The clock showed it was 2am, as I made way home to Columbia in the back seat of Mary Ann’s car early Sunday morning, following the 60th running of the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, in Darlington, SC. I was completely drained from two non-stop days of making my way around the “Lady in Black” while on assignment for the Associated Press, but was content as could be, and didn’t mind the fact that it would be 3am or later before my head hit the pillow.
For me, the spring race weekend at Darlington is one of those events that I look forward to every year. Perhaps its my male DNA, or my southern heritage, coming to the surface, but I love cars, and the idea of getting paid to photograph some of the fastest cars, and best drivers in the world for two solid days, just puts a smile on my face. This is my third consecutive year of photographing Darlington weekend, and it has somehow managed to fill the void of not being able to cover my other favorite May sporting event, the Kentucky Derby. Working in an environment like a NASCAR track is something that you have to experience to truly understand. When my friends who aren’t into cars, or car racing, see my excitement as Mother’s Day Weekend approaches every year, I always have to explain why I have so much fun taking photos of “guys driving in circles.”
To me working a NASCAR race is the closest you can come to photographing a riot or working in a war zone. Its one of those places, where you have to work with your head on a swivel, especially in the garage area while the practice sessions are going on. During the few hours these teams have to get their cars dialed in for the track conditions before qualifying it is pure chaos, as cars are constantly coming in and out of their designated garage stalls, all rushing to get the most they can out of their machines, with little regard for anything other than that. One of the most difficult things about working in the garage area is that you can’t hear anything due to the ear plugs you are required to wear to salvage your hearing. You can’t understand how loud these cars are until you are around 5-10 of them starting up simultaneously. During the practice sessions the mood of the garage area changes from pure chaos, to hurry up and wait, as drivers take the track to see if the adjustments their crews have made, make the difference they need to push their cars to the edge.
As day turns to dusk, the chaos of practice wraps up, and gives way to the much more organized qualifying sessions (which were cancelled for the NASCAR Nationwide series and postponed for the NASCAR Sprint Cup series this year due to a passing series of thunder storms this year). Once all drivers are qualified for the race, and have their assigned starting positions for the week, the Nationwide series
race can begin. By the time that relatively short race is over, and the images are transmitted back to AP in New York, it is just after 12:30 am before you pack up, and head home after a 15 hour day, only to be back at the track 8 hours later for festivites for the main event.
Saturday morning at the track is a completely different atmosphere than Friday morning, which gave me time to take in the sights a little bit. As I leasurely walked around the track making images of pre-race features, I visited the FOX broadcast compund to chat with a friend who was working as the technical director for the days broadcast, had some interesting coversations with some of the races past winners including Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, and David Pearson, made friends with fans who were just waking up from the revelry the night before, and snapped some photos with my BlackBerry 8900 for a few twitter and faceook updates. During my exploration, I noticed some changes that made this weekend feel a little bit more like the races of old, than the new world of corporate sponsorships. This year, NASCAR and Darlington decided to go old school, and revive the name of the Southern 500, which used to be the fall race held at the track. They also decided to paint the wall the retro red and white candy stripe to coincide with the 60th running of this event. After dropping off my pre-race photos to be transmitted to AP in New York, I grabbed a quick bite to eat at the press center, and geared up for driver introductions, and the start of the race.
The sun was just starting to set over turn four as the green flag droped, and the 37 cars in the field charged down the front straightaway. After capturing the start of the race, I began moving around to the positions I had scouted earlier in the day to begin making the images that I wanted. First up was the outside of turn one, where I was blasted with little bits of rubber, and sprayed with grease and oil as the pack charged past me at well over 100mph. After a making a few images from that position I was happy with I made my way back to the media center for my first card drop of the night, and then began floating around the pit area making images of the leading drivers and their crews as they came in for fuel, fresh tires, and minor adjustments. As the night wore on, and the full moon begain to rise over the stands, my lack of sleep didn’t seem to phase me, as I was running on pure adreniline. After 500 miles around the Lady in Black, several dramatic crashes, and lead changes, previous Southern 500 winner, and 50 year old driver Mark Martin, took the checkered flag in distinguished fashion, with no burnout and a simple victory lap. It seemed like a fitting end in to an evening that was 60 years in the making, and as my head hit the pillow in Columbia three and a half hours later, I couldn’t have been happier that I was there to witness it with my own two eyes, and the two camers over my shoulders.