I tried something new, and it wasn’t wearing different clothes. I learned that there is a drag-racing racecourse reasonably close to where I live. A local sports photographer was going to an event and offered to advise and support a small group of snappers. So I signed up.
Having been a nerdy wannabe (and then be) motorcyclist as a youth, I’d had some familiarity with the sport as it was back then. I think George Brown was still racing one of his Nero variants, or was at least recent enough that we knew his name. Oh, and it was known as sprinting, not drag, which is a better description of what it is all about. This of course sparked another memory of going to a tractor-pull competition. This was all about pulling a weighted trailer as far as possible up an earth strip. The trick was that the trailer had a large weight on it, and the front of the trailer was not wheels but a plain metal sled plate. As the trailer moved forward, the weight also moved forward, loading-up the sled and making the trailer harder to pull. This event also required ridiculous amounts of engine power and produced loads of noise and spectacle. What can I say? I loved it all. Anyway, back to the story.
First question is what lenses to take? A few years back when I went to Silverstone I took all of them and nearly came home with a hernia. But let’s say I want my field of view or frame to be 3m wide and let’s assume I will be 30m away from the racers. The magic formula tells me I want an angle of view of 100 mils, so I’ll need the equivalent of a 300 to 400mm lens on 35mm or full-frame. Easy. I have a 70-300 zoom and a fixed 400mm. If we do get near the paddock area I can swap for a 35-70 zoom. This is bold (for me): I usually take two lenses to go to the newsagent. The 400mm doesn’t have a decent lens hood and it could be sunny, but it’s easy enough to make one: it has a 5 degree angle of view so it’s just a bit of work with a protractor and some scissors.
I’m also taking my monopod. This is a Benbo one that must have turned up cheap somewhere in the past. It has a plastic V on top instead of a tripod thread. This makes it easy to support the lens, then set it aside instantly if I need to do something else.
So kitted-out, off I jolly well set. I also found out how the racing thing worked. The course is one eighth of a mile – a furlong, 220 yards or 201 meters. There are two lanes on the track. The racing is controlled by a small tower of lights, known as the christmas tree. The racer pulls forward to a marked line and the top light goes white when the front wheel is on the line. Then a set of orange lights go on, followed by a green. At the green light the racers depart. They are timed over the course distance and their speed measured at the end. It sounds sedate. Then consider that the fastest cars can complete the distance in under six seconds and be doing 130mph as they cross the finishing line. I was told that some courses are a quarter of a mile, and the cars can reach 250mph. That’s pretty extreme. So they use every method invented to accelerate as hard as they can – huge engines, superchargers, weird fuels, nitrous oxide, sticky tyres and probably pagan sacrifice. As a result, they can be loud. No, make that LOUD. I was warned to bring ear defenders, but didn’t expect to feel the pulsing sound in my chest.
On the course I was at, the 300mm was just about ideal at the long end. I did use the 400mm to pick out single cars and details, but it’s slow to focus so not as handy as the the 300. If I go to another event I’ll probably take the same pair again. The 35-70 was perfect in the pit area. Oh, and that’s another thing – this is not Formula One: you can talk to the racers and team, look at the cars and generally get a close look at some extreme engineering. And what’s even further from F1 is that some of the cars and bikes are old. One of the racers was an old Commer van that still had the faded newspaper delivery sign on the side. Oh, and a large V8 engine hidden in the middle of the body. There was a Ford Anglia with a much bigger engine than the one in my grandad’s. And a rough looking MG which squirmed down the track as the rear tyres tried to overtake the front.
A fast shutter speed reveals what the eye cannot see – that the sidewalls of a car’s rear tyres are twisted into ripples by the extreme torque of the engine. And that the rotation of that engine causes one of the front wheels to lift off the road. If these things can reach 250mph I have no idea how they stay on the track.
One thing that worked very well was my new camera. It allowed me to raise the ISO as needed to get the shutter speed and aperture combinations I wanted. It also has good image stabilisation so it helped me work with long lenses in a buffeting wind.
Did I enjoy the racing? Yes, I did. Lots of things going very fast and making loud noises. Did I enjoy the photography? Yes, I did. I love shooting action and people doing things. It was all about fast focusing, panning and framing. About as far from landscape or still life as you can get. Will I go again? Yes, given the chance.