NHRA drivers invade the swamps of Gainesville

Race two of the 60th anniversary season for the NHRA took us to warm and sunny Gainesville, Florida for one of the crown jewels of the tour, the Gatornationals. This is one of a handful of NHRA tracks I had never been to so I went into the weekend with no clue what I was going to do or how I would do it. On to the races!

The big story of the weekend was the professional drag racing debut of 2004 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Kurt Busch who would attempt to qualify for the super competitive pro stock field.

Its not too often that a big name driver from another series comes over to drag racing so it would be a newsworthy story so forgive me for all the Kurt Busch pics.

Below, Kurt Busch signs autographs in the pits prior to the first qualifying session. In all my years shooting NHRA I have never seen a crowd like that at a pro stock pit area.

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

Prior to making his first run of the weekend I shot the below photo of Busch sitting in his car. I got an interesting effect by shooting through the small space in the open passenger door.

Nikon D3s, 70-200mm, 400iso, f4, 1/500th, Aperture Priority

Kurt Busch does one of the most impressive burnouts I had ever seen from a pro stock car. It made the crowd go nuts. That would be the highlight of that run as he would experience tire shake at the hit of the throttle and slowly coast down track.

Nikon D3s, 70-200mm, 400iso, f4, 1/4000th, Manual

Below, funny car driver Cruz Pedregon (near) launches off the starting line alongside John Force in the opening pro session.

Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 100iso, f7.1, 1/400th, Manual

Winner of the first race of the season in Pomona, Morgan Lucas (below) slows down via parachutes following a run in the second pro session.

Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 100iso, f4, 1/500th, Manual

After the second pro session of the day I was worn out and tired but made my way back to the starting line to shoot some stuff of the pro mod qualifying session.

Below, the late afternoon light makes for some moody light as Rickie Smith does a smokey burnout.

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

After shooting pro mod I was finally ready to get the hell outta there and go grab some dinner so I got all my gear and was heading to the parking lot when I saw a cool photo to shoot in the staging lanes. Whenever I am feeling lazy and don’t want to shoot something cool I see I always motivate myself by the line “never let yourself regret a missed photo opportunity .” Far too many times in my career I was too lazy to pull the car over when I saw something cool, or walk somewhere far to get a unique angle and would always regret not shooting it (there’s still moments I regret for not taking the initiative to take a shot.)

Below, competition eliminator driver Vinny Barone reflects in his mirror as he sits in his car prior to making a pass during qualifying for the Gatornationals at Gainesville Raceway.

Nikon D700, 70-200mm, 1000iso, f2.8, 1/2000th, Aperture Priority

For the first qualifying session on Saturday I headed back to the top end to get some parachute shots.

Below, Dom Lagana explodes an engine as he races alongside Larry Dixon.

Nikon D3s, 400mm with 1.4 convertor (550mm), 400iso, f6.3, 1/2000th, Manual

For the final pro qualifying session on Saturday I brought out a mobile lighting setup to do some candid staging lane portraits with the help of my buddy Kevin Liles.

The Alien Bee strobe with the softbox setup I normally use was what I had planned to go with but some lighting issues (by issues I mean the damn thing wouldnt work) relegated us to a backup plan of using an old ass Photogenic 1250DR strobe with a reflector instead of the softbox.

Here are a few of the shots.

Pro stock motorcycle rider Angie Smith

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

Pro stock driver Kurt Busch

Nikon D3s, 70-200mm, 100iso, f10, 1/250th, Manual with Strobe

Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 100iso, f7.1, 1/250th, Manual with Strobe

One of the greatest drag racers of all time “Big Daddy” Don Garlits

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

Top fuel dragster driver Bob Vandergriff Jr

Nikon D3s, 70-200mm, 100iso, f8, 1/250th, Manual with Strobe

Top fuel dragster driver Morgan Lucas

Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 100iso, f8, 1/250th, Manual with Strobe

Top fuel dragster driver Steve Torrence

Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 100iso, f8, 1/250th, Manual with Strobe

For the funny cars I decided to move all over and try and come up with some cool angles or shots.

Below, from atop of the media center I shot down on the track as a crew member backs up funny car driver Robert Hight following his burnout.

Nikon D3s, 70-200mm, 100iso, f5, 1/1000th, Aperture Priority

Here is a wide view of Gainesville Raceway as a pair of funny cars thunder down track, below.

Nikon D3s, 70-200mm, 100iso, f5, 1/800th, Aperture Priority

The late afternoon light in Gainesville was not what most would call “good light” since it was very backlit but instead of bitching and complaining about it I decided to prove my theory that there is no such thing as bad light. No matter the lighting situation you can always come up with something cool if you try.

With the lighting conditions I decided to go with the standard “underexpose the hell outta the shot and make it look all dramatic and artsy look.”

Below, smoke billows from the funny car of Jeff Arend as he does his burnout.

Nikon D3s, 70-200mm, 250iso, f5, 1/8000th, Aperture Priority

I really liked the way the Arend shot came out but I wanted something better. I made it my goal to get a shot with two funny cars doing side by side burnouts.

A few races later I would achieve that goal with the below frame of Johnny Gray (left) doing a burnout alongside teammate Jack Beckman. After that shot the day was a success in my book.

Nikon D3s, 70-200mm, 250iso, f5, 1/8000th, Aperture Priority

Prior to heading out of the track and an hour back to my hotel in Ocala I busted out the strobe setup and shot some more pro mod stuff.

Below, NHRA pro mod driver Mike Knowles sits strapped into his car during qualifying for the Gatornationals at Gainesville Raceway.

Nikon D3s, 70-200mm, 100iso, f8, 1/250th, Manual with Strobe

All week leading up to the race I heard all the horror stories from everyone about the terrible traffic getting into the track on Sunday morning so with that in mind I woke up at 6am and got to the track before 8. I can assure you that this was the earliest I had ever gotten to a drag race on my own accord.

Below is the view from my spot in media room as the sun rises above the track. The blue tint to the shot is actually from a sun tint they lower over the windows to prevent the media from being blinded.

Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 200iso, f4, 1/500th, Aperture Priority

Back in the pro pits crew members for Cruz Pedregon (below) work to rebuild the engine prior to the first round.

Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 160iso, f3.5, 1/250th, Manual with SB-800 Flash

NASCAR driver Kurt Busch ended up qualifying for the race and drew a first round matchup with the lone female in the pro stock category, Erica Enders.

Below, Busch and Enders pose together prior to the first round.

Nikon D700, 70-200mm, 160iso, f6.3, 1/500th, Manual

In the below photo 15 time funny car champion talks with 7 time top fuel champion Tony Schumacher. Between the two of them alone they have 22 NHRA championships. That is insane.

Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 160iso, f10, 1/250th, Manual with SB-800 Flash

After blowing an engine in his first round losing effort, Clay Millican (below) surveys the damage to his engine.

Nikon D3s, 400mm with 1.4 convertor (550mm), 320iso, f6.3, 1/2500th, Aperture Priority

The big race everyone was waiting for was the first round matchup in pro stock between Erica Enders and NASCAR star Kurt Busch.

It would be a very close race (look at them on the TV screen in the background) but Busch would come up just short and lose his first eliminations round. Something tells me we will see Kurt racing more NHRA races in the future…

Nikon D3s, 400mm with 1.4 convertor (550mm), 320iso, f6.3, 1/1600th, Manual

Below, Antron Brown wears his game face as he prepares to climb into his dragster for the second round of eliminations.

Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 100iso, f7.1, 1/250th, Manual with SB-800 Flash

Funny car driver Bob Tasca III does a burnout during the second round of eliminations.

Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 320iso, f5, 1/2000th, Manual

New national record holder in pro stock Rodger Brogdon does a smokey burnout in the second round, below.

Nikon D3s, 400mm, 320iso, f6.3, 1/8000th, Aperture Priority

Prior to the final rounds they had some nostalgia top fuel dragsters fire up and drive down the return road. For the below shot I physically laid down on the ground to get a super low angle as the cars drove by.

Nikon D3s, 400mm, 200iso, f3.2, 1/8000th, Aperture Priority

Nikon D3s, 400mm, 200iso, f3.2, 1/4000th, Aperture Priority

After almost getting run over by one of the cars it was time to head to the end of the track to shoot the final round winners celebrations.

Pro stock winner Jason Line (below) celebrates after keeping his 2011 perfect winning record alive.

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

In the off season it was announced that Ashley Force Hood would be sitting out the season as she was starting a family. Her replacement in the funny car would be Mike Neff, who wasted little time to get his first win of the season.

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

The highlight of the weekend though would be seeing my buddy Del Worsham picking up his first career top fuel dragster victory.

Below, Del is congratulated with a big hug and kiss from his wife Connie at the end of the track.

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

With the victory Del joined a rather exclusive club of drivers to win in the top two classes in the sport, top fuel and funny car.

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

To see more images of Del Worsham as well as the other Toyota Racing drivers please check out my photo blog on the Toyota website by clicking the below banner.

Below, NHRA professional category winners (from left) Eddie Krawiec , Jason Line , Mike Neff and Del Worsham celebrate after winning the Gatornationals at Gainesville Raceway.

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

To see all my images from the weekend in Gainesville click the below banner to check them out on my website.

That wraps up race two of the NHRA season. Up next for me is the season opener for the Lucas Oil Off Road Racing Series in Phoenix, AZ!

4 Responses to “NHRA drivers invade the swamps of Gainesville”

  1. Jeremy says:

    Another great photo blog! Keep up the great work!

  2. John says:

    Mark, The photos are great. But theres more to Drag Racing then the pro’s. I as an example have a S/C dragster. I spent close to $5000 on paint over the winter. Not just my car but hundreds of others that would make for some great photos also. All I’m trying to say is share the wealth, shoot some sportsman cars also

  3. Hey Mark, it was a pleasure meeting you in the lanes at Gainesville. Again, love what you’re doing and I look forward to checking for new entries on your blog every week. The shots of Angie, Vandergriff, Torrence and the nostalgia cars are kick-ass.

  4. Luke says:

    Great photos, an inspiration as per usual.
    John, I think Mark is contracted to shoot for a pro team which is why he is attending all the events (happy to be corrected, Mark) this season.
    And as a working photographer the majority of his income would come from shots of the pros…it’s just the way it works!

Leave a Reply