Wednesday, November 2, 2016


I LOST MY NASCAR VIRGINITY IN JUST ABOUT THE BIGGEST WAY POSSIBLE. I have always wanted to see a NASCAR race, and while a few events on the Sprint Cup calendar are within driving distance of Toronto, I knew that thanks to liquor laws in most of Canada, I'd hold my breath forever if I wanted to see a race on this side of the border.

I'd furtively plotted out potential NASCAR day trips to Michigan or Watkins Glen, or a pilgrimage to Indianapolis, but at the end of this spring my wildest dreams were surpassed when a travel gig started coming together that would put me in the infield at Alabama's Talladega Superspeedway for a whole race weekend.

The first thing that struck me about Talladega was the scale, with the infield seeming to stretch out forever, with paddocks and garages, support buildings, a whole road course and several RV campgrounds contained within the tri-oval. After the scale, it's the precision and organization that blew my mind, especially when I came across the parking lot for the transporters, with its long line of identical blue Peterbilts.

I was given a pass that was virtually all access, so I could wander the place at will, from the hardcore partiers on Talladega Boulevard to Pit Road. The U.S. elections were halfway throug their final bitter month when I arrived, and it wasn't surprising that NASCAR isn't exactly a hotbed of Hillary supporters.

My biggest thrill was hearing that Bobby and Donnie Allison were the honorary grand marshall and starter of the race. These were, of course, the men that tussled with Cale Yarborough at the end of the legendary 1979 Daytona 500 that was probably the genesis of NASCAR's wild explosion in popularity, so I had to hurry away fromthe driver's meeting before the race on Sunday to shoot them signing books, hats, t-shirts and die-cast cars for fans.

The most striking moment was the calm before the big race, where fans, crew, drivers and their families all mingled on Pit Road, and where you can see something like a willowy driver's wife in a flowing dress playing with her son on the grass between the pits and the start/finish straight.

Wheel and jack men stretched and did calisthenics while the giants who hefted the fuel bowsers basked like mighty beasts before a stampede. Drivers looked as tense as you'd expect them too, conferring with crew chiefs and engineers in little pockets of logo-covered uniforms.

The big revelation was how hard it is to shoot a NASCAR race. Towers for photographers are helpfully provided near the corners of the track, but photo holes were difficult to find, and the holy grail shot I wanted - a pack of cars hugging the steep banking, compressed into one tight composition by a telephoto lens - seemed impossible to shoot. It was easy to understand when I studied the fencing alongside the track, and realized how heavy these cars are, and the force at which they'd hit the walls in a big crash. I felt spoiled by shooting street courses, though.

The race was completely different in the stands, where the cars roared past on the long front straight just feet away from the crowd. My backup shot - a decent shot of a pit stop - was much easier to get, especially when a couple of cars had wrecked and their crews quickly packed up and left their pit boxes empty for anyone with a hot pass to stand in for the rest of the race.

Joey Logano ended up winning the race, which almost ended under a safety car, and was criticized by some grumbling about the "take it easy" strategy of the Joe Gibbs team, who ran in a little pack just behind the rest of the cars for most of the day. It was frankly almost impossible to follow as I trekked from the infield to the stands and back to the pits under the bright sun all afternoon, but despite the blur of sensations, I can say that I popped my NASCAR cherry in style.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Behind the scenes at the Toronto Honda Indy 2016

THE HONDA INDY TOOK OVER THE EXHIBITION GROUNDS and Lakeshore Road again last weekend, with a full card of support races that included the return of NASCAR to Toronto after five years. Australia’s Will Power was the winner at the end of the weekend, while last year’s winner, Josef Newgarden, crashed on lap 58, right in front of where I was taking pictures.

It only looks like a race weekend like the Honda Indy is about the cars, but there are hundreds of people working flat out behind the wheel, in the paddocks and in the pits. I talked to eight of them, asking them about everything from the changes made to the track this year to how women are making their way into motorsport to the future of racing beyond the internal combustion engine and why NASCAR isn’t bigger in Canada.

Markham-born Daniel Morad was the only driver who competed in two different series during the Honda Indy weekend, racing in the Ultra 94 Porsche GT3 Cup series and accepting a last minute invitation to fill a seat in the NASCAR Pinty’s Series. Morad finished seventh in the NASCAR stock car and came first in the Porsche on Saturday and second on Sunday.

The team owner gave me a ring on Friday morning - I was still in bed at that point - and he said go get your medical forms taken care of from NASCAR. Luckily I have a doctor who can take care of that really quickly. I probably set record time going to the doctor's offices and back to make it in the car in time."

"I literally went from the doctor's office to my race seat and practice, my first time ever in a NASCAR. I'm really excited to race in this series - rubbin's racing they say, and you're allowed to do it, whereas in the Porsche you're supposed to keep it nice and pristine. It's beautiful German engineering and the car is fantastic to drive. Two contrasting types of cars - one's trying to murder you out there and the other drives like a dream."

Jean-Francois Dumoulin (left) and his brother Louis-Philippe Dumoulin (right) are from Trois-Rivieres, Quebec and compete against each other in the NASCAR Pinty’s Series. They talked about the changes to the Toronto track and what’s needed to make NASCAR bigger in Canada. Louis-Philippe finished fourth and Jean-Francois finished tenth at the end of Saturday’s race.

L.P. Dumoulin: “It's a great circuit - fast corners, slow corners, you're right between walls. We're used to it because we're from another street circuit, so it's a great place. They did some changes this year. I really liked the older configuration. This one is alright - we'll so how it goes during the race. Visually there's a lot of distractions - lights and posts and fences and you really have to pick your reference points quickly."

J.F. Dumoulin: “I think the social media is a big thing now. NASCAR needs to be stronger on that and on live TV. Because we have TV but it's hard to see it because it's a week after - when it's happening people are more willing to watch it."

Sara Price was the first woman to drive in the Stadium Super Trucks series, a big fan favorite in Toronto since it first raced here in 2013. Price, a 23-year-old motocross racer from California, led for the first three laps of Sunday’s race and ended up finishing ninth when her brakes began to fail.

I think in today's society a lot of women are coming up and a lot of girls are getting empowered and having their own voice. Obviously it takes a strong, independent girl to stick around the guys, and a lot of guys are looking at the women and giving them a lot of respect because they're looking at them as just another racer in another colour, not just a female. I think that's awesome and a lot of women should get into it because when you're in it it's amazing."

Scarborough-raised Neil Campbell is a mechanic working for Andretti Motorsports, with 25 years of experience in the business. He’s part of Marco Andretti’s Indycar crew; Andretti finished tenth.

“Those Formula E electric cars, they're going to be the future. In ten years you're going to see everything in that formula, and you can see how amazing that racing is, and I think we're heading that way. Especially with Andretti being part of Formula E in the next few years you're going to see the Indycars going that way as well, it just depends on the costs - one the costs go down in our development with Formula E, when we get a hang on that, we'll start doing that on IndyCar as well."

Alexander Rossi is in his rookie season in Indycar, but he’s a veteran of several international racing series, including Formula 1, where he’s still a reserve driver for Manor Racing. He was the winner of this year’s Indianapolis 500 after starting eleventh, the first rookie to win the race since 2001.

“I think initially there was a lot of shock related to it, because I couldn't fully process it. And then as the weeks went on it was very difficult to come to the realization that you've won because we had Detroit after that and Texas right after that. So it took about a month for it to settle in, and it was a very special thing for me to be an American who was able to win the 100th running and to be able to do it for Honda. After what was such a difficult year last year, it was such a tremendous privilege and honour."

Kate Gundlach is an assistant race engineer for Chip Ganassi Racing, where she works on the timing stand in pit lane on driver Charlie Kimball’s team. She grew up around her father’s vintage motorcycle racing team and has a mechanical engineering degree from the University of Pennsylvania.

Toronto is extremely difficult, considering it's a street circuit and there's a lot that's not under our control - there are bumps, pavement changes, weather, pedestrian traffic that makes it unpredictable. It's hard to manage, and when you watch these cars go around the track in videos there's at least one tire off the ground at all times. It's tough for them to be within half a second of each other across the whole field - it's pretty impressive.”

Simon Pagenaud was the points leader going into the Honda Indy weekend in Toronto, and despite only finishing ninth, he retained his lead of 47 points over Will Power. He raced at Le Mans before joining Indycar in 2011 and is known for his obsession with the technical side of racing.

“The car is good. We're going to make some slight adjustments. It's been a good weekend. We have a new layout here that I enjoy, personally. People always complain about changes I guess, but I'm the opposite way. I like changes, I think it makes it more challenging, and it shows the driver's skills more to the fans. When the fans come to the racetrack they want to see a car sliding, they want to see a narrow track, they want to see action, and I think we're providing that with this new layout and I'm excited about it."