I have a job where I am lucky enough to travel the world shooting the biggest sporting events on the planet, however one of my favorite sports to shoot is drag racing. Its a sport where cars go from zero to 300mph in a few seconds. Also in those few seconds they can go from beautiful pieces of machinery to piles of twisted metal. Continue reading to see what a weekend of high speeds in Las Vegas would bring for the stars and cars of the NHRA.

When I got to the track Friday I was greeted with dark ominous clouds. The weather forecast  called for high winds but only a 5% chance of rain. Look at the below shot and tell me if that looks like 95% chance of NOT raining?


Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 400iso, f5.6, 1/2500th

I liked the above angle but the empty grandstands completely killed it for me so I gave up on shooting there. I moved around behind the starting line to see if perhaps that would be anything usable.


Nikon D3, 70-200mm, 500iso, f5.6, 1/1250th

While the backgrounds were much cleaner it was a crappy angle so I gave up on the starting line. Pros would be running in less than an hour so I headed up to the top end (shutdown area) and got set up.


Nikon D700, 600mm, 640iso, f5.6, 1/1000th

As you can see from the above shot, the shutdown area here in Vegas is a great place to shoot since it is up hill from the quarter mile giving a nice angle and helping to reduce the heat waves slightly (when the sun is out).

The dark clouds were getting darker and darker and I realized the weather forecast I was reading was probably gonna be wrong.

Below comp eliminator driver Dan Fletcher heads to the weight scales following a run.


Nikon D3, 24-70mm, 640iso, f5.6, 1/2000th

Shortly after that photo the clouds opened up and it rained for about an hour. After the rain stopped it was time for the NHRA track crews to dry the track so they could eventually get back to racing.


Nikon D700, 600mm, 800iso, f4.5, 1/2000th

After a few hour delay they got back to racing.

Kurt Johnson looks down the track after making a qualifying run.


Nikon D700, 600mm, 500iso, f5.6, 1/2500th

After pro stock ran they began running the nitro funny cars. The wind had picked up dramatically and was blowing up to 50mph cross winds.


Nikon D700, 600mm, 400iso, f6.3, 1/2000th

Cruz Pedregon pulls off the track following a run.


Nikon D700, 600mm, 500iso, f5.6, 1/2500th

With the blowing wind the track was getting littered with trash and papers from the crowd so between each pair several track workers would go on the track to pick up the blowing trash.


Nikon D700, 600mm, 320iso, f5.6, 1/2500th

Ashley Force Hood following her qualifying run.


Nikon D3, 70-200mm, 400iso, f5.6, 1/2000th

The funny cars were done and it was now time for the kings of the sport, top fuel dragsters. 

First up was small time racer Arley Langlo who has been around for decades. His claim to fame is that he blows up on nearly every run. Seriously. So it was no surprise that right when he hit the throttle he blew his engine.


Nikon D700, 600mm, 320iso, f5, 1/2500th

By blowing his engine he laid oil down all the way down the track which once again put us into about a 30 minute delay to clean up the track. Evidently after that run Langlo was informed by NHRA to pack up his car and head home until he can prove that his car can make a run without blowing up and causing delays.

That run ended up being the last run of the day as the persistent high winds showed no sign of dissipating and they called the rest of the day due to unsafe racing conditions.

I got to the track Saturday where it was sunny with no wind (thank god) and went right to the top end of the track as Top Alcohol Funny Cars were running. Its a good thing I headed right to work because the second pair down the track after I got there was Ken Webster who had a blower explosion and blew the body in half as it flew off the car.


Nikon D700, 600mm, 250iso, f7.1, 1/1250th

Websters body less car came to a stop right in front of me.


Nikon D700, 600mm, 250iso, f7.1, 1/1000th

He climbed from the car where he was examined by the NHRA rescue crews. 


Nikon D700, 600mm, 250iso, f7.1, 1/640th

Other than a headache and about 50grand lost on the destroyed body he was fine.


Nikon D700, 600mm, 250iso, f7.1, 1/500th

Here is a layout showing several shots from the sequence. 


Nikon D700, 600mm, 250iso, f7.1, 1/1250th

In the second pair of top fuel dragsters Mike Strasburg blows his engine in a ball of fire right off the starting line. Too bad the shot is worthless due to the massive heatwaves making the photo appear out of focus.


Nikon D700, 600mm, 250iso, f8, 1/1250th

The fire went out quickly and his smoking car came to a stop right in front of me.


Nikon D700, 600mm, 250iso, f8, 1/1250th

During nitro funny car qualifying Tim Wilkerson crossed the center line after the finish line nearly colliding with teammate Bob Tasca III. It got my heart beating pretty fast, I’m sure theirs was as well.


Nikon D700, 600mm, 250iso, f7.1, 1/2000th

One cool thing about the Las Vegas track is that it is surrounded by nice mountains that can add a cool background to photos.


Nikon D3, 70-200mm, 200iso, f6.3, 1/1000th

John Force rides around on his trademark scooter. The NHRA logo in background is an added bonus.


Nikon D700, 600mm, 250iso, f7.1, 1/640th

An alcohol funny car is towed back following a qualifying run.


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

Alcohol funny car driver Dennis Taylor reflects in his tow vehicle following a qualifying run.


Nikon D700, 600mm, 250iso, f8, 1/640th

The pro cars came out for their final qualifying runs of the day.

Rookie driver Shawn Langdon (left) races alongside Antron Brown on his way to his first career pole position.


Nikon D700, 600mm, 320iso, f7.1, 1/1250th

Funny car driver Jerry Toliver has a small explosion near the starting line.


Nikon D700, 600mm, 320iso, f7.1, 1/1250th

His car came to a stop right in front of me and he climbed out to survey the damage to the car.


Nikon D700, 600mm, 320iso, f7.1, 1/1250th

Tony Pedregon (left) races alongside Mike Neff on his pole winning qualifying run.


Nikon D700, 600mm, 320iso, f7.1, 1/1000th

The pro session ended and it was back to the sportsman classes. I always say that I will stick around and shoot the slower classes but usually am tired after a long day and roll out. However I really hadn’t gotten many cool photos yet so I forced myself to stay down there. I am happy I did! 

In the final pair of cars during first round of eliminations in comp eliminator Peter Adams was racing against Justin Lamb. He red lit but evidently he didn’t see the light as he continued on the gas. He quickly got out of the groove and lost control, spinning around and going up on two wheels.


Nikon D700, 600mm, 320iso, f5, 1/1000th

At that point I thought for sure he was going to flip over in a spectacular crash. What actually happened surprised me, the driver and everyone in attendance.


Nikon D700, 600mm, 320iso, f5, 1/1000th

The car went back down on all four wheels, sliding sideways where Adams was able to gain control of the car and safely come to a stop without hitting ANYTHING! Insane.

Here are several shots from the amazing near accident. 


Nikon D700, 600mm, 320iso, f5, 1/1000th

Next up was first round of eliminations for top alcohol dragster where I caught driver Edwin Schmeeckle as he crossed the center line and mowed down the timing clocks against Brandon Johnson.


Nikon D700, 600mm, 320iso, f5, 1/1000th

During the cleam up I caught an airliner as it flew in line with the moon above. I know it has nothing to do with drag racing but boredom will make you look for things to take pics of.


Nikon D700, 600mm, 1250iso, f4, 1/3200th

John Force is silhouetted as he drives his scooter on the return road after watching his daughters race.


Nikon D3, 70-200mm, 320iso, f4, 1/8000th

The sun was nearly set when the alcohol funny cars made their first round of racing which made for some nice light as they coasted through the shutdown area with parachutes out.


Nikon D700, 600mm, 800iso, f5.6, 1/1250th

That wraps up my images from Saturday.

On to race day!

Prior to the first round I went to the starting line to shoot driver introductions. Due to a tight live TV window they only introduced the top qualifiers making for only a few drivers being present.

Top Fuel dragster pole winner Shawn Langdon hangs around prior to the first round.


Nikon D3, 24-70mm, 100iso, f11, 1/250th with SB800 Flash

Pro stock teammates Jason Line (left) and Greg Anderson hang out prior to the first round. The billboard with their sponsor, Summit in the background was a nice addition to the shot.


Nikon D3, 24-70mm, 100iso, f11, 1/250th with SB800 Flash

Prior to the pros running if you look on the starting line you will see crew members from all the teams walking the track checking out track conditions.


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

The cars of Mike Neff (left) and teammate Robert Hight are towed into the staging lanes prior to the first round.


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

For the first round instead of shooting from the shutdown area where the images would be worthless due to the excessive heat waves I instead chose to shoot from the top of the spectator grandstands.

It was a great spot to get shots of the cars racing side by side.

Below Spencer Massey (left) races alongside Brandon Bernstein.


Nikon D700, 70-200mm, 250iso, f7.1, 1/1600th

Larry Dixon races down track as a car is towed back up the return road.


Nikon D700, 70-200mm, 250iso, f5.6, 1/1250th

Funny car driver Robert Hight has a small fire as he races alongside Jeff Arend during the first round.


Nikon D700, 70-200mm, 400iso, f5.6, 1/2000th

Another good thing about shooting from the crowd was it was a great spot to shoot a wide shot of the track.

Funny car drivers Matt Hagan (left) and Bob Bode do their burnouts during the first round.


Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 400iso, f5.6, 1/1600th

During the first round an odd moment occured when the parachute on the car driven by Bob Tasca III shook out while he was leading Cruz Pedregon. The malfunction cost Tasca the race.


Nikon D700, 70-200mm, 400iso, f5.6, 1/1600th

Pro stock driver Greg Stanfield does a burnout during the first round.


Nikon D3, 600mm, 400iso, f7.1, 1/1600th

During the second round of eliminations flames trickle from the headers on the car driven by Shawn Langdon after blowing an engine.


Nikon D3, 600mm, 400iso, f8, 1/1600th

It was an uneventful (boring) day so I really didn’t get any cool photos worth showing so lets move on to the final rounds.

For the finals I shoot from the very end of the track to shoot the winning drivers celebrating.

Jeg Coughlin beat Greg Stanfield in the final round of Pro Stock.


Nikon D3, 600mm, 320iso, f7.1, 1/1600th

Coughlin is always good for nice reaction shots since he climbs on top of his car after every win.


Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 200iso, f8, 1/250th with SB800 Flash

He then celebrated with the trophy.


Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 200iso, f8, 1/250th with SB800 Flash

In the funny car final Ron Capps defeated rookie Matt Hagan for the win.


Nikon D3, 600mm, 320iso, f7.1, 1/1600th

Capps climbed from the car arms over his head as he celebrated his third victory in the first 5 races of the year.


Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 200iso, f8, 1/250th with SB800 Flash

He then celebrated with the trophy.


Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 200iso, f9, 1/250th with SB800 Flash

Even though he had lost the race Matt Hagan was all smiles as his final round showing boosted the rookie driver to second in the points standings.


Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 200iso, f9, 1/250th with SB800 Flash

In the final round of top fuel dragster Tony Schumacher defeated Brandon Bernstein.


Nikon D3, 600mm, 320iso, f7.1, 1/1600th

Schumacher climbed from the car and celebrated with Army soldiers.


Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 200iso, f9, 1/250th with SB800 Flash

I only get to shoot a few NHRA races a year and it seems Schumacher wins every freaking race I end up at!

Schumacher hoists the trophy and then celebrated with crew members.


Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 200iso, f9, 1/250th with SB800 Flash


Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 200iso, f9, 1/250th with SB800 Flash

Runner up Brandon Bernstein was not in such a happy mood as he sat in his car for the ride back to the pits.


Nikon D3, 600mm, 320iso, f7.1, 1/1600th

Right after shooting that shot I hopped in my car and hauled ass out of the track to beat traffic out and make the long drive back to Phoenix in preparation for Opening Day of baseball season the next morning.

Following the race I heard the sad news that long time drag racing photographer Bob Hesser had died after a short illness. Hesser was a great guy who was always smiling. He will be missed. RIP Bob

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Posted in Drag Racing, Las Vegas, NHRA, Racing, Sports   | 11 Comments

11 responses to “Fast cars, high winds and the best save I ever shot, NHRA Vegas!”

  1. Thierry says:

    french photographer I am a faithful reader of your blog.
    A small matter, the pictures are taken in JPEG or RAW?

  2. Thierry,

    Everything I shoot is JPEG. The only time I ever shoot in RAW is when shooting portraits with studio lights.


  3. Great shots Mark – You sure made a relatively uneventful weekend at the track look exciting!

    Great shot of Brandon.

    Thanks for taking the time to blog all the details.


  4. Thierry says:

    Mark, thank you for having the time to answer me.
    Sports photographer in France, I consult with a daily maximum of sites and blogs french or American and yours so far is certainly the most complete and richest in photos, comments and EXIF.
    we live the story in pictures.
    However, I am always amazed to see that photographers shoot Americans still on a story with at least one case with a pocket wizard. PW in France are rarely used, sometimes behind the goals of foot(soccer)or sometimes on a panel of basketball. But it does not upsets.
    Continues to make us turn your beautiful stories via the blog.

  5. Mark, Is the shot of Dixon racing past the car being towed cropped? Even shooting burst that is a tough shot to get full frame. You must have eyes in the sides of your head too.

  6. Amazing pictures! Good work!
    Always to see something new.
    Anders, Sweden

  7. Sture (Swe) says:

    Love the pic. of the plane nice shot i know all the pic,s where good but still like the plane.

    Keep up the good work.


  8. Erica says:

    A-MAZ-ING as always~

  9. Ken Webster says:

    Great photo’s , your right on the money & quick at the draw…. They will go in my scrap book ! Thx

    Cheers Ken

  10. Mark,
    I love the shot through the heat haze of Strasburg’s blow up.
    So different, but I’m a big fan of heat haze shots anyway.



  11. Love the moon and plane shot

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