30
Jul

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I have really been trying to make an effort to cover more NHRA this year so with nothing going on for the weekend I decided to make the trek up to Sonoma for the Fram Autolite Nationals at Infineon Raceway. I have been to this track several times to cover NASCAR but never for NHRA. I am very happy I went to the race because this is without a doubt one of my favorite tracks to shoot drag racing at.

After the good job Jennifer did last weekend covering IHBA drag boat races in Augusta, GA, I would once again bring her along to see how she could do in the world of land drag racing. With the NHRA playoffs occurring at the same time as NASCAR playoffs it would be great to have a second shooter that could cover one event while I cover another.

After flying into San Francisco Friday morning it was about an hour drive up to Sonoma where after getting credentials and setting up in the media room it was time to head to the top end of the track for the first pro qualifying session.

While NASCAR has really been struggling with fans not coming out to the races due to the boring races…I mean the bad economy, NHRA sure didn’t seem to be having that problem with the grandstands packed full of fans.

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Nikon D700, Manual, 80-200mm, 200iso, f6.3, 1/1600th

If you read my blog from my last NHRA race in Topeka, Kansas, you may remember me bitching and moaning about the heat waves. Luckily at this race the shutdown area of the track was uphill so it had me elevated over the race track which helps eliminate heat waves, which kill photos.

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Nikon D700, Manual, 600mm, 200iso, f6.3, 1/1250th

NHRA severely limits the amount of photographers they allow at the top end of the course due to the danger of being against the wall as cars, parts, pieces and parachutes come flying by you at speeds over 300mph. While there may be 50 photographers granted photo credentials for an event maybe five will be granted access to shoot past the finish line.

I have had to dive to the ground and run numerous times in my career while shooting at the top end but without a doubt the thing that scares me the most are the parachutes.

If a car is close to the wall and opens the parachutes it is not uncommon for one of the parachutes to go over the wall. That makes it imperative to always keep an eye on both cars as they come at you at over 300mph.

Below, the parachute on the funny car of Jerry Toliver goes over the wall as he slows to a stop following a run.

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Nikon D700, Manual, 600mm, 200iso, f6.3, 1/1250th

Below is a photo taken by Jennifer which shows my shooting position as a pair of funny cars with their parachutes out go past me following a qualifying pass.

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Photo by Jennifer Stewart

Funny car driver Ashley Force Hood was running a special paint job for the Ronald McDonald House Charities so I was happy to get a nice clean parachute shot of her (below) following her first qualifying pass.

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Nikon D700, Manual, 600mm, 200iso, f6.3, 1/1250th

Below, crew members for Brandon Bernstein look on as he races downtrack at speed.

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Nikon D700, Manual, 600mm, 200iso, f5.6, 1/1250th

From a head on shooting position its incredible the amount of heat waves that these cars produce. The below photo of Antron Brown (left) as he races alongside Tony Schumacher really shows you what I’m talking about.

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Nikon D700, Manual, 600mm, 200iso, f5.6, 1/1250th

For the second round of pro qualifying I decided to head to the starting line to shoot from there. With the second session occurring around sunset I knew it would make for some awesomely lit photos.

Instead of shooting the standard starting line action I chose to spend some time in the staging lanes (where the drivers get ready) to look for more out of the norm images.

Below, Pro stock motorcycle racer Matt Smith enjoys a moment with fiance Angie McBride prior to making his second qualifying run.

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Nikon D700, Aperture Priority, 24-70mm, 200iso, f5.6, 1/1600th

Below, I composed Andrew Hines to the top of the frame to attempt to take advantage of the shadows on the ground as he pushes his bike towards the starting line for his run.

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Nikon D700, Aperture Priority, 24-70mm, 200iso, f5.6, 1/400th

One of my favorite shots of the weekend was the below photo of Steve Johnson as he did his burnout. I got low to the ground just behind the waterbox (where the drivers get the wheels wet to make it easier to do their burnout) as he smoked his rear wheel.

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Nikon D700, Aperture Priority, 24-70mm, 200iso, f5.6, 1/2500th

Crewmembers (below) look on as pro stock motorcycle rider Ryan Schnitz stages his bike prior to his run.

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Nikon D700, Aperture Priority, 80-200mm, 200iso, f6.3, 1/1600th

Below I positioned myself in a rear 3/4 angle to take advantage of some nice light reflecting off the track surface as Pro stock motorcycle rider (and Rookie of the Year candidate) Douglas Horne launched off the starting line.

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Nikon D700, Aperture Priority, 80-200mm, 200iso, f6.3, 1/2000th

Shooting directly behind the starting line gave a nice layered shot with stuff in the foreground (below).

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Nikon D700, Aperture Priority, 80-200mm, 200iso, f6.3, 1/1250th

I walked back into the staging lanes to shoot some photos of the pro stock drivers as they sat in their cars waiting to run.

Below, pro stock driver Rickie Jones looks towards me as I shot him from the passenger side of his car.

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Nikon D700, Aperture Priority, 80-200mm, 200iso, f6.3, 1/160th

It is always fun to shoot pro stock driver Larry Morgan because he is a total goof and always does something funny when a camera is aimed at him. Below, he looked over at me and jokingly yelled “no photos” as he laughed and waved his hand in front of his face. It made for a cool photo, thanks Larry!

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Nikon D700, Aperture Priority, 80-200mm, 500iso, f6.3, 1/400th

The late afternoon San Francisco fog began to roll in.  I felt like a kid in a candy store and went nuts shooting photos as the clouds quickly rolled in.

Below, crew members push pro stock driver Rickie Jones towards the starting line for his run.

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Nikon D700, Aperture Priority, 24-70mm, 200iso, f5.6, 1/3200th

Fellow Arizonian Gordie Rivera (below) does his burnout. To get the shot I underexposed by about three stops to produce the silhouette effect.

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Nikon D700, Aperture Priority, 24-70mm, 200iso, f5.6, 1/5000th

Basically the same type exposure below as pro stock driver V. Gaines (below) stages his car for his qualifying pass.

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Nikon D700, Aperture Priority, 24-70mm, 200iso, f5.6, 1/6400th

Once the sun was covered by the fog I changed my exposure drastically and did some slow shutter speed photos along with some fill flash.

Below, pro stock driver Greg Anderson (near) races alongside Jeg Coughlin.

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Nikon D700, Manual, 24-70mm, 200iso, f6.3, 1/100th

Below, Jennifer gets her chimp on while shooting from the other lane during the pro session.

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Nikon D700, Aperture Priority, 400mm, 2500iso, f2.8, 1/8000th

Below, Mike Edwards (near) launches off the starting line as he races Jason Line during qualifying.

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Nikon D700, Manual, 24-70mm, 100iso, f5.6, 1/100th

Pro stock driver Rodger Brogdon (below) does a burnout prior to making his qualifying pass.

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Nikon D700, Aperture Priority, 24-70mm, 100iso, f13, 1/25th

As the sun dipped lower to the horizon it lit up the clouds nicely so I threw on the fisheye lens and used some fill flash to shoot pro stock legend Warren Johnson (below) as he did his burnout.

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Nikon D700, Aperture Priority, 10.5-17mm, 100iso, f9, 1/160th

Sometimes a really slow shutter speed shot can provide you a nice luck shot. The below photo of pro stock driver Greg Stanfield is a good example. Its obviously luck but I just love that the only thing in the shot in focus is the skeleton logo on the side of his car.

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Nikon D700, Aperture Priority, 24-70mm, 100iso, f10, 1/25th

After pro stock finished there was about 10 minutes of track preperation prior to the nitro cars. I used that time to once again go back into the staging lanes to look for some driver shots.

Below, 14 time funny car champion John Force stands by his car as a crew member helps put on all his safety gear prior to his run.

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Nikon D700, Aperture Priority, 24-70mm, 4000iso, f2.8, 1/3200th

Below is another example of the intense heat waves that the nitro cars produce while racing down track.

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Nikon D700, Aperture Priority, 80-200mm, 200iso, f6.3, 1/160th

I was enjoying my time on the starting line but I really began to wanna be down by the finish line. When I am on the starting line shooting my biggest fear is I am gonna miss something wild and crazy down track.

Below, funny car driver John Force does his burnout.

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Nikon D700, Aperture Priority, 24-70mm, 100iso, f4.5, 1/80th

After Force made his pass down track I finally couldn’t take it anymore and grabbed my gear and made a fast paced walk 1000ft down track and to the top of a hill overlooking the finish line. It was a great spot with enough elevation to not have too much wall covering the car in the near lane and was right at the finish line. Below is a wide view from my location.

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Nikon D700, Aperture Priority, 24-70mm, 400iso, f2.8, 1/50th

Several years ago it would be tough to get good photos that far down track at night but these days the bright lights that tracks used along with the incredible advancements in camera quality it makes it easy for damn near anyone to get cool photos under the lights.

Below, funny car driver Del Worsham thunders down track.

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Nikon D700, Manual, 400mm, 1250iso, f2.8, 1/640th

A few pairs later Robert Hight came to the line. He raced downtrack with what looked to be a great run……

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Nikon D700, Manual, 400mm, 1250iso, f2.8, 1/500th

…and right as he crossed the finish line his car blew a crankshaft which resulted in a fire which filled the cockpit with sparks and flames.

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Nikon D700, Manual, 400mm, 1250iso, f2.8, 1/500th

In the old days the car most likely would have caught fire and burned to the ground but with all the safety advancements and fireproofing they’ve done to the bodies the fire quickly got small and went out.

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Nikon D700, Manual, 400mm, 1250iso, f2.8, 1/500th

It took officials about 15-20 minutes to clean the oil and debris from the track in which time it got fully dark outside. I had to change the cameras ISO setting from 1250iso all the way up to 4000iso.

The first session was in temperatures in the high 70s but once the sun got fogged over and eventually set the temps dropped down into the low 50’s which would lead to much faster runs.

Below, top fuel dragster driver J.R. Todd makes what would end up standing as the quickest time of the weekend.

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Nikon D700, Manual, 400mm, 4000iso, f2.8, 1/500th

Top fuel drivers Larry Dixon (near) races alongside Tony Schumacher during their qualifying run (below). Note the contrails coming off the rear wings of the cars.

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Nikon D700, Manual, 400mm, 4000iso, f2.8, 1/500th

Below, as Cory McClenathan races downtrack I shot a few photos to illustrate something not many people are able to see. The flames from the exhaust were heating the header pipes to the point that they were turning into molten metal……

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Nikon D700, Manual, 400mm, 4000iso, f2.8, 1/500th

…..once he got off the throttle (below) and the flames are gone you can see the metal headers glowing from being so hot. At that point u could easily bend the metal since getting to molten temperatures weakens the metal and turns it soft. Check out that tire distortion as well!

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Nikon D700, Manual, 400mm, 4000iso, f2.8, 1/500th

That wrapped up a productive day of shooting.

Next stop Saturday.

For both qualifying sessions I decided to shoot from the top end of the track and get parachute shots and any action that may come my way.

Across the track I noticed a sheriff on a motorcycle who was watching the action.

At one point I looked over and saw him shooting a photo of me with his camera. So of course I fired back a shot (below).

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Nikon D700, Aperture Priority, 600mm, 250iso, f6.3, 1/1600th

Below, during top fuel dragster qualifying Cory McClenathan (right) blew his engine as he raced alongside Antron Brown.

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Nikon D700, Manual, 600mm, 250iso, f6.3, 1/1600th

It was a very small fire (for a top fuel dragster) but it stayed lit long enough for me to get a few photos.

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Nikon D700, Manual, 600mm, 250iso, f6.3, 1/1600th

I stayed with the 600mm lens, although I contemplated lowering it and using the body with the 200mm lens, and shot a nice close up just before he passed by me.

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Nikon D700, Manual, 600mm, 250iso, f6.3, 1/1600th

I didn’t notice it until I was looking at the images on my computer but in the above photo his cockpit was filled with flames. I looked through the whole sequence and the fire was only in the cockpit in one of the 25 shots in the sequence.

Below is a zoomed in version of the above shot to give you a closer look.

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Nikon D700, Manual, 600mm, 250iso, f6.3, 1/1600th

With the fire they were down for about 15 minutes of cleanup.

To clean up oil the NHRA Safety Safari spreads oil dry onto the track to absorb the oil. Then they use brooms to sweep it up.

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Nikon D700, Manual, 600mm, 250iso, f7.1, 1/1600th

Below is a good view to show you how much oil dry they put on the track to clean up oil.

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Nikon D700, Manual, 600mm, 250iso, f7.1, 1/1600th

That wraps up the extent of my photos from Saturday.

Sunday was race day and I would spend all day once again at the top end of the track covering the action for the first three rounds until the final round when I would head all the way to the end of the track to shoot the category winners climbing from their cars and celebrating.

Below is a photo shot by San Francisco shooter Jose Carlos Fajardo showing me and my top end setup. Body with a 600mm lens on it for the bulk of my shooting and then on my right shoulder a second body with an 80-200mm lens for any action that may occur too close up for the 600mm.

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Photo by Jose Carlos Fajardo

Below are two examples of how much of a difference the time of day can make in the look of your photos. This is important to every type of photography outdoors not just sports.

The first example shots the same exact shot with same camera and lens taken 3.5 hours apart.

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In the first frame shot at 11am the sun was directly behind the starting line and resulted in shadows and flat looking light in the photos. The second frame at 2:30pm looks much nicer due to the background not being flatly lit with shadows. The sun was off to the right.

Below is another example that shows how different the angle of the sun can make the actual cars look.

In the first shot of Tony Pedregon from round one you can see bright highlights on the car from the sun reflecting off it. A few hours later in the semi finals when the sun is lower the colors are rich and there aren’t bright highlights on the car. If you are shooting for sponsors they will go for the better light damn near every time.

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Below I shot going away from me as Cruz Pedregon slows to a stop at the end of the track.

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Nikon D700, Manual, 600mm, 200iso, f5.6, 1/1600th

When the light is backlit and providing terrible light one thing I like to do is toy around with underexposing the photo by several stops and seeing what it produces.

Below the light burnout smoke provides a cool looking effect as Tim Wilkerson (left) and Bob Tasca III do their burnouts in the first round.

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Nikon D700, Manual, 600mm, 200iso, f6.3, 1/4000th

Here is my weekly John Force riding his scooter photo (below).

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Nikon D700, Aperture Priority, 600mm, 200iso, f6.3, 1/1600th

It was a pretty boring day and other than a bunch of parachute shots I really didn’t get many good images worth showing off so lets fast forward to the final rounds.

As I mentioned earlier, for the final rounds I would be at the very end of the track shooting the winners reacting after they climbed from their vehicles to celebrate their win.

My set up was a D700 with a 24-70mm lens fitted with a polarizing filter to give me some nice deep blue colored sky in the background. As I tend to do at the end of the track I also shot with an SB-800 flash with an off camera flash cord to get more dramatic light on the subjects instead of the plain looking direct flash.

In pro stock motorcycle (below) Andrew Hines defeated teammate Eddie Krawiec for the trophy.

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Nikon D700, Manual, 24-70mm, 100iso, f5.6, 1/250th with SB800 Flash

In pro stock car (below) it was Jason Line who defeated teammate Greg Anderson for the win.

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Nikon D700, Manual, 24-70mm, 100iso, f5.6, 1/250th with SB800 Flash

In the nitro funny car category it was Tim Wilkerson (below) who defeated Tony Pedregon for his second consecutive victory.

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Nikon D700, Manual, 24-70mm, 100iso, f5, 1/250th with SB800 Flash

Shooting at the end of the track in the final rounds is a great place to capture the drivers true emotions seconds after victory but the bad thing about the location is with ESPN covering the event you have their trackside broadcaster as well as a cameraman and a few assistants that you have to stay out of the way from AND if thats not bad enough yet you also typically have a few VIPs or Sponsor reps down there whose sole job in life is to be as close to the winning driver as they can so that they get their TV time. Finally you will typically have about 10 photographers shooting right with you which makes it very tough to try and get a nice clean shot without being blocked by others.

Below you can see ESPN broadcaster Gary Gerould (Left) as he finishes an interview with funny car winner Tim Wilkerson (center), on the right you can see a Sponsor rep.

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Nikon D700, Manual, 24-70mm, 100iso, f5, 1/250th with SB800 Flash

If you are patient and quick with the shutter sometimes people move just enough that you can get a clean photo of the winning driver like the below shot of Tim Wilkerson.

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Nikon D700, Manual, 24-70mm, 100iso, f5, 1/250th with SB800 Flash

The last race of the weekend would be the top fuel dragster final in which Cory McClenathan would try and prevent Antron Brown from winning his third straight event and complete his swing of the threee west coast events.

It was a very close race but in the end it was Antron Brown (right) narrowly defeating Cory McClenathan. The below show was taken roughly a half mile away which explains the bad heat waves.

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Nikon D700, Manual, 600mm, 200iso, f6.3, 1/1600th

As Brown slowed to a stop with his parachutes out going up the hill I shot the below shot which really shows you the elevation of the shutdown area.

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Nikon D700, Manual, 600mm, 200iso, f6.3, 1/1600th

Below, as his car slowed to a stop Antron climbed from the car and threw his arms in the air as he celebrated.

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Nikon D700, Manual, 600mm, 200iso, f6.3, 1/1600th

NHRA track crews quickly towed his car in to the media area where the made for TV celebration began. Below he receives a high five from funny car winner Tim Wilkerson.

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Nikon D700, Manual, 24-70mm, 100iso, f5, 1/250th with SB800 Flash

The amount of photographers that surrounded the car was crazy. Check out the below photo where you can see all the people in the foreground competing with me for shots of Antron.

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Nikon D700, Manual, 24-70mm, 100iso, f5, 1/250th with SB800 Flash

Below, Jose Carlos Fajardo took a photo of me as I was crammed against Antrons car actually leaning on the cars body work. Not really sure why I am smiling because I wasn’t very happy with the shots I was getting.

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Photo by Jose Carlos Fajardo

Typically I don’t stick around for the winners circle ceremonies. I prefer the semi genuine emoitions when they first climb from their cars but I had some time to kill due to the bad traffic so I made my inaugural trip to the winners circle.

Below, I noticed a young fan on his fathers shoulders with a mohawk including an NHRA sticker on it. Its a save bet that nearly every photographer shot a photo of this kid.

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Nikon D700, Manual, 80-200mm, 200iso, f6.3, 1/1250th

One by one the winning drivers headed up on the stage to receive their trophy and be interviewed.

Below, pro stock motorcycle winner Andrew Hines.

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Nikon D700, Manual, 80-200mm, 200iso, f6.3, 1/1250th

Below, pro stock car winner Jason Line kisses the trophy.

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Nikon D700, Manual, 80-200mm, 200iso, f6.3, 1/1250th

Below, funny car winner Tim Wilkerson celebrates with his trophy. I love the shadow of the trophy in his arm in the bottom right.

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Nikon D700, Aperture Priority, 80-200mm, 200iso, f5, 1/2500th

While Wilkerson was on stage being interviewed I noticed top fuel winner Antron Brown (below) behind the photographers stand watching the interview. An Oakley merchandise trailer directly behind him made for a nice background to shoot a portrait.

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Nikon D700, Aperture Priority, 80-200mm, 200iso, f2.8, 1/320th

Finally it was time for Antron Brown to head to the stage for his trophy. On his way to the stage funny car driver Tim Wilkerson (below) dropped to his knees and began to praise Antron with a “we’re not worthy” salute. Antron also dropped to his knees and returned the salute.

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Nikon D700, Aperture Priority, 80-200mm, 200iso, f5, 1/1600th

Once on stage (below) Antron was given a golden broom to signify his “sweep” of the west coast swing. To get the low angle shot I sneaked up to the edge of the stage and got low to fill the foreground with the golden trophies.

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Nikon D700, Manual, 24-70mm, 100iso, f5, 1/250th with SB800 Flash

All four pro class winners would then pose together for a group shot (below).

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Nikon D700, Aperture Priority, 80-200mm, 200iso, f5, 1/1600th

From there it up to the media room to transmit photos.

While up there editing I looked down towards the track and noticed Antron posing for some photographers. My gear was all packed up by this point but I am not one to miss a shot and sit around dwelling on the missed chance so I quickly unpacked a camera and flash and literally ran down the stairs and over to the car to get in on some photos.

Below, Antron Brown poses next to his car with his three consecutive race trophies.

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Nikon D700, Manual, 24-70mm, 100iso, f5, 1/250th with SB800 Flash

Once another photographer finished shooting his portraits I asked Antron to face my direction for a shot. The below shot is probably one of my favorite images of the weekend. Nice!

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Nikon D700, Manual, 24-70mm, 100iso, f4.5, 1/250th with SB800 Flash

After we finished transmitting images it was time to head out. On my way down the stairs from the media room I stopped and pulled out my little point and shoot camera and shot a photo of the sun as it peeked through the main grandstands with the car hauler of Larry Dixon in the foreground.

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Canon G10, 400iso, f3.5, 1/2000th

That wrapped up a semi busy and very fun weekend. Not sure when my next NHRA race will be but I really can’t wait!

Monday with a few hours to kill before our flight back to Phoenix, Jennifer and I went to the base of the Golden Gate Bridge to meet up with my good friend Dustin Snipes and his wife Rachel and to take a few pics.

Below, Jennifer gives me a back ride with the bridge in the background.

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Photo by Dustin Snipes

Before heading back to the airport I set the camera on timer and we did a group photo together.

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That wraps up yet another fun weekend in the life of a sports photographer.

See ya!

Here are a few image clips:

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Posted in California, Drag Racing, Me, NHRA, Racing, San Francisco, Sports, Travel   | 14 Comments

14 responses to “NHRA in Sonoma, Antron Brown on fire (figuratively), Robert Hight on fire (literally)”

  1. Bob Keroack says:

    Mark, really enjoy your blog, I like the way you work a given situation. I saw you at the Richmond NASCAR race in April, but did not get a chance to introduce myself. Maybe at Richmond in Sept? Anyway, keep it up!

  2. Fan-Jokin-Tastic!!! wow — you’re gifted with getting the great shots — it’s just a pleasure to look at them! Great work….!!! THank you so much for sharing the information, the shots, etc.

  3. Billie Brown says:

    Mark,

    What a GREAT blog! I not only enjoyed your work, but the explainations of each shot. It truely speaks your passion about photography. Hope to see you at more drag races, you got some really great stuff of my hubby here!

    Thanks
    Billie

  4. Pille says:

    Nice work as usual – and I agree, that last portrait is very cool.

    Also, thank you for adding the mode you shot the pictures in; I’ve always wondered if you shoot mostly manual or aperture priority.

  5. Rhonda Mabbott says:

    Awesome pictures… you really brought out the action and felt like I was there. So much better than all the generic shots. I too love the explanations. Great job!

  6. Paul Rogers says:

    Great shots as usual Mark. I love your commentary and notes.

    It is good that even the best (which you are by far) rely on a little luck sometimes to get a great shot, although you seem to take so many great shots so often that most of itseems to be skill and knowing what to shoot and when.

  7. Anonymous says:

    All I have to say about these photos are AMAZING!!! Words can’t describe how talented you are…Thanks for hanging with the NHRA folks in Sonoma…We all hope you get to come to another race really soon and hopefully I will be behind the handlebars…Angie McBride

  8. Nic Freeman says:

    Mark,

    Like that you included the shooting setting you were using on these shots – helps even more to understand how you were shooting to get the fantastic photos you do.

    Nic

  9. Kameron B. says:

    Dear Mark,
    I am a young teenager who has been working very hard to learn everything i can about photography.
    I have been in love with motorsports for the last ten years or so when i started racing JR dragster. Currently my brother races a Blown alcohol Dragster and i have been working to take better pics for him and our team.
    I understand that you are an extremely busy man and i do not wish for much of your time.
    Your pictures are absolutely amazing and i was hoping it might be possible for you and i to talk about motorsports photography sometime. I would lve to learn more and you are deffinetly the best of the best.

    Thanks
    Kameron

    Once again your pictures are astonishing.

  10. Erica says:

    Great stuff! Yay for more NHRA!

  11. Ted says:

    Mark,

    Fantastic photography, thank you as always for telling us the metadata of your photos and thought process of each photo. And good to see a photo of the man behind the camera.

  12. You are a fantastic sports photographer. But what separates you from the others is your constant determination to add creativity when possible. Great work.

  13. I enjoy the end of your posts when you show where and how your images were useded by the various media. I a guy was local, what would be some local media that might be looking for photos. We have a newspaper, University and many charities. Would these be places to make contacts?

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