Fram-Autolite NHRA Nationals at Infineon Raceway, Sonoma, CA
Having never shot (or even watched) drag racing before, I did as much research as I could before I got to the track, including reading up on the drivers and learning the different types of cars. I was intrigued by the Sportsman class, where non-pros race everything from old station wagons to pickup trucks to classic Camaros up to actual dragsters. I decided to go early specifically to shoot Sportsman races.
Super Comp driver Brina Splingaire gets a push back to the garage after her dragster wouldn't fire. This was shot with the 85mm 1.4 wide open. Not a lens I usually bring to shoot sports, but I decided to lug it around for something like this, where the car is mostly out of focus but her face is sharp. Kind of a tilt/shift effect without a tilt/shift lens.
Leo Glasbrenner pulls his '68 Firebird off the starting line in Stock Eliminator qualifying. Wheelies are common in the Sportsman divisions due to the way the cars are set up.
After Sportsman, the pros came out, starting with Pro Stock cars and motorcycles. These are far from stock, but have at least the shape of production vehicles and run on gasoline.
Jeg Coughlin Jr does a burnout in his Chevy Cobalt. Try ordering one of these from a dealer.
Shawn Gann makes a pass showing off he Dead Head status:
Next up were the big boys, Funny Car and Top Fuel Dragsters. Now I have shot Indy Cars, NASCAR, and dirt track stock cars and go-carts. Pro Stock was a good bit louder, but did nothing to prepare me for Funny Car and Top Fuel. The power these cars put out is beyond belief. I wore heavy duty construction headphones, the kind jackhammer operators wear, and it was still loud. But more than the noise, the pressure that the cars created, the heat, the tire smoke, and the exhaust are really striking. Before each run, the cars perform burnouts to warm up the tires and lay down rubber for traction near the start. When the first pair of Funny Cars lined up, I was standing no more than 5 feet away, looking for a picture of tire distortion and smoke. The rear tires of these cars are huge, and are not filled all the way. So when the driver hits the pedal, the tire scrunches up which in turn provides traction. When they got going, the pressure and heat rocked me back, and after a few frames, my eyes were burning from smoke and fumes. Nitromethane fuel is nasty stuff, and once you inhale the vapors, you're in for a long day. Maybe a walk down the track would be in order.
One thing I always try to do no matter what I am shooting is find different places from which to shoot. You can't stand around and expect to be the one with the best pictures. For cycling, I have climbed up the sides of mountains and laid down in mud. For rodeo, I wore a cowboy hat just so I could shoot from the launching stalls. I've been inside the roller derby ring, on the lip of a snowboarding superpipe, etc. But drag racing doesn't lend itself to diverse angles. The track is totally flat, and the buildings are too far away to use as platforms. To top it off, NHRA sharply restricts the number of photographers allowed down track. More can go wrong later in the races, and parachutes can blow over the wall, so only a handful of full-time NHRA shooters can be near the finish. Everyone else gets the starting line and 225' down track, so I decided to use my wide lenses as much as possible to get some variety and not rely too heavily on long lens isolation shots of the cars on the starting line.
Here I used the 16mm fisheye to bend the wall and paint line but leave the car relatively undistorted.
On another run, I pre-composed using the 14-24 and waited for the car to get to the corner of the frame. At 200mph, that's easier said than done.
I noticed that the crow's nest that overlooks the NASCAR/Indy Car finish line was empty and not chained off. It's about 25 feet up, and accessible only by climbing up and down a ladder. Forget the 40lbs of gear I was carrying, I'm terrified of heights. And to top it off, it was a windy day and the crow's nest was swaying. But, it was the only real opportunity to get above the action, so I went for it. The whole time I was shooting, I was trying to figure out how best to get down. I did a couple of panning shots, and 3 runs later, the session was over!
Top fuel dragsters are of course the top dogs. Anything that can turn a quarter mile in 4 seconds and upwards of 325 mph is going to be a spectacle. Top Fuel cars can reach 120dB, which is louder than a 747 on takeoff.
Here the heatwaves dominate this shot of Brandon Bernstein:
Clay Millican burns out shooting smoke towards his crew:
Spencer Massey shows how out of shape rear tires can get:
Antron Brown, who won the previous two races in Denver and Seattle, also won in Sonoma, completing his sweep of the NHRA's "Western Swing." Here is the start of his winning run:
The time between these two pictures is negligible, and the focal length is constant, so you can get an idea of how fast he was going, just off the starting line.
And here are the trophies awarded to Brown and the other division winners.
Gear used: Two Nikon D3, 400mm 2.8, 70-200mm 2.8, 85mm 1.4, 24-70 mm 2.8, 14-24mm 2.8, 16mm 2.8 fisheye. 3 stop neutral density filter, circular polarizer, 1.4 extender on some shots.
Lessons learned: First off, drag racing is a photogenic sport, but three full days of shooting it is too much for me. I'm relatively happy with the pictures I did get, but can't help but notice the ones I didn't get because of access (down track), and ignorance (I didn't realize that I could shoot the lineup of cars as they waited their turn. Next time, I'll do a half day on Friday to shoot behind the scenes (drivers out of their cars, and mechanics working on cars) and the night racing session, and then a full day on race day. I also need to get down track access or bring a 600mm to try to get some parachute shots.