Okay I’ll admit it: NASCAR has never done much for me.
I know there are millions of people who live for it, but even with all the enthusiasm, I just couldn’t get into it.
I came from the school of thought that this was a bunch of hillbillies who could only turn left, but after Speedhunter Sean Klingelhoefer explored a stock car race at Fontana a few years ago, he told me that it’s anything but. Sean came away with a new appreciation for a hardcore motorsport, and I knew I would too.
All it took was an invite from the Australian EA studio called Firemonkeys to get me there. These are the people behind Real Racing 3, in which a player can race the massive 2.5-mile Daytona oval right on their mobile device.
Like any good Speedhunter, I scoped out the track beforehand and decided to enter through a side gate and go under the track via this tunnel at Turn 4.
This would immediately place me in the thick of the action, in the infield with the most diehard of NASCAR fans. These folks had been camped out all week enjoying the Daytona festivities during the lead up to the race.
Looks like they had fun, eh?
I found my way to the Media Center and picked up my photo vest. This would get me access to the pits and garages, which you’ll see soon in other stories I’m putting together.
For this story though, I want to focus on the main event, the Daytona 500.
While there are other races throughout the Daytona Speedweeks, the 500 is the one that everyone comes to watch.
I have plenty of behind the scenes action to show you still, but for the big race I headed to the stands so I could catch all the ups and downs of the 200-lapper.
As you can see, it was absolutely packed!Tricks Of The Trade
My Press Pass got me into the stands, but didn’t allow me a seat. I wasn’t sure how this would play out, so I went to the far end of the stadium and climbed to the top. Apparently this was a decent strategy, because before long I was joined by several other shooters. I was fortunate enough to strike up a conversation with this official NASCAR photographer, who offered to show me all of his favorite spots to shoot from.
We worked our way around the stadium, putting ourselves in the best vantage points for a given time of the race. This guy really had it figured out. Unfortunately, I don’t shoot a lot of motorsports though, so my longest lens is a 70-200mm. Given that most of the other guys were shooting with massive telephoto lenses, I was in for a challenge.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from being thrown into the world of photography as a Speedhunter, it’s to keep my cool and work around the circumstances. I tried to capture the feeling of the crowd by letting them into my frame.
The flag dropped and the cars were off. The entire stadium was on its feet, spectators rooting for their favorite drivers and capturing the moment on their cell phones.
Here we see the entire race field going around Turn 1.
They hadn’t yet had a chance to spread out, but after a few laps they sure did.
It didn’t take long for the drivers to get tangled up either. This was one of several wrecks during the race, with both Regan Smith and Chase Elliott getting loose and sliding off track.
Danica Patrick’s crash was particularly epic as well. (note: this video may not play in all regions)
Each time a wreck occurred, the yellow flag warned the drivers of a caution and the mess was cleaned up. Besides the crashes themselves being exciting, they also served to open up opportunities for the teams to strategize and bunched everyone back up for the restart.
When I say strategy, I’m talking about pit strategy. The teams must carefully manage their fuel and tires throughout the race, so when a caution lap happened unexpectedly it was often a perfect opportunity for fresh tires and a top-off.
A caution also gave the pit crews time to repair damage from collisions. At 200mph, aerodynamics become critical, so the crews did their best to get bodywork back into shape before sending their cars back out on track. More on this in the next story.
Check out the damage a blown tire did to the side of Greg Biffle’s #16 car.
The pit crews used sections of body panels to quickly repair the cars whenever possible, but other times they just busted out a roll of duct tape to keep things together.
While the pit crews were fixing up the cars, trucks with jet engines blew debris off the track. These were louder than the race cars!
A caution lap is like a reset for the whole race. With fuel and fresh rubber, the cars were bunched back up and the whole trajectory of the race could change in mere seconds.The Perfect Vantage Point
As the laps zoomed by, I had made my way to the other end of the grandstands with my new NASCAR photographer friend.
I shot a ton of images that I knew I wouldn’t use, but I was figuring out what worked best given the situation.
Shooting at the full 200mm reach of my lens, I was able to pan across the track as the cars blew by at 200mph.
I won’t lie, it was a spray ‘n’ pray situation, but I was able to get some clean shots that I’m really happy with.
From this spot we also had a good view of the pits. Check out Danica spinning the tires as she takes off.
As we got closer to lap 200, the racing only grew more intense.
Battles for position, risky passes and loose tires kept everyone on the edge of their seats.
With one final caution, the stage was set for a tight battle. It came down to these two: Martin Truex Jr. in the #78 car and Denny Hamlin in #11.
I don’t think anyone saw it coming, but in the final seconds Hamlin was pushed from behind by Kevin Harvick, giving him enough extra speed to barely beat Truex Jr. in a drag race to the checkered flag.
It was the narrowest margin by which the Daytona 500 had ever been won – a mere .010 of a second!
The video is well worth a viewing! (note: this video may not play in all regions either)
It was so close that Hamlin wasn’t even sure he had won. But once he realized, a celebratory burnout was mandatory.
I happened upon this in the pits after the race, and can only assume it’s the aftermath of the victory skid.Calm After The Storm
After the race was over and the stands had cleared out, I made my way down to the finish line. There was a gate in the barrier wall that was open, and I guess my credentials were sufficient because I walked right in.
Once on the track I discovered another dimension to Daytona that I didn’t know existed. For example, the fact that before the race ravenous fans had left their mark on the painted stripes.
They got to the wall too, and I never would have known.
It turns out this is also the prime spot for a selfie.
Once that was done I was able to get the photo I wanted.
The smell of Hamlin’s tires hung in the air, with thick clumps of rubber left behind.
After all the frenzy of the weekend, there was a soothing stillness about the track.
The birds even came in peck at the lawn. Oh, and more selfies were taken.
As a first-timer to NASCAR, I can’t think of a better introduction. Sure, I came expecting something out of Talladega Nights, but in the end all I found was pure motorsport.
Stay tuned for more stories from behind pit wall, within the garages, and even a look inside a NASCAR team’s toolbox.