Where All Is Golden, Petit Le Mans 2012

Autumn has been my favorite time of year for as long as I can remember. There’s something refreshing about the days getting shorter and the weather colder, particularly in the American Southwest where the winter is pretty mild. The fall also signifies the end of the motorsport season and with it one event that I always look forward to in October – Petit Le Mans.

While most of the motorsport community begins winding down after October and planning for the upcoming season, our work as Speedhunters is just getting started. With SEMA looming right around the corner there is a lot to do and many sleepless nights ahead for most of us. Perhaps that’s one reason why I like visiting Georgia so much this time of year, it’s one last dance before the oncoming storm.

Although I’m not nearly as well known for shooting motorsport as some of my colleagues, it’s something I’ve fallen in love with in recent years and one of the main reasons I jumped on board here at Speedhunters. Working with some of the other great shooters I have as coworkers all over the planet has allowed me to sharpen my skills in this lesser practiced area. As they saying goes, “practice makes perfect” and I’ve been fortunate to have shot more races in the past few months than I did in my entire career previously.

One of the big draws for me at Petit Le Mans is the dedication of the fans that attend the race which make it something special. Being that this is the second longest race of the American Le Mans Series the fans have a lot of time to get up close to the cars and drivers they love. Watching the fans interaction at the events over the years is inspiring stuff and if there’s one thing that I have to credit the ALMS on it’s the way they get the spectators involved.

Of course no long distance race is complete without a pre-race grid walk. I’ve commented before on what it’s like to wade through a sea of crazed race fans before the lights go green, but it’s a pivotal part of the weekend for everyone – the drivers, crew teams and even us journalists. It signifies those last few moments of peace before the grueling day that lay ahead for each of us.

The grid was so packed this year that I basically avoided even trying to get clear shots of the cars and instead laid back and did some people watching as the fans elbowed their way towards the front of the grid. Even still there are some interesting shots to be had if you’re patient.

When I came over to Speedhunters I didn’t initially realize how busy I would actually be, which isn’t a bad thing, but it’s certainly cut into my ability to follow ALMS over the course of the season. In that sense this year’s race for me wasn’t so much about who won or who lost but just enjoying the sites and sounds of incredible machines flying around a beautiful circuit.

I may not have shot every road course in the states, but I’d say that Road Atlanta is by far and away the most beautiful of those I’ve captured. Laguna Seca, Sebring and Infineon are all gorgeous in their own right, but I think the diversity of the available shots at Petit trumps them all. The high speed esses for example can be shot from about five different places on either side of the track and they look equally stunning from every vantage point.

There are also so many opportunities to create beautiful images from the spectator areas as well, thanks to the massive elevation changes throughout the track. I remember when I first started shooting races I used to stick to the exclusive over-the-fence-access that my media credentials provided but with more experience I’ve realized that there are often some incredible vantage points even for those with general admission.

Speaking of elevation changes, I don’t think most people realize just how steep this track really is. The final corner for example is an unbelievable downhill run into a very fast right hander, the size and steepness I would compare to the much better known Eau Rouge, except this one is running in reverse. I’d love to have Paddy or Jonathan over to see this circuit in person!

In addition to an already overwhelmingly photogenic course layout, this time of year paints the circuit with incredible fall colors and wonderful light. Ironically when I wasn’t shooting cars on track I was hiking around in the woods getting artsy with nature. We don’t have this sort of stuff in Los Angeles so, for a city slicker like me, orange leaves are quite exciting.

But it’s not just the leaves that are orange, as the sun falls over the hills in the twilight hours Road Atlanta has an unreal golden hour. However I doubt that the track’s impressive scenery contributes much to the massive popularity of the event, although it probably doesn’t hurt. Rather I’d imagine that the large field which typically consists of many European run cars probably causes the majority of the draw to Petit Le Mans.

However with the year’s change in the WEC schedule Georgia would not see the likes of the top-tier P1 entries from Audi and Toyota, but it didn’t seem to have much of a damper on attendance. Of course there were still plenty of foreign teams participating, like GT fan favorites IMSA Performance Matmut and AF Corse.

With the big factory prototype efforts off the entry sheet the door was open for the first time in as long as I can remember for a potential overall victory for an American team. Still there was some pretty stiff opposition from overseas in the P1 category in the form of Rebellion Racing who put their Lola on pole, certifying them as the team to beat over the weekend.

The domestic teams put up the best fight they could muster and, in the case of the #20 Dyson racing car, they may have pushed a little too hard and wouldn’t see the checkered flag under their own power.

The Muscle Milk HPD ARX-03a was the only car that was able to match the outright pace of Rebellion, but an error ruined any chance of defeating the Swiss team. Keeping a tight ship paid off in the end for Rebellion and they basically inherited the win by keeping out of trouble. In fact that seemed to be the theme for the weekend in every category.

Although the GT field at thirteen cars might not be as large as other endurance races in Europe, what they lack in overall numbers they make up for with top level factory backed entries making for some of the most exciting racing anywhere in the world. The story this particular weekend was one that ALMS fans have grown accustomed to, with the top nine cars all qualifying within a one second bracket of each other.

It’s still incredible to me that you can have cars with completely different dimensions, shapes, engines and drivelines but have their performances matched so closely. The cars here are more tightly grouped in lap times than most major spec series! With the budgets funding the development of the cars these races are quite often fiercely contested all the way to the last corner of the last lap.

I have to take my hat off the guys driving in the GT category as they are constantly under fire from all angles. Take into consideration for a minute that these cars are mid-pack in terms of lap times which means they have to watch their mirrors for the faster prototypes and dart around the slower GTC Porsches while fighting tooth and nail with each other.

These relentless struggles end up making for an amazing spectacle, like watching this pack heading three wide at full tilt into a massively difficult turn one. It was a game of racing chicken and not one of the drivers was about to give up, but the track quite literally wasn’t wide enough for all of them. The result of this insanity was one silver and red Porsche off in the kitty litter. Motorsport can be a cruel occupation.

The boys at Falken started the weekend with their work cut out for them as their qualifying pace wasn’t quite that which they had hoped for. Nevertheless the team put in a valiant effort over the course of the race and advanced six spots by the checkered flag. I’ll be posting a more in depth look behind the scenes of the Falken team soon so keep your eyes peeled for that!

All weekend it was the pair of now-silver-clad Ferrari 458s operated by Extreme Speed Motorsports that everyone had their eyes on. Qualifying 1-2 in GT the number 02 car would start from pole but it would be the sister vehicle, driven by former Indy driver and team owner Scott Sharp, that would take home the hardware.

While our very own Tommy Milner may have lost the battle on this particular outing, he and his co-driver Oliver Gavin certainly won the war taking home the 2012 GT class driver’s championship. The boys have a lot to be excited about as they also netted the constructor’s title for Chevrolet along with the team championship for Corvette Racing. I’d say this year was very good to the C6!

As exciting as the GT battles were, there was yet another big attraction at PLM this year in the form of a car that defies classification altogether – the Delta Wing. Since I was unable to attend the 24 hours of Le Mans this year I was really looking forward to seeing the Delta Wing in person and I have to admit that I actually find it even more incredible after watching it ripping around the track.

Many of you saw the footage of the Delta Wing’s crazy incident at Road Atlanta and seemed to have a very strong reaction to the downright terrifying clip. Fortunately the driver Gunnar Jeannette wasn’t seriously injured and the team was able to repair the car in time for the race, and I’m thankful they did. Seeing the Delta Wing in action is a sight to behold.

The way it navigates the course is quite strange looking compared to a standard GT or Prototype car. From what I could see the car doesn’t do well with the curbing so the drivers have to keep their line very tidy. Aside from that the car’s unique steering design causes it to rotate in a very unnatural looking manner that is rather difficult to describe, but anyone that has watched the car take a corner at speed will know what I’m talking about. I hope to visit the team during the offseason to learn more about this bizarre take on the future of motorsports.

Although I do appreciate the fact that people are investing time and effort into keeping motorsport relevant in the future, I thoroughly enjoy where sportscar racing is today. What the real future of the ALMS will be once the impending GRAND-AM merger is complete is still a bit cloudy, but I don’t fear the unknown. So long as there are cars vying for position on a racetrack, we’ll be there to document it.

If nothing else I look forward to the increased car counts and hope to see even more manufacturer participation in the future. Can you imagine a series where Toyota, BMW, Nissan, Porsche, Chevy, Dodge, Ford, Ferrari, McLaren, Audi and Mazda are all duking it out in the same class? What an incredible series that would be… and can you imagine Daytona 24 added to the calendar!?

As my mind wandered about thinking of futuristic what-if-scenarios, the sun finally decided to go down and the track began to cool. The smell of authentic barbecue pits can become a bit of a distraction, but the looming smoke they provide off in the distance makes an interesting stand-in for fog. It’s the moments like these when I have to pinch myself to make sure it’s real. I really do have the best job in the world.

Once the night fall really set in I was relinquished to shooting at some of the better lit sections of the track. As any photographer will tell you there’s something magical about shooting racing at night, there are so many details like a glowing rotor or exhaust flames that are lurking even in the day but come alive in the darkness.

Sadly very shortly after night fall my camera decided to call it quits on me after several years of loyal service. I found it oddly fitting that it decided to crap out at an endurance race and fortunately it was very close to the end. While a racing driver would surely be gutted to have a forced retirement this close to the end,  for me it was just a valid excuse to spend the rest of the night as a spectator – and one with the best seat in the house.

See you at Sebring!

More ALMS stories on Speedhunters

More endurance GT stories on Speedhunters

More stories by Sean Klingelhoefer on Speedhunters

 -Sean

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37 comments
ChadLunn
ChadLunn

Always awesome job Sean. Petit was fun this year. 

Baljit Singh
Baljit Singh

THOSE PANNING SHOTS! D: Love the 18th shot. Nothing better to get my heart racing than a BMW overtaking a Ferrari panning shot. Nice work Sean!

Daniele Fontanin
Daniele Fontanin

Sometimes the questione "what is Great Photography" comes into my mind...and every time that I see pics by Sean I can find the answer: "This is great photography!"

Great set my friend! I love pics, feelings on them, tones, colours...all is amazing.

As usual...GREAT WORK!

LukeH
LukeH

Great warm photos!

AlvaroNaranjo
AlvaroNaranjo

Amazing pics, but i dont like the "post process"

 

Nice entry.

LouisYio
LouisYio

More like "practice MADE perfect"

Conor Murphy
Conor Murphy

any chance of a desktop of that chrome 458 on 2 wheels? savage photo!

ding0tr0n
ding0tr0n

killer photos.  looks like you were out during the magical hour or so before sunset where the lighting is just perfect.

Fernando Fotografia
Fernando Fotografia

Porsche, the most beautiful photos! Porsche is Porsche, the rest is just the rest!

autro
autro

You leafer.

 

datsunsss
datsunsss

Great post Sean, some really beautiful photographs man. Top stuff!!

zeithaus
zeithaus

Is very impressive how you gets thats pics. Is a peculiar way to see the car while they're flying on the track. I must confess the best pics for  me is the night race like the 24hrs of LeMans or 24hrs of nurburgring. the color of the brake discs in a hard corner or the car passing for the mist at nordschleife is unbelivable. keep going with thats photos.

zz
zz

The photography really made this post. You guys really need to make some time for a post on your photographing techniques, to-do's and don'ts, etc. One thing I really wanna know is how you guys pull off shooting straight into the glaring headlights of the cars when its dark, and still get a balanced exposure! :o Usually you'd get severe underexposure. 

Robo_No1
Robo_No1

Wow, amazing Photgraphy there Sean. These have to be some of the best looking racing pics I've seen. Really top work man.

Robo_No1
Robo_No1

Wow, amazing Photgraphy there Sean. These have to be some of the best looking racing pics I've seen. Really top work man.

apfeif3
apfeif3

Any pictures of the gold JDX #11?

Nikhil_P
Nikhil_P

i saw parts of the race on tv... love it!!!

any chance of posting up the picture of the flying lizard spitting fyaaa?!!!!

BrandonLaJoie
BrandonLaJoie

Outstanding coverage, Sean. You continue to inspire me. 

Jonathan Moore
Jonathan Moore

Awesome stuff Sean! I have been out to PLM once, back in 2008 – quite a race, and quite a track. I'd love to get back out there sometime, and get to see the many other amazing US tracks...

FunctionFirst
FunctionFirst

I love Braselton, that whole area is gorgeous. Beautiful photos Sean, glad you were able to cover such an amazing event as this. I know there is a lot of fear and hesitation at the upcoming merger, but I think there's really an opportunity there to create the greatest road racing series in the world. We'll just have to see.

 

So what would you prefer? Orange leaves or palm trees?

sean klingelhoefer
sean klingelhoefer

Ya I was out pretty much all day, but the light was so good during sunset that most of my favorite images were in the last hour of daylight. 

sean klingelhoefer
sean klingelhoefer

 @zeithaus I totally agree about the night shots, I really hope to complete the trifecta of N24-LeMans-Spa next year... I got two out of three this time around. 

sean klingelhoefer
sean klingelhoefer

Thank you for the kind words and I agree we should do some posts about photography from time to time. In regards to the headlights, pretty much all of us expose manually (set camera to "M") so you don't have to rely on the camera's auto-meter throwing the exposure off like you're describing. 

sean klingelhoefer
sean klingelhoefer

 @Nikhil_P Ya it was a pretty good race, but not quite as intense as recent years. As far as uploading new desktops, it's quite a pain to add them once the post is up unfortunately :(

sean klingelhoefer
sean klingelhoefer

 @Jonathan Moore ohhhh that's right I think you told me that. With my limited brain power I wasn't able to keep that morsel stored properly. 

sean klingelhoefer
sean klingelhoefer

 @FunctionFirst I'm really excited to see what the merger means for the sport, from my standpoint more cars on track = better spectating. 

 

As far as the leaves or palm trees, I'll take both lol! 


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