It is always exciting this time of year when the Honda Grand Prix takes over the streets of St Pete, but this year was especially thrilling, because I got to shoot the event as part of the photographer pool. This was closer than I’ve ever gotten to see the track, the drivers, the pit lane, and well… everything!
If you don’t know, Honda Grand Prix of St Petersburg is an annual IndyCar race that’s driven on a street course, built every year on the streets of St Petersburg, Florida. There are typically Indy cars running throughout the weekend as well as Historics, Pirelli World Challenge (production based race cars), and USF2000 and Pro Mazda, which are smaller Mazda MZR and rotary powered open wheel cars. These are stepping-stones towards driving in the IndyCar series and eventually, for the very best, Formula 1. It’s a loud, raucous, exhaustingly good time.
Thankfully, this year the heat and humidity stayed away for an additional week more than it normally would. I was out there all day Friday through Sunday and, aside from some very sparse sprinkling rain and heavy wind on Sunday, it was mostly just cool and overcast. The perfect weather for shooting racecars! (…and also grid girls.)
Friday, March 22
Sunrise over the track on Friday morning, just before 7am.
The race weekend started early on Friday morning. I had never photographed racecars in motion before, at least not so closely, so this was a good challenge for me. Normally, you would find me shooting stationary street and show cars; so focusing on the right area of track and setting the correct ISO and exposure were elusive that first day. The shots would make sense in my head and would look okay on the camera’s monitor, but were often blurry on screen, at full size. It wasn’t all bad, thankfully, a lot of what I shot in the pit area came out quite nice.
James Hinchcliffe and his girlfriend, Kirsten Dee, in the pit lane area.
Helio Castroneves peers over at us from the driver’s seat.
Will Power in the pit area.
James Hinchcliffe heading into the hairpin.
Friday and Saturday were to be used by the race teams as practice runs and qualifying time. There was much more to come, that I could shoot and work to improve upon. We got some time on that first day to shoot the historic cars and I really enjoyed seeing them out on track. It’s the right way to see classic cars in my opinion; screaming around a track rather than sitting in a museum or in someone’s collection.
This excellent Camaro, in particular, was really tearing it up. With the ages of many of these cars, these runs weren’t really set up to be races or even timed that I know of. They were simply display laps. However this guy was pulling aggressive pass after aggressive pass going through the first few corners and I was loving it. More than once he seemed to pop up the curbing on turn 1 and lose traction on the inside tire when it came back down. Unfortunately, I think he may have overdone it and either broke something or was pulled off the field for being too aggressive, because he was sitting in the pits for the last couple of laps.
I was also eager to see this old Can-Am era McLaren, which seems to pop up regularly in the local shows but unfortunately it didn’t complete a whole lap before what I can only guess was a break down.
Saturday, March 23
When I arrived on Saturday, I took a break from the on-track action to shoot the paddock area. I was rewarded with some of my favorite Historics car photos that I’ve shot thus far.
I’m not usually a big fan of the old front engine equipped Porsches, but this 944 was looking good! Once again, box fenders make the difference. This was the team’s back up car in case it rained. Their main car was the beautiful Blue Coral 911.
I was especially proud of how the interior of this Ferrari 365 GTB came out. Ever since my first trip to Auto Collections in Las Vegas, the 365 has been my favorite of the older Ferraris, perhaps my favorite of all time. It was exciting getting to be so close to one and lean into it. I paused after taking this (above) just to breathe in the smell of the car for a second.
Later on that day, I went out to turns 8 and 9, which are the far end of the course, right where everyone takes the two turns and goes back toward the front straight. This would prove to be one of my favorite places to shoot from. You see I started out on turn 8 and it wasn’t a bad angle, it was just not very interesting. I decided to move over to the photo hole that was between the two turns, still on the outside of the track, and was going through my shots on the monitor, clearing out ones that didn’t come out right, when all of a sudden this thundered past me, within a couple of feet from the wall that I was standing behind.
Suddenly, before I knew it and could put my ear plugs back in, the Pirelli World Challenge cars were taking a warm up lap! It was then that I realized that when the cars would go through 8 on the way to 9, they would swing out to being just a few feet from the wall that I was standing behind, sometimes too close to see the entire car.
A woman would later yell “You’re f’in crazy!” at me from the fence behind me. I just laughed and kept shooting. With how close I was, I was getting pelted in the face with dirt and gravel that was being tossed off by the tires. The wind was really blowing out there as well. I had to face against the wind with my head up to check my shots on the camera’s monitor or else I ended up with the bill of my hat or dust being blown down into my face.
After all of this excitement, I was walking back to the Mahaffey Theater to turn in my memory card when Mario Andretti suddenly showed up right in front of me! He pulled up on a small motorcycle and started signing autographs! I got him to sign my volunteer card but unfortunately it would be wiped down to a smudge by the end of the weekend with how much I was moving around. Oh well, I’ll always have the photo.
Sunday, March 24
At last, it was race day. Sunday was the big day for the second races of the various series being run and of course the day of the main race, the IndyCar race. Dario Franchitti was unfortunately taken out in a wreck. I didn’t see it happen, but it was apparently bad enough for him to be towed off track.
Will Power won poll position for the fourth time in four years. After I got home that night, I learned that his car was run over, yes, run over by J.R. Hildebrand in a freak accident during a caution lap. Below is the car that amazingly leapt over Power’s car.
J.R. Hildebrand’s wounded car being taken back to the trailer for repair after mistakenly running over Will Power’s car.
I’m not a big follower of racing but whenever I can see cars going through a corner quickly, I’m there. Even though I don’t really follow the IRL, there are drivers that I root for. One of them is Simona de Silvestro. It was a little sad to see her podium finish get taken away in the last 100 yards when her tires began to overheat due to a flawed tire strategy. At the same time, it was quite an exciting finish. James Hinchcliffe would take his first win. I had not heard of Hinchcliffe before last year’s Grand Prix, but he had definitely left an impression when he showed up to the driver intros in a long wig (since he was replacing Danica Patrick). Followed in second was Helio Castroneves, who has won in St Pete more than any other driver. Marco Andretti would take third.
Throughout the weekend I got to meet and work along side some very talented photographers and make some new friends. Hopefully I can do it all again next year, because I had a really great time!