A friend recently invited me to photograph his passion: dirt track racing. The location: Selinsgrove Speedway in central Pennsylvania. This small town track has been known as the "Fastest Half Mile On the East Coast" and is nationally renowned (while traveling on the other side of the country, the ranger at Yosemite National Park inquired about this race track while checking my ID). Selinsgrove Speedway is great for the photography I'm about to describe, but don't fret If you are not local to this track. It will not likely make sense for you to buy a plane ticket to photograph here. Similar tracks are found throughout the world – simply locate your closest hometown track.
In a time when getting photography access to events is becoming more and more difficult, your local dirt race track may hold a great opportunity for you at the cost of a pit pass (typically $25-$30 at this track). At least at my local track, the "pits" is considered the entire inside of the track – the infield. There is a lot of space to shoot from, a lot of activities to capture (including cars being worked on) and getting up close to the action is not a problem – I was about 12' (4m) from the closest cars on the track at race speeds.
With an extreme power to weight ratio, these are seriously fast race cars. The 358/360ci sprint cars have 700-800 HP engines in a tiny, light, approximately 1,400 pound (640 kg) (including the driver) car. Faster yet are 410ci Sprint cars with 900 to 1,100 horsepower (670-820 kW) in a similar frame. To put these figures in perspective, the latest NASCAR Sprint Cup horsepower limitation I saw was 725 hp and by rule these cars must weigh 3,300 pounds.
Although the majority of race fans find them most exciting, sprint cars are not the only race car type featured at dirt track races. Look for great entertainment (subjects) in the Late Model, Pro Stock and other car series races.
Want to challenge your panning skills? This is the place to go. An evening of dirt track racing photography is sure to take your panning skills up several notches.
While a fast shutter speed can stop racing action, non-blurred tire logos are akin to a frozen prop on an aircraft. If the prop is not blurred, the aircraft does not appear to be flying. Similarly, if the race car does not show motion blur, the vehicle appears to be parked instead of going very fast. There is nothing wrong with photographing a parked race car, but ... if the car is at race speed, I think that you will appreciate some blur even more. The solution of course is to drag the shutter, using a longer exposure to capture not only the tire motion but also the car motion in relation to the background.
The ideal shutter speed will vary for many reasons, but a good starting shutter speed is 1/250 second. Check for sharp cars and adjust from there. Use a shorter exposure if needed or use an even longer exposure if you are able to. That the track surface is not perfectly smooth may mean that the cars show some blur even if you so your job perfectly.
These tracks are typically short (cars pass with high frequency) and even when the sprint cars are at their slowest (in the corners), they are going close to 100 mph. These cars passing at 12' (4m) means that your panning speed is also extremely fast.
The best kind of exercise is that which you get while doing something fun. Truly, panning with race cars is both fun and a great ab workout. Swinging from right to left is an unbalanced exercise, so swing just as quickly back to the right to prepare for the next car(s), equalizing the muscles used.
Forget about precisely zooming during the pass, frame slightly wide and crop later. Concentrate on keeping the car as close to the ideal position in the frame as possible and on keeping the camera level. If your viewfinder has gridlines, aligning the cross of a pair of gridlines with a part of the car (such as logo) and pan with the camera remaining as level as possible. Use AI Servo AF mode with the appropriate AF point(s) selected.
Note that for a relatively slow shutter speed to effectively keep the subject sharp using the panning method, the subject must be moving parallel to the end of the camera lens. An approaching car may change size in the frame enough to become blurred.
Find out what time the pit gates open and arrive early (or minimally look at the track via satellite imagery) to determine the ideal shooting positions. Look for foreground obstructions (such as buildings, light poles, the infield fence, etc.) and find the most ideal backgrounds. Getting up slightly higher is a good way to keep the infield fence from blocking the view. I spent much of the evening shooting from a dedicated shooting deck (my friend built it), but others used small step ladders with a hand rail (some even keep their ladders locked to the infield fence to use the next time they come).
Lighting is always important for photography and consideration must be given for the lighting that will be available during the races. These events often start under daylight (full direct sun, cloud cover or both) at the beginning of the events and by midway through, only track lights are providing illumination. Prior to sunset, the track light poles are potentially going to cast shadows onto the track (see example above). Look for any other potential shadow makers (your own shadow may even become an issue) while scouting as shadows on the cars will likely be detracting.
Don't expect a 1/2 mile track to be illuminated with high end ultra-bright, flicker-free, full spectrum lighting. When ambient light dropped enough for the track lights to become the main light source, the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II's Flicker! warning showed up and I immediately enabled Flicker mode. The drive rate slowed somewhat, but the number of properly-exposed images increased.
While on the lighting topic, I'll drop a white balance suggestion. As the sun sets, the tracks lights become the primary light source. They may or may not provide a reasonable quality auto white balance. A way to handle this issue is to use a custom white balance. There is usually one or more race cars incorporating white into their color scheme. Be sure to capture a photo of at least one of these cars as they pass under the track lights. Later, take a custom white balance reading from a white section of the car to set the white balance for all photos captured under the same lighting.
Safety should be considered when choosing a shooting location. I've been talking about photographing from the pits vs. from the outside of the track. Accidents most frequently happen in the turns and it is far more likely for a car to go over the outside fence than the inside fence on the turns. Fewer accidents occur on the straight sections of track, but the infield is more vulnerable in these sections. There are no safety guarantees and you will likely have to sign a liability waiver to gain pit access, but the inside corner seems like the safest position to me. The inside corner also provides a slightly larger sweet spot for successful panning.
Unless you are shooting for a specific purpose, such as media coverage (looking for the drivers with stories), selling images to drivers and fans (perhaps focusing on the most popular drivers) or following a favorite driver(s) or even sometimes a political candidate (political advertising on the cars), you should determine which cars are most photogenic while they are idling around the track and/or following the pace truck. Perhaps you like the sponsor, perhaps you like the color (or condition) of the car or ... perhaps you simply want to photograph the next car that takes the photography-optimal-for-you line around the track (inside, middle or outside). With regards to color, note that some will show up better than others, especially after darkness falls.
When the action goes live, you will not be able to photograph every car on the track on every pass. In a long race, you may be able to capture images of all cars in the race, but unless the cars are distantly spaced, picking one of several cars coming into your shooting zone on the track will be easier. At well-over 100mph average speeds on a relatively short track, it will definitely be helpful to know which cars to focus on in advance.
If you are set up for shooting cars on the inside of the tracks (wider focal lengths) vs. those taking the outside line (or vice versa), watching incoming cars taking that line is helpful to results.
Also note that shooting early in the season may mean better condition sheet metal and graphics on the cars. Accidents are common and body panels are not always replaced if they can be beaten back into shape. These racing teams are not always working with big budgets and cars are more frequently restored over the annual winter break.
Hanging out in the pits is not without risk. I've already mentioned that certain locations around the track can be safer than others, but there are risks other than racing cars having accidents.
Don't get caught up in your photography so much that you don't see a hazard coming. Especially when walking around in the infield, attention must be paid to what is going on around you. There is constant traffic with cars, push trucks (sprint cars must be push-started) and other vehicles constantly entering and exiting. These race cars do not have head lights and after dark, they are not especially visible in the dark infield. Cars may leave the race early and with the noise of the race, they may surprise you on their way back to their hauler. After the race, all of the cars will be coming in.
There are no mufflers on race cars and your ears are going to quickly recognize the sound of high performance engines with open headers. While I think this is a great sound, not everyone shares this opinion. Regardless, ear protection is highly recommended (I use it).
You must be ever mindful of the sound levels (you will hear it clearly even with ear protection in place). When things go wrong, the first move a driver will make is to take their foot off of the throttle. You need to be immediately aware of this for two reasons. One is to potentially get out of the way of an incoming race car. The other is to focus on the action, ranging from a simple spin out to a car flipping over the outside fence.
No one wants to see a driver injured (nor see a team suffer a financial setback), but truth is, most enjoy the spectacle of an accident and capturing the drama is your job. Very few race nights end accident-free, so there is a good chance that you will get the opportunity to photograph such action. Open wheel cars coming in contact with each other can generate dramatic flipping action. Capturing such an occurrence with the camera will give you something different in the take-home.
Bryan's Law of Racing Photography: All (or at least most) accidents will occur on the opposite side of the track. Be ready anyway.
When preparing to photograph a dirt track event, dirt and dust must be considered. Know that, by the end of the night, you and everything else exposed will be covered in a layer of red dust. This likely includes even your vehicle unless you park a good distance from the track and/or there is a favorable wind speed and direction.
It is referred to as dirt track racing, but more specifically, it is clay track racing. Prior to the race, the clay is made wet by water tanker trucks until the surface has a muddy consistency. The track is then driven over by a variety of vehicle types until the surface is pressed into the desired racing surface.
Once the racing starts, small chunks of clay start flying (outwards). Once the clay starts drying out, the dust starts flying. The dust goes outwards and everywhere else, including into the tiniest crevices of your gear, and the red-color of the dust highlights is presence.
In dirt track racing, cars turn right to go left. This is known as drifting in some circles. Consideration for the angle of the cars as they slide by must be made. This means that photographers positioned inside of the turns must shoot cars going away to get a profile view.
Consideration should be paid to the track lights in regards to the angle of lighting they provide on the cars and the lighting balance between the light poles. The lighting balance on the cars will change as they pass from one set of lights to the next. Determine where the ideal two-light balance is and be sure to grab frames within this area. The slide angle of the cars should be taken into consideration in this regard as well.
Some photographers like to use flash after dark. Partly due to the light fall-off creating a too-bright foreground, I preferred to simply use to track lighting for an off-camera light source. The 1D X II delivered beautiful images after dark.
If shooting from the pits, there will likely be restrictions on both admission and exit. If you are in the pits at a small-time track, you are probably going to stay there until a break in the racing and the pit gate is opened. This will likely happen regularly between races and there will likely be both food and restroom facilities available in the infield, but plan accordingly.
While most DSLR cameras can come up with decent racing photos, cameras suited for sports and action will deliver much better results overall. A fast frame rate and an accurate AF system are especially important. Unless using a camera cover, weather and dust sealing is another important consideration because, as already discussed, the camera will take on a red appearance by the end of a night of racing.
The primary consideration for the lens is the focal length range. A zoom has a lot of advantages over a prime as the distance to the cars can vary significantly. If you are near the infield fence, the focal length needed to track a car on the inside of the track (perhaps 24mm on a full frame body) is very different than what is needed to tightly frame a car taking the outside line around the track (perhaps 150mm or greater). The size of the cars in the various races can also differ greatly. A wider focal length is needed to frame a late model series car than a sprint car.
Another important consideration is a lens' focus speed and accuracy. If shooting in a corner, the cars will by traveling in somewhat of a radius around you, taking some of the stress off of the AF system, but they are still going very fast. Accuracy is always important.
While extremely fast shutter speeds are not required for panning action, wide apertures are especially helpful after dark. An f/2.8 lens works well.
Weather and dust sealing is similarly important to the lens as it is to the camera (unless using a cover) and if the lens extends and retracts, this feature is potentially even more important. Note that changing lenses outdoors after the track starts to dry out is a bad idea. It will be very difficult to keep dust out of the camera while doing so.
I primarily used a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM Lens (shown above) on my evening at the track. While the combination worked great, I was wishing for longer focal lengths often enough that I contemplate trying the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM Lens the next time I go. While the widest angles of the 24-70 were needed for the cars cornering on the inside of the track, especially the larger late model stock cars, far more often my better shots, especially of the smaller sprint cars, used 70mm with cropping ranging from little to significant. With the 70-200, the closest cars would be framed too tightly, but more of the track would be within range.
Forget about using a tripod or monopod as the required panning is much too fast to rotate your body around such a support.
After the race, your first stop might to the car wash or ... hose off the car before pulling it into the garage. The track dust will likely be on your car and the dust is easy to rinse off at this point. Your spouse may not think race track dust is as cool as you do. Your spouse will probably appreciate you taking a shower as well. A red pillow case in the morning will not likely prove favorable to you going back to the track.
With a red hue over both, cleaning the camera and lens is ... not as simple. I started (outside) with a Rocket Blower, blowing as much dust off as possible, especially around the camera's buttons. The air blowing was followed by a soft dry towel and a soft toothbrush is another good dust cleaning tool. I then use a damp soft towel with a very mild soap mix. I don't touch the LCD with anything except a microfiber cloth (and then only using a lifting action as I wipe), but the towel is better able to get into the camera grip and lens ring grooves. The final step is to use canned air to blow out any dust remaining around buttons, etc. Note that blowing dust deeper into the camera is not a good thing, so you will need to use your own judgement in this regard.
If your CPS membership includes a number of free cleanings, you could schedule one after this event.
I'll end by sharing a funny story. When the kids were young, we went as a family to watch the races. Apparently a misunderstanding developed somewhere along the way because soon after the races started, my oldest asked "When do we get in?" She thought that the event was like an amusement park and that we were going to ride in the cars – not watch from the stands. That revelation was a major disappointment for her ... but a fun memory for the rest of us.
Some will find dirt track racing photography not worth ever trying again, but I'll warn you, some are going to find that this activity is addicting. You will go over and over again. Either way, one time to the track will not be enough to make you an expert. Those shooting these races regularly will be helpful to talk to and most are very willing to do so. Strike up a friendship and sharpen your skills.
One time at the track may not make you an expert, but it will very likely teach you good panning techniques and this skill has enough crossover application to make the trip to the track worthwhile even if you are one who does not find yourself "into" the sport.