I’ve recently been reading Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, a book about the culinary underbelly. One chapter describes his workday as a chef, and it was this that inspired me to document a day shooting drifting.
I’m sure that a lot of writers attempt such things, so just thank me later that I wasn’t inspired by James Joyce’s Ulysses on this occasion. Let’s dive in…
My alarm clock wakes me at 8:00am. It’s still raining. I lie in bed for a while, sipping water and forming a plan for the day in my head. It’s Sunday, which means this will be my fourth day documenting the Drift Masters European Championship (DMEC) double-header round in Riga, Latvia. I’ve already worked through the set up day, practice day, and the third round of the championship. Today will be the hardest for everyone.
On top of that, it’s guaranteed to be action-packed. Qualifying begins at 10:30am, then all the battles from the Top 32 to the final will happen within the space of just five hours. After this, I have at least a four-hour drive home to a different country, which means it’ll be well after midnight before my head hits a pillow again.
As I brush my teeth and turn on the shower, I review the things I haven’t shot in the previous days but still need to. I check my phone notifications and, most importantly, the weather forecast. It looks like we’ll have sunny weather right throughout the day, which although pleasant comes with its own challenges. I’m going to be slammed by the heat, and also have to deal with harsh light across the circuit.
Showered, I get dressed, slipping on long trousers as per track safety regulations, a UV-protecting long-sleeve shirt, and a cap. Being ginger does mean that I’m susceptible to sunburn over a golden tan.
I usually don’t wear any accessories, the exception to the rule being a wristwatch during events. Being on the ADHD spectrum, I tend to look at the time constantly. After years of this, I figured that it’s easier to glance at a watch than to pull my phone out of my pocket every minute.
I double-check that I haven’t left anything in the Airbnb apartment, and pack everything in my little Miata. On the short drive over to the track, I listen to some of my favorite songs from a playlist, because I don’t want to load my brain with anything new and unpredictable. Stability is key right now.
By the time I reach Bikernieki Circuit, my day is planned out. I’m one of the first media guys to arrive.
Early mornings at any track are peaceful, almost tranquil.
I apply a bit of sunscreen on my face and neck, fill a small cooling bottle with water, grab my high-vis vest, press card, camera bag, and make my way to the paddock. Here, I see what’s up and say ‘hi’ to the six teams I’m shooting for. I’m also interested to hear their feedback on my previous day’s work. Did they like the photos and the edits? Do they need anything special from me today?
Practice is about to start, so I wish everyone good luck and walk to the first media zone.
My mate Anton is over here, as is another photographer I’m familiar with, but whose name I don’t know. We exchange greetings and some small talk before the session begins.
Everyone is soon working. Anton is man-handling his massive 600mm lens that he usually uses for snapping airplanes. It’s the best time to use it as the ground is still cold, meaning there’s no heat haze to contend with.
Here’s Conor Shanahan, winner of the third round of the 2021 DMEC championship, drawing a perfect line through the clipping point. I stay another 15 minutes at this spot, grabbing a snap of every driver I’m interested in shooting, before moving to a new vantage point.
At my second location of the day, I’m shooting with my trusty 70-200mm lens, experimenting with panning at low shutter speeds. When I get a sharp shot at 1/40th, I’ll drop lower to 1/25th, then it’s 1/10th. At this point I’m just searching for artistic qualities of the shot, not so much the subject matter.
Next to me, fellow Speedhunter Jordan is setting up a remote camera. I know exactly what shot he’s after: a top angle of cars ‘kissing’ the wall.
Practice soon stops abruptly as a result of a huge oil spill. Photographers, marshals, and anyone else nearby chips in to help before the heavy machinery arrives to properly clean up the mess.
It’s 10:00am and there’s now a 30-minute break in proceedings before qualifying starts. I need to export images from my camera to my tablet, find at least one decent shot of every driver I’ve been commissioned to shoot for, edit them, and send them. Meanwhile, dancers practice their routine just outside the media center.
Smaller teams usually don’t need images this quick, even though they might say they do. The top teams are different; most have designated social media managers keeping fans entertained. Within a short space of time I see my fresh photos in posts, on stories, in videos, the lot.
Maybe I’m being a bit harsh, but I find qualifying to be a boring spectacle of any motorsport. And especially here, after experiencing an action-packed Saturday. Still, I notice how much both Elias and Johannes Hountondji have improved from the previous day and am happy that both of them make it to the main show.
It’s nerve-racking when there are 23 drivers that won’t make it to the tournament table.
There’s another small break, and if I’m lucky I’ll have time to eat properly at the venue. For years, they’ve been serving shashlik (meat skewers) here that are never the same, a lottery in one word. If there’s no time for an actual meal, I’ll snack on an energy bar I have with me and sip some water.
This time I make it to the table.
The drivers’ parade used to be a fun spectacle, but in recent years it’s become a bit dry. Still, it’s a great opportunity to snap a portrait or two.
Within moments, the Top 32 tandem runs arrive one after another, and all my photographer peers snap away in search of the best shot. At this point there is still room to experiment with pairings I’m impartial to, but I absolutely have to make great ‘poster shots’ of my drivers. They could make the final, or this could be their last run of the event.
There’s a short pause before the Top 16, so I run to the pits to grab some action shots. This is perhaps the worst time to disturb the drivers; at best they are focused and don’t want to be disturbed. If something is wrong in their camp, i.e. there’s an issue with the car, they could be furious. I keep my distance, shooting away at the teams as they go about their work.
From the Top 16, it’s straight to the finals. I try to switch positions for every loop of competition, strategically placing myself so the sunlight is of best benefit. I catch the #13 car of Lauri Heinonen just before he loses his battle with fellow Finn Juha Pöytälaakso. It’s unfortunate; I really enjoyed hearing Lauri’s naturally aspirated NASCAR-spec R5P7 Dodge V8 at full noise.
I’m doing well so far; a couple of my drivers are still in the competition, my pictures are looking crisp, and I’m actually feeling pretty good, right in the zone. No matter what comes, my finger is on the shutter button. I’m exchanging cracks with mates, and finding time to chat with Elin about her next daily driver.
By 8:30pm we have a final on our hands. The sun is to my right, already low and behind the trees, ripping what are called tiger stripe shadows onto the track. The best scenario is to catch the leading car hitting the ray of light and leaving the chaser in the shadows.
While Piotr Więcek and Benediktas Cirba are exchanging positions, I run to another part of the track to document the most important shot of the day. I shoot from a non-media zone (safety is still a priority) for this one, because no track marshal will say anything, or even if they do, well, the day is over.
Piotr dominated the final and is now standing on top of the podium.
I return to my car, but it’s not yet time to go home. I export all the photos, quickly rate the best ones from the day, and fire up Adobe Lightroom to edit at least one meaningful photo of every driver who paid me to be here. Files sent, I’m now ready to hit the road.
After a long and uneventful drive with music, singing, talking with myself, planning out this story, and looking out for wild animals crossing the road, I make it home. Good night!