Survival Tips on Photographing an Endurance Race in the Middle of Nowhere

Mud, machines, and the mountain.

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DW Burnett/Puppyknuckles

From the dash cam footage I'd watched online before I arrived, Palmer Motorsports Park looked less like a new racetrack about to host its first green flag event and more like a forgotten, twisting, mysteriously repaved mining road. Sheer granite faces instead of gravel traps. Steep embankments covered with trees instead of grandstands. Very busy, and very fast. Scary, actually.

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For once, I thought to myself, I might not feel at all jealous merely having a camera in my hands instead of the steering wheel.

brought me to Palmer to photograph their three-day event, which was Palmer's very first race.  Some fresh paint on the track and concrete barriers helped to make the place feel more like a real racetrack, but with 14 turns and nearly twenty stories of elevation, it was clear that those fresh 2.3 miles are just as serious in person as they appeared online. 

After three days and hundreds of laps - a torrential downpour just for fun - everyone survived. And it turns out photographing Palmer is nearly as challenging as racing it. This is how it went down.

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DW Burnett/Puppyknuckles

I came to the track with my usual stuff: a couple of camera bodies, an assortment of zoom lenses, and a big 400mm super telephoto attached to a monopod. Usually that stuff is just bearable to carry around, but Palmer added a level of "adventure" to the mix.

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DW Burnett/Puppyknuckles

To get to any corner at Palmer, you have to hike around the outside of the track. The corner workers get dropped off at their stations in the morning via truck and they are stuck there until the end of the day. I felt like Lewis and Clark every time I came out of the trees and saw one of them, like "HELLO THERE! I come in peace! Do you have water?"

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DW Burnett/Puppyknuckles

Racers and crew at AER are a generally tight-knit and laid back group, but the driver swaps and refueling are stressful little flurries of activity. Day one everyone was finding their rhythm.

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DW Burnett/Puppyknuckles

I get stuck on corners for far too long doing panning shots. If you're just starting out, try 1/100 shutter speed and point your feet where you want to take the shot. This one is probably around 1/15.

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DW Burnett/Puppyknuckles

A grassroots endurance race like AER is fun to watch and shoot because there are so many different cars breaking up the shots and adding variety and colors.

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DW Burnett/Puppyknuckles

It took a couple hours to shoot my way around the outside of the track to the very top of Whiskey Hill, but it was worth it. This is the moment where I realized just how epic Palmer really is. A stunning view as cars roared past. Not sure if any photographer had ever been up here.

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DW Burnett/Puppyknuckles

Then, rain changed everything. Palmer's first race would prove to be a challenge for everyone, including the track staff. 

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DW Burnett/Puppyknuckles

Because of fog, the race was red flagged for over an hour. I love shooting in the rain, it provides a whole new dramatic twist to the day. I think the only racers who were excited as I was about the weather were the Audi guys, where Quattro gives them a real advantage.

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DW Burnett/Puppyknuckles

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DW Burnett/Puppyknuckles

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DW Burnett/Puppyknuckles

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DW Burnett/Puppyknuckles

Fun to shoot some rainy scenes on pit road while waiting out the red flag conditions. 

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DW Burnett/Puppyknuckles

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Here's an often overlooked feature that ought to be part of any serious race car, I'd say.

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DW Burnett/Puppyknuckles

Finally the fog lifted and Palmer went green again. It was still raining, but I was determined to get back out there and shoot trackside. It was already pretty treacherous hiking around without the weather. But wet racing is pretty much the most fun kind of racing to shoot, so I had to brave the mud.

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DW Burnett/Puppyknuckles

This is Palmer's "straight" which as you can see is anything but. Once the track started drying out, this river flowing across it just would not disappear.

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DW Burnett/Puppyknuckles

The water flowing across the main straight just happened to be exactly in the braking zone on the fastest part of the track for the hard left of turn one. This was a buttcheek clenching moment each lap for every driver the rest of the day. Probably the single biggest issue Palmer needs to address for these conditions. It was certainly fun to watch, though.

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DW Burnett/Puppyknuckles

A very long lens like the 400mm is essential for shooting faraway cars on the racetrack, but is also very handy for grabbing candid shots in the pits.

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DW Burnett/Puppyknuckles

It was muddy on the mountain. And I know I would never cut it as a wartime photographer: when that little garter snake slithered between my boots I was glad I was alone out there so no one could hear the screaming. Hey guess what, screw snakes.

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DW Burnett/Puppyknuckles

These two BMWs were teammates and would go on to win overall. They were fast and reliable. Was lucky to grab a shot as the raced side by side over the top of the mountain. 14-24mm lens. Notice the uphill turn one visible way down in the background.

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DW Burnett/Puppyknuckles

BMWs, Audis, even Saabs and a very fast Honda S2000 dominated the field. I'd like to see some more American muscle in AER also. Let's get a Challenger or a S197 Mustang in there. I'll drive!

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DW Burnett/Puppyknuckles

One of the coolest sequences in the track is the turn #5 complex. A quick right/left leading onto a straight blast up the mountain.

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DW Burnett/Puppyknuckles

If you have a long lens, and want to make it even longer, you can use a teleconverter. I was using a 1.4x to turn the 400mm into more like 560mm. Very helpful for shooting down the track, and with that kind of length it really compresses the background cars nicely into the shot. 

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DW Burnett/Puppyknuckles

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More panning. Like I said, I get obsessed. I love showing the sense of speed on-track. Even if you're shooting at a higher shutter speed than is required for a more ambitious pan like this, try to at least not freeze the wheels. It will look like the car is parked.

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DW Burnett/Puppyknuckles

At the end of the weekend, the consensus is that Palmer Motorsports Park is shaping up to be one of America's next great road courses. If you're interested in seeing a view from inside a fast BMW M3, check out this . I'm looking forward to shooting another fantastic track with AER as we travel to Virginia International Raceway (VIR) in August! 

Dave Burnett goes by DW Burnett because there is another photographer named Dave Burnett.But some people just call him . Follow him on !

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