With my insanely too busy schedule these days I rarely get the chance to shoot smaller sports, so when the chance presents itself I go nuts and do my best to produce interesting imagery. Continue on to see what I came up with in my three days in Sin City.

Prior to coming I decided to pack an Alien Bee 1600 watt strobe as well as a softbox and portable Vagabond battery pack. The plan was to continue to practice using studio lighting as I attempt to not suck at it. While the jury is still out on that one I am beginning to become slightly more comfortable with it.

With my old friend from my military days tagging along to give me a hand with gear we headed into the pit area at “The Strip” at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway and started trying stuff out.

I first approached top fuel dragster driver Antron Brown to see if he would give me a few minutes of time for a quick portrait. He was fine with it and told us to wait a minute while he finished mixing fuel. While waiting I tried to find something interesting to shoot. What I came up with was laying on the ground and shooting through the front wheels of the car to give a totally boring image some frame (it was still boring).

Nikon D3, 14-24mm, 100iso, f7.1, 1/250th with Alien Bee 1600watt strobe

When he was finished I did a quick (and boring) portrait.

Nikon D3, 14-24mm, 100iso, f7.1, 1/250th with Alien Bee 1600watt strobe

Walked a few feet over to the pit area of two time champion Tony Pedregon and did another quick (and boring) portrait. I certainly had an urge to do more dramatic and aggressive portraits but on top of these drivers being very busy, standard clean portraits are the ones that seem to sell more than wild out of the box stuff.

Nikon D3, 70-200mm, 100iso, f5, 1/250th with Alien Bee 1600watt strobe

The professional racers were about to start their first round of qualifying so we headed into the staging lanes (where the drivers climb into their cars for their run) and we started shooting some candid portraits.

Pro stock motorcycle rider Angie McBride hammed it up for the camera…..

Nikon D3, 70-200mm, 100iso, f5.6, 1/250th with Alien Bee 1600watt strobe

While racer Chip Ellis went for a more intense look as he looked straight ahead in preparation of his race.

Nikon D3, 70-200mm, 100iso, f6.3, 1/250th with Alien Bee 1600watt strobe

Angelle Sampey stared me down for a photo.

Nikon D3, 70-200mm, 100iso, f6.3, 1/250th with Alien Bee 1600watt strobe

As we were walking around doing the shots more than a few photogs shooting laughed at me and my setup and said it was pointless to be working so hard to shoot what they were doing with on camera flash. I would like to think some of these images will change their minds when they see them.

Funny car racer Gary Scelzi waits for his run as he leans against his tow vehicle. Told you your face wouldn’t break the camera Gary!

Nikon D3, 14-24mm, 100iso, f7.1, 1/250th with Alien Bee 1600watt strobe

Funny car driver Robert Hight gives a fist bump to a crew member prior to climbing in the car.

Nikon D3, 14-24mm, 100iso, f8, 1/250th with Alien Bee 1600watt strobe

One of the main reason I went to this race was to shoot top fuel dragster driver Tony Schumacher who would clinch his fifth consecutive championship by merely qualifying. So I got all in his face as he walked around.

Nikon D3, 14-24mm, 100iso, f8, 1/250th with Alien Bee 1600watt strobe

Once the drivers climbed into the car I had Paul stand a few feet from the cockpit on the side with the softbox as I stood at the nose of the car shooting head on.

Softbox position.

And here is how a shot looked with that setup.

Nikon D3, 70-200mm, 100iso, f6.3, 1/250th with Alien Bee 1600watt strobe

While I was having fun and getting cool portraits I was nervous the whole time as I hate not being set up for action shots in the event of a crash or fire. Luckily I didn’t miss anything.

The next round of qualifying I shot from the starting line to see what I could come up with.

It was Halloween so I was hopeful for some costumes to make for funny or interesting images. While nothing amazing there were a few people in costumes. I love the monster pic because all the other people in the shot seem oblivious to the out of place creature.

Nikon D3, 400mm, 400iso, f2.8, 1/800th

A few minutes later a crew member dressed as a bull matador walked out on track and pro stock driver Justin Humphreys with horns on the roof did his burnout directly towards the “matador” The crew guy should be a real matador because he did a perfect cape pull at the last second as the onlookers in the background laughed it up.

Nikon D3, 400mm, 400iso, f2.8, 1/1000th

The sun was slowly making its way down as a nice party cloudy sky provided a nice background for a wide shot as Antron Brown raced Cory McClenathan.

Nikon D3, 14-24mm, 250iso, f5.6, 1/1000th

As it got darker I started fooling around with some slow shutter speed stuff.

14 time champion and winningest drag racer of all time John Force does a burnout past me.

Nikon D3, 14-24mm, 100iso, f6.3, 1/25th

I didn’t wanna spend the whole round shooting blurs so I did some “safe” shots (aka standard shots)

The header flames go above the roof as funny car driver Robert Hight blasts off the starting line on his way to a 310mph run.

Nikon D3, 400mm, 1250iso, f2.8, 1/500th

With only a few more races to go and my creativity requirements unfullfilled I slowed down the shutter speed drastically to see what I could come up with.

For the below photo I was panning with the car in the near lane but looking through a 14mm lens on a full frame camera the cars go from tiny in the view finder to full frame in the blink of an eye and by dumb luck the pan worked out well with the other car in the far lane driven by Doug Kalitta. I have made a career of dumb luck and it looks to continue longer.

Nikon D3, 14-24mm, 100iso, f4.5, 1/13th

The last cool photo of the night has a really abstract star wars feel to it. The fans flash going off doesn’t hurt either.

Nikon D3, 14-24mm, 100iso, f4.5, 1/13th

That ended day one of my shoot.

Day two would be a long boring day way down past the finish line waiting for any action such as explosions or crashes.

The day was incredibly boring. It is best illustrated by this photo I shot of a fellow photog taking a nap. What really made the scene funny was the text on the board in the foreground. 

(editors note-sign circled in red in photoshop, as well as simulated snoring zzzz’s. It should also be noted this was taken during a break in the action)

Tony Schumacher who I mentioned earlier clinched his championship in the afternoon and a totally boring and emotionless trophy presentation ensued!

Nikon D3, 70-200mm, 800iso, f6.3, 1/100th

As he climbed into a hummer to parade down in front of the fans I got up close and tried to produce a shot with the cool dusk sky behind him.

Nikon D3, 14-24mm, 100iso, f5, 1/250th

I put the camera real close to the trophy to make it look huge with him in background but my camera batteries decided to call it a day. It still has a cool feel to it though. Yet another happy accident (the photo not my conception)

Nikon D3, 14-24mm, 100iso, f5, 1/250th

The clouds began to build more and the smell of rain was in the air. As I looked back to the city there was nice rays of light coming in so I shot a photo of it as the car of Tony Bartone was towed by in the foreground. The port-a-potty and all the other cluttered crap in the background add so much to the photo eh? grrr

Nikon D3, 70-200mm, 800iso, f4.5, 1/640th

A few raindrops put the race on hold for about 15 minutes then they got going again. That short delay allowed it to get darker which made the exhaust flames from the cars much brighter. Below Tim Wilkerson (left) races Jack Beckman.

Nikon D3, 600mm, 3200iso, f4, 1/1000th

Here is a wide shot showing more of the sky as Melanie Troxel drives by.

Nikon D3, 70-200mm, 2000iso, f2.8, 1/1000th

There was another delay for rain so I walked with all my gear a half mile to the starting line to be close to shelter in the event it started pouring. Of course the rain stopped a few minutes later so I was stuck on the starting line for the last few cars. I decided to throw a wide angle on and take advantage of the great clouds in the sky as John Force did his burnout.

Nikon D3, 14-24mm, 4000iso, f4, 1/500th

That ended the evening for the professional racers I was there to shoot so I packed up and walked to my car. On the way there I stopped for a moment to fire off one last shot as the car of pro modified racer Scott Ray waited behind the starting line for his turn to race. I wish the sky looked like that for all my photos.

Nikon D3, 14-24mm, 4000iso, f2.8, 1/400th

With that day two was over and on to the final day of the weekend. Raceday!

As with the previous day I camped out past the finish line to wait for action as well as parachute photos.

For the first pair of dragsters I underexposed the shot big time to make everything real dark and have the cars brought out by the smoke from their burnouts behind them.

Nikon D3, 600mm, 100iso, f5.6, 1/5000th

Back to a normal exposure for the standard race action. Tim Wilkerson (right) loses traction as he loses to funny car driver Mike Neff in the first round.

Nikon D3, 600mm, 400iso, f5.6, 1/3200th

With only two races to go in the season wins and losses became much bigger stories as many losses eliminated racers from championship contention. Below pro stock driver Jason Line reacts after losing an d being eliminated from the championship race.

Nikon D3, 600mm, 400iso, f5.6, 1/1600th

In the second round of top fuel action newly crowned champion Tony Schumacher blew up an engine in a ball of flames. 

Nikon D3, 600mm, 400iso, f5.6, 1/2500th

While this is a small fire by drag racing standards it was the only action of the weekend as well as the biggest name in the sport doing it so I was somewhat happy. The fire went out as quick as it began.

Nikon D3, 600mm, 400iso, f5.6, 1/2500th

At the end of the day when it was time for the final rounds in each category I headed a 1/4 mile further down to the very end of the track to shoot the drivers climbing out of their cars and celebrating.

The tracks shutdown area is uphill so it provides a different angle for the photos on track.

Nikon D3, 600mm, 500iso, f5.6, 1/500th

When pro stock racer Jeg Coughlin Jr won in the final round he essentially clinched the championship in his category so he showed off some real excitement by climbing on the roof of his car to jube. Nice!

Nikon D3, 14-24mm, 100iso, f7.1, 1/250th

Next up was the funny car final round. I shot the below photo of the cars nearly 3/4 of a mile away from me. The giant structure behind the starting line is the main grandstands from the NASCAR track across the street. It certainly added to the photo in my opinion and provided a cool look.

Nikon D3, 600mm, 800iso, f5.6, 1/400th

Cruz Pedregon won the race and with the victory took over first place in the points heading into the final race of the season. He was obviously excited as he exited his car.

Nikon D3, 14-24mm, 100iso, f5.6, 1/250th

The final race of the weekend was top fuel where Tony Schumacher finished the weekend in perfect fashion by taking the win, his 15th win of the year (an NHRA record)

Nikon D3, 14-24mm, 100iso, f5.6, 1/250th

Nikon D3, 14-24mm, 100iso, f5.6, 1/100th

After the posed moment he walked away from the crowd as he awaited his crews arrival. It made for a nice clean photo as he walked towards the. He was greated by his father/owner Don Schumacher where Tony gave him the trophy as a birthday present.

Nikon D3, 14-24mm, 100iso, f5.6, 1/100th

With that it was time to get the hell outta there and begin my 320 mile drive back home to Phoenix. After a weekend shooting drivers going over 300mph (some on fire) I must have had too much racing on my mind as I ended up getting pulled over and ticketed for 89 in a 65mph zone. Damnit!

But to be honest it was a great weekend and even a speeding ticket (my first ticket in the nearly two years I’ve had my GTO) wasn’t gonna tarnish things for me. 

Next up is NASCAR here in Phoenix.

Posted in Desert, Drag Racing, NHRA, Pocket Wizard, Portraits, Racing, Sports   | 21 Comments

21 responses to “A 300mph drive in Sin City”

  1. Will says:

    Nice set of images Mark, it was great working beside you this past weekend.
    The “real” fires will be at Pomona in 2 weeks.
    I think I’ve got a photo of you standing at the 899 foot mark, I think I’ll send it to your buddy Anthony V.
    Have fun with NASCAR the next 2 weeks.


  2. Cliff Workman says:


    Fantastic images and explanations on how you got them. I’m assuming that you had a photographic press pass or something to get that close to the drivers and action. I’m most interested in how you determined your iso, shutter and f-stop settings on the fly in different scenarios? The light and color seem dead-on is many of your shots.

  3. Daron Gray says:

    Wow!! Great images. This is what I’ve been waiting for you to shoot, some NHRA action. Awesome job.

  4. RJ says:


    Great work. Can you teach me how to do it?????????????

    See you in Homestead


  5. Bob says:

    Great pictures, I’m just learning photography and I can’t tell you how much I enjoy not only looking at your images, but reading about what you were trying for and the technical details of how you did them.


  6. Sol Tucker says:


    I second the reason to carry a strobe with you….. On camera flash versus Speedlight….. Guess some just can’t do the math nor could they get an image like those….

    See ya next race season…..



  7. Beau Arnold says:

    Guess those guys that shoot NHRA will be calling Paul Bluff to order some strobes and battery packs. Way to think outside the box Mark.

  8. Erica says:

    Beautiful shots!

  9. Toyse says:


  10. All I can say is Damn nice work! The Images are phenomenal! Creative as Hell!!
    Would like to meet you someday if your in Houston.

    Scott Singleton
    Houston Raceway Park Photographer
    RPM Magazine Photojournalist

  11. Rob says:

    These are some really great images! The colors pop out at you. Are you shooting with Nikon or Cannon and are you using any filters?

  12. Kyle Sharp says:

    Rob it does say D3..lol

    Mark you’ve impressed me greatly. Very very well done. Please shoot more NHRA 🙂

  13. What really stands out about your images to me is that each one tells a story. The best images are the ones that still give you a rush after you look at it time after time. Thanks for also including exif data with each image.

  14. Connie says:

    Mark, I’ve just recently started taking an intro to digital photography class myself as a hobby, and I must say, your work has given me new inspiration! Thanks for sharing. Keep posting…I’d love to see more drag racing material!

  15. Punky says:

    The best pictures from Dragrace I´ve ever seen.
    Greetings from old germany.

  16. “Perfect” the only word to describe your work! Absolutley Breathtaking – makes you love the sport even more!

    I wanted to go to Vegas this year, but I couldn´t make it. Thank you for at least letting me see such fantastic photos – next year I am going to Vegas!

    Andrea Kloss

  17. Awesome shots my friend. Where’s my girl Ashley?

  18. How times have changed. The restrictions for the photographers are much looser now. I can still hear Denny Darnell going up one side of a newspaper guy and down the other for shooting drivers after they had strapped in. He would have “hit the chip” had he seen someone walking around the lanes with a studio strobe and softbox. It would have been hilarious! I can also recall Les Welch doing back-flips (figuratively speaking…) when he was granted top end access. Looks like NHRA has loosened up on that quite a bit.
    Your stuff looks great. Keep it up. I always felt that off-camera flash wasn’t explored enough when it came to motorsports.

  19. OUTLAW PHOTO says:

    Great shots Mark,kudos to you for doing something differant even though you had to “work” at it.

  20. The pther love of my life has always been TOP FUEL! You have shown all of us Shooters the way! Thanks, Mark!

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