When I give a talk about my work, one of the things I most often hear is how much people enjoy the behind the scenes details of what it’s like to work as a photographer in MotoGP.
Trying something a bit different for this week’s Trackside Tuesday, I’m going to tell you some of the things that happened while I was photographing last weekend’s MotoGP in Austin, Texas. First, some background facts to set the stage.
1. The Circuit of the Americas is BIG. Similar to Silverstone and Indy, it’s too big to walk if you want to get a good variety of images during the races.
2. The good folks who operate the Media Center at COTA provide photo shuttles, in this case six (I was told) vans that pick up photographers near the media center and take us on service road loops outside or inside the track.
Last year we had golf carts, which offer the benefit of being easy to get on and off when carrying several cameras and lenses. But the carts were hopelessly underpowered, especially when heading up the hill to Turn 1.
It was literally faster to walk up the hill than to remain on a cart laden with driver and passengers. So the vans were a good change, even if they were more difficult to get in and out of with our gear.
3. Unless the number of available shuttles is so large as to be prohibitively expensive, it’s impossible to serve a large group of photographers on such a long course without leaving someone stranded at some point of any given session. The COTA folks try hard, and they do a pretty good job given the limited number of vehicles.
4. Scooters are usually a better alternative to a shared shuttle, but at fly-away races the number of available scooters is much lower than at the European rounds and thus a vacant scooter seat is hard to find.
5. At this round, for some reason, the small number of available scooters were models that would only accommodate a single person. Usually I am able to bum a ride with a colleague. But given how many scooters were single-seater 50cc models, I only got a ride once this weekend.
6. Especially when a limited number of scooters are available, they’ll probably go to the photographers who have contracts with teams or sponsors. It’s very difficult for a freelancer to get his or her own scooter.
7. When you rely on shuttles at a track that is so large you can’t effectively walk an efficient route over the course of a 45 minute race, you are in Fate’s fickle hands.
Given those facts, here’s what happened on Sunday.
It’s my habit to use the Moto3 and Moto2 races as rehearsals for how I’ll approach the main event. How long can I stay on the grid and still make it to where I want to be for the first lap? Some tracks have good first lap photo opportunities, places where you can get the pack of riders before they spread out too much. Other tracks just don’t.
COTA does have such a spot, as the first turn offers a nice perspective with pit lane, a grandstand, etc. as a background. I was interested to see when I arrived on Thursday that the scaffolding behind Turn 1 was still in place.
This is used for Formula 1 to get a very nice wide shot from an elevated perspective. When I asked if we would be allowed to use the scaffold on Sunday, however, I was informed that we would not.
To Dorna’s credit, the media officer asked the track people specifically about this, but she was told that the scaffolding was only for the one TV camera and that no photographers would be allowed up there.
Why? No explanation given, it was just one of those situations where fussing about it is pointless. So I decided to focus my attention on the grid for the MotoGP race.
I was glad I did when Lorenzo made his epic false start, because I was right there with a unique perspective of the event. But once the race began, it was time to move around the circuit getting images that told the story.
I walked to the bottom of the hill and looked around for a photo shuttle, but found myself all alone. This was different from the earlier races, when there had been a van at this spot waiting to take photographers up the hill. (There was a shuttle outside the gate, but for some reason it went off in the opposite direction).
No big deal. I started walking up toward the top of Turn 1. I’d shoot as I walked until shuttle came along.
Each time the pack came by, I would duck under the fence so I could shoot from behind the Armco. But lap after lap clicked off, and still no shuttle.
I waited with growing impatience for a shuttle to appear so that I could follow my plan, which was: spend 10 minutes at the section between Turns 9 and 10, getting shots with the grandstands in the background.
Then hop on the next shuttle and go to the section between 15 and 18, work there until six or seven laps to go, then walk if needed past Turn 20 to shoot the final turn. I’d then be there for the podium, and would be done for the day.
It was a solid plan except for its reliance on the shuttles. Turn 1 at COTA has several good perspectives of the track, most of which I’d worked earlier in the weekend. So I was growing more frustrated as one lap after another slipped by, and I was still at Turn 1. It wasn’t until lap 10 of the 21 lap race that the first shuttle appeared slowing climbing the hill. Finally!
I figured I could still shoot Turn 18 if I abandoned my plan to start at 15 and work my way around. Turns 9 and 10 were out of the question at this point. The shuttle arrived at last, I climbed in, endured the friendly driver’s inquires about how I was enjoying the race, and tried to suggest as politely as possible that we should get going.
We did, only to run into the inevitable situation. We could hardly go a hundred meters before having to stop for another photographer who had also been stranded for half the race.
At this point the time required to load photographers in the back seats of vans was more of a burden than earlier in the weekend. Laps were ticking off, opportunities were going away, money was being lost. After a couple of stops the van was full and we chugged along in a large can of tension and frustration.
I reconsidered my strategy yet again. As we passed photographers even less fortunate than we were because they had to wait for the next shuttle and hope it had empty seats, I realized that my chances of stopping to shoot for a while and then finding a seat on a later shuttle were too low to risk.
I was going to have to bet my bankroll on Turn 18, or go to Turn 20 and see if anything happened at the final corner on the final laps. Turn 18 is one of my favorite spots at this track. You can get close to the riders as they slide the rear around this right-hander, and they seem to look almost directly at you.
There is a brightly colored background from the red and blue paint they use at some sections of this track. I had not been to this turn yet: 18 is most exciting when the riders are going fast, and I like it best during the race for this reason.
But because of the battles going on behind the two leaders, I thought that I’d kick myself for not being at Turn 20 if I stayed at Turn 18. So I did what I thought would be best, only to regret it later.
I stayed on the shuttle as we passed 18, and got off at the final turn. I didn’t see much that was very compelling at Turn 20, in spite of this strategy almost paying off when Marquez came so close to losing it on that final turn.
So I ended up shooting only Turns 1 and 20, the first and the last. Not at all what I’d had in mind at the start of the race.
If I’d known it would be half the race before a shuttle arrived, I’d have done things a lot differently. But there was no way to know that, given that the shuttles had been pretty reliable for the first two races, and in fact for the entire weekend up until then. But each race I attend I learn something new, even as I begin my sixth season as a MotoGP photographer.
I should’ve kept moving rather than waiting at Turn 1. If I had, I’d have more variety of images for the first half of the race. But then I might have been one of those who weren’t able to get on the first shuttle because it was already full.
So maybe I did the right thing after all. I guess I’m not sure what I learned. Perhaps instead of learning something new, I just learned the same thing yet again: Even a bad day photographing MotoGP is better than a good day doing almost anything else.
Scott Jones is a professional photographer who covers MotoGP and WSBK for racing industry clients as well as racing websites and publications in the U.S. and Europe. His online archive is available at Photo.GP, and you can find him on his blog, Twitter, & Facebook.
All images posted, shared, or sent for editorial use or review are registered for full copyright protection at the Library of Congress.
Photo: © 2014 Scott Jones / Scott Jones Photography – All Rights Reserved