AutoMatters & More: Photographing the 2023 NHRA Winternationals at Pomona Dragstrip
Drag racing events offer participants and spectators alike the opportunity to experience many, many races, start-to-finish, in mere seconds. Much can and does happen in the blink of an eye.
I’ve been photographing professional and amateur motorsports for decades, but NHRA professional drag racing presents some unique challenges. Important choices must be made, including where to shoot from, what to shoot, which equipment to use and at what settings, and more. Unlike when photographing other forms of motorsports, if even one mistake is made in making those choices, I can blow an entire race in an instant.
I try to tell story with my event photography — not just of the racing, but also about the rest of the event, including exploring the spectator areas filled with vendors, exhibits and the competitors’ garages.
Beginning in 2023, this track has a new name: In-N-Out Burger Pomona Dragway, complete with new signage and some fresh paint and flags. That, too, is an important part of the story to be told.
As I explored I spotted and photographed an In-N-Out Burger concession stand. Later, I also spotted a spectator sitting in the grandstands enjoying an In-N-Out burger, so I photographed that, too.
When shooting the actual racing, shooting locations at the NHRA drag races are, as in other forms of motorsports, somewhat restricted by the organizers and sanctioning bodies. We apply in advance for our photo credentials, and are told where we may and may not shoot from. This is for everyone’s safety, and so as not to interfere with the competition.
For the NHRA Winternationals, we were allowed to shoot from the outside of the two fairly low walls that immediately border the dragstrip. Furthermore, we were not allowed to go beyond a certain point down the track, and we were not allowed to shoot from the end of the track looking back towards the start area. However, we were also allowed to shoot from the grandstands, which would put us much closer to where the racers stop racing.
Where you stand determines what you will be able to capture in your photographs. When I stood along the wall looking towards the start line, I could easily fill my frame with one or both of the fire-breathing dragsters. Almost as soon as they begin to race they are beside me and then far down the track, which poses several challenges. First of all, when the cars are close beside you, you need a wide-angle lens, but as they disappear down the track, you need a long telephoto lens or they will just quickly become tiny dots in the frame. One lens that does it all is not part of typical camera gear, so one has to choose one or the other. I opted for a wide to midrange zoom lens, which I quickly adjusted from telephoto to wide and back to telephoto — as I swiveled to my left and tried to keep both cars in the frame — often less than completely successfully. To make matters even more challenging, when the cars were alongside me, the noise was nearly deafening — even with noise reducing headphones on. The ground literally shook.
Next, I moved way down the track towards the finish line, where I shot with a long zoom lens from the top row of the grandstands. From there I could shoot towards the start line and have a good vantage point as the cars approached the finish line and shutdown area.
As with photographing other forms of auto racing, a camera with great autofocus is extremely helpful. For that I use Canon’s excellent R3 bodies. It has a autofocus mode for shooting racing cars that really works well.
To keep dust and specks of rubber out of my cameras, where it would cause spots on the photos, I avoid having to change lenses at the track. Instead, I use two Canon R3 cameras — one with a medium range zoom lens (RF 24-240mm) and one with a longer zoom lens (RF 100-500mm). The amount of telephoto is limited because rising heat haze at long distances will distort your images.
For excellent coverage of the drag racing, see the NHRA’s “Weekend Rewind” at https://www.nhra.com/news/2023/weekend-rewind-2023-lucas-oil-nhra-winternationals.
To explore a wide variety of content dating back to 2002, with the most photos and the latest text, visit “AutoMatters & More” at https://automatters.net. Search by title or topic in the Search Bar in the middle of the Home Page, or click on the blue ‘years’ boxes and browse.
Copyright © 2023 by Jan Wagner – AutoMatters & More #785r1
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