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|| News Item: Posted 2009-05-26

Stringing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Jeff Barrie has been shooting the Indy 500 for 15 years.

By Jeff Barrie

Photo by

A group shot of many of the stringers at the 2008 Indy 500.
"Wow, what a cool job!" I have heard that or "man you're lucky" at least a thousand times in the last fifteen years when someone discovers I am a stringer for the Associated Press at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Yeah, it's cool; it's fun at times, but not as much as you would think.

A basic core of individuals from all walks of life makes up this group at Indy in turn 3. Bankers, a college Professor, a metallurgist, mechanical engineers, state employees, health insurance, salesmen, bathroom re-modelers and retirees. Basically they come from all walks of life but we all have two things in common, we love photography and racing.

I am one of the new kids on the block with the 2009 Indy 500 being my fifteenth. Others such as National Sprint Car Hall of Fame member John Mahoney have been doing it since 1969. John and Phil Rider won the Straight Shooter award for photographers from the American Auto Racing Writers & Broadcasters Association in 2007 & 2008 respectively. You can easily identify most of the older guys by the red Old-timers hats they wear signifying they have worked at least twenty Indianapolis 500's.

No doubt that the hours on our regular jobs are much better than our part time jobs, and the pay is a heck of lot more. Most of us, as customary for a stringer, are only paid when a shot is published. The amount of pay varies depending on whom you're working for but none of us will be retiring on what we make at the race track or worry about getting bumped up in a higher tax bracket. It is the love of racing that drew most of us into this position, not the money. However, being a photographer at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has opened a lot of doors where we have been able to be paid pretty well for our photography skills.

So, what's it really like being a stringer at the Racing capitol of the World? It's long hours, hot and cold days, waiting out the rain and most commonly, sore feet and backs. On practice days you arrive between 9-11 am and find yourself a parking spot close behind the access gate where the safety vehicle will be parked during the events.

Practice starts at noon, so you have a chance to sit around and talk shop, racing, world events and even talk about the good old days. Once t- minus 30 minutes hits before practice begins you start to gather up your cameras, CF cards, back up batteries, cooler, scanner, headphones or ear plugs, apply the sun screen and head out to find a spot along the inside fence about sixty feet from the track.

The green light comes on and the track is now active so no one sits down. You stand watching for a spin or a crash over the course of the next six hours. The only time to sit and give your feet a break is on a yellow light. Everyone in racing gets a break at some point during the day but not the stringer out in the turns. You grab a drink from the small cooler whenever you can, look at your watch to see how much longer until the track closes. This routine happens 2-3 days each week for the practice sessions over a two-week period.

Race day and qualifications, especially race day, are a different story altogether. You arrive much earlier, hopefully before the public gates open and traffic is like an evacuation from a hurricane.

On race day most of us are inside the track before 4:30am. You try and get in a few hours sleep before they fire the cannon at 6am signaling the opening of the track to the public. Within a couple of hours the inside parking area in turn 3, a field large enough to have a good corn crop, will be filled with fans vehicles, pop up canopy tents, grills and groups of fans beginning a big party prior to the race.

Photo by Jeff Barrie

Photo by Jeff Barrie

Tony Kanaan (11) crashes and slides along the turn 3 wall as Helio Castroneves (3) drives by on the low side. Helio would go on to win his third Indianapolis 500 in the 93rd running of the annual race on May 24, 2009.
Meanwhile, you sit and wait. It goes from where you had a jacket or sweatshirt on in the pre-dawn hours to the sun beating down on you now in a short sleeve shirt and sometimes shorts. The temperature continues to climb and you know it's only going to be hotter as the day goes on.

Several of the crews pitch together and fix breakfast consisting of bacon, eggs and hash browns and a Bloody Mary. Then we break off in smaller camps some under canopy tents and talk for hours before the race begins. You will walk out and stake out your favorite spot along the fence at some point during this waiting period.

Finally, you are within 45 minutes or so of the start of the race so you pack up everything you will need and walk out to your spot, which may be farther away than the length of an aircraft carrier. Once you arrive in your spot you check everything to make sure it's working. Jim Nabors sings "Back Home Again in Indiana", the national anthem plays, a military flyover and "Taps" is played, then the command, "Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines".

The race begins as people all over the world watch and listens. You stand there watching these cars fly through turn 3 in excess of 200 miles per hours watching for the slightest sign of trouble. A slight bobble, running too high on the edge of the groove or to low, two cars side by side, a mechanical problem, anything which may cause a crash to happen and remember there are numerous cars at any given moment coming out of the turn and you're trying to watch them all at once.

Once something happens, a car starts sliding towards the wall. You find it in the camera, hit the focus and start firing away hoping to capture the moment of impact. You follow the crash all the way down the track as it passes by you constantly shooting.

Generally you will have two to four seconds from the time you see something begin to happen until it is over and the skidding car has come to a rest way down the track past you. You have fired off 10- 20 frames during that time, the card is reading, and writing and you wait. Finally it's done, you check to see if you caught the crash. Is the car centered well enough? Are there any flying parts? Flying parts and flames sell.

Ok you have some good ones and maybe one or two great shots, replace the CF card with a new one. You fill out the info on the submission envelope insert the CF card, seal the envelope and walk it down the track to where a runner will pick it up and deliver it to your editing room. Back to your spot to discuss what happened with the rest of the crew. Back to green and the race re-starts, you're ready to do it again if something happens.

Once the race is over we gather back at our encampments and wind down. Feet ache, backs hurt, and everyone is thirsty and hungry. The talk naturally is about the race, the incidents that happened, didn't happen or almost did. Just about the time you really begin to feel relaxed the police come around telling everyone the track is closing and to pack up and go home. Reluctantly you begin to get ready for the ride home knowing that traffic is moving very slowly, if at all, getting out of the track and you will be sitting in your car in traffic instead of a lawn chair talking racing with your friends.

Finally, you're in your car, traffic is moving and you pull out of the credential gate 9A. The time is after 7pm and you have been in the track fifteen hours plus for a race that took less than three hours to run. Now all you look forward to is getting home, looking over your images and then kicking back in your favorite chair watching the replay of the race. You wake up at 3am in the chair or on the sofa to some infomercial, shut the television off, head to bed and think ahead to next year when you can get together with your friends, the turn 3-crew and do it all over again.

Yeah, it is fun.

(Jeff Barrie is a freelance photographer based in Indianapolis. You can see his member page here:

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