2009 Fram-Autolite NHRA Nationals

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.