Tornados and Top Fuelers take over Topeka

When I came to Topeka, KS for the NHRA Summer Nationals I was expecting an easy weekend of shooting the races during the day and relaxing at night. Little did I know I would spend an evening listening to Tornado sirens and then actually seeing my first tornado form before my very eyes!

The last time I shot Topeka was in 2009 (Click here to see the event blog) and I promised myself I wouldn’t go there again after the miserably hot weather I encountered the last time. But its amazing what a guy will do to pay the bills…

Lets start with Friday.

After arriving in the area Friday morning I checked the radar and after seeing that plus the forecast for the rest of the day I figured no way in hell we would race that day so I went to Buffalo Wild Wings for a long lunch. Of course two hours into lunch I checked the radar again and noticed it was clearing up so I had to quickly cash out and head over to Heartland Park Topeka in case they got the track dried and began running.

It was pretty wet when I arrived at the track but the track driers were howling away as NHRA crews worked to dry the track.

Below, getting down low in a big puddle in the pro pit area yielded me a nice reflection of the pit area of NHRA funny car driver Cruz Pedregon.

Nikon D3s, 24-70mm, 250iso, f7.1, 1/1000th, Aperture Priority

With this being the 60th anniversary year for the NHRA they have been having drag racing legends attend all the races. The grand marshall for Topeka was none other than the legendary “Big Daddy” Don Garlits, below.

Nikon D3s, 24-70mm, 100iso, f10, 1/250th, Manual with SB-800 Flash

Under overcast skies the first round of the pros would go off right on time.

Below, NHRA funny car driver Tim Wilkerson (near) races alongside Jim Head during qualifying for the Summer Nationals at Heartland Park Topeka.

Nikon D3s, 24-70mm, 500iso, f6.3, 1/1600th, Aperture Priority

Last weeks funny car winner, Jack Beckman, sits strapped into the cockpit of his Aarons sponsored car before his first pass of the weekend, below.

Nikon D700, 70-200mm, 3200iso, f2.8, 1/1000th, Aperture Priority

Last weeks top fuel dragster winner Antron Brown (below) unknowingly gets bunny ears from NHRA announcer Alan Reinhart as he stands behind the starting line watching the funny cars run.

Nikon D700, 70-200mm, 400iso, f5.6, 1/320th, Aperture Priority

Underdog hangs out on the front of the dragster of long time racer Luigi Novelli prior to making a qualifying pass, below. I’d be more impressed if he kept Underdog there for his run. I’m sure NHRA wouldn’t mind….

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

The overcast skies that where there when I arrived slowly dispersed leaving us with nice puffy white clouds that made for great backgrounds such as in the below shot of funny car driver Mike Neff racing alongside Jack Beckman.

Nikon D3s, 24-70mm, 100iso, f4.5, 1/1600th, Aperture Priority

Below, top fuel driver Morgan Lucas sits tightly strapped in the cockpit of his GEICO top fueler in the staging lanes prior to a qualifying pass.

Nikon D3s, 24-70mm, 100iso, f8, 1/250th, Manual with SB-800 Flash

For the second pro session it would start in the late afternoon just before sunset so it would end up being great for photos. Normally for a night session I will shoot on the starting line to get some header flame shots of the fuelers but since I got a bunch of that at Atlanta the previous week I decided to shoot top end and try and get some cool stuff down there.

Below, a pair of fans stand on a hill down past the finish line to watch the cars run as the sun sets behind them.

Nikon D700, 70-200mm, 320iso, f4, 1/8000th, Aperture Priority

Below, pro stock driver Mike Edwards slows in the shutdown area following his qualifying pass.

Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 640iso, f4.5, 1/2000th, Manual

Below, NHRA top fuel dragster driver Terry Sainty explodes an engine during qualifying for the Summer Nationals at Heartland Park Topeka.

Nikon D3s, 400mm with 1.4 convertor (550mm), 5000iso, f4, 1/400th, Manual

The light wasn’t too bad from the top end, check out the below shot of top fuel dragster driver Terry McMillen (left) racing alongside David Grubnic.

Nikon D3s, 400mm with 1.4 convertor (550mm), 6400iso, f4, 1/500th, Manual

Midway through the session I ended up changing my mind and went to the starting line to shoot the rest of the pro session.

Below, NHRA top fuel dragster driver Shawn Langdon blasts off the starting line during qualifying for the Summer Nationals at Heartland Park Topeka.

Nikon D700, 70-200mm, 2500iso, f4, 1/250th, Manual with SB-800 Flash

When I shoot on the starting line I always make it more productive by trying to shoot with a different lens and or angle to get a different look to each shot.

In the below shot of Del Worsham I went with a slow shutter speed to get an artsy looking shot as he sped down track.

Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 400iso, f5, 1/25th, Manual

In the below frame of Morgan Lucas I shot across track and got lucky to catch the front end of Spencer Massey who was racing alongside. The nose of the other car helps fill out the frame.

Nikon D700, 70-200mm, 2500iso, f5.6, 1/250th, Manual with SB-800 Flash

Top alcohol dragster driver Aaron Tatum slows down in the shutdown area following his final qualifying run, below.

Nikon D3s, 400mm with 1.4 convertor (550mm), 250iso, f5.6, 1/2000th, Aperture Priority

Below, NHRA top alcohol funny car driver Alexis De Joria waits for her crew to pick her up following an aborted qualifying run at the Summer Nationals at Heartland Park Topeka.

Nikon D3s, 400mm with 1.4 convertor (550mm), 250iso, f7.1, 1/800th, Aperture Priority

In the below frame of top fuel driver Antron Brown I laid down in the grass off the side of the track to try and use some flowers in the foreground of the shot as he pulled forward to do his burnout. The shot didn’t end up working out like I had hoped but I figured I’d share the shot nevertheless.

Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 100iso, f5.6, 1/800th, Aperture Priority

Funny car driver Tony Pedregon races down track during the final session of qualifying, below.

Nikon D700, 70-200mm, 100iso, f8, 1/320th, Aperture Priority

Following the nice and easy day I was looking forward to a nice evening spent relaxing at the bar watching the NASCAR All Star Race and editing NHRA pics… then I heard a sound I had never heard before….

That sound was a tornado alarm going off.

Seconds after the alarm began sounding the messages started scrolling across the TV screen, below.

A quick check of the radar confirmed the validity of the alarms…

I was looking out the window of my 3rd story hotel room to see if I could see anything but there was a screen on the window which prevented me from getting good shots. So I did what any photographer would do. I ripped the screen off the window, destroying it in the process so I could hang out the window and get pics of the storm.

The below frame is a shot taken while hanging out my window as alarms continued to blare. Not sure if the cloud in the below pic is a funnel cloud but it sure looked like one.

Nikon D3s, 24-70mm, 400iso, f5, 1/1000th, Aperture Priority

Of course I had to take a lame pic of myself in case I got sucked up by a twister.

After a few minutes of being somewhat concerned about all the warnings I headed outside to walk around the hotel and see if I could see anything.

After I got outside I looked to the east and spotted an evil looking cloud dropping down towards the ground. On the right side of the frame you can also see two other funnels which where trying their hardest to make it to the ground.

Nikon D3s, 24-70mm, 400iso, f5, 1/200th, Aperture Priority

All the power lines in the way pissed me off so I did what any normal person would do and I started jogging towards the funnel trying to find a place to get a clear view to get some pics.

After about a quarter mile of jogging I found an overpass to stand atop of to shoot the storm. Thats safe right?

Nikon D3s, 24-70mm, 400iso, f5, 1/640th, Aperture Priority

Having never seen a tornado/funnel cloud before I literally found myself in awe as I watched the cloud spinning and dipping to the ground. It was damn near a religious experience to witness natures fury.

Nikon D3s, 24-70mm, 400iso, f5, 1/200th, Aperture Priority

The whole time I stood on the overpass shooting I continually got paranoid that while I shot it that another funnel would drop from above right on top of me so I was constantly looking up and all other directions to ensure I wouldn’t fly away.

After shooting on the overpass for about 15 minutes the funnel went away so I headed back to my hotel room.

I liked the below frame of the freeway facing the other direction from the storm as the sun tried its best to poke through.

Nikon D3s, 24-70mm, 400iso, f5, 1/200th, Aperture Priority

Following that exciting adventure I headed to the bar to watch the rest of the NASCAR race with some friends.

As I left the bar a few hours later to head home I noticed a ton of lightning in the clouds nearby so for some reason I decided to make the 15 minute drive out to the track to try and shoot lightning with the car haulers in the pit area as my foreground.

Since I never intended to do storm chasing on this trip I didn’t bring a tripod with me so I had to make the best of the situation with what I had.

I ended up getting to the track right around midnight and parked my car in the middle of the pro pit area and set up my camera on the hood of the rental car using a sweater to brace the camera and allow me to aim it in the direction I wanted.

After I had the camera in position I set it to continually fire a 30 second exposure to try and capture some lightning.

I really didn’t end up getting much that I liked from the late night trip but I have to at least show you guys a few pics.

Below, lightning goes cloud to cloud behind the hauler of pro stock driver Greg Anderson.

Nikon D3s, 24-70mm, 100iso, f6.3, 30 second exposure, Manual

The best shot I ended up getting would be the below shot of lightning behind the pit area of the Pedregon brothers. Probably not worth all the effort of driving out to the track and staying there past 1am but oh well. Live and learn.

Nikon D3s, 24-70mm, 100iso, f6.3, 30 second exposure, Manual

After about 5 hours of sleep it was back out to the track for eliminations.

Below, top fuel driver Morgan Lucas sits on the back of his Toyota Sequoia tow vehicle as he listens to some tunes on his iPod before the first round of eliminations.

Nikon D3s, 24-70mm, 640iso, f5.6, 1/160th, Aperture Priority

Over in the Terry McMillen pit area (below) crew members make final adjustments to the engine before heading to the staging lanes.

Nikon D3s, 24-70mm, 640iso, f5.6, 1/200th, Aperture Priority

While chatting with my buddy Jason Sharp in the Melanie Troxel pit area I noticed the body of the car reflecting in his sun glasses so I quickly fired off the below frame before he ruined it with a stupid face.

Nikon D3s, 24-70mm, 640iso, f5.6, 1/320th, Aperture Priority

Below, crew members work on the car of Melanie Troxel prior to her first round matchup. I think they were pretending to work on the car though since when I started shooting the car there was only one person there but a few seconds after I started shooting the whole damn team was milling around the car taking fake measurements and stuff.

Nikon D3s, 24-70mm, 1250iso, f2.8, 1/4000th, Aperture Priority

After losing in the first round, funny car driver John Force gracefully dismounts from the roof of his Mustang’s escape hatch.

Nikon D3s, 24-70mm, 100iso, f10, 1/250th, Manual with SB-800 Flash

In what ended up being quite the little controversy, Mike Neff (below) would take the first round win over Tony Pedregon but sure appeared to cross the centerline (which is an automatic disqualification). NHRA officials reviewed the video of the run and concluded that he touched the line but did not cross it. Hmmm what do you guys think?

Nikon D700, 400mm with 1.4 convertor (550mm), 250iso, f7.1, 1/2000th, Manual

Below, a dejected Erica Enders leans against her pro stocker after losing in the first round.

Nikon D700, 400mm with 1.4 convertor (550mm), 250iso, f7.1, 1/640th, Aperture Priority

The pro stocker of Shane Gray goes through tech inspection following his semi final win, below.

Nikon D3s, 24-70mm, 1250iso, f4, 1/1000th, Aperture Priority

One of the winningest drivers in NHRA history, Tony Bartone makes the turnoff following his semi final win in his top alcohol funny car.

Nikon D700, 400mm with 1.4 convertor (550mm), 250iso, f7.1, 1/2000th, Manual

I’ve never gotten a pro stock fireball before so I was super surprised to get the below frame of Greg Anderson spitting some serious flames from his exhaust after losing in the semi finals.

Nikon D700, 400mm with 1.4 convertor (550mm), 250iso, f7.1, 1/1600th, Manual

Final round time.

Below, Shane Gray celebrates after picking up the win in pro stock, only the second of his career.

Nikon D3s, 24-70mm, 100iso, f8, 1/250th, Manual with SB-800 Flash

Below, In the final round of funny car a little history would be guaranteed when John Force Racing (JFR) teammates Mike Neff (left) would match up with Robert Hight. On the line (besides the trophy, money and points) was the winner would pick up the 200th race victory for JFR.

The lucky man would be Robert Hight.

Nikon D700, 400mm with 1.4 convertor (550mm), 250iso, f6.3, 1/2000th, Manual

Robert Hight celebrates with his second Wally of the 2011 season.

Nikon D3s, 24-70mm, 100iso, f8, 1/250th, Manual with SB-800 Flash

Nikon D3s, 24-70mm, 100iso, f8, 1/250th, Manual with SB-800 Flash

In the top fuel final the big winner would be Spencer Massey.

Nikon D3s, 24-70mm, 100iso, f8, 1/250th, Manual with SB-800 Flash

Nikon D3s, 24-70mm, 100iso, f8, 1/250th, Manual with SB-800 Flash

And with that I survived my weekend in Tornado Alley.

Next up I will be in Indianapolis shooting my favorite race of the year. The Indy 500!

Check out my Toyota photo blog from Topeka, click the below banner.

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2 Responses to “Tornados and Top Fuelers take over Topeka”

  1. Rob Hurlbut says:

    Great shots! I like that you never seem to plan anything yet always seem to end up with everything. Can’t wait for the next post!

  2. Ingrid Griffin says:

    I love love love drag racing, and your pictures are wonderful. Awesome job. I see tons of pictures of cars and burnouts and Wallies, but you really capture the spirit of the sport. And Mike Neff is over the line. :)

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