Pit, Paddock and Parking Lot: The Secret Racetrack Gold Mine

Dom Miliano taught photography for seven years. His photographs have been published by AutoWeek, Cavallino,
Excellence, Forza, Corvette and Bimmer Magazine, Porsche Panorama and in several automotive books.

It’s very tempting to stand trackside and snap away as racecars zip by at an event. The color, sound and speed can be hypnotic – I know, I have been in a trance since I attended my first race in 1972. But I learned back then that getting to the track early, staying late and trolling the parking lot can actually generate some interesting, maybe prize winning photographs – more so than what’s happening during wheel to wheel action. Here are my 2 cents on how to do that.

Mercer Runabout

First, the “early bird gets the worm” adage is never more applicable than at a race. Most tracks limit the hours that cars can be on track (noise rules, safety personnel in place, etc.) so getting to the event a couple of hours before cars turn wheels in anger turns you and your camera loose in a sea of cars, people and color, all abuzz with activity. Crewmembers are putting finishing touches on their cars. Drivers are walking around (without helmets!!) speaking to friends, teammates or the media. Cars that have been out all night may be covered in morning dew or if there was rain the night before, are reflected in rainbow-oiled puddles. Even more appealing is that you will often be one of a small group of “in the know” photographers – avoiding the scrum you often find later in the day clogging your way. Finally, since it’s early in the day, you will probably be shooting in the day’s best radiance. Warm, directional and if you are lucky, misty – a photographer’s magic light!

Concorso Italiano

At the end of the day, after the cars have been through on-track battles, they are no longer spotless and scar-free. Getting up close, you can shoot artistic, gritty macro images. You can capture drivers celebrating the joys of victory or the agony of defeat. Plus, once again, the light will be getting better and better as the sun sets. My advice – plan to leave as late as possible – especially if you are shooting at the end of the first day of a 2 or 3 day event. Because there are more days of racing ahead, the mechanics have to put the cars back in shape to be ready for what’s ahead. I suggest that you respectfully, walk up to the crew folks as they toil to repair the day’s damage and without interfering with their work, shoot with a slow shutter speed, blurring their hands as they wrench a wheel or polish a fender. I like to offer them a business card and promise to send him or her a print – these workers are the unsung heroes who make racing possible. Having a quality photo of themselves at work could bring a smile to their face and help them recognize that people appreciate all that they do to make the event happen. If you keep your word and send along a print, believe me, the crewmembers will remember you and, down the road, he or she may be willing to grant you better access for picture taking.

Try to use available light as much as possible for these early and late shots – flash will overpower the warmth of magic light. Any lens will do but I find that a medium-zoom (e.g., 24-105MM, 24-70MM, or similar) gives me the most compositional options.

During the day, see if you can get into the false grid (relatively easy at many low-key vintage or SCCA events). It’s usually a quiet time where the drivers collect their thoughts, plan their strategy and get psychologically ready to do battle on track. Take photos of drivers being pensive, adjusting their gear, chatting with crew or other racers. I recommend that you use fill flash for these shots so you can blast light into the dark car interiors or lighten inside helmet shadows. Make sure you dial back the flash power for these headshots (minus 2/3 f-stop is a good starting point) or you will overpower and possibly over expose the faces.

Don’t neglect the auto jumble (AKA flea market) that accompanies a lot of vintage events. A collection or dusty, rusty and well-used parts in good light can become an attractive, up-close, abstract work of art if photographed well. Make sure to shoot more than one grab shot – electrons are cheap!

Concorso Italiano

At ALMS and Grand Am races, there are often driver autograph sessions. You can skip getting an autograph and work the edges of the crowd and, with a tele-zoom in the 70-200MM range, get some nice tight portraits. And please, don’t shoot just one or two pictures – people’s expressions change so quickly that I find I have to take 10 or more shots before I am sure I have one that’s both sharp and captures the look I want. Click, click, click!!! And use fill flash.

Finally, many races have marque-specific parking “corrals”. BMW, Porsche, MG, Ferrari and Corvette all have huge followings so it’s common for dozens of same-marque cars to be parked together. Some of the cars in these grouping will be models and or colors that you have never seen. Don’t be shy… shoot away! You probably won’t get enough space to shoot a great salon shot but close up pictures of badges, air intakes, wheels, mirrors and unique trim items can become a fun subject. If there is a really great car – one that you love – slip a business card under the wiper blade and ask if you can meet up after the event to do a full photo shoot. Hey, ya never know!

So, while shooting on-track action is great fun and I love doing it and can’t wait until I can do it again, don’t forget there are many exciting photographic opportunities waiting for you in the Pit, Paddock and Parking Lot - the race track’s hidden gold mine.