A first-time motorsport shooter takes in the Monterey Grand Prix at Laguna Seca

In the 2008 Jim Carrey film Yes Man, the main character is challenged to say yes to every opportunity that arises. As a result, he has some zany adventures and undergoes a great deal of personal growth. Although I wouldn’t consider myself a bona fide “yes man”, I do believe that when we’re presented with great opportunities, the only appropriate response is “yes!”  That’s why when my brother-in-law/friend/automotive photographer Hunter Swift asked if I wanted to help him shoot the Monterey Grand Prix, I wasn’t about to let something trivial like never having used a (D)SLR camera and knowing next to nothing about photography stop me. It’s just not something you say “no” to. So, after a little begging of my boss and my wife, the two biggest stakeholders in how I spend my time, I secured the necessary time off to head to Laguna Seca for the opportunity of a lifetime.

The Wednesday night before the race I drove to Hunter’s house to spend the night so we could get an early start the next morning. We loaded up and left early to make the long Southern-to-Northern California drive leaving plenty of time to pick up our credentials and make the photographers meeting at 4pm. Other than a quick trip down and back up The Snake, the drive up north was excitement free. Up until this point, my motorsports photography experience had been limited to cellphone shots from the stands watching monster trucks and supercross. So I got a brief photography lesson during the drive, primarily about shutter speed, focal length, and autofocus.

After we picked up our credentials in Monterey, we traveled about 10 miles inland to the track for the photographers meeting. Walking into the media room the first time was like stepping into a Major League clubhouse with Little League experience. I was so nervous I’d be outed as wholly unqualified, especially since my main outlet for the photos was my Instagram account with a modest few hundred followers. Thankfully I flew under the radar and avoid looking like an idiot. When they handed me my photographer’s vest without any drama, they might as well have given me a backstage pass to see my favorite band in concert. Going into the weekend, I had 3 modest goals: don’t do anything stupid, enjoy the race, and take at least one picture worthy of hanging in the garage.  After the meeting we took time to wander the pits, scout a few spots, and finished the day by taking advantage of the scheduled track walk to walk down the corkscrew, which is steeper and crazier than any photo, video, or videogame can really convey.

The next morning began a stream of action throughout the two-and-a-quarter mile track. Hunter had set up a spare camera with some (nearly) idiot proof settings and I began taking pictures. We shot during practices and support races, getting a feel for the different parts of the track and the way the sun lit the cars. Our credentials gave us access to the hot pits, and allowed us to cross the fence and stand trackside— with a few exceptions where there were not proper safety measures in place. I regularly checked the map, which told us which areas were off limits for photographers to make sure I kept in line with goal #1. Some parts of the track we six or seven feet away from the cars as they roared past, while others were a good distance off the track past the runoff.

As an regular spectator, I rarely take in anything but the cars on the track; but as a novice photographer, I realized just how amazing Laguna Seca really is. The land around the track is beautiful! There were places where we could get surprisingly close with very little in between us and the cars, and in a few of those spots, I could easily feel the push of the air as the cars roared by. I could feel the vibration in my chest from the exhaust notes. It was quite the experience to hear the cars in person. In their raw form unchanged by tv broadcast.

The Corvette sounded as if the gates of Hell were opening up to start the apocalypse. The Lexus RC F sounded exactly like you’d want an LS (Chevy engine, not the full-size Lexus sedan) engine to sound. The Ford GT sounded like a turbo 350Z. The 911 RSR wailed like a banshee; and the prototypes had an almost melodic scream to them.

As we travelled around the track, I found myself gravitating towards two areas that were particularly appealing; the inside of the Andretti Hairpin (between turns 1 and 3) and the corkscrew. The inside of Andretti hairpin is a part of the track that is only open to corner workers and photographers, and feels like a special place, where you can feel the energy of the race on 3 sides. The corkscrew is special because of its well-deserved reputation as an iconic section of track and the proximity and views you can get of the cars as they navigate the quick left-right turn. The drop is unreal, and an area where I could get incredibly close to the track.

My strategy was a volume approach. I figured that if I took enough pictures, at least one would turn out decent. The first day I took about 2,500 shots, which I then had to review. That experience gave me some ideas about what worked and didn’t work with photographing race cars, as well as a desire to not look though 7,500 pictures over 3 days. I became more selective about how many pictures I took so that by Sunday I only snapped 1,300 frames.

Most of the time Hunter and I stuck pretty close together on the track, keeping each other company, discussing cars and the race. It was also nice Hunter was around because he could handle conversations with the other photographers while I quietly nodded. Only a few times I found myself alone when another photographer would set up nearby. During a break in the racing on Saturday a very friendly, very experienced photographer struck up a conversation with me. As we worked through small talk about the track and the racing, I began hoping with every atom in my body that he wouldn’t ask me any technical questions, like any camera settings.

Then he asked me what lens I was shooting with. Luckily, I knew the answer to that one and gave a confident “24 to 70.” Then I had to quickly take control of the conversation to avoid more questions that would expose the Grand Canyon-sized gap in knowledge between a real photographer and myself. I started asking him about what it was like to shoot in the pre-digital era, and in the process learned some fascinating things about how digital photography started and how it’s changed over the years.

As the weekend went on, I became more comfortable with the camera and started adjusting a few other settings other than shutter speed, and I found myself aware of angles and lighting, which affected the order we traveled around the track based on the position of the sun. On day one, most of my shots were pulled back with a higher shutter speed because I couldn’t keep up with the cars on track, but as my eye and my technique improved, my shutter speed became slower, my zooms became tighter, and I became mindful of how to try and translate the speed and movement of the vehicles into a photo.

Initially I was only planning to use the camera and credential as access to watch the race like few ever will, and with my sweet vest I was able to get past the barriers that would traditionally prevent me from this truly immersive experience. Motorsport in person is a multi-sensory experience that is exponentially enhanced as you get closer to the track. Standing at the top of the Corkscrew, or at the apex of the Rainey curve, or in the hot pits during the race, get you about as close as you can to the action without literally being harnessed into a car.

While there were definitely times where I was a race fan holding a camera, more often than not I found myself invested in the photography. Much more so than I expected. The initial learning curve did not seem to be as steep as I originally imagined. I am a long way away from the talent of Larry Chen or Jamey Price, but I was able to take a few decent pictures, and even convince others, and myself, that I more or less belonged there. The camera provided me with purpose and a role that I grew into over time as I explored different parts of the track, different angles to look at the corners, and developed (pun not intended, but welcomed) a more critical look at the racing line and passing areas in order to set up better photos.

Rather than sitting down in an area where I could see several corners, enjoy a cold beverage, and watch cars drive around, I committed myself to understanding where drivers would tend to push the cars harder, where they might put wheels in the dirt or overtake other cars in order to capture more dramatic photographs. I was seeing the track and the races on a micro scale rather than a macro scale. I was focused on the action of section of track, rather than who was leading the race.

Trying to capture the excitement of motorsport is very challenging, especially for a rookie. As the weekend progressed, and after sorting through several thousand pictures my first few days, I began to notice different points where the pictures seemed to jump out and engage me. I found that I preferred pictures that lead me to imagine what will happen next and noticed a few simple ways to frame that in a photo. Corner entry, showing track ahead of the car, and motion blur all seemed to work well.

Looking back, it has all felt like a dream. I have since returned home, resumed my normal job, and re-entered the rat race. Initially it seemed as if the intensity setting had been turned down on life; there was a vibrancy I felt during the four days in Monterey that has since faded as the stresses of work, family, bills, my stupid project car, the honey-do list, etc., overwhelmed me with the ordinary. Sorting through my pictures and notes in order to prepare this story has brought back the awe I felt back in September. Honestly, I can’t even say that this is something that I can check off my bucket list, because being able to photograph a top-level race at an iconic track is an experience beyond what I had ever thought was a possibility, and probably one of the most special experiences of my life. I’m reasonably certain that most people reading this would have taken this opportunity as well, but I also wonder how many amazing experiences I’ve missed in the past because I wasn’t willing to exit my comfort zone, to be more of a “yes man” than I have been. I’m grateful that I was able to take advantage of this opportunity, and man, I really don’t want this to be the only time I get to experience this.

An extra special thank you to Hunter Swift (@hunterswift on Instagram, give him a follow) and Michelin for allowing me to play photographer for the weekend.

[Images copyright 2018 Hooniverse/Russell Gourlie]

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