Sunday, April 17, 2011

2011 Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach - Inside the action

Wow, what an exhausting weekend...and I haven't even covered Sunday yet. Attending the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach is always a lot of fun. The racing action, the venue, the people...and the cars. Oh, what great cars. The sights, sounds, smells, tastes and feeling of being close to these burly beasts and refined rocketships is like the best kind of buffet to a petrol-head. Covering the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, on the other hand, requires a bit of work.

A mandatory safety meeting on Friday at 6:15 am usually requires a pre-5:00 wake-up call. The drive down to the track for locals can take anywhere from half an hour to twice that depending on road closures and traffic. Parking can take another half hour if you try to find one of the prized free parking spots on the surrounding neighborhood streets or you can just cough up the $15-$30 to park in one of the nearby lots and save yourself the aggravation.

After finding an open admission gate you get to schlep your photo gear around the 2-plus mile long track, through tight passages between the concrete barriers, chain link fences and random other roadblocks, carefully avoiding obstacles like the thousands of miles of cables stretched around the perimeter of the course, all over uneven terrain that includes grass, dirt, mud, concrete, asphalt and groundcover, up and down hills, stairs and bridges, in and out of the blazing sun, through the various clouds of cigarette smoke, grilling food aromas and car emissions that are not limited to exhaust fumes, but also include clutch, brake and tire cast-offs. That last one makes for an interesting hair additive and is also quite fetching on the face.

Access points to the trackside photo areas are necessarily limited but also apparently planned by the Marquis de Sade. When you get into position at one of the various cutouts that the officials have provided, you're not allowed to sit, lean or rest anything on the walls. You can carry along a monopod to hold your ten-pound camera/lens combo, or you can save yourself the extra weight in your pack and bring water instead. It does get hot out there and the corner workers justifiably want to keep every drop they've brought to themselves.

Because the best angles for shooting the on-track action are low ones, you either stoop all day, squat in an unnaturally elongated position to clear the barriers or kneel on the broken ground that can also be strewn with broken glass, fence clippings, random hardware, prickly ground cover and ant colonies, just to name a few hazards. You have to share the shooting windows with your fellow photogs so you frequently have to react to taps on your shoulder to switch positions - usually just as the driver you were waiting for leaves the pits. They do give you water, sodas and lunch kits in the media center, and there are chairs as well, so you try to get over there when you can to get revived.

There are six classes of racing this weekend in Long Beach - Indy, Indy Lights, ALMS, Toyota Pro/Celebrity, World Challenge and Drifting. The sessions vary in length and are typically broken up by numerous yellow flags. When everything is green, capturing that great background blur that gives you a sense of speed requires that you pan along with cars traveling up to 180 mph, twisting your body back and forth in a manner that would make Chubby Checker smile - while hunched over, supporting a three foot long camera and lens combo.

You don't want all of your shots to look the same, so you have to set up, shoot and repack to walk to another window every ten minutes or so. Sometimes you are shooting from a position that requires you wait until a break in the action to enter or leave, in which case you may have to sprint across the track when the marshals signal it's all clear, cameras and backpacks bouncing away. If you decide to shoot the paddocks or inside the expo center you get to change lenses and/or settings and now also get to contend with the crowds.

By the end of the day, you've been doing this for nearly twelve hours, with a few short breaks to grab some grub and hit the head. Fighting through the crowds and traffic on the way home just adds the cherry on top. When you finally get home, you get to sort through about 1,500 photos, discarding well more than half of them in the first pass. If you are working on deadline, this typically has to be done between sessions from the media center, or as soon as you get back to your hotel room or home, adding just one more element to the stressful mix. Getting everything processed and posted can take you til late into the night most days, giving you just a few hours to eat, shower and sleep. It is truly exhausting and when the Southern California weather lives up to its reputation, you can also count on scorching sun to dry you out faster.

You want to dress light, but also want to be covered for safety and sun-protection. On top of your clothes you get to wear a tiny blue vest, a credential on a lanyard, cameras around your neck, earplugs, a hat, sunglasses and your pack. The clumsy need not apply. While it might seem that this job requires super humans, with strength, stamina, flexibility and quick reflexes, the truth of the matter is that there are a lot of old guys and gals, a lot of two- and three-hundred pounders, and even a few diff-abled folks out there in the corps. Not everybody produces the same level of product, but almost all of them have to follow this same routine.

While this might sound like a long and proper whine, it is actually an explanation of why covering a race is more work than people realize. I can't tell you how often people ask how they can get a credential so they can get the good shots. They have no idea. Most folks just want to sit down in the grandstands, drink a beer, down a King Taco and watch the action. For those who can't be there in person, they might be able to watch it on TV - if they are particularly adept with a DVR. For the rest they get to experience the races through the photos we produce.

Whether it's in the local paper or the buff books or on the thousands of automotive related websites out there, these photos are the only way some people get to see what went down. The small sacrifices we make to get those photos to you are well worth it. There is the occasional paycheck, we get to get closer to the action than just about anyone not wearing Nomex, and we even get to bring home parts of the cars in our hair. Enjoy the pics, and remember to tip your writer. ;)

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