Every March nostalgia drag racers from around the country make the pilgrimage to Bakersfield, California for the March Meet, the most sacred of nostalgia drag races. Whenever my busy schedule allows it I also make the trip out to the race because there is always some wild action going on as people race at speeds over 260mph in cars that are older than many of the drivers racing them.

After flying into Burbank I made the 1.5 hour drive up to Bakersfield where I got my credentials and immediately headed to the end of the track to set up some remote cameras before the fast cars came out.

For day one I had two remote camera next to each other near the finish line. One with an 80-200mm and the other with a 400mm, both aimed at different spots on the track. The reason I put the cameras near the finish line is because that is where the cars are at top speed and most prone to exploding in thousands of pieces thus making it a pretty dangerous spot to stand.

Photo by Jon Lemoine

While one camera was securely clamped to the wall the other was on one of my dads ancient piece of crap tripod. In order to prevent a gust of wind from the parachutes to knock the camera over I anchored it using my backpack which was heavy enough to ensure it would take much more than wind to knock the tripod down.

Below I pose for a photo with the two remote set up. I always try and have a photo of me smiling with my remotes “before” so that when they get destroyed by a crashing car I can do the “after” shot of me crying holding the broken cameras! While it hasn’t happened yet I promise it eventually will.

Photo by Jon Lemoine

I started off shooting some of the slower class cars where I got this car bouncing in the shutdown area as he got on the brakes too hard when his parachute didn’t deploy.

Nikon D3, 600mm, 640iso, f8, 1/2000th

Top fuel dragster qualifying got off to an exciting start as Dan Horan (right) lost control, crossed the centerline and collided with Mike Chrisman.

Nikon D3, 600mm, 640iso, f8, 1/3200th

The crash occurred right around half track which was about a 1/4 mile from me resulting with horrific heat waves which rendered the images nearly useless until the cars got closer.

Right after the collisions both cars turned away from each other into the outside walls as shown by my remote camera below.

Nikon D3, 400mm, 1000iso, f10, 1/3200th

Horan took the worst of the crash as his throttle stuck and he made a hard left after the initial impact and nailed the outside wall hard.

Nikon D3, 600mm, 640iso, f8, 1/3200th

Nikon D3, 600mm, 640iso, f8, 1/3200th

Nikon D3, 600mm, 640iso, f8, 1/3200th

Since this was my first time in my 19 years of shooting drag racing that I shot a two car crash I needed to make sure I was safe with the second car making his way my direction while following the other car. I swung the camera over to find Chrisman to make sure he wasn’t flying over the wall or anything.

Nikon D3, 600mm, 640iso, f8, 1/3200th

Below is a shot from my remote to show you how far apart the two cars were from eachother as they slid down track.

Nikon D300, 80-200mm, 640iso, f9, 1/2500th

After establishing that I was save from the other car I went back to shooting Horan as he bounced along the wall with the engine roaring.

Nikon D3, 600mm, 640iso, f8, 1/3200th

Nikon D3, 600mm, 640iso, f8, 1/3200th

Horan went way past me before the engine finally cut off.

Nikon D3, 600mm, 640iso, f8, 1/3200th

Chrisman slowly went past me as his parachutes came out.

Nikon D3, 600mm, 640iso, f8, 1/2500th

After that wild ride things calmed down for awhile.

Nikon D3, 600mm, 500iso, f8, 1/2000th

Nikon D700, 70-200mm, 400iso, f5.6, 1/3200th

The action once again heated up as nostalgia funny car driver James Generalao exploded an engine and had a big fire. 

Nikon D3, 600mm, 800iso, f8, 1/1600th

Luckily for him the fire didn’t spread and he was able to bring the car to a safe stop and climb out asrescue personnel were quickly on the scene to make sure the fire was out.

Nikon D3, 600mm, 800iso, f8, 1/1000th

As the day got later the light got much better which enabled me to get a few cool shots.

Nikon D700, 70-200mm, 640iso, f5.6, 1/1000th

On an early shut off run I noticed nice light shining across the face of driver Tom Padilla as he sat in the cockpit. Below is the uncropped version.

Nikon D3, 600mm, 800iso, f6.3, 1/3200th

A tight crop really shows what I was talking about with the sliver of sun light across his face.

Nikon D3, 600mm, 800iso, f6.3, 1/3200th

Little did I know at the time but the next day I would once again get a cool shot of Padilla!

Being at the end of the track can get very boring as there is a lot of downtime between races. While standing around bored I noticed an airplane flying that looked as if it was gonna pass in front of the moon. The Southwest airlines plane just barely missed giving me my E.T. knock off shot.

Nikon D3, 600mm, 800iso, f6.3, 1/2500th

After another light sliver across a dragster drivers face I called it a day.

Nikon D3, 600mm, 800iso, f6.3, 1/2500th

On my way out I noticed a few photographers shooting a car next to a puddle so of course I stopped, grabbed my Canon G10 and laid down on the ground to use the puddle to add the full reflection of the car.

Canon G10, 200iso, f3.2, 1/80th

Canon G10, 200iso, f2.8, 1/80th

For Saturday I changed my remotes around a bit. Instead of both remotes together I had one in the same spot and the second one a few hundred yards further down in the shutdown area.

I have been setting up remotes up at this race every year for the last four years and rarely get anything worth the effort of all the set up I do. This day would end up being different as my remote would save my ass.

During the first nostalgia funny car qualifying session of the day I was on the other side of the track following the driver in my lane. With nitro cars I hang the motor drive as they go through the finish line (since that is where they will most likely explode due to that being where the engine is under maximum stress). While I followed the car in my lane the car in the other lane driven by Tom Padilla had an engine explosion which blew the fiberglass body off the car a few hundred feet into the air. 

After screaming and cussing for missing the massive explosion I crossed to the other side of the track to see if perhaps the remote got something usable.

I really wasn’t expecting much since with my luck the remote probably didn’t fire or it occured between frames.

Much to my surprise here is what the remote got.

Nikon D300, 80-200mm, 500iso, f8, 1/2500th

Nikon D300, 80-200mm, 500iso, f8, 1/2500th

Nikon D300, 80-200mm, 500iso, f8, 1/2500th

The only thing I got with my handheld of the incident was the fiberglass body flying through the air as it floated back to Earth.

Nikon D3, 600mm, 400iso, f6.3, 1/2500th

The body landed about 25 yards from my shooting position.

Nikon D3, 600mm, 400iso, f6.3, 1/2000th

Below is a cool photo showing me shooting as the body lands.

Photo by Jon Lemoine

After seeing that my remote had gotten the shot that I missed I let out a sigh of relieve. If I cant get the shot with having 3 cameras firing then I probably should quit. 

Speaking of the third camera here is what it got of the explosion. (Be sure to click the photo to see it inmotion, look all the way to the left to see the explosion then at the end look all the way to the right to see the body land several seconds later)

Nikon D3, 400mm, 800iso, f11, 1/1600th

The photographer in the foreground of the shot is a friend/editor of mine and I know the only reason he is leaning into my shot was due to the overcrowding of photographers who were down there at the time leaning over the wall and shooting so I wasn’t even mad when I saw the pic. According to what everyone was saying, even though there was 15 photographers down there none of them got anything good of the explosion due to everyone leaning against/over the wall thus blocking each other. Had everyone stood a foot or two off the wall then everyone would have been able to get the shot.

After the clean up it was back to racing. Heres some random shots.

Nikon D3, 600mm, 400iso, f6.3, 1/2000th

Nikon D3, 600mm, 400iso, f6.3, 1/1600th

Nikon D3, 600mm, 400iso, f6.3, 1/2000th

Nikon D3, 600mm, 640iso, f5.6, 1/2000th

Nikon D3, 600mm, 640iso, f5.6, 1/3200th

The famed fuel altered “The Winged Express” made an exhibition run down the track. While the car is always wild and crazy it was odd on this run as the car was bouncing around at top speed. In the below photos you can actually see the rear wheels off the ground while still on the gas!

Nikon D3, 600mm, 1000iso, f5.6, 1/1250th

One of the last cars down the track for the day was top fuel driver Mike McLennan who had a small explosion which led to a small fire. 

Nikon D3, 600mm, 1600iso, f5.6, 1/1250th

While the fire wasn’t huge, the awesome light and smoke made the shots look really cool.

Nikon D3, 600mm, 1600iso, f5.6, 1/1250th

Nikon D3, 600mm, 1600iso, f5.6, 1/1250th

In the below photo not the spark plug flying to the right of the engine.

Nikon D3, 600mm, 1600iso, f5.6, 1/1250th

Here is what my remote camera got of the explosion.

Nikon D300, 80-200mm, 1000iso, f3.5, 1/2500th

That ended a very productive day two of racing.

Sunday would have to be pretty exciting to live up to all the action of the previous two days.

It wasn’t very exciting at all.

Here is a shot of where I mounted one of my remotes for the day.

The most excitement of the day for me occurred when a dragster got way close to the wall and opened his parachute almost taking out my remote camera. Below is the view my camera had.

In the below photo from my handheld you can see motorsports photography stud Will Lester on the left running for his life. HAHA

Nikon D3, 600mm, 500iso, f6.3, 1/3200th

Below is a nice shot taken by one of the remote cameras as two top fuel dragsters smoke after blowing their engines at the finish line.

Nikon D300, 80-200mm, 500iso, f8, 1/3200th

Funny car driver Bucky Austin slows down following his second round race. Austin went on to win the race.

Nikon D3, 600mm, 250iso, f6.3, 1/1250th

Below is a shot of a AA/Gas Supercharged car going up on two wheels during the first round. I have no idea how he saved that car from rolling over at high speed but here is the same moment from my three cameras.

Remote 1

Nikon D300, 80-200mm, 500iso, f8, 1/4000th

Remote 2

Nikon D3, 400mm, 640iso, f10, 1/1600th


Nikon D3, 600mm, 250iso, f6.3, 1/2000th

The handheld doesn’t look too different from the remote shot because I had walked up near the remote on my way to check the exposure of the remote camera.

The Winged Express made another exhibition run. This time I once again got the rear wheels off the ground as he slowed down following his run.

Nikon D3, 600mm, 500iso, f6.3, 1/2000th

One of the last runs I shot before I had to haul ass back to Burbank to catch my flight a top fuel dragster had an explosion which shattered part of the engine sending hundreds of small sharp pieces of metal flying through the air at 250mph. (and THAT is why I don’t like standing too close to the finish line!)

Nikon D3, 600mm, 500iso, f6.3, 1/2000th

And with that it ended my 2009 March Meet.

I am already counting the days till next years race!

Posted in California, Drag Racing, Me, NHRA, Pocket Wizard, Racing, Remote Camera, Sports   | 62 Comments

62 responses to “Exploding Funny Cars, Colliding Dragsters, Welcome to Nostalgia Drag Racing!”

  1. Mike Mitchell says:

    Just looked at your pictures. They are spectacular. I took pictures in the 60’s. I worked for Drag News, Drag Sport Illustrated and Hot Rod magazine. I am now busy training race horses but love to get out to the winter nationals. My cousin, Rick Stewart is the starter for NHRA. Your work is amazing.

  2. Ann says:

    I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.



  3. Toby says:

    Fantastic work. This is some of the best motorsport photography I have ever seen. Please publish a book….please!

  4. Frank says:

    WOW!!! It’s like watching a heartbeat frozen in time..

  5. Ellen Hiett says:

    I’ve been going to the Famoso Drag Strip and the March Meets for years. I have never seen such beautiful photos of the event as these are, beautiful! You are a talented photographer. Thanks for the pictures of our little yearly event. Maybe more people will come because of your photos. Thanks once more.

  6. John says:

    As a participant in the AA/Gassers at Famosa and an amateur photographer, you are very gifted at being able to capture those photographs. Your pictures are just stunning and show the touch of the masters hand. Those and the shots of Sears Point (I know they call it Infineon now), are simply great. Inspires me to do better!

  7. della woods says:

    Mark, you’re the best

  8. Cliff Franz says:

    Hey Mark,
    Your dad and I used to hang at the races when you where just a small boy.I remember you on the wall with a camera and you where taking some great photos back then.I am currently the Senior Manager of Operations at the daytona 500 experience in Daytona Beach. Tell your dad i said hello and have him e-mail me.Next time you are in town look me up! cfranz@daytona500experience.com
    Great Photos!

  9. Hi Mark
    Wonderful pictures. Love the blog
    Neil London

  10. Tim says:

    Are you still active on this blog? if so drop us a line

  11. Love the blog and specially this racing photos 🙂 Nice work

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