Trackside Tuesday: There’s No Place Like Home

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This past weekend at Phillip Island was a memorable experience in two distinct but related ways. It was my first visit to this famous track, and I arrived with high expectations, but figured I’d be at least a little disappointed. For all the hyperbole heaped on Phillip Island’s GP course, how could it be that great?

But as I explored the track, which immediately reminded me of one of my favorite courses in the world, Donington Park, I found that once again, TV fails to deliver the full picture. Phillip Island not only has interesting and exciting turns and elevation changes, but is also set in a gorgeous landscape of green and blue.

It has few of the eyesores than usually adorn race tracks. There are no giant wire fences, very little Armco away from the pit lane, few trackside porta-potties or trailers, and from what I saw, no orange cones. Instead there are lush grasses and dense forests of trees, or blue ocean water with sea birds in the air.

Spectators are allowed close and unobstructed views of the track and we photographers are allowed even closer. If a TV stand or food vendor is spoiling your background, you can often move to a different position and make the distration disappear from the shot. When I first arrived I asked in the Media Center for a map of the Red Zones, places around the track they don’t want us to go.

I got a puzzled look and this reply: “Ummm, I don’t think there are any. Just go where you want unless a marshall objects.” There seems to be only one general rule: if you see a row of tires, don’t stand between the those tires and the track. If you can respect that amount of common sense, pretty much anywhere else is available.

So working there was a pleasure and I seemed to be in a land of nearly endless possibilities for images. I can imagine it would take years of shooting there regularly to be confident you’d found most of the really good perspectives.

But sometimes there was no viable perspective on the action and all I could do was watch and be thrilled. Watching Stoner ride through Turn 3, now for very good reason Stoner Corner, is simply one of the most exhilarating experiences a spectator can have at a motorbike race.

But it wasn’t only that corner where Casey was showing the home crowd how bitterly they will miss him. He was sliding his Repsol Honda around at will, quite simply riding on a higher level of skill than anyone else.

This was the second way the weekend was memorable. Casey is always my favorite rider to photograph, but this weekend he seemed to take his usually thrilling style up a notch, as a master giving a final performance for his dearest fans.

And as someone who has followed him around into hostile territory, where rude signs are shown and insults shouted, I was often smiling at how nice it must’ve been for him to feel the good will and love coming his way from the local crowd.

Watching him was inspiring. You could plainly see how badly he wanted to win his final (and sixth in a row) Australian GP. The element of his retirement meant that he was up to his neck in media attention, perhaps more microphones and video cameras in his face than ever before.

Yet he wasn’t playing it safe, relying on his vast knowledge of how to get around this circuit quickly. He was hanging off the bike, sliding it around, laying it all on the line. I was reminded of other riders who wanted badly to perform well in their home GPs but who, alas, were not, in the end, Casey Stoner. He delivered a perfect performance under extreme pressure as only a true champion can.

He has said that he’s retiring because he no longer enjoys MotoGP and has lost his passion for it. But it seemed clear that riding so well in front of 50,000+ Casey Stoner fans brought with it a distinct pleasure and satisfaction.

Being there to see it in person was certainly a pleasure, and as much as I’m looking forward to returning to Phillip Island as regularly as possible, I don’t expect I’ll ever see another weekend like this one.

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 blogTwitter, & Facebook.

All images posted, shared, or sent for editorial use or review are registered for full copyright protection at the Library of Congress.

Photo: © 2012 Scott Jones / Scott Jones Photography – All Rights Reserved