After learning about Wexford-based up-and-comer Kris Wright, I've decided to work on an extended series covering the racer in and out of his iHeartRadio branded car. Catch up on the series here.
The Rolex 24 at Daytona, as the 24 Hours of Daytona is currently sponsored to be known, is the largest endurance race in the United States and one of the top races the country has to offer.
For Wexford-based Kris Wright, however, it was a career-first endurance experience that almost saw the dominoes fall for a first place finish and an extremely exclusive wrist watch. He settled for a second place trophy, but certainly wasn't disappointed by it.
"I'm really happy," Wright told me. "None of us could have done anything different, or better, to change the outcome of the race. We did everything we could and we came away with second place which was a lot more than I was expecting in my first endurance race."
I had the pleasure of taking in my first endurance race as well which happened to ... well ... be the first auto race of any kind I've attended.
Not only was I there to witness Wright's podium finish with his Performance Tech team, but I was treated to a really good look at the world of endurance racing from behind the scenes and the perspective of a racer living out that 24-hour experience.
Spoilers: It's not easy to put your body through 24 hours of on-and-off racing.
I shot some photos of the car donning Wright's iHeartRadio branding, but my focus was on some of the things that happen around the track that aren't really shown during NBC's coverage of the event.
Things kicked off Saturday at the race track with a 'driver's meeting,' a closed door gathering of all of the drivers who would be sharing the road for a full day. I'm not a driver, so that wasn't something you'll see here ... but the next part got pretty fun.
After the meeting, drivers took off to their respective autograph sessions as fans gathered from their infield campgrounds and poured in through the gates. Wright and his team were no exception from the attention at their assigned table:
Fans brought shirts, posters, flags and other memorabilia to be signed by the racers. My favorite piece from the signing period was a fan who brought a massive checkered flag with black pens for the white squares and a gold one for the black:
I have no doubts that fan walked away from the Rolex 24 with one of the best collector's items of the weekend, but my favorite interaction at the autograph table belonged to a fan from New Jersey who challenged Kris to a race in his Dodge Demon.
The two agreed that the 840-horsepower Challenger variant would be an issue in a straight line, but Wright would run away with the race when any turns got involved. I imagine it feels similar to Sidney Crosby being challenged to a face off during a meet and greet, but it was a fun exchange to watch from the camera.
The next step in the day was fan influenced as well, as the drivers walked with their cars in the "fan walk," found their spot in the starting grid and then essentially ... hung out ... with fans, friends and crew members until it was time to send the first driver on each team to the driver's seat and start racing.
This is where I took a few of my favorite photos from the weekend. I shoot a lot of portraits and candids in what I do, especially around the baseball dugout, but this was a much different experience than being in an MLB park.
Basically, anyone with an upgraded wristband that allows "garage access" can find their way onto the actual race track and in the grass infield. Pretty awesome experience for the fans.
Not just the fans, either. It's a last chance for family and friends to really interact with the teams before they start the 24-hour adventure. Pictured above is Wright with IMG Academy friend Anthony Thomas, who came to see Kris drive for the first time.
People don't camp out at Daytona for a weekend just to meet with the drivers, though. Sooner or later, the cars hit the pavement, the four classes of vehicles separate into packs, drivers change, cars pit and they continue to do it for 24 hours.
Wright didn't start the race, and he wasn't the second driver, so there were roughly three hours from the start of the race before Wright took the wheel. I took in the start of the race from the grandstands, a massive half clamshell shape you fly over when landing in Daytona that is so massive you can't imagine it would be for a sporting event.
Seeing it, any part of it, is honestly a surreal experience. Especially from inside the track where I took that photo of Wright just above.
My first experience shooting any photos of racing during the Rolex 24 was after the light went away (when Wright took the car over) and the track was lit by the flood lights, headlights, brake lights and the RGB-themed exterior decorations reminiscent of the flashy, modern PC builds.
The LMP2 cars don't come with quite the flash that exists on the GTLM and GTD cars, but they still look good at night. The above photo is Wright accelerating to nearly 185 mph after heading around the third turn.
The image is "panned," meaning that I shot it with a slow shutter speed and tracked the moving car with the lens so the car came through in focus and the background blurred. It's a technique common in race photography that I use in baseball more than any other sport.
Of course, that meant obsessively trying to push the cameras to make an image with as slow a shutter speed as possible.
My favorite: A shot not of Kris or his team, but of a car I don't recognize with a driver I wouldn't know. I was just pushing myself in the middle of the night, extremely low on sleep, and decided to see if I could "make" a photograph shooting at a 1/2 second shutter speed:
Honestly, it's not a photo I'll use for more than printing for myself, but this is as good a place as any to share. When it gets to be the middle of the night, and you've seen cars complete laps a couple hundred times, your mind starts to wander. That above photo is 100-percent the result of that.
I did try, many times, to replicate that image with the Performance Tech car, but I was unsuccessful. This was probably the best 1/2 second pan of Wright I was able to get in the dark of the night:
It's different, but an artsy shot I felt like I could include in my coverage of a single racer as opposed to what I'd submit if I shot the race for the Associated Press, and I really enjoy having the license to do so.
If my brain was working like it was overloaded on toxic substances and craving blurry combinations of color, imagine what the racers were experiencing ...
At a 24-hour endurance race, it isn't uncommon for a driver or team to have an RV parked near the pits in a designated team parking area so the drivers can have a home base and a place to lay down between stints.
This was the first race Wright had an RV to call home, and it definitely appeared to pay off. Wright had a full size bed and one of the best restrooms I've ever seen in a camping vehicle and he was able to get rest after each drive.
The first rest came between 9 p.m. and midnight Saturday evening. That meant Wright would get behind the steering wheel one more time before the rains came. But, more on that soon.
Before rest could happen, Wright's coach Nic Jonsson made sure Wright was drinking the nutrients and protein he needed to make it through the event. That's him scooping protein powder like it's the bottom of a Brewster's ice cream barrel.
While Wright was resting, it was a good chance to get some photo work done on the computer, recharge with some food from Marion's Hospitality -- a food service for racers and their teams that's available at IMSA races and ... honestly ... pretty dang good.
Then Kris started to drive again, drove some more ... and then he drove some more. A quadruple stint and a little more is how it ended up. That means he was behind the wheel for more than two hours for his second turn to race. That's ... a lot.
That second set of stints is when I shot the colorful pans above, as well as this one I shot pretty wide while hanging out at that third turn:
That ended up being one of my favorite shots from the weekend as well, at least of the car.
When Wright finished driving near 3 a.m. on Sunday, I asked, "How are you feeling?" His response?
"This is the worst I've ever felt."
That's when Wright loaded up on scrambled eggs and watched the coverage on the RV's television while his brother (legs visible) caught up on some sleep on the couch.
That's when I did the same. It was a good time to head back to the hotel, catch up on four hours of sleep and then head right back to the track.
I didn't make it back to the track, though, before seeing how Mother Nature was handling the race. When I got to the lobby of the Home 2 by Hilton, located right across the street from Daytona International Speedway, I saw that the race was under a red flag and was waiting for conditions to improve so the race could resume.
The race did resume ... this time ... but the rain set the mood and theme for the second day of continuous racing.
The rain interfered with the race the rest of the day and made conditions treacherous at times. Pictured above, you can see the Performance Tech car kicking spray behind it from the wet pavement.
Cars started to spin relentlessly as the rain remained steady and it became obvious another red flag would stop the race as the cautions continued to pile up.
One of the keys to endurance racing is to simply ... last ... longer than your opponents in your class and that became obvious in the final hours of racing Sunday.
Wright told me multiple times going into the race that they had "a good race car thanks to iHeartRadio, MasterTech, PPG and Performance Tech taking care of the car." They knew that the DragonSpeed LMP2 cars were considerably faster than the Oreca car the Performance Tech team drove in the same class, but they knew that it was a car that could last the race and give them a chance to compete. That much became evident in the late stages of the rain.
After Wright's fourth set of stints, he got set in some comfortable clothes and sat back to watch the rest of the race on the couch of the RV.
That's an image of Wright with his father, Ken, as they watched the race play out. Just before the race went into caution, the car leading the LMP2 class spun out and wrecked the front end of the vehicle. That car, featuring Pastor Maldonado, who has had success at the F1 level, was able to fix the front end as the race went into caution -- with only a four lap lead on Wright's team.
That's when the race went back into a red flag ... one that would eventually end the race prematurely.
That time, waiting to find out if the cars would ever touch the road again, was a stressful period in the RV. Wright, his family and his team knew that if the race started, even just under caution for a period of time, they had a chance to take the top spot in the class.
Wright, in particular, drove the fastest lap times in the LMP2 class during the rain. So he and the team knew there was a chance to win if it restarted.
What they didn't know at the time was that the faster DragonSpeed LMP2 car that held the lead ... it would never restart. So, basically, they just needed 15 minutes of caution laps around Daytona and the team would have taken home the Rolex prizes and the top spot in the class.
But, the red flag never came down, the race ended and Wright and his team settled for a second place finish ... but one they were extremely proud of.
"I really wanted to win this thing," said Wright. "We were so close. We were so happy to be where we were, but we were so close. All we needed were a couple more laps."
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