In the latest RACER fan view, we managed to find a professional baseball player whose passion and major hobby outside of the diamond is racing. That would be Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim southpaw CJ Wilson, owner of the CJ Wilson Racing team that competes in the Playboy Mazda MX-5 Cup (and just won the championship with Stevan McAleer) and Grand-Am's Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge. With the MLB season over, Wilson (@Str8EdgeRacer) was on hand at Petit rocking various lenses and a golf cart instead of a bat and glove. He shares his experience – and his photos – with RACER.com.
The first rule of ALMS race weekends: rent a golf cart. Self-reliance and mobility are really important, and the options for quick transport afforded by renting a cart allowed me to get from the support paddock with my Mazda MX-5 Cup car team all the way to Turn 7 within just a few minutes.
The rest of the rules are a bit more flexible. Pack a hat. Wear sunscreen. Get an adjustable zoom lens. For me, the 70-200mm is a great length if you can only carry one lens at a time. If you have a spare camera body, something wide and adjustable (24-70mm) or a fixed prime lens (50mm for portraits, 300mm or 400mm for action) is the second phase.
Long race weekends are, for me as a photographer, somewhat of a dream come true. Tuning the camera and my reactions on the first few days of practice and support series races (MX-5 Cup, IMSA Lites, Star Mazda, etc.) let me know just where and when I needed to be to get some great action during the race itself.
I've seen a lot of the ALMS races over the last few years, so I knew what to look for. Spotting bottlenecks on the track during practice…exactly where did the big guys overtake the little guys? Where the hell can I get an angle of the Nissan DeltaWing that will really do it justice? Can I get a picture of someone airborne? Pretty essential questions for the race weekend photographer.
Golf cart recon laps on Thursday and Friday showed me a bit more behind the scenes than the TV coverage. Of course, when you are behind the scenes waiting for a turkey leg at the Aussie Meat Mobile food truck, you might miss one of the GTC cars slamming into the DeltaWing and have to hear about it online. It's impossible to see it all, all at once – so you have to make an educated guess as to your targets and hope for the best.
My real goal with the blue-vest access was to get into the cockpit – really see the driver at work during his stint. The best places for that are Turn 5, T6, T7, and T10. At T6 and T7, I felt like I was 5-10 feet or less away from every car. They let the photographers stand behind a concrete berm right on the apex – it's truly visceral – you can feel the sequential gearboxes slamming down- BAM BAM BAM fourth, third, second gear.
Day one was spent mostly taking photos of my race team as they practiced and went over data for their 2 MX-5 Cup races. I didn't really need the blue or orange media vest to get candid shots of my own team, but I kept in mind the light conditions at the track and looked at the paper schedule to see when I'd be able to get what I felt like are the best conditions for something memorable.
I tried some different setups at Turn 1, top of T3 and the apex of T10 but realized that if time was limited, the outside of T1 and T3 required substantial hiking and leaving the golf cart behind. Let's be honest, I'd like to see more of the race and avoid getting locked down.
Day two was mostly exploring the grounds. Road Atlanta has a lot of character in track and paddock. The topography at places is pretty steep; there's great views from every seat and every campsite. You see a lot of people walking, slogging through the hilly terrain and crowds, looking worn out from the walk but excited by the rumble of the new Viper, the scream of the LMP cars, and the wail of the Flying Lizards as they blast by on track.
People set up shop, set up camp, set up signs, and in general there is a bit more of a festival-style atmosphere than TV ever conveys. There's big BBQ smokers, weird flags hanging around, do-it-yourself decking and lines of grid girls…and all you see on TV are the grid girls. I've never been to Sebring but I'd imagine the crowd there is even wackier.
Day three I got out and shot some of the support races, took photos for my friends and their families while they raced. After that, I spent some time cruising through the pits to see what I could shoot.
ALMS and Grand-Am weekends are great; if you have the right ticket with pit access, you can get pretty personal with some carbon fiber. Of course, some teams are friendlier than others and will let you check out the cars a little closer. Some teams will break up the routine by giving the “hey babe come sit in the car” approach (substitute hats for beads) to passersby – my girlfriend was tagging along with me, so she validated this program effectively.
Night practice is a fantastic photo event – the glowing brake rotors, long exposure stuff and mixed classes really lead to a lot of opportunities to tune into rhythm of the action. Most of the time I was slinging the 70-200mm F2.8L II lens, as it afforded me the best combination of aperture, focus speed, and adjustability to switch between the whole car and getting the drink tube and driving gloves in full focus.
On race day, the pre-race fan walk is a chance for every inner child to touch the car, kiss the car, photograph the car, and envision how they would cope with LMP or GT G-forces.
When I was a kid, the local exotic dealer had ropes around their cars. Here, you can basically drool on one during the grid walk. I had to take a shot of this kid leaning on the Falken Porsche 911 GT3 RSR (RIGHT). I never got to see or especially caress the fender flares on an endurance race car until I was an adult. He'll be hooked for life now!
During the race, the golf cart saved me a lot of time going from place to place, and in T5 and T10 you can watch the rest of the track via the Jumbotrons to stay informed. Putting my new Canon 1DX to the test with about 5000 shots (portable storage is in the terabyte range now) over the weekend was a good evaluation and I can't wait for the next time I get that close…Daytona for the 24hr race would be my bet.
Photography on track is exciting and challenging but the real work comes on the computer, in sorting through all the shots nobody ever sees. Aesthetically, some cars are just easier to get right, and that's why there are imbalances in my Lightroom Catalog.
The contrast of a paint scheme can makes it easier or harder for the camera's autofocus sensor to pick up. Overall the CORE and Rebellion LMP cars, the gold Hertz JDX Porsche, the DeltaWing, and the chromed Extreme Speed Ultimat 458 (LEFT) got the most face time in my lens.
This brings me to a new item on the to-do list: find more eye catching graphics for my team's cars next year…