Choppers and Chompers at NHRA testing in Florida

Just over a month ago I packed my suitcases and flew to West Palm Beach, Florida for a week of NHRA preseason testing. I was working for several clients so it would be one hell of a busy week for me.

Upon my Tuesday arrival in humid south Florida I headed straight out to the track to get to work shooting pics of all the new paint jobs and drivers that would be making their 2012 season debut in just a few weeks in Pomona.

Below, crew members load the car of top fuel dragster driver Antron Brown into the hauler following a day of testing at Palm Beach International Raceway.

Nikon D3S, 24-70mm, 5000iso, f2.8, 1/60th, Aperture Priority

One of the cars I would be shooting the hell outta was the capsuled dragster of seven time top fuel champion Tony Schumacher. In the below shot in the teams pit area you can see the capsule sitting separate from the car as crew members work near the engine.

Nikon D3S, 24-70mm, 64000iso, f2.8, 1/160th, Manual

Wednesday morning I would return to the track nice and early to begin shooting.

In the below frame, crew members for NHRA top fuel driver Antron Brown use a push dolly to maneuver the 25 foot long rocket back into the pit area following a run.

Nikon D3S, 24-70mm, 1250iso, f7.1, 1/1250th, Manual

South Florida is full of interesting wildlife, such as this butterfly hanging out on a flower, below.

Nikon D700, 70-200mm, 640iso, f5.6, 1/640th, Aperture Priority

Running alongside the drag strip is a road course that was rented out to a Ferrari sports cars club. While waiting for a dragster to fire up and make a pass I heard skid marks and a loud bang. I quickly ran over to the fence separating the two tracks from each other and saw the below site. Whoops!

Nikon D700, 70-200mm, 400iso, f5.6, 1/600th, Manual

Almost looking like a top fuel drag boat driver climbing into his capsule was Tony Schumacher (below) as he prepared to make a pass in his futuristic fueler.

Nikon D3S, 24-70mm, 160iso, f8, 1/250th, Manual

One awesome thing about testing is there are no NHRA officials in attendance to prevent me from pushing the envelope on shooting positions.

In the below frame of top fuel driver Spencer Massey I knelt down on the track in front of the water box with my camera touching the ground to pick up the reflection of the car.

Nikon D3S, 24-70mm, 500iso, f5, 1/800th, Manual

Below, newly crowned funny car champion Matt Hagan heads to his car prior to making a late afternoon run.

Nikon D700, 400mm, 640iso, f2.8, 1/600th, Aperture Priority

During testing I was doing some work for Don Schumacher Racing (DSR), which fields the largest team of pro drivers. The team wanted a portrait of the seven drivers along with team owner Don Schumacher. Everyone seemed to be in a big hurry while I was trying to do the group shot so I literally only had two minutes to get the group shot done. With it being all about speed I handed a 1600watt strobe to Megan, Dons daughter, and told her to point it at the group and I ended up with the below shot. For how incredibly simple of a setup it was I cant complain!

Nikon D3S, 24-70mm, 100iso, f7.1, 1/250th, Manual

One of the bigger stories for the 2012 NHRA season has to be the debut of yet another Force daughter driving a funny car, this year it will be Courtney Force driving the awesome looking Traxxas sponsored funny car.

Below, crew members put the body on her car back in the pits as they prepped the car for the season.

Nikon D3S, 24-70mm, 100iso, f4, 1/150th, Aperture Priority

Below, by putting my camera on the ground just behind the launching car of funny car driver Jim Head, I was able to clean up the rather distracting background and fill it with cool late afternoon clouds.

Nikon D3S, 24-70mm, 100iso, f5,1/250th, Manual

Top fuel driver Spencer Massey hams it up for my camera as he prepares to hop into his dragster for a dusk pass.

Nikon D3S, 24-70mm, 100iso, f6.3, 1/250th, Manual

Kneeling down in between the two lanes of the track gave me a great angle to shoot the capsuled car of Tony Schumacher doing his burnout, below.

Nikon D3S, 24-70mm, 320iso, f5.6, 1/250th, Manual

Tell me this car doesn’t look badass launching off the starting line, wheels up with header flames out of the pipes. I sure hope NHRA officials approve this car for competition. I think its the future of the sport.

Nikon D700, 800mm, 800iso, f4, 1/500th, Manual

Under moody evening clouds, Ron Capps does his burnout in the NAPA sponsored Dodge Charger funny car.

Nikon D3S, 24-70mm, 800iso, f5, 1/60th, Manual

With the cool clouds in the sky I noticed Brandon Bernstein hanging out behind the starting line. WIth Bernstein as one of my clients this season I figured it would be a perfect time to get a cool portrait of him. Right as I go to shoot the photo we would get photo bombed by funny car driver Jeff Arend, below.  Thanks Jeff!

Nikon D3S, 24-70mm, 1250iso, f4, 1/50th, Manual

Ever wondered the view all the crew guys standing behind the car enjoy when it launches at night? Wonder no further as I present the view standing right behind the starting line as Doug Kalitta blasts off the starting line.

Nikon D3S, 24-70mm, 1250iso, f2.8, 1/100th, Manual

The next car up would be top fuel rookie Khalid Albalooshi driving the car that took Del Worsham to the championship last season. This season Worsham is retired and doing the crew chief duties for funny car rookie Alexis DeJoria. For Albalooshis launch I knelt down just off the side of the groove behind the car and got some incredibly tall header flames pouring out of the engine as Khalid dropped the pedal, below.

Nikon D3S, 24-70mm, 2000iso, f2.8, 1/60th, Manual

Below, funny car driver Jack Beckman launches off the starting line on a run.

Nikon D700, 4000mm, 5000iso, f2.8, 1/40th, Manual

During a break in the action one day I was chatting with my buddy Roger Richards about wanting to see an alligator in one of the many canals surrounding the track so we headed to one of the spots near the pro pits. Sadly no gators were to be found.

Roger then suggested another location that was usually good for gators so along with my good friend Guy Rhodes, we hopped into my rental car and drove about a 1/4 mile to another location. I’m not gonna lie, I didn’t think for a second we would actually see any gators. And if we did I figured they would be far away so I grabbed my 400mm lens to hopefully get some shots.

Within seconds of arriving at location #2 much to my surprise we saw about an eight foot gator catching some rays along the edge of the water.

Here is a shot with my 400mm, below.

Nikon D3S, 400mm, 400iso, f8, 1/800th, Aperture Priority

Just above the gator was a concrete block that I instantly figured would allow me to get dangerously close to the gator at an awesome angle for photos. With my bravado in full swing all I needed was to borrow a wide angle lens for the closeup shot I desperately wanted to get.

In the below frame shot by Roger Richards you can see just how close I was to the hissing beast!

Photo by Roger Richards

And here is the view from my camera of the gator that I dubbed with the fitting name “Chompers.”

Nikon D3S, 10.5mm, 400iso, f5.6, 1/1000th, Aperture Priority

Ok, enough risking of my life shooting wildlife. Back to work!

Below, top fuel dragster driver Steve Torrence races down track in his CAPCO Contracting sponsored car.

Nikon D700, 400mm, 640iso, f4, 1/400th, Manual

Below, funny car driver Mike Neff launches off the starting line in his Castrol GTX sponsored Mustang.

Nikon D3S, 24-70mm, 1600iso, f4, 1/50th, Manual

Below, following a portrait shoot of Jeff Arend for Toyota Racing, I had to hop in the shot for a fun pic with one of the more fun drivers on the circuit.

Photo by Guy Rhodes

With two more days of shooting left in the week long trip I began running out of ideas for cool shots. I had already shot all the cars from numerous angles so I decided to try something I have wanted to do for over a year now. Renting a helicopter and doing aerials of nitro cars!

With a regional airport containing a helicopter rental company just a few miles from the track there was no better time and place to try out my idea.

With 9 dollars a minute (starting when the rotors start spinning and ending when the rotors stop spinning) being charged to my debit card it would certainly be an expensive shoot. But as long as I got some cool pics I wouldn’t care!

Below, I always have to pose for a shot in the helicopter so that when it crashes and I die, there will be a good in memorial photo for my funeral. My coffin of choice for this day would be a four seater R-44. (I’m dead serious about that being the reason I always take a pic in the chopper!)

Photo by Guy Rhodes

Below, the shadow of the chopper can be seen on the ground as we lift off from the airfield to make out way to the track.

Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 400iso, f5.6, 1/2500th, Aperture Priority

Below, an aerial view of Palm Beach International Raceway during the PRO Winter Warmup.

Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 400iso, f4, 1/1600th, Aperture Priority

I thought I had timed it well to arrive above the track just when the top fuel cars would begin racing but unfortunately they were running about 15 minutes behind schedule. Oh thats fine,  the delay only cost me 135 dollars as we hovered above the track wasting fuel!

Below, the view from above the shutdown area as a pair of top fuel dragsters race down track towards me.

Nikon D3S, 550mm, 500iso, f4, 1/1250th, Aperture Priority

Tony Schumacher (below) pops a parachute in the shutdown area following a 300 mph pass.

Nikon D3S, 550mm, 1000iso, f4, 1/1600th, Aperture Priority

The biggest mistake I could have made in the air was to shoot every car from similar angles. The whole purpose of renting the chopper was to be able to show off a unique view of the sport everyone is used to seeing from ground level.

As each car ran I would instruct the pilot to move to a different location around the track.

Below, the view from behind the starting line as crew members watch top fuel driver Hillary Will as she launches off the starting line.

Nikon D3S, 400mm, 2500iso, f2.8, 1/2000th, Aperture Priority

Courtney Force does a long burnout in her funny car as a full grandstand of spectators look on, below.

Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 2500iso, f4, 1/640th, Aperture Priority

Here is another overall view of the track as the sun sets over the flat surface of Florida.

Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 2500iso, f4, 1/5000th,Aperture Priority

Below, funny car driver Johnny Gray races downtrack in his Tire Kingdom sponsored Charger.

Nikon D3S, 400mm, 50000iso, f2.8, 1/800th, Manual

The last race of my flight would be John Force against Tim Wilkerson. I talked the pilot into being nearly directly over the racing surface (something he absolutely did not wanna do) to get the below shot as the two funny car veterans raced off the line, below.

Nikon D3S, 400mm, 5000iso, f2.8, 1/640th, Manual

That wrapped up my first attempt of aerial NHRA photography. It only cost me about 800 bucks! It was worth it though as I got some pretty cool pics but even more importantly, I had fun!

Below, jet dragster driver Marisha Falk shoots flames out of the back of her 300 mph jet on wheels prior to making a run.

Nikon D3S, 24-70mm, 200iso, f4, 1/4000th, Aperture Priority

Being back on the ground shooting the following day was nowhere near as fun as I had being in the air so finally I decided to rent the helicopter one more time and see what I could come up with at some higher altitudes.

On the way to the airport I spotted a raccoon running across the road in front of me. I nailed the brakes and jumped out with my camera to try and get a shot of it. The raccoon climbed a tree so now I would have a cool view of the more than likely rabies infested creature, below.

Nikon D700, 70-200mm, 250iso, f4, 1/250th, Aperture Priority

Below, late afternoon shadows make what would typically be a boring shot of the stationary dragster of Clay Millican look cool.

Nikon D3S, 550mm, 800iso, f5, 1/2500th, Aperture Priority

Crew members, below, push the dragster of Terry McMillen out of the pit area prior to towing up to the staging lanes to make a pass

Nikon D3S, 550mm, 1600iso, f4, 1/2500th, Aperture Priority

Here is a shot taken by Guy Rhodes from the backseat of the helicopter as I fire away up front.

Photo by Guy Rhodes

Below, the car of Hillary Will is towed to the staging lanes alongside trees and swamps.

Nikon D3S, 400mm, 4000iso, f4, 1/1600th, Aperture Priority

After the 15 minute delay to racing the previous day I contemplated taking off later than normal just to prevent money from being wasted hovering around again but earlier in the day I had seen the run order for the evening and noticed the first pair to race would be John Force racing alongside daughter Courtney Force for the first time ever. With that in mind I had us flying above the track right at 5pm when the first pair was supposed to race.

Of course they started even later this time, 20 minutes late (180 dollars wasted).

Below, funny car driver John Force (black car) races alongside daughter Courtney Force.

Nikon D3S, 4000mm, 4000iso, f4, 1/5000th, Aperture Priority

Even starting 20 minutes late there was a massive line on fans waiting to get into the track, below.

Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 1250iso, f4, 1/400th, Aperture Priority

The previous day we flew at about 300 ft off the ground. While some of the shots were cool, overall I was unhappy with the images. For the second flight we took the chopper up to 1000ft which gave a much cooler vantage point.

Below, Tim Wilkerson races alongside Johnny Gray.

Nikon D3S, 24-70mm, 100iso, f4, 1/50th, Manual

Below, funny car driver Bob Tasca III races alongside Jeff Arend. (Note the flash from the photographer firing on the right)

Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 3200iso, f2.8, 1/1000th, Aperture Priority

Below, Mike Neff races alongside Ron Capps.

Nikon D3S, 550mm, 5000iso, f4, 1/1000th, Manual

As soon as the cars launched I instructed the pilot to try and follow along the cars going down the track. Of course they quickly passed the helicopter but we were able to catch back up with Ron Capps in the shutdown area to get the below parachute shot.

Nikon D3S, 550mm, 5000iso, f4, 1/1000th, Manual

The pilot I had for this flight was like the previous days pilot in that he wouldn’t hover directly over the track for me due to safety concerns if the engine of the helo failed.

For the below shot of Robert Hight (left) racing alongside Cruz Pedregon we positioned behind the starting line. The resulting shot came out pretty cool as it reminded me of playing with my electric slot cars as a child and driving them up walls.

Nikon D3S, 550mm, 5000iso, f4, 1/800th, Manual

My last run before heading back to the airport was the below frame of Matt Hagan racing downtrack. Just off the edge of the track was a chain link fence with several fans up against it for the closest view you can possibly get of a car going 300mph next to you. Not exactly sure why security would let spectators stand in such a dangerous spot but I guess thats not my problem!

Nikon D3S, 550mm, 6400iso, f4, 1/800th, Manual

And that wraps up a productive week of NHRA testing in Florida.

To see ALL of my images from testing CLICK HERE

I have a Facebook page devoted my photography where I routinely share my favorite photos from each shoot as well as favorite photos from the past. Click the below banner to check it out. Be sure to “like” the page so you can be kept up to date on all the events I am doing!

3 Responses to “Choppers and Chompers at NHRA testing in Florida”

  1. Marc says:

    Great work as always, Mark. Keep it up.

  2. eric bruns says:

    …..Mark, been checking out your blogs ever since you first started putting them on the net…..I always love your comments to each photo you post…GREAT STUFF !!!………E

  3. Howard Smith says:

    Great update.

    Looks like the off season recharged your creativity.

    Well done,


Leave a Reply