Reprinted from Portfolio Magazine
It’s a million dollars of high technology wrapped in carbon fiber screaming through a forest in northern Georgia. As the sun sets, the driver negotiates a turn dropping from 185mph to 90mph and back up to 185mph… all in a matter of seconds.
Far from the homogenized world of stock car oval racing, this is sports car endurance racing. It is one of the last forms of motor racing where car manufacturers and their engineers push the envelope unfettered by artificial limits imposed by organizers attempting to manage “the show.” This is where technology combines with team management and driver skill to push back against gravity in an endeavor of man and machine toget to the finish first.
My job? Tell the story in photos. Capture the absurdity of the challenge. The blood, sweat and tears spent striving for the top step of the podium. It’s everything ABC’s Wide World of Sports said in their thematic… “The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat.”
What I like about photographing endurance sports car racing is the challenge of presenting a story that intrigues those who love the sport… the fans, and the uninitiated alike.
I imagine the strained excited voice of a fan who has just spent three days at the 12 Hours of Sebring or the 24 Hours of Daytona and how he would struggle to verbally describe to his friends what he had just experienced… how amazing… how incredible… and knowing he would fail to state his case with words and words alone.
No. Words don’t describe this. You have to see it to believe it. That’s my job.
Photographing endurance sports cars not only requires some pretty specific camera equipment, it requires a broad understanding of story telling through the lens. And not unlike legendary guitar players like Hendrix or Stevie Ray Vaughn, you need to manhandle and leverage your gear to deliver your point of view. And even then, you’ve only penned one part of the composition.
These are typically three-day events. And behind each and every car, there are three or more drivers sharing the 10, 12 or 24-hour duties behind the wheel. There are engineers, mechanics, designers, fabricators… human beings… all working in harmony to harness the potential of this four-wheeled beast. If it’s anything, it’s managed chaos.
It’s all about finding and managing the limits of the unlimited. It’s about assessing every aspect of the process… every link in the chain… everything and anything that might lead to imperfect. Because winning requires perfection… until someone does it better.
For me, I like the atmosphere and the human spirit. I like the faces. Obviously, the cars and their struggle with gravity’s limits are an endless source of visual excitement. But so are the people…. on both sides of the protective barrier.
When you’re at the track, you imagine what a dog’s sense of smell is like going 50mph with its head hanging out the car window. You don’t know where to look first. It’s all happening. Everything and everyone has a role… a purpose and a mission. Consider this. When you go to an NBA or NFL event, two teams take to the field. When you go to a race, 30+ teams take to the field. They’re all there… it’s the equivalent of an entire season playing out before your eyes in one single event.
And it’s not just about race day. From the moment a team’s transporter rolls into the track, the clock starts ticking. In fact, all team transporters must be parked and in place before unloading can begin. Everything… everything is time certain. It’s the same for everyone.
It’s a unique form of photography. Sure, you start out with a shot list. You start out with a strategy of where you’d like to shoot… what you’d like to get done. Unfortunately, you’re not in control. It all rolls out in front of you and you have to play the cards you’re dealt. You’re chasing light and sometimes working against darkness. You’re fighting to get a unique angle, you’re working against time…. and you’re carrying 30lbs of gear while trekking through the woods… sometimes in the rain. Did I mention the course is three miles long?
Creativity requires friction. To make something different you need forces pushing back. You need work your way into spaces. Fight your way past the mundane and look for opportunities as they present themselves. Chances are, whatever you have planned is not going to happen. You need your head on a swivel. You need to look where everyone else is going… and go the other way. The opportunities are endless.
John ThawleyFor most my work I shoot with Canon gear… three camera bodies and an array of lenses including a 16-35mm, 24-105mm, 70-200mm a 50mm prime and a 500mm prime. I also use a Leica M Series Rangefinder with a 35mm, 50mm and 90mm prime Leica lenses, a DXO One attached to my iPhone 6S+ and vintage Polaroid cameras. Each camera and each lens has a purpose… and each helps define the point of view I’m attempting to bring to the shot.