Getting Back to my Roots, Frame by Frame

Getting Back to my Roots, Frame by Frame

The cacophony of sound is getting louder by the second, and my ears are ringing as though I’ve been listening to Rush’s Red Barchetta — volume set to nuclear — for days. But this is a different type of music: the shrieks of 1970s Formula 1 cars, deep staccato reverberations from Shelby GT350s and Ford GTs and the banshee yelps of Porsche 395s from the old IMSA days.

I’m tucked behind the wall at pit exit of Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, a concrete K-rail and 50-something feet of tarmac separates me from vintage race cars, passing by anywhere between a buck and 150 MPH. Dust and gravel tickle the UV filter on my 100-400mm Canon lens, with my 7D wailing away at 8-frames a second, every image captured at 1/1500th of a second. My nostrils are burning – the effects of breathing a lot of exhaust, and it’s nothing close to what comes from the tailpipe of a Prius: This is exploded race gas baby, and we’re talkin’ minimum 100-octane for a big, hot, flame in the chamber. Its classic rewind for me, shooting one of my first loves, and I feel like a kid in a candy shop with a bag full of Benjamins.

As a teenager, there were two passions that made up the bulk of my universe: photography and cars. I had been introduced to both in my early years, my grandfather with the camera, and my Dad and grandfather with cars. I experienced my first burnout in my dad’s ’72 Ford Gran Torino Sport, a brown beast with opera windows and a 351 Cleveland under the hood. In 1975, he brought home a screaming orange zonker – a ’74 DeTomaso Pantera.

To this day, I remember hanging out on the swing set in the back yard, and hearing this distinct and deep exhaust note coming up the street. Jumping of the swing, running down to the gate, throwing it open, and standing in awe at this low-slung beast, exhaust burbling from the quad tips under the bumper. The passenger window rolled down, and my dad asked, “Want to go for a ride?”

I had always liked cars. Heck, my grandfather had me “driving” his T-Bird by the time I was three – me sitting on his lap with hands on the wheel, he working the pedals and making sure the car went in the right direction. It was a short lap ‘round the block, and some days, we did two. But that first ride in the Pantera changed things. Maybe it was the visceral experience: the rumbling engine a few inches away from your back, the noise — that incredible roar as the accelerator neared the floorboard – and feeling every nuance in the road through your back side. It was like I was becoming one with the car, as later on cars would become one with me.

My cameras recorded it all, be it time trials at Ontario, Riverside or Willow Springs Raceways (all but the latter raised to become shopping malls); Car shows at Newport and Pebble Beach; and rallies or runs to ‘Vegas, Monterey and Lake Arrowhead. Many miles were put on the car, and many more miles of film were shot. Gallons of sunscreen was applied, and enough Meguiar’s Mirror Glaze and wax were applied to the paint to keep Barry in business for a long time. We often needed a weekend to recover from the one that just ended. Talk about more fun than you could shake a stick at!

The automotive journalism years – those were amazing. To think that you could drive cars (trucks, SUVs and even a Zamboni!), take pictures, write stories, and get PAID to do it?!?! The days were long and hard, rollin’ with my Motor Trend/Truck Trend homies (the 2-way radio banter was more than worth the price of admission). A typical day? Imagine standing in the middle of a dry lake bed in the Mojave. It’s a tick north of 100-degrees, and you’re shooting a new high performance pick up. The art director wants the lead shot of the story to be the truck, sliding sideways in front of the camera, with a wide-angle view, that shows the truck crossed up with a big plume of dust behind it. After a couple of test runs, it’s time to cook with gas: There’s a fresh roll of Fuji Velvia 100 in the Canon 1V, and fresh batteries in the power drive booster. Mash the button down, and that roll of film is toast in four-seconds. Shoot too early, and you miss the sweet spot, and the truck. Pull the trigger too late, and every image will be a dust cloud. It’s about patience, grasshopper. A couple test runs to determine vehicle speed, the right timing for the Scandinavian Flick and pre-focusing (so the autofocus doesn’t hunt in the middle of the shoot), and it’s game time.

The black beast barrels across the desert floor, on a kamikaze line towards the camera. There’s a mantra all shooters utter under their breath, an inside joke that you never want to come true, “If a vehicle is out of control coming towards you, don’t run. You’ll only die tired.” About 75-yards from becoming a human bowling pin, the truck does a lightning-quick right-left flick of the wheel to upset the balance, a second  later the engine wails at full throttle, the back end swinging around, sliding sideways while the driver turns into the slide, modulating throttle to keep the truck on the same plane. Camera side, if you look at the right index finger, and it’s ashen white, fully smashed on the shutter button, the camera making a Gatling gun sound of mirror slaps and motor drive a-go-go, the shooter smoothly pirouetting on the right foot, matching the speed of the end of the lens to the vehicle flashing by only a few feet away.

As the dust settles, the mic clicks on the 2-way radio, “Let’s setup and do it again.” The camera back is opened, the spent roll deposited into an empty waist pack, and a fresh roll comes out of the other pack full of film, and fed into the camera.  Time for take-2…

It was a true “work hard, play hard” thing. Prior to my tenure at MT, Edmund’s was same, same, but different – more of a work hard thing, then go and play at your pace when you’re pau hana. But no matter how you sliced it, film was bought by the brick (44-rolls), motor drives were worn out, and your wrists ached from using Kenyon Labs gyros screwed to the bottom of the camera. It was a gas, and something I’ve missed in my 11-years of life 2.0, shooting nature in Hawaii.

A Herd of Shelby Mustangs Winds through Turns 8 and 8A at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca

A Herd of Shelby Mustangs Winds through Turns 8 and 8A at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca

I’d been yearning to play in that groove again, and when the idea of spending our 2015 vacation at Monterey Car Week, came up, it became a must-do.  After all, Shelby’s GT350 was the featured marque at the Rolex Motorsports Reunion, and we’d owned several ‘Stangs before, including a ’66 K-GT coupe and a ’65 GT-350 basket case of a clone. It wasn’t long before airline tickets were procured and reservations were made at a B&B in Carmel Valley. My MindShift FirstLight Bag was emptied, and reconfigured from nature photography to track and car show duty: Gone were the split-ND filters, the Canon 15mm fisheye and 100mm macro lenses. Everything was pared down to the essentials, and the bag laid out for quick access.

The main camera at the track was going to be my trusty 7D, coupled to my 100-400mm f/3.5-5.6 Iens. I wasn’t going to have the luxury of an all access photo vest (those snazzy neon orange numbers with the massive “PHOTO” emblazoned on the back), so I had to be prepared to shoot with a looooooong lens. I can’t remember how many times I’ve shot cars flying down turns 8 and 8A – The Corkscrew (a 5-1/2 story drop in only 450-feet of track length) — where Alex Zanardi passed Bryan Herta there on the INSIDE of the ‘screw (something that any experienced racer just doesn’t do) on the last lap of the 1996 CART race. I knew that my good ol’ 24-105mm f/4 would be perfect, as long as I got a front-row spot at the catch fence. Walking the paddock and other track-side shooting was relegated to my 5DsR with the 11-24mm f/4. The combo is a shoulder-numbing 6-pounds (with batteries and accessory grip), but the 7D rig was a pound heaver, so at least I was balanced.

Contrary to what you see on TV, carrying a camera pack on your back is a big faux pas in the paddock – It’s way too easy to turn around and smack a very expensive car (or carbon fiber splitter) or a crew member, so I opt for an oversized waist pack, with a couple MindSpring Lens Switch Cases looped through the pack’s belt for extra lenses, batteries and lens cleaning cloths. Nearly all the teams don’t mind you entering their pit stall to grab an image, but it’s ALWAYS a good thing to get the attention of a crew member, and ASK if it’s okay.

It’s Day 1 at the track, and we’ve trudged through some serious traffic – over the Laureles Grade and onto the Monterey Salinas highway – to get to “A Road,” the main entrance to the Laguna Seca recreation Area. As usual, there are a bazillion volunteers, checking tickets and directing traffic, so fans can get in before the first practice session starts, and vintage cars don’t overheat in line. We park our rental car, a Chrysler 200 (the biggest pile of crap made with wheels attached), in the Purple lot, a mere 10-feet away from the GT350 corral. I pop the trunk, fill my ”tool belt” with camera gear, double check the laces on my hiking boots and head West and up, towards the Corkscrew.

Disclaimer: for those of you that haven’t experienced the track, consider this: If you park your car in the “low lands,” and hike to the top of the ‘Screw, you’re going to traverse over 180-feet of elevation change. That’s about the same as climbing up 17-stories-worth of stairs, except the path is either paved access roads (and you’re walking more), or you’re scrambling up uneven dirt trails. We chose the latter, because we thought we were smart. Yeah, right.

Once my heart stopped beating as though it was attempting to punch a hole outta my chest with a sledge hammer, I staked my claim at the fence at the perfect spot — giving me enough room to pan through turns 8 and 8A, yet rack the zoom to (hopefully) get a few cars with air time under their right tires. In the distance, I could hear various engines starting from the paddock, so I pulled out the 7D and got ready.

Now, in my mind, I figured that I’d start cracking off shots, fluidly turning my hips to pan with the action, and I’d have some darn good shots. Well, there was a disconnect in the communication chain, as my body was reacting like a transmission with a worn clutch, bad synchromesh and several teeth missing from the gears. C’mon Scott! Trigger the focus, squeeeeeze the shutter button, rotate like your waist is on ball bearings, smooth transition to the left leg, lightly extend arms and back as you rotate. Click, click, click, click, click…

“Hey buddy! Are you taking pictures or practicing ballet!?”

Art in Motion -- Jaguar's D-Type

Art in Motion — Jaguar’s D-Type


Some 20-cars and four-laps later I was back in the groove, my shutter set at 1/60th of a second, cars whizzing by, and capturing three outta five shots as keepers – portions of the cars perfectly sharp, fading to the background to make them look like they’re runnin’ 40-mph faster. Four classes of vehicles later, a second application of SPF and a couple bottles of water, I was ready for a break.

I had to rewind a sec’ for a moment of contemplation: Multiple millions of dollars-worth of irreplaceable and historic race cars, being used as they were designed and intended to be – flogged hard on the race track – without worry about accumulating stone chips, or that the thing might blow a rod through the block on the front straight.

Oh yeah, it’s wicked cool stuff.

“If I didn’t know any better,” my wife said, “I’d think you’re having just a little fun!” Understatement of the year, my love. I felt like I was in the proverbial saddle again, just had to knock off a few cobwebs.

That afternoon, we trekked down to the paddock, walking the aisles and checking out the plethora of vintage race machinery. Three-wheeled Morgan F2s: check. Mercedes Benz 300SL Gullwing (one of the few factory, aluminum bodied cars): check. Shelby GT350s? Ha! There’s more than 30 of ‘em! Throw in a gaggle of Porsche 935s, a Maserati Birdcage, a ’58 Ferrari Testa Rossa, plus Formula One cars whose previous pilots fought in anger: James Hunt’s 1974 Hesketh and Nikki Lauda’s 1976 Ferrari.

With the track shut down for lunch, The Paddock is where you could really see the yin and yang of vintage racing: A lone gentleman with a 10’x10’ pop-up tent covering his Bug Eye Sprite, on his back, wrenching on the suspension – a half-eaten sandwich laying atop his cooler. A half-dozen stalls away, there’s a full-tilt-boogie semi, massive awning deployed, several mechanics working on a ground effects car, and a buffet table filled with everything, but sandwiches. On the track, it doesn’t make a damn what you ate. It’s all about yin and yang of driver and car.

Capturing the Classic Lines of a '55 Mercedes-Benz Gullwing

Capturing the Classic Lines of a ’55 Mercedes-Benz Gullwing

Shooting in the heat of the day is my least favorite because… Yes Virginia, the light is as harsh as heck, and let’s just be honest, it makes everything look unflattering. Not to mention that if you’re wearing a dark shirt, you’re gonna fry (like I did). However, there’s a big bonuses to shooting at noon and the track shot down for lunch:

1. All the cars are in the paddock, so you can bang out beauty shots.

2. With no racing, most of the mass of humanity (read spectators) are eating their picnic lunches, in line at the $10 hot dog stand or in the beer garden, starting their biggest mistake of the weekend.

3. Hardly any spectators are hovering around the cars = better shots of the cars in less people-cluttered backgrounds.

4. If you know what you’re doing, you can get great shots.

Okay. I heard that collective groan from a few of you, but hear me out on this: you CAN get great shots, at the track, in the middle of the day, but you have to know how to work with the light and your equipment. To whit, race teams love white canopies to work under. They don’t absorb and radiate heat like black or dark blue, and they allow some light to pass through… just like a soft box. So shooting a car under a white tent or canopy gives you those nice, even tones that are great for capturing the chrome stacks atop Hilborn injectors, the graceful bodylines of the old IMSA cars or multiple F1 cars lined up like Rockettes.  With today’s newer cameras, you can switch on the HDR (High Dynamic Range) function, allowing the camera to take a few shots (usually one at proper exposure, another that’s exposed for the highlights and a third that’s exposed or shadows), the camera “cooking” them together to make one “balanced” image. The only time I do the latter is when the nose of a car was protruding the protective tent, creating a contrast ratio outside the camera’s single-shot capabilities. Some images just call for extreme light, like shooting the M-B Gullwing’s nose above. In some cases, bright light on a silver metallic car can be glorious. I spent well over a couple hours shooting details of various cars, beauty shots, and the guys (and gals) getting the cars ready for qualifying.

There's Something Magical about a Vintage Ferrari Testa Rossa's V-12 at Full Song

There’s Something Magical about a Vintage Ferrari Testa Rossa’s V-12 at Full Song

We were lucky to have a set of pit passes, so we meandered to the pit wall, in time to watch the first group line up for qualifying.  This not being my first rodeo, and a couple track officials pointing out a few places I could shoot (without getting yelled at) proved beneficial for getting some killer shots with a long lens. The end of the pit wall was by far the best, with the cars screaming by along the front straight and shooting them before they disappeared on the other side of the rise. By the end of the sessions, with sunscreen depleted and cooler empty, it was time to call it a day, and there were two more days to come. By the end of the weekend, I was redder than a lobster, and had captured over 14,000 images. Deb and I spent the last day of our vacation at the B&B we were staying at… recovering.

If there was one word that could be used to describe the experience, it would be “epic.” I got to dust the cobwebs off of shooting techniques that were formally all in a day’s work. We got to see some of the most amazing, and historical, cars that were ever raced in anger. Plus I got to capture – and preserve – a bit of history in the process. I learned that I’m certainly in worse physical shape than when I did this for a living (besides the extra, ahem, pounds I’ve gained over the years, there’s the loss of several discs in the back and neck that makes maneuverability a challenge at times). I also got to hook up with old friends in the Industry – Mazda’s ever affable Jeremy Barnes (who is a stellar racer in his own right) and Shelby American’s Gary Patterson to name a couple.

Let the Games Begin!

Let the Games Begin!

The best part, by far, was talking to the mechanics, racers and owners about their cars. Like photography, it’s a lust that runs deep. They share a bond, bound by high-test gasoline, motor oil and rubber. The competition can be fierce, but friendly, and there’s always many to aid (and parts given) for those in need. Some call it unbridled passion. I like to think of it as another ohana with great“carma.”