This month on The Blog, we’ll spotlight some of the best images from the Month of May by IMS staff photographers. In this installment, John Cote shares his day-to-day duties and the shots they produce during the busiest time of year at IMS.
As I walk around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, bristling with cameras and big lenses, people frequently come up to me and tell me that I must have the best job in the world … and I guess I do. Sometimes however, it does not seem as romantic as you might imagine. As members of the IMS/Verizon IndyCar Series photo staff, we are assignment photographers. We work for the marketing department, the social media department, the retail department and many other customers, internal and external, who need photos. We don’t just take pictures of Indy cars speeding around the track. We take pictures of signage and scenery and sponsors. We have to be able to make pictures that work in many situations and under all sorts of conditions.
Assignment: Driver candids
One of my favorite assignments is to go to the pits before a race or a practice session and get photos of the drivers preparing to get into their cars and go out on the track. In the best of these moments the drivers’ personalities seem to really come out. This photo of Will Power was taken on the morning of the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis as he walked down pit lane to his car. Will had just smiled at a young fan who was holding his hands over his ears as an engine roared. He saw me with my camera and gave me this look. I always make a point of thanking a driver for cooperating and Will is very good about it.
Assignment: Head-on view of cars on track
These shots are all about timing and practice. We use high-end autofocus cameras and very fast lenses but Indy cars are much faster than the factory-specified ability of the camera systems to focus. To be usable, a head-on shot usually has to have the decals on the nose of the car and the driver’s helmet in nice crisp focus. It is always a bonus to have multiple cars following the main car. So, while you are poking your lens through a little window just above the SAFER Barrier with the cars coming at you at 220-plus mph, you have to think about where the lead car and the followers are going to appear in your frame. You have to keep the camera’s focus point positioned on the nose of the car, and since the best shots are taken from where the cars are coming right at you and closest to the wall, you have to keep both eyes open at all times to watch for that little wiggle which means the driver is losing control and the car is going to hit right in front of you. It’s a lot to think about all at once. I have been doing my best to take these shots for 15 years or so and there are still days when I don’t have much luck.
Assignment: Driver studio portraits
Every year we take studio photos of as many drivers as we can before the season starts. You see these photos on the large banners in Gasoline Alley, on the video boards at the track, in the spotters’ guides, etc. However, we always have new drivers and substitute drivers to fill out the field of 33 during the Month of May. All sorts of customers from our own marketing department to the network TV folks to the teams need formal pictures of these new drivers. During the Month of May we set up a makeshift studio in the media center to the north of the Pagoda. We all have to be ready at a moment’s notice to take a new driver or a driver with a new sponsor on his or her suit up to the studio and make them look good. This year when Ryan Briscoe took over James Hinchcliffe’s ride, I got the call. Ryan is a real pro and always delight to work with.
Assignment: Qualifier shots on the Yard of Bricks
One of my assignments for the last few years has been to take photos of the all of the qualifiers. Donald Davidson, the IMS historian, will tell you that we have photos in our archives of every driver and car that has made a full qualifying attempt in the 99-year history of the race with one or two exceptions. These shots are taken on pit lane with the driver sitting in the cockpit of the car, with its nose on the Yard of Bricks. We take these pictures from morning to evening on qualification days. The sun moves from being in the drivers faces in the morning to behind them in the afternoon to being blocked by the main straight stands in the evening. On partly cloudy days, the light can change every time a cloud blocks the sun or the sun comes out. These photos are some of the best-selling shots in our retail stores and fans want the faces to be well-lit and visible no matter what the lighting conditions. On busy days it can be a stressful assignment. This year, Buddy Lazier was the last car to make a full qualifying attempt. Buddy, his dad and the team had worked hard all month to prepare the car and I know them well enough to know how much qualifying for the Indy 500 means to them. When they finally made a full attempt of four laps but fell just short we knew we would have to make a photo. It was a sad moment for all of us, but Buddy and his team were true gentlemen and kept their chins up.
Assignment: The “High Start”
This is probably my favorite assignment of the Month of May. If you look at the roof of the stands on the outside of the track coming into Turn 1, you will notice a small waist-high cage on the edge. From this cage, 100 or so feet above the surface of the track, the view is straight down the main straight from south to north. The roof is accessible by walking up the four flights of stairs, which gets you to the upper deck, and then climbing up a ladder from the top of a refreshment stand to the roof. It’s not a climb for the faint of heart. The shot is of the grid of cars getting the green flag and coming down the main straight into Turn 1 to start the race. However, the cars are only part of the story. The shot is really a landscape or a scenic. You have to capture the full stands, the pylon and the pagoda with the flags waving. It is an honor to take this shot and it is one of my favorite moments of any given year.
Assignment: Scenic recognizable track shots for the Marketing Department
Our team of photographers all knows that the marketing department wants recognizable scenic shots to be used as backgrounds for ads, billboards, tickets, etc. They want shots that will tell a story to almost anyone who sees them. I love the way racetracks look after a race, with all of the scars and stains and grime, but we almost never get to see a track in daylight after a race because we have to sort and upload the photos we just took. The best time to capture the “used track” is the morning after. The morning after the Indy 500, I always roam the track looking for a story picture. The morning after this year’s race, my story was told by the streak left by Bryan Clauson’s car as it smacked the SAFER Barrier coming out of Turn 4 and scraped along the wall until coming to a stop way down the main straight.
Assignment: Morning-after shot of the race winner
The morning after the Indy 500, the winner comes to the track early. They put the winning car out on the Yard of Bricks along with the Borg-Warner Trophy and assign places for 50 or so photographers to line up sitting or standing, but facing the bricks from the south to take pictures. This event goes on for a couple of hours as the driver poses with his family, his crew, his sponsors and with every hat you can imagine. I have never asked to be, nor have I ever been asked to be, on this lineup of photographers. I like to wander around and find a stray picture here and there. On the gloomy morning after this year’s race, I took out a long lens and started looking. When I got to the place where this picture was taken, off to the side of the action, and saw Juan Pablo Montoya sitting in the car with the Borg in the background, I just stood there and hoped he would look my way. Eventually the waiting paid off.