News came today announcing the closing of Miller Motorsports Park.
I remember my excitement prior to the inaugural American Le Mans Series Utah Grand Prix. The build up to the event had started the previous year at Road Atlanta. The Series would reserve the weekend of Petit Le Mans to hold a “State of the Series” event and release the coming season’s schedule. All the talk was about Tooele, Larry Miller and the mega complex, Miller Motorsports Park.
Tooele, Utah is located just outside Salt Lake City. It is most notable for …. well, being just outside Salt Lake City. While I personally have nothing against the area, I can’t help but recall how I felt ... “wow, this is like being on the surface of the moon,” though to be honest, I’ve never been on the surface of the moon.
Location aside, I enjoyed this event. I really enjoyed this event. The Miller Group had their act together and bent over backwards to make EVERYONE feel at home and went out of their way to insure you had a great experience. I certainly did.
They brought in John Garner to run the media and media center. John was ‘the best.' He was always helpful and always… always… did what he said he would do. When John showed me to the espresso machine, I let him know I'd be shipping out a supply of Illy espresso and a set of Illy espresso and cappuccino cups. And of course, true to John Garner's style, they were there waiting when we returned the following year.
Photographing that inaugural event was another matter. The place was huge. The track, designed by Alan Wilson, consisted of multiple layouts… though ALMS chose to run the full “outer” course. And while it was long (over four miles) and seemed (in places) like racing out in the middle of nowhere… looking back, the full “outer” course was always my favorite.
My initial excitement was knowing we were shooting in uncharted territory. As a series shooter, you travel to tracks that have a history. You’re following in the footsteps of other photographers that have established a 'look' for that venue. Some shots seem to be predetermined… and you’d be somewhat foolish to ignore them. Most circuits… especially the great ones, have “signature shots.” There are some racetracks, the mere mention of their name conjures up a mental picture that defines the facility. Here at Miller… for the first time ever… WE would get to blaze the trail. WE would get to establish the signature shots. Or would we?
The photo room was buzzing after the first practice session. Oh man… this place was not only huge, the access to the track was putting the cars out of reach. It was like there was not enough glass to reach. The normal 500mm standby suddenly felt like a 200mm at best. These cars were out there… and we were relegated to the role of spectator.
What I didn’t realize was this was exactly what I needed. Today’s modern cameras and lenses can lull us into complacency. The equipment is off the charts and frankly, can quickly become a crutch. After all, there’s no substitute for having to think. Well…. suddenly, we all had to think.
So here we are… a track we’ve never seen. Angles we can’t find. Cars racing by that we can’t “visually” reach… and we’ve got a job to do. We’ve got clients who want to see photos of their car on track.
You know what? This was actually a good thing. Gone were the trappings of what you’d normally do. Gone was the comfort level of “oh… this is just like (name your favorite track or favorite corner), I can do a similar shot here. Gone was the ease of pointing a big 500mm lens at the problem and letting it come to you.
Suddenly, when you can’t fill the frame, you have to think. You have to put the camera down and think. What am I looking at? What am I seeing? Because at the end of the day, all I can do is show you what I saw. And there it was….
Race cars tearing through the desert. Mountains reaching for the sky. Colors that screamed… "hey, this is the southwest…” It was all there just waiting to be assembled in a visual story. And guess what… no one had ever seen it before anyway. So how do I make MY story THE story? Simple… put your eyes to work… your brain in gear… and use the tools you have to tell the folks back home…. “this is what I saw.”
What I can tell you is the race I saw at Miller was a race like I’ve never seen before… and haven’t seen since. The race never ran on the same date again… and the following year used a different section of the course. The inaugural race was truly a one-off.
And I was there.
And in retrospect, when it was all said and done, I’m comfortable stating… I f’ing nailed it. I know that more now than I actually knew then. In the weeks that followed I began to realize what that week had meant to me… and what it meant to my work. These are photos I look back on and can see a change in me.
That challenge… that fear of failing… was a total game changer for me. It wasn’t that I had been coasting… but I had never truly (photographically) felt my back against the wall. I've always felt that creativity requires a sort of friction to get you to do your best. To be honest, for me, that friction is the fear of failure…
The following year, I presented Larry H. Miller with a portfolio of 12 images from that inaugural American Le Mans Series race. Here are the 12 photos.