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A Flock of Fourteen Fifties Flog Lucerne – MDR Night Race

After a two month break from desert racing I ventured out to Lucerne Valley, California on August 15th for the MDR California Championship Series, California 200 night race.  It has been a couple of years since I shot this race and being the final night race of the season I was not going to miss it.

My day started at 6am loading all my gear into the truck.  Being back in the desert means lots of extra equipment: 2 spare tires, air tank, cooler, spare parts, tools, floorjack, tent, sleeping bag, generator and more.  Then all my regular camera gear and all my lighting gear since it was a night race.

While on Highway 247, just a few miles from the turn off to main pit I spotted this guy cruising along with a giant purple paper mache elephant, I always see a lot of strange things in the desert.

Nikon D300, 17-55mm, ISO200, F2.8, 1/5000th.

I pulled into the main pits about 12:30pm and shortly after set out on my prerun lap of the 50 mile race course.

The race would be run on the Lurcerne A course, it has always been known for being pretty smooth and fast.  My prerun confirmed this, the majority of the course was quite smooth which was going to make my work harder that night making action shots.  One of the only features I really liked was at race mile 40 but it was going to be a crap shoot.  Leading up to RM40 was a high speed section with small whoops and out of nowhere is a deep hole with steep angles.  Most people would be on the brakes but I was counting on someone forgetting about it in the dark and stuffing their car at high speed.

After finishing my prerun lap I went back out on course to recheck out a couple of potential spots and plan my route to get to the spots without driving on the race course.  I found this abandoned car on one of the chase roads.

An abandoned car on Camp Rock Rd.

An abandoned car on Camp Rock Rd.

Nikon D700, 16mmFe, ISO200, f5.6, 1/8000th.

The Rockpile at race mile 4 is infamous at this race.  There is a small jump as the racers crest a hill followed by a second small jump, what makes it unique are the hundreds of fans that gather there very close to the course.  It is the US version of Zoo Road in San Felipe.  Many photo and video dorks are always at the rockpile amongst the crowd.  I planned to shoot here for my first location but as usual I wanted to do things a little different.

My plan was to incorporate the crowd into the shots since big crowds that close to the course are unique to this race and to me a big part of telling the story of the Night Race.  I climbed up to the top of the rockpile to check out what the down angle would look like and shoot some test photos of people prerunning.

A view from the bottom of The Rockpile.

A view from the bottom of The Rockpile.

Nikon D300, 17-55mm, ISO100, F5.6,  1/800th.

A spectator jumps The Rockpile before the race.

A spectator jumps The Rockpile before the race.

Nikon D700, 400mm, ISO200, f6.3, 1/800th.

Shortly after climbing the pile I spotted this guy running up to the jump with a fair amount of speed.  I set up to shoot him and was not disappointed.  He was within a few millimeters from going end over end, but he got lucky and stayed rubber side down on his landing.

A spectator jumpos The Rockpile and endo upon landing.

A spectator jumps The Rockpile and endos upon landing.

Nikon D700, 400mm, ISO200, f6.3, 1/800th.

Up on the ridge I worked my way down course to get more of a head on angle on the first jump and side shot of the second jump.  I saw some nice light on my buddy Trevor sitting on the rocks.

Trevor Flahart looks out on the valley below.

Trevor Flahart looks out on the valley below.

Nikon D300, 17-55m, ISO100, f5.6, 1/250th.

Just before climbing down I spotted the red bug again as he was launching the jump, I brought up my camera as fast as I could and I was able to catch his landing.  As I expected things went wrong for him.  Again he got incredibly lucky and despite the right rear wheel breaking off he stayed rubber side down.  Note the  guy grilling in the background.  He never looked away from the grill during the crash.

A spectator crashes while jumps the rockpile.

A spectator crashes while jumping the rockpile.

Nikon D700, 400mm, ISO200, f10, 1/800th.

Nikon D700, 400mm, ISO200, f10, 1/800th.

Nikon D700, 400mm, ISO200, f10, 1/800th.

Nikon D700, 400mm, ISO200, f10, 1/800th.

An enterprising Ice Cream man brought his truck out to the rock pile to keep fans cool.

ICE CREAM!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

ICE CREAM!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Nikon D300, 17-55mm, ISO100, f5.6, 1/1250th.

I left the rockpile and dropped off my buddy Trevor at the AZ pits then drove back to the Rockpile to setup for the race.  I put an Alien Bee 1600 strobe next to the course a few feet after the lip of the first jump with a generator so I could keep the recycle time low.  I then climbed the Rockpile again and waited for the race to start.  The crowds were much larger now and the sun was setting as they waited for airtime from the racers.

General view of the race course before the start.

General view of the race course before the start.

Nikon D700, 16mmFE, ISO200, f11, 1/800th.

At 7pm George Pondella took the green flag and the race was underway.

George Pondella jumps at Race Mile 4.

George Pondella jumps at Race Mile 4.

Nikon D700, 400mm, ISO200, f2.8, 1/800th.

The main feature of the night was the 1400 and 1450 truck classes.  They accounted for 65 of the 87 pre entries.  This is considered a budget class with minimal rules.  Anyone who has been involved with racing knows that rules just make racing cost more.  Aside from safety equipment like a cage and fuel cell the only rules for 1400/1450 are the vehicles must have a steel cab and working doors.  Everything else is wide open.  Unlimited suspension, motor, manufacturer, vehicle style etc; you could build a ’72 Cadillac Coupe De Ville with a supercharged Mercedes diesel engine and Ford I beam suspension.

For the first lap I would shoot the racers on both jumps.

Kelly Boyle races through The Rockpile.

Kelly Boyle races through The Rockpile.

Nikon D700, 400mm, ISO320, f2.8, 1/1000th.

Geoff Falzone launches off the second jump at The Rockpile.

Geoff Falzone launches off the second jump at The Rockpile.

Nikon D700, 400mm, ISO500, f2.8, 1/1000th.

I also wanted some wider shots to show the crowd.

Cory Clarzio races through Race Mile 4.

Cory Clarzio races through Race Mile 4.

Nikon D700, 70-200mm, ISO800, f3.5, 1/500th.

I made the short climb to the backside of the rockpile to get some shots of the racers and they crossed the valley floor below.

Racers race across the desert.

Racers leave dust trails on the valley floor.

Nikon D700, 400mm, ISo1000, f4, 1/800th.

George Pondella races through Race Mile 45

George Pondella leads the race near the end of lap 1.

Nikon D700, 400mm, ISO1000, f3.5, 1/800th.

As I was shooting the above shot I noticed the 2nd place car coming in so I tilted the camera vertically to get both in the shot.

George Pondella leads Mike Bilek during lap 1.

George Pondella leads Mike Bilek during lap 1.

Nikon D700, 400mm, ISO1000, f3.5, 1/800th.

I climbed down from the Rockpile and shot more ¾ shots using the Alien Bee strobe on the first jump.  Again I wanted some of the crowd in the shot and I set things up so just a little light would fall on the people on the west side of the jump.

The Rockpile lit with an Alien Bee 1600.

The Rockpile lit with an Alien Bee 1600.

Nikon D700, 70-200mm, ISO800, f2.8, 1/250th, AB1600.

Kenny Walker at The Rockpile.

Kenny Walker at The Rockpile.

Nikon D700, 70-200mm, ISO800, f2.8, 1/250th, AB1600.

Later I put on a star filter to take advantage of all the lights on the racecars.

Dan Vance aka The Franchise jumps at the Rockpile.

Dan Vance aka The Franchise jumps at the Rockpile.

Nikon D700, 70-200mm, ISO800, f5, 1/250th, AB1600, Star Filter.

As the cars would approach the jump they would backlight some of the fans so I changed lenses and got low to take advantage of the backlighting.

Nikon D700, 50mm, ISO6400, F1.4, 1/250th.

Nikon D700, 50mm, ISO4000, f1.4, 1/250th.

After the leader came though for their 3rd of 4 laps I packed up my gear, jumped in the truck and setup again at Race Mile 40.  This was where I was hoping to get someone stuffing in the surprise hole.  As I was setting up the Alien Bee a driver was on the gas and moving fast.  To my amazement he never lifted and just skipped over the hole.  Since the lights were down I missed a really cool shot but I was very impressed happy to have watched it since I am still just a fan of racing at heart.

A racer jumps the hole at Race Mile 40.

A racer jumps the hole at Race Mile 40.

Nikon D700, 70-200mm, ISO3200, f2.8, 1/160th.

I set up on the east side of the course and there were two lines the drivers could take.  Most were taking the line to the west and that is what I setup for.  However, a few would take the east line closer to me making things a bit sketchy.  Depth perception is poor at night, especially when stareing at a wall of HID lights head on.  Doing it through the viewfinder of a camera only makes it worse.  This made it tough to tell which line the cars were going to take and I was standing in the tire tracks on the near line to get the angle I wanted for the far line.  This led to a couple of close calls as I bailed to my right when cars took the near line at the last minute.

I setup the strobe off to the side and slightly in front of the hole.  I like how the side light falls on the cars and it often throws light on the drivers face.  At the daytime races most drivers have a tinted helmet shield or sunglasses, add in cab shadows and its very tough to see the face and eyes.  The clear shields and low angle light let me get a unique look in the shots.

Tim Scott at Race Mile 40.

Tim Scott takes the far line at Race Mile 40.

Nikon D700, 70-200mm, ISO640, f4.5, 1/250th. AB1600.

John Manring takes the near line at Race Mile 40.

John Manring takes the near line at Race Mile 40.

Nikon D700, 70-200mm, ISO500, f4, 1/250th, AB1600.

So far everyone had remembered to check up for the hole but I was certain someone would forget.  Jonathan Libby caught the edge of his skidplate coming out of the whole but my camera was a little slow to focus and ruined the shot.

Jonathan Libby hits the hole at Race Mile 40.

Jonathan Libby hits the hole at Race Mile 40.

Nikon D700, 70-200mm, ISO500, f2.8, 1/250th, AB1600.

Thirteen minutes later George Rosenbaum charged towards me and stuffed his front end into the hole throwing up a huge cloud of dust.

Georege Rosenbaum stuffs his truck into the hole at Race Mile 40.

Georege Rosenbaum stuffs his truck into the hole at Race Mile 40.

Nikon D700, 70-200mm, ISO500, f3.2, 1/250th, AB1600.

In the second, third and fourth shot of the sequence the truck is obscured by dirt with just bits of the bumper or light coming through with the flying dirt sharp.  That combined with the black background at the edges made some of my favorite shots of the season.

Nikon D700, 70-200mm, ISO500, f3.2, 1/250th, AB1600.

Nikon D700, 70-200mm, ISO500, f3.2, 1/250th, AB1600.

Nikon D700, 70-200mm, ISO500, f3.2, 1/250th, AB1600.

Checking the shots on camera I actually let out of yell of elation after having nailed it.  With a shot like that in the bag my whole trip was worth it and I considered packing up early but I stuck it out for awhile longer until the leader came by on his final lap.

Mike Bilek races through mile 40 on lap 4 en route to winning the overall.

Mike Bilek races through mile 40 on lap 4 en route to winning the overall.

Nikon D700, 70-200mm, ISO500, f2.8, 1/250th, AB1600.

I packed up the gear and headed back to main pit for some leftover food and cold beers with friends.  A few hours sleep and I was on the road home again.  Door to door it was a 29 hour trip, I fired off 1666 photos and drove 818 miles.  Tomorrow its off to Las Vegas for the BITD Vegas to Reno :The Long Way” race.  Thanks to all the racers for putting on a great show.

My trip by the numbers

My trip by the numbers. Max speed is classified.

Nikon D300, 17-55mm, ISO200, f2.8, 1/640th.

See more photos from the MDR California 200 here.

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