Typically on this weekend every year I venture to Dover, Delaware to shoot NASCAR but after three consecutive years shooting that event I felt it was time for a change so I decided to head to Topeka, Kansas to cover the ground pounding 320mph vehicles of the NHRA.

The last time I shot at Topeka was back in 1997. I had won a photo contest put on by National Dragster and my prize was a starting line credential for a race. But obviously 12 years is a long time ago so I didn’t really remember much about the track. With that in mind I made it a point to go to the track early on Friday so I could scope things and come up with a shooting plan.

After setting up in the media room I checked out the top end (area past the finish line) of the track to see how that would look since I spend the bulk of my weekend there. It was decent but the area they allowed photographers was pretty far past the finish line and with it being a flat shutdown area and hot weather I knew I would have to contend with heatwaves ruining my shots.

I went to the starting line and it was a pretty normal spot so I knew that wouldn’t be an issue. The tower behind the track had a viewing area on the top off to the side so I ventured up there to see how the view was.

Once up there I set all my gear down and looked around at potential ideas for some shots. After a few minutes of that I reached down for my camera and as I was pulling it up to my face I noticed something on the back of the camera. I couldn’t believe my eyes. A freaking bird took a crap on my camera!


What a great start to a weekend eh?  I asked my friends on my Facebook if that was good luck to have a bird crap on your camera. The general consensus was that it was only good luck in Haiti. Haha nice.

Ok on to shooting. From up on the roof I shot the below photo of comp eliminator driver Steve Matusek as he did a burnout.


Nikon D700, 70-200mm, 250iso, f5.6, 1/2000th

Walking around to the backside of the tower was also a potential good spot to shoot since you could shoot straight down on the cars as they are towed in behind the starting line. Anytime you find a spot to shoot that will provide a unique angle is great because you can only shoot the same boring shots week in and week out before you finally want to kill yourself from the boredom.


Nikon D700, 70-200mm, 250iso, f5.6, 1/2500th

The faster cars were coming up so I headed back to the top end of the track to see how it would work for me.

While it was pretty hot it was still a gorgeous day with nice white clouds in the blue sky. With that in mind I took a wide shot (below) to illustrate it as Top Alcohol Funny Car driver Alexis De Joria went by me with her parachutes out following a run.


Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 500iso, f5.6, 1/1000th

Below, I got low at the bottom of a hill to make a nice clean background as multi time NHRA pro stock champion Warren Johnson is towed back to the pit area after a qualifying run.


Nikon D700, 600mm, 400iso, f9, 1/1000th

I wasn’t happy with how the heat waves were affecting my shots from the top end so I hopped in my car and headed up to the starting line to see if I could get anything good there.

Below, funny car driver Ron Capps does a burnout.


Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 200iso, f7.1, 1/160th

The sun light shining through the burnout smoke added a cool orange tint to the photos which contrasted well with the blue skies in the below photo of funny car driver Del Worsham.


Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 200iso, f7.1, 1/160th

Since I rarely shoot on the starting line (I’m scared of missing a wild photo down track) I tried making the most of it so I went back in the staging lanes to look for some feature photos to show a different side of drag racing.

Below I tried to shoot a shot of Cory McClenathan as he sat in his car. He was in the shadow of an umbrella held over him by a crew member. The problem was the reflections off the wind visor of his car made it hard to see him in the car.


Nikon D700, 70-200mm, 250iso, f5.6, 1/400th

I moved on to the car of Larry Dixon and saw a cool effect off the wind visor of his car where the reflections that ruined my previous shot were blocked by a crew member standing alongside which created a small area where you could clearly see Dixon sitting in the car.


Nikon D700, 70-200mm, 250iso, f5.6, 1/100th

Since I was close to the tower I again went up there to see if I could come up with any cool shots looking down on the cars in the staging lanes.

The shadows looked cool from above so I shot slightly wide directly down on the car driven by Morgan Lucas as he waited to race.


Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 800iso, f2.8, 1/2000th

Below, Tony Schumacher gives me the evil eye as he sits in his car back in the staging lanes.


Nikon D700, 600mm, 640iso, f4, 1/640th

I decided I wanted to go on the starting line to shoot some action stuff so I once again headed down from the tower. I briefly stopped on the way to fire off a picture with the cars of Antron Brown (near) alongside Tony Schumacher with some trees framing them in the foreground. With both of them being championship contenders it was a shot that will most likely get some editorial use down the road.


Nikon D700, 70-200mm, 800iso, f2.8, 1/2000th

Once on the starting line instead of doing the normal action shots with the cars frozen by a fast shutter speed I instead slowed the shutter speed way down to do some speed blurs. While the success rate of getting a good shot is much lower its worth the risk because when you do get something cool it makes for a nice shot.

Below, Brandon Bernstein (near) takes on Cory McClenathan during qualifying.


Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 250iso, f11, 1/60th


Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 250iso, f11, 1/60th

Below, Tony Schumacher does a burnout prior to his qualifying run.


Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 250iso, f11, 1/60th

As the sun dipped lower in the Kansas sky it made the light start to look really nice across the cars. I really liked the contrast between the lights and darks as pro mod driver Chip King did his burnout prior to running.


Nikon D700, 600mm, 400iso, f5.6, 1/2500th

The second round of the professional qualifying was supposed to take place well before the sunset but due to a few delays it started over an hour and a half behind schedule. It was great for me because it would allow me to have some really nice light for the first half and darkness for the second half.

In the below photo I shot wide to include the sun as it dipped behind a hill as pro stock drivers Mike Edwards (near) and Jason Line slow to a stop following their run.


Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 500iso, f2.8, 1/1250th

When the nitro funny cars came up to run it was just dark enough you could see the header flames from the cars yet bright enough that I could still shoot them with a 600mm f4 lens. Also helping out was the temperature had cooled down a lot enabling me to shoot photos without them being ruined by heat waves.

I noticed the tower behind the starting line had lots of people watching from there so I framed a shot with the cars of Dan Wilkerson (left) and Jack Wyatt at the bottom of the frame and the tower filling out the rest of the shot. I feel the tower adds a interesting aspect to the shot. Almost has an industrial feel to it.


Nikon D700, 600mm, 1600iso, f4, 1/1000th

On one of my other bodies I had a wide angle lens and set up the settings for slow shutter speed shots to get some blur as cars went by me with the parachutes out.

Below, Robert Hight slows to a stop following his run.


Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 640iso, f5.6, 1/50th

Below, Mike Neff (right) races Matt Hagan during qualifying. The first shot is them about  a 1/4 mile away with the long lens.


Nikon D700, 600mm, 2000iso, f4, 1/1000th

The below shot is them as they speed past me with the parachutes out.


Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 640iso, f5.6, 1/30th

It quickly got too dark to really get anything good from the shutdown area so I packed up and headed to the starting line.

For the first pair of cars I shot I went with the standard night time set up of a fast enough shutter speed to stop the vehicles with no blur as well as a flash on the camera.

Below, Tony Pedregon (near) races Del Worsham.


Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 1250iso, f3.2, 1/250th with SB 800 Flash

I was happy with how that shot looked but I quickly got a cool idea to try a different type shot for each pair of cars I shot.

The next pair up I did a similar type shot but slowed the shutter speed down a bunch to add some motion blur to the shot.

Below, Ron Capps (near) takes on Cruz Pedregon.


Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 800iso, f4, 1/60th with SB 800 Flash

Below, when top fuel dragsters came up I threw on a star filter and shot a rear 3/4 angle as Scott Palmer launched off the starting line. I got lucky and caught another photographers flash which added some nice light to my shot.


Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 800iso, f4, 1/125th with SB 800 Flash and Star Filter

In the below shot I went behind the starting line to the burnout box where a puddle of water is sprayed down for the cars to drive through to make it easier for them to start their burnouts. I laid the camera down on the ground to try and get some reflection off it as he drove past prior to starting his burnout.


Nikon D700, 10.5-17mm, 3200iso, f4, 1/200th

Below, Shawn Langdon does his burnout as he goes past a crew member in this slow shutter speed shot.


Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 250iso, f4.5, 1/30th with SB 800 Flash

Below, Spencer Massey does his burnout as a crew member standing in the foreground looks on.


Nikon D700, 70-200mm, 3200iso, f2.8, 1/200th

For the launch I shot a standard zoom lens shot with a stop action exposure with no flash.


Nikon D700, 70-200mm, 3200iso, f2.8, 1/200th

I shot several shots of the launch including the below shot that I liked which was pretty close up.


Nikon D700, 70-200mm, 3200iso, f2.8, 1/200th

I went up to the roof of the tower and slowed the shutter speed down a lot in hopes of getting some photographers and fans flashes firing as a pair of cars left the starting line. The below shot was basically exactly what I was looking for as a pair of cars launched as crew members stood behind looking on.


Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 320iso, f2.8, 1/30th

As the next pair of cars waited to fire up for their run I threw on a fisheye lens and shot a wide overall of the track.


Nikon D700, 10.5-17mm, 3200iso, f4, 1/125th

Below, I put on a tighter lens and shot Cory McClenathan as he launched off the line.


Nikon D700, 70-200mm, 3200iso, f2.8, 1/320th

There was only one pair left in the qualifying session. It was Tony Schumacher (near) racing and Larry Dixon, the two best drivers this season. I figured it would be a good idea to head down to the starting line to get a nice clean side by side shot of them. It could do well down the road with sales I’d think.


Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 2000iso, f3.5, 1/250th with SB 800 Flash

Saturday would be a pretty crappy day (without the bird crap). It was very warm outside so shooting on the top end would be nearly pointless once again due to the heat waves.

Below, Mike Neff (left) races alongside Tim Wilkerson in a sea of heat waves.


Nikon D700, 600mm, 320iso, f8, 1/1600th

Below, Ashley Force Hood and father John Force head away from me with their parachutes out.


Nikon D700, 600mm, 320iso, f8, 1/1600th

Whenever someone asks me for advice on shooting the number one thing I tell them is to be mindful of their backgrounds. You can shoot the coolest photo in the world but if the backgrounds are cluttery the shot is going to be garbage.

In the photos below I show you a bad background followed by a good background. Neither shot is anything good, its just mearly a demonstration of how backgrounds can affect a photo.

Bad Background:


Nikon D700, 70-200mm, 400iso, f8, 1/640th

Good Background:


Nikon D700, 70-200mm, 400iso, f8, 1/640th

The goal of a good photo is for the viewer to go directly to the subject of the shot and know what the point of the photo is, not for them to be looking at the photo thinking something like, “wtf is up with the porta johns in the background.”

The heat waves were just unbearable so I decided to go to the very end of the track to shoot some shots of drivers climbing out of their cars with a wide angle lens and off camera flash.

By using the flash off the top of the camera like most people do this method gives slight shadows on the face that adds more depth to the photo instead of the normal look everyone sees with on camera flash.

Below, Scott Palmer gives me the stare down after climbing from his car.


Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 200iso, f9, 1/250th with SB 800 Flash off Camera

Below, Shawn Langdon prepares to take off his helmet after climbing from his car.


Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 200iso, f9, 1/250th with SB 800 Flash off Camera

Below, Antron Brown is all smiles after qualifying on the pole for the race.


Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 200iso, f8, 1/250th with SB 800 Flash off Camera

Below, Cory McClenathan takes off his helmet following his run.


Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 200iso, f8, 1/250th with SB 800 Flash off Camera

The day would end with the nitro funny cars making their final qualifying runs of the day.

Below, funny car driver Jack Beckman slowly goes by with his parachute out as he prepares to make the turn off the track.


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

Below, Cruz Pedregon (left) stands alongside brother Tony Pedregon following their runs.


Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 200iso, f7.1, 1/250th with SB 800 Flash off Camera

Below, Ashley Force Hood hangs out as she waits to be interviewed following her qualifying run.


Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 200iso, f7.1, 1/250th with SB 800 Flash off Camera

Sunday came and it was all about being in the right spot in case something wild or crazy happened so I would spent the entire day at the top end prepared for anything.

In the second round of top alcohol funny car there was a moment that got my heart racing as Vern Moats got very sideways at speed as his parachutes opened. Luckily he was able to get the car back to straight. Had it not gotten straightened out I would have hit the deck because he was aimed right at me.


Nikon D700, 600mm, 320iso, f8, 1/1600th

Below is another shot that shows how bad the heat waves were. Also making it difficult to shoot was one of the safety crew guys spent a lot of the day leaning against the wall in front of the photo area. Oh well we didn’t miss anything anayways.


Nikon D700, 600mm, 320iso, f8, 1/1600th

Below, Del Worsham takes off his safety gear after losing in the second round and pulling off the track right where I was standing.


Nikon D700, 70-200mm, 320iso, f6.3, 1/1000th

I don’t think he was too happy with the loss.


Nikon D700, 600mm, 320iso, f8, 1/1600th

After losing in the semi finals Jeg Coughlin took a walk to blow some steam as he waited for his crew to come pick him up.


Nikon D700, 70-200mm, 320iso, f6.3, 1/1250th

Nothing much else to show you so fast forward to the final rounds where I went to the end of the track to shoot the winners climbing from their cars to celebrate their wins.

Pro Stock:

Allen Johnson celebrates with the trophy after his first win in two years.


Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 320iso, f9, 1/250th with SB 800 Flash off camera

Funny Car:

Ron Capps defeated Ashley Force Hood to win his fourth event of the season and increase his points lead.

Below, he celebrates on track as an NHRA worker on a quad prepares to tow him to the end of the track for his interview by ESPN.


Nikon D700, 600mm, 320iso, f6.3, 1/1600th

Once at the end of the track he climbed from his car to celebrate some more.


Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 320iso, f9, 1/250th with SB 800 Flash off camera

After being handed the trophy he celebrated some more. Obviously Capps was a happy man.


Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 320iso, f7.1, 1/250th with SB 800 Flash off camera

Top Fuel:

Larry Dixon celebrates after winning top fuel.


Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 320iso, f7.1, 1/250th with SB 800 Flash off camera

And with that I wrap up yet another blog. While the race itself was tame and boring compared to lots of other races I think that I proved you don’t need crashes and explosions to get great pictures and have a productive weekend.

Here are some clips from the weekend:














Posted in Drag Racing, Kansas, NHRA, Portraits, Racing, Sports   | 15 Comments

15 responses to “NHRA drivers bring their 320mph speed limit to Topeka”

  1. AWESOME photo’s, but one question; all these are from the D700, do u like it more than your D3 ??

  2. I just got two new D700s so I took em all to a race. THe D700 is without a doubt as good as the D3. Some might argue that the D700 focuses slightly better than the D3.

  3. Travis says:

    Mark – when you use the off-camera flash, is it still wired to the camera or completely independent?

    Thanks – Awesome images!

  4. Joey says:

    Nice work….when you say your flash is “off camera”, are you hand holding out to the side or is it on a bracket??

  5. Michael says:

    I was wondering the same thing, the last couple of blogs have been all D700 images. No doubt the D700 is great, I was just wondering what happened to the D3?

  6. AussiePaul says:

    Absolutely stunning shots Mark. Being a huge Drag Racing fan I really like your NHRA blogs.

    One bad thing though, it makes me want to give up taking photos! 🙂

    I’ll spend my whole life trying to get one shot like all of the above. (Maybe I already have a port-a-john shot somewhere.. 😉

  7. Great stuff as usual.
    And, I’m also a member of the Bird Crapped on My Camera Club. Still have a stain on my 70-200 that won’t come off.

  8. Merwen BA says:

    Really good !
    you perfectly handle your portrait under the sun.

  9. Gary says:

    Mark: Thank you – as always a great blog. Thanks for the tips on what you look for in a great shot. Look forward to the next one.

  10. Ted says:


    Great photos, thanks for the tips on lighting/shadows, flash and background. Your worst shot is everyone else’s best photo. Keep up the great work, looks like the bird poop was not a factor with your photography.

  11. Rik Chidester says:

    Hello Mark, Thanks for the usual “killer” images of the Topeka deal. Love the shot of Spencer Massey’s launch in the Snake-Mobile….in fact, you can see him in the B/G to the right of the monster header flames. Is that a small lint particle on your sensor in between the Pedregon Brothers portrait? I didn’t see it in any other images.
    I’m still hoping you might want to visit the Seattle race this year. Come up and enjoy our “Northwest SoftBox Cloud-Cover” and mild temperatures. Kindest Regards, Rik

  12. Love the stuff, but notice that Ron Capps’ Wally Says Top Alcohol? lol

  13. Jason Gynn says:

    Inspirational work as always. Love photog’s that think , or should i say shoot outside the box!!

  14. Rob M says:

    You take beautiful photos! Love seeing your drag racing shots, like the post above, VERY INSPIRATIONAL!

  15. Anonymous says:

    I’ve followed Mark for a while on Nitromater, and I think he understands the ART of photography better than 99.99% of the rest of the people on earth!

    Plus he’s a drag fan…………………….we definitely win on this situation!

    Thanks Mark.

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