some of the competitors and learned a lot more about this unique form of motorsport. It was very enjoyable and I learned a lot.

When I shot the buggies last year, I was stumped by the fact that I wasn't getting shutter speeds that would retain good visuals of the wheel spin. I knew I hadn't been dropping down to 1/15 or 1/30... but I was getting nothing. Well.... it seems the front wheels don't spin. Don't get me wrong... they rotate as the buggy rolls on the ground, but once they're in the swamp and up on plane, they're nothing more than high-priced rudders. There is a ski mounted to the inside of each wheel under the front axle... this is what is supporting the vehicle during the race and in the turns. So, there is no wheel spin to be had. I sure was relieved to have solved that mystery.

All-in-all it was a nice weekend of shooting for myself. Like I said, both events provided some nice shots, though I'd have to say the buggies pegged my fun meter. Some of the images where I was able to shoot long, down track toward the high-speed turn produced some fantastic looking shots. To me, they really show what this racing is all about. When I go again, I do want to spend more time with the "scene setting" opportunities... fans, the pits etc. but the mud and water tend to block your path getting to where you "thought" you wanted to go. I'll get it figured out a little more each time. And I'm definitely going back.

Here's a gallery of the buggies.