Back in the day when I was growing up rarely would I ever miss the Arizona Nationals in Chandler, AZ. The track was only 12 miles from where I lived so it was always a must attend. As I have gotten older and been busier with work the years began to go by that I haven’t been able to attend my home town race. Finally this year I decided I was not gonna miss the race. All I can say is I am glad I made the 2010 Arizona Nationals……because I doubt they will ever race at this track again. Put on your seatbelts, its about to be a bumpy ride!

One of the main reasons I haven’t attended the Arizona Nationals in nine years is the race always seems to fall when I am stuck doing NASCAR races. Since I hate the race in Fontana, CA that was going on the same weekend I decided to stay home and do NHRA instead.

Lets get started with Fridays action.

The weather forecast for the weekend wasn’t very good so I kicked off the first professional qualifying session by shooting up at the starting line. The starting line is a great place to get a wide variety of cool photos, however you always run the risk of missing action down the track (who would have known this would be the only session without crazy action going on).

Below, I set the camera down on the ground to get a low angle as crew members lowered the body on the funny car driven by Ashley Force Hood.


Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 250iso, f2.8, 1/1600th, Aperture Priority

By shooting directly behind her car I got a different look of her burnout, below.


Nikon D700, 80-200mm, 100iso, f5, 1/800th, Aperture Priority

Below, NHRA funny car driver Ron Capps sits strapped into his car as he waits to make his first qualifying run for the Arizona Nationals at Firebird International Raceway.


Nikon D700, 80-200mm, 2000iso, f5, 1/640th, Aperture Priority

Back in the staging lanes top fuel dragster driver Antron Brown reflects off the side of his tow vehicle (below) as he gets all suited up for his qualifying run.


Nikon D700, 80-200mm, 500iso, f2.8, 1/1000th, Aperture Priority

Once strapped in his car, Brown is the face of intensity, below.


Nikon D700, 80-200mm, 400iso, f2.8, 1/1600th, Aperture Priority

For the second qualifying session of the pros I made the long walk down to the top end of the course to shoot parachute shots as well as any action that might present itself.

The action didn’t take long to arrive as in the first run of the pro stock session longtime Arizona racer Gordie Rivera got loose and made a hard right turn rolling over his car at 200mph…..


Nikon D700, 600mm, 640iso, f4, 1/2000th, Aperture Priority

……Rivera slid across the track and made hard impact with the right side wall……


Nikon D700, 600mm, 640iso, f4, 1/2500th, Aperture Priority

……after hitting the wall his car continued down track on its roof……


Nikon D700, 600mm, 640iso, f4, 1/2000th, Aperture Priority

I was shooting with a 600mm lens for all the above images but as the upside down car began getting closer I dropped that body and grabbed the camera on my shoulder with an 80-200mm lens to shoot the car as it slid up close and personal a few feet past me, below.


Nikon D700, 80-200mm, 400iso, f2.8, 1/8000th, Aperture Priority

As the car slid past me you can see the cockpit filled with sparks and smoke as Riveras wild ride grinded to a slow halt.


Nikon D700, 80-200mm, 400iso, f2.8, 1/5000th, Aperture Priority

As always, the NHRA safety safari where quickly on the scene, below, and escorted Gordie to an ambulance to be checked out.


Nikon D700, 80-200mm, 400iso, f2.8, 1/2000th, Aperture Priority

Gordie would be fine after the accident, the same could not be said for his car (below) as it was taken off the track on a flat bed tow truck.


Nikon D700, 600mm, 640iso, f4, 1/1600th, Aperture Priority

I put together a few layouts of images from the crash sequence. With todays fast cameras you get lots of photos very fast so what you see below is actually every other frame in the sequence.

First sequence is the images from my primary body with the 600mm lens.


Now here is my images with the proverbial “oh shit camera” as he slides by at close range.


After the clean up from the crash we eventually got underway with more qualifying action.

Below, funny car driver Paul Lee pics up the 7-10 split as he mows down the finish line timing blocks.


Nikon D700, 600mm, 640iso, f4, 1/1250th, Aperture Priority

Below, funny car driver Matt Hagan bounces the back end of his car following a qualifying run.


Nikon D700, 600mm, 2000iso, f4, 1/640th, Manual

After the sun set top fuel dragster driver David Grubnic did his best impersonation of the sun as he lit of the night sky with a big explosion alongside Steve Torrence, below.


Nikon D700, 600mm, 4000iso, f4, 1/500th, Manual

Grubnic brought his flaming car to a stop a few feet from my shooting position, below.


Nikon D700, 80-200mm, 2500iso, f2.8, 1/500th, Manual

The subsequent clean up following the fire took long enough that the track was just way too dark for me to be shooting top end so I made the long walk to the starting line to mess around with some shots up there.

Below, fans hang out in the grandstands as darkness consumes the Arizona sky.


Nikon D700, 80-200mm, 4000iso, f2.8, 1/1250th, Manual

Nothing is more impressive than shooting nitro cars at night, the giant flames shooting from the cars really makes it impossible not to get some awesome photos.

Below, Cory McClenathan (left) takes on Troy Buff during qualifying.


Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 2000iso, f2.8, 1/100th, Manual

Tony Schumacher (right) races alongside Morgan Lucas as they make their qualifying pass on Friday night.


Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 2500iso, f2.8, 1/60th, Manual

When I shoot at night on starting line I am one of the few photographers it seems who isn’t using a flash on the camera. One thing I learned many years ago is on camera flash typically looks like crap, plus with the amount of photographers shooting with flash I almost always will catch other peoples flashes from different angles which makes for more dynamic looking light.

Below, I caught someones flash in front of the car to the left as Larry Dixon did his burnout.


Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 2500iso, f2.8, 1/100th, Manual

For the below launch shot I didn’t need a flash as the giant header flames from Dixons car was more than enough light to make a pretty sweet shot.


Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 2500iso, f2.8, 1/100th, Manual

Dixon was quickly up in smoke so I changed to the far lane to shoot Antron Brown as he drove away, below. I caught another photographers flash to my left which lit the side of Antrons car, also a nice flash from the crowd added another element to the photo that I liked.


Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 2500iso, f2.8, 1/100th, Manual

For Saturday I would spend the entire day down at the top end shooting parachute shots. The day actually got off to a late start due to rain so NHRA cancelled one of the professional qualifying sessions which only gave us one round.

Since it would be a short day with less chance for photos I decided to mount a remote camera on the bridge way down past the finish line to give me two angles of the cars.

Below, you can see that I simply clamped a remote camera with a 300mm f4 lens attached.


ESPN also had a video camera mounted on the bridge, below is a wide shot from track level so you can see where I was set up at.


To most people a 300mm lens would be considered “big” but in the world of sports photography (especially with the cameras having full frame sensors) a 300mm lens is tiny. The view the camera gave was much wider than I wanted but I had no other choice. Cropping would be the only thing I could do to get good pics from it.

Below is a good example of the cool angle the bridge gives for photos as NHRA top fuel dragster driver Steve Torrence (left) slows down alongside Shawn Langdon following their qualifying runs.


Nikon D700, 300mm, 1600iso, f8, 1/3200th, Aperture Priority

The last professional category on the abbreviated day would be Pro Stock.

In one of the more odd things I have ever seen in drag racing, Vinnie Deceglie (below) would have a nearly identical crash to the one Gordie Rivera had the previous day.

First up are some images from the bridge remote, below.


Nikon D700, 300mm, 1600iso, f8, 1/4000th, Aperture Priority


Nikon D700, 300mm, 1600iso, f8, 1/4000th, Aperture Priority


Nikon D700, 300mm, 1600iso, f8, 1/4000th, Aperture Priority

Now here are images from my handheld camera with the 600mm lens.


Nikon D700, 600mm, 640iso, f6.3, 1/2500th, Aperture Priority


Nikon D700, 600mm, 640iso, f6.3, 1/3200th, Aperture Priority


Nikon D700, 600mm, 640iso, f6.3, 1/2000th, Aperture Priority


Nikon D700, 600mm, 640iso, f6.3, 1/5000th, Aperture Priority

Just like with the previous days crash, once the upside down car started getting closer to me I put down the long lens and grabbed my shoulder camera with a wider lens to shoot the car sliding on its roof past my position, below.


Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 500iso, f4.5, 1/4000th, Aperture Priority

Goodyear Tires gets a nice advertisement in the below frame, although I don’t see their marketing department using that image to promote their tires!


Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 500iso, f4.5, 1/8000th, Aperture Priority

As Deceglie slid away from me a fire developed under the car, I lowered the wider lens and once again grabbed the 600mm lens to shoot tight as the car slid further away from me, below.


Nikon D700, 600mm, 640iso, f6.3, 1/4000th, Aperture Priority

The car eventually slid to a stop with heat waves filing up my frame from the burning fire.


Nikon D700, 600mm, 640iso, f6.3, 1/5000th, Aperture Priority

As with Rivera, Deceglie would be completely fine following the crash.

Below is every other frame in the sequence from my handheld camera.


Pro Stock crashes are typically very rare, you might have 2-3 in an entire season. Having two in one weekend, especially two from the same place in the same lane with the same exact results is just ridiculous.

On to Sunday.

After early morning rain storms (again) everything got off to a late start. But in a few short seconds the delays of the race would mean nothing compared to the tragedy that would unfold.

(For the record I seriously debated not posting any photos from the incident but after realizing ESPN showed the accident numerous times in much more detail than my photos I figured it would be a disservice to my readers to just act like nothing happened)

In the final pair of top fuel during round one Antron Brown took on Troy Buff.

Just off the starting line Antron Brown experienced severe tire shake. The shake was so bad that the left rear tire became detached from his car and as Brown lost control and made a slow roll, the tire hit the side of his car and shot into the air like it was fired out of a canon, below.


Nikon D700, 300mm, 1000iso, f8, 1/2500th, Aperture Priority

In the below photo, while blocked by heat waves, you can see just how high the rear tire cleared the retaining wall by. No catch fence would be able to stop a tire flying that high above the track.


Nikon D700, 600mm, 400iso, f7.1, 1/1600th, Aperture Priority

Once Browns out of control dragster hit the wall the car burst into flames……


Nikon D700, 600mm, 400iso, f7.1, 1/2500th, Aperture Priority

From my remote camera on the bridge I got the exact same shot, except in this shot (below) you can see the tire on the far right as it bounced down the return road towards the spectator area….


Nikon D700, 300mm, 1000iso, f8, 1/2000th, Aperture Priority

……below is my last frame where you can see the rear tire (on right) just before it went into the spectator area and unfortunately killed a female spectator….


Nikon D700, 600mm, 400iso, f7.1, 1/2000th, Aperture Priority

…..Browns mangled dragster slid along the wall on its side……


Nikon D700, 600mm, 400iso, f7.1, 1/2000th, Aperture Priority

…….before coming to a stop as an NHRA official was quickly on the scene to help, below.


Nikon D700, 600mm, 400iso, f7.1, 1/1600th, Aperture Priority

As of the time this blog is posted the incident is still under investigation so nobody is exactly sure what happened for the wheel to separate from the car.


Nikon D700, 600mm, 400iso, f7.1, 1/160th, Aperture Priority

After a few hour break following the crash as well as yet another rain storm we got back under way with round one of funny car.

Below, Tony Pedregon (right) defeats Del Worsham during the first round.


Nikon D700, 300mm, 1000iso, f8, 1/2000th, Aperture Priority

Funny car driver Matt Hagan climbs from his car after suffering an engine explosion and small fire, below. (Note the liquid from the fire bottles on his legs)


Nikon D700, 600mm, 400iso, f7.1, 1/3200th, Aperture Priority

Below is a wide view from the top end showing how beautiful of a setting that Firebird International Raceway is with some nice clouds and South Mountain in the background.


Nikon D700, 80-200mm, 640iso, f5.6, 1/5000th, Aperture Priority

In round two of top fuel dragster David Grubnic’s parachute didn’t open and he took a long bouncy ride through the shutdown area following his run, below.


Nikon D700, 600mm, 800iso, f5.6, 1/2000th, Aperture Priority

As the day went on track conditions seemed to get worse and worse and the Pro Stock drivers refused to even run.

To further prove that track conditions were less than adequate, Mark Gilmore, driving in the slowest class in the sport (Super Street) lost control of his Mustang and crashed into the retaining wall.

Below is the view from my remote camera on the bridge.


Nikon D700, 300mm, 4000iso, f6.3, 1/1000th, Aperture Priority

Here are a few images from my handheld camera down on the ground, below.


Nikon D700, 600mm, 1250iso, f4, 1/800th, Aperture Priority


Nikon D700, 600mm, 1250iso, f4, 1/1250th, Aperture Priority

After the cleanup from that crash darkness was once again descending on the track.

Below, NHRA top fuel dragster drivers Morgan Lucas (left) and Doug Kalitta shoot header flames from the pipes as they race during the semi finals of the Arizona Nationals at Firebird International Raceway.


Nikon D700, 600mm, 5000iso, f4, 1/500th, Manual

Cory McClenathan (below) appears to head straight towards me as he wins his semi final round matchup.


Nikon D700, 600mm, 5000iso, f4, 1/500th, Manual

Here is a wide shot showing the scene as the track got darker, below.


Nikon D700, 80-200mm, 3200iso, f2.8, 1/320th, Manual

Funny car driver Jack Beckman, below, races down track under power.


Nikon D700, 600mm, 6400iso, f4, 1/250th, Manual

With a parachute out, Beckman slows to a stop after winning his race and advancing to the final round.


Nikon D700, 80-200mm, 5000iso, f2.8, 1/250th, Manual

The winner of the other semi final matchup would be drag racing legend John Force, below.


Nikon D700, 600mm, 6400iso, f4, 1/250th, Manual

Following the semi finals NHRA cancelled racing action until Monday when they would run the final round in top fuel and funny car. Pro Stock would not race again on the track instead moving their elimination rounds to the next race on the tour in Gainesville, FL.


Below, funny car driver John Force surveys the track during a Monday morning rain delay.


Nikon D700, 80-200mm, 400iso, f3.5, 1/500th, Aperture Priority

When they finally got the track dried it was time for the two final round races.

For the finals I always shoot at the end of the track to get the race winners celebrating. Before heading down to the top end I set up a remote camera on the tower at the starting line where I had my buddy Stan Creekmore holding one of my pocket wizards and pushing the remote button to fire the camera to get me a separate angle from what I would get at the end of the track.

Below, NHRA funny car driver Jack Beckman (near) races John Force in the final round of the Arizona Nationals at Firebird International Raceway.


Nikon D700, 50mm, 800iso, f8, 1/3200th, Aperture Priority

Beckman, below, would win the race after Force smoked the tires right off the starting line.


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

Below, Beckman climbs from the car and celebrates with the race winners trophy.


Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 100iso, f10, 1/250th, Manual, with SB-800 Flash

Beckman celebrates with son Jason following the race, below.


Nikon D700, 80-200mm, 250iso, f5.6, 1/1250th, Aperture Priority

Below, NHRA top fuel dragster driver Cory McClenathan (far) races Doug Kalitta in the final round of the Arizona Nationals.


Nikon D700, 50mm, 800iso, f8, 1/3200th, Aperture Priority

Cory McClenathan (below) celebrates after winning the Arizona Nationals.


Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 100iso, f9, 1/250th, Manual, with SB-800 Flash

That wraps up a long, wild, crazy and tragic weekend that saw more action than I have seen in nearly 20 years.


















Posted in Drag Racing, Firebird International Raceway, NHRA, Pocket Wizard, Racing, Remote Camera, Sports   | 21 Comments

21 responses to “NHRA Phoenix-Where driving in a straight line not as easy as it looks”

  1. Guy Martin says:

    Love yr NHRA work great Cory Mac shots.

    Your pictures are refreshing and different to all the other boring 20 years NHRA guy’s

    Your stuff is the bench mark in sports photography

  2. Matthew says:

    Mark — thanks. those are incredible shots — as always. It truly was a very strange and tragic weekend….

  3. Tim Adams says:

    Great job as usual. I agree with your comment on the use of flash at night. It just does not give you a good look.

  4. RP says:

    Mark- Your work is the best the sport has ever seen. Your visual skills are fantastic and technology allows you to be in multiple places at the same time, so your work exceeds even that of the legendary Steve Reyes. Just wondering how you fire the remote AND shot at the same time…do you have someone like your friend Stan leaning on the PW for you, or what?

  5. krugersphotos says:

    great shots as allways wish I was half as good as you are and lucky

  6. Don Prieto says:

    Great stuff. Keep up the excellent work.

  7. Shane Falco says:

    While watching ESPN, I could see you taking photos of the second pro-stock crash. You didn’t flinch at all. I really enjoy your NHRA pictures and hope you get the opportunity to do more drag races this year. NASCAR has just become too boring lately. Keep up the awesome work!

  8. I thought your dada was “the best”, but you are even better! Congratulations, tell your dad hi for me.

    Tommy Johnson Sr.

  9. Alan Peck says:

    As always, exceptional photo’s.

  10. tony fuentes says:

    a very professional job with the pictures , i hope not so many accidents ocurred

  11. Chris Graves says:

    Mark, nice to meet you finally at Phoenix test, looks like you had an eventful weekend at the national. Keep it up!

  12. Doug says:


    As always, excellent work.

    One of the other photographers read me the riot act for shooting directly behind the starting line/cars even though I was all the way back at the wall. What’s the deal with those shots, can we publish them or not?

    Always nice see what a long-time drag racing photographer shoots at an event like this one.

  13. Hey Mark,

    I love your images, second to none from car racing to ball games. Your drag racing images are of particular interest. I wish I could get down track access, but Anthony still has not given in on that request yet for me, although I only shoot a few races a year.

    All that aside I have 2 questions for you. I see that your ISO changes quite a bit. I know that as the day progresses that is a given, but I cant imagine that you would use ISO in AUTO,do you? The second question is regarding your D700’s. Have you had any issues with them? Right now I am shooting the D300 and have really liked it, but 2 times now it is requiring repair of the multi selector.(I knew I should have kept the D2X as a second body) The D 700/300 are of the same family, have you had any issues with the key pads freezing on the back of the camera? I’m hoping you give me a good report because I am looking for a good reason to move up.

    Thanx for any help you can give me. I really enjoy looking at your images, makes me wonder why I bother shooting. But yet again it gives me something to aspire to.

    Would you happen to be shooting the Gatornationals this year? If you are I would like to meet you.

    James G. Paul

  14. Mark Walker says:

    Hi Mark, my first post on a blog ever “really” lol, A good friend of mine led me here nd I can’t stop coming back. More into the drag racing shots and man, they are simply fantatstic. You have a feel for what is going to happen and I like that in a photog. I’ve shot for over 10 years now and took some time off doing mainly Outlaw Drag Racing. Still a Canon shooter to the heart but the nikons very nice and out of my range for sure. Keep posting these and I will keep returning.

  15. Rob Hammer says:

    nice work as always Mark. I like seeing the setup shots of your remote cameras. Thanks for sharing.

  16. These are the best photos I’ve seen in years. Great shots! Thanks for sharing them. The brown hub shot shows the hub is not broken only the studs are gone. The rumor mill is working overtime and this shot shows the real deal. Thanks again

    Danny Miller

  17. Jim Walczak says:

    Great stuff Mark – thanks for sharing. When I grow up I want to take pictures half as good as you

  18. Mark Walker says:

    After looking at the ISO, I’m even more impressed Mark, 6400 is incredible, I’m gussing the glass you have is really high quality, I thought you mistakenly added extra 0’s to the exifs, lol. Any information on your post processing methods or if these are “out of the camera” ?? I use lightroom 2.0 and have a custom profile built but still working on batching them properly, but also we don’t have light as good as we’d like here in the northeast.

  19. Mark Gilmore says:

    Thank you for the pictures of the Mustang, But it was my son Matt Gilmore 18 driving the car. Only body damage and we are trying to make it to the Tucson Divison 7 race in March. Matt is ready to get back into the car. Again thank you for the pictures if you have any more please email me….
    Mark Gilmore

  20. […] the full article and see more photos on Mark’s blog. Share this:ShareShareEmailDiggStumbleUponReddit March 5th, 2010 | Posted in Sports | Tags: […]

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