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|| News Item: Posted 2006-05-29

In The Pits at the Indy 500
By AJ Mast

Photo by AJ Mast / Associated Press

Photo by AJ Mast / Associated Press

Indy Racing League driver Marco Andretti sits in his car as the crew makes adjustments during practice for the 90th running of the Indianapolis 500 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Friday, May 19, 2006 in Indianapolis.
In my youth, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) was a far-off place. Every May, we would make the two-and-a-half-hour trip early in the morning, usually on Mother's Day, just my dad and me, for qualifications weekend. Our hotel for the weekend was the Regal Inn by the airport. Our food supply came from the Standard Grocery on Lyndhurst Avenue. Our sneaky secret was hiding me on the floorboard of the back seat to avoid paying gate admission.

My dad tells this story - and he tells a lot of stories - I was about 7 and came home from a weekend at the track with checkerboard sunburn on my face from hanging on the Gasoline Alley chain-link fence. A quarter-century later, I still get sunburn at the track once in awhile.

The last few years, my work at the track has been for The Indianapolis Star or the Associated Press. These two organizations devote the most resources to coverage of the whole month. Every day the cars are on the track, they have at least two, and in the case of the AP, usually three photographers trackside, plus stringers shooting wrecks in the corners. On race day, there are many, many more.

For the 2006 race, we have 14 days of on-track activity leading up to race day: two days of rookie orientation and refresher track time, eight days of practice and four qualifying days. For our other two major races at IMS, the Formula One USGP, and NASCAR's Brickyard 400 we only work three or four days for each.

Fourteen days on track was the plan, but rain has a way of changing things around the speedway. We had a ridiculous number of rain days this year. You still show up one to two hours before the scheduled start, make some rain features, and wait for the track to dry or not dry. This year, rain washed out the first weekend of qualifying and moved everything to the second weekend.

But when the rain stops and the cars come out, what do you do when you're covering the same handful of people in the same place six hours a day for 15 days? For me, it's about telling the story of the person, or the event, every day. Some days I do a better job than others.

Being part of a team means I don't have to do it all by myself. I don't shoot wrecks. We have people in the corners to do that. They do it well, and as far as I know they enjoy it. I rarely shoot cars on the track at all. I'll be the first to agree that a nice pan action shot of a car is a very beautiful thing. But it rarely tells a story.

That leaves me with the pits, the garages and any area where we might get drivers out of their cars and interacting with each other, the team, owners or fans. Unlike NASCAR, during practice the drivers get in and out of their cars in the pits, not the garage. The cars are towed or rolled out to the track by the crew. This means we see a lot of the drivers through the month.

Photo by AJ Mast / Associated Press

Photo by AJ Mast / Associated Press

Indy Racing League driver Sam Hornish Jr. climbs into his car as storm clouds move in to end practice for the 90th running of the Indianapolis 500 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Thursday, May 18, 2006 in Indianapolis.
The pits are a "hot" place. Cars are pulling in and out all the time, and we are over the wall and working in their path. To paraphrase faux-anchorman Ron Burgundy, "When you're in a vicious cockfight, you have to keep your head on a swivel." Same thing goes in the pits.

You need to pay attention to the crew so you know when a car is coming or going and when it's safe walk through the pit box. You need to be aware of your surroundings, not just what's in your viewfinder. I try to stay out of other photographers' frames; sometimes you can't help it, but if I don't have a shot, I get out of the way. Likewise, once I have a shot, I get out. I don't want people playing "Where's Waldo" with their pictures with me starring as Waldo.

The repetitive nature of practice days creates opportunities to try something new, to work on creating images that exceed the visual expectations of the audience. I know Buddy Rice likes to hide under the awning of his pit cart. Danica Patrick has taken to making the long walk on pit road from the garage area to her pit. Dan Wheldon has some far-out white sunglasses he likes to be seen in. Dario Franchitti will sit in his car with his helmet off. Knowing these things lets me be in a position where something interesting is more likely to happen.

I think the real fun comes on Pole Day, and sometimes on Bump Day. Pole Day sets who will be starting in the first position of the 33 cars. If there are more then 33 car/driver combinations, then people get "bumped" out of the field by a faster driver on Bump Day.

After a four-lap qualifying run, the car pulls in the pits and immediately is engulfed by media. After the driver gets out, the broadcaster gets an interview, followed by interviews with the IMS Radio and house video. Somewhere in there, the driver will try to talk to his crew, team owner or family.

Photo by AJ Mast / Associated Press

Photo by AJ Mast / Associated Press

Indy Racing League driver Sam Hornish Jr., left, and car owner Roger Penske huddle under an umbrella as rain delayed qualifications for the 90th running of the Indianapolis 500 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
You want to try and get a picture that shows how they feel about their run. Again, being part of a team means I don't have to be right up on the car when it comes in. So I can stand away a little bit and see where the driver goes, and hopefully be there. It's a way to get something different than "driver climbing out of car."

This is also the point where, if the driver has made the pole and is likely to keep it, I try to stick to him or her like glue. If he gets bumped, someone else will pick up the new pole-sitter and I'll fall back to catch just-qualified drivers. We stick with the pole-sitter because that's likely the news of the day.

The qualified cars will be rolled up with the driver and team for the Hat Dance. This is where the IMS photographer shoots the car, driver, team and owners wearing a number of different hats (team hat, Indy 500 Hat, Firestone Hat, Honda Hat, etc.) These are posed portraits. We have someone shooting the driver during all this to ensure we have a headshot of each qualified driver.

After leaving the hat dance, the drivers move to do the media bull pin, where local TV and radio do interviews, then on to the trackside media room for print interviews. Then they wait to see if their speed holds up. If you're lucky, they'll wait on pit row, watching the other drivers try and knock them off. If not, they go back to the motor home.

Come 6pm, the end of Pole Day, you try and be with the pole sitter, there will be much merriment and hopefully jube to shoot, and they are given a riding mower (sadly true) for their accomplishment. Some money too.

Bump Day, on the other hand, is the day drivers who don't have a ride for the race might find someone to let them drive. So you have four or five car-less drivers roaming around hoping someone will put them in a car. For the last three years, it's been AJ Foyt's team that has given Bump Day some drama. Two years ago with a last-minute appearance by Tony Stewart. Last year by bumping Arie Luyendyk Jr. out with Filipe Giaffone. And this year Foyt tried, but failed, to get Ryan Briscoe in a car.

On Bump Day, you have the drama of those bumping and of those being bumped. I prefer covering the guy getting bumped; 33 guys get in, only one or two get in and then get kicked out.

Photo by AJ Mast / Associated Press

Photo by AJ Mast / Associated Press

Pole-sitter Sam Hornish Jr.'s car is brought from the garage area for Carburetion Day practice, as fans watch at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Friday, May 26, 2006 in Indianapolis.
After Sunday's Bump Day, we have the long wait for Carburetion Day. On the Friday before Sunday's race, there's a short one-hour practice, more or less a leak check for the engines. There are some other events, concerts, pit stop contest - in general, drunken revelry. And that pretty much wraps up track activity before the race. Through this point in the month I have shot ~ 5,500 frames.

A rarity in this day and age is the IMS PR staff, the job they do working with the media is really top-notch. I have nothing but positive things to say about the PR team, track photo chief Ron McQueeny and the Safety Patrol, known as Yellow Shirts. They have all bent over backwards to help me do things at the speedway that I can't imagine getting to do at any other facility.

There are a number of periphery events going on through the month, The 500 Festival Mini-Marathon, Community Day at the track, Kids' Day at Monument Circle, The 500 Festival Parade, a race between turtles at the zoo (Zooopolis 500), a number of parties, activities and promotional events. There is the Indy Pro series, training the Indy 500 drivers of tomorrow, who will be on the track a couple of days. We also usually have the Pacers in the playoffs this time of year, though not this year. The month of May can be a very busy month here in the Circle City.

Sunday is race day. If it holds up like all the others, it will be a long, hot, exhausting day. I will be completely and utterly wiped out by the time I get home, but yet muster enough energy to watch the race on Tivo, before crashing, in the sleeping, not the fourth turn wall, sense. And when I wake on Monday, I'll have to wait 11 months till we do it again.

(A.J. Mast is a freelance photographer passed in Indianapolis, IN. You can check out his work at: and his member page:

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