Tuesday, August 8, 2017

A Second Helping: My Time At The Honda Indy 200

            2017 Has been quite the year for me to say the least. If you had told me a year ago that people like Robin Miller would even know my name, let alone offer up advice on how to “make it” in racing media on a frequent basis, I'd have thought you were crazy. But, this past April, magic happened. Well, magic for me anyway.

During my first experience, on Friday at Barber, I struck up conversation with Mr. Miller on pit road...during a practice session being taped for NBC Sports. I'm not exactly certain it was the most professional time and place, him being on the clock and all, but when your journalism hero is standing right beside you, it's hard not to be tenacious and speak up. We talked at length in the media center, exchanged business cards, and went about our assignments.

He told me to email him and send him a story that I could shop around by the following Wednesday. I did, of course. He passed it around, it got overwhelming approval, but as the luster of the weekend faded, I returned to my bargain bin Bruce Wayne life of stand up comedy and co-hosting Sports Viewpoints with Bill Bolen at TV39.
When a TV station is in a single wide trailer (And was once a UPN affiliate), you know you're working on borrowed time. Even in April, it was entirely possible the station would close before my piece on Barber even aired.
By late spring, I had put in place plans to move, and it just so happens Chattanooga's Tower of Low Power was to cease operations on July 1st with the final Sports Viewpoints airing the night before. We went out with a bang, sipping champagne on the air and reminiscing about shows long past.
Just days later I found myself out of a job, living with my brother and his wife in Dayton, Ohio.

So what do you do when your TV show gets canceled? I reached out to another pal, Pat Caporali, IndyCar's senior manager of media relations. We met at Barber and have stayed in touch. She's turned out to be one of the most helpful people I could ask for. I told her the position I was in, and she invited me to work as media at Mid-Ohio. Great! Except now with no name but my own to rely on, what was I supposed to do?
I did all I know to do, and that's book a hotel, put on my road trip playlist (The Strokes, Tom Petty, and Pearl Jam mostly), jump in the Ford Fiesta and party on over to Lexington.

My first impression of the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course reminded me of home. It had a more rustic, farm style look than I expected. Honestly, when driving in it looked like the kind of field where Billy Corgan would have wanted a Smashing Pumpkins video shot in the 90s. Maybe I was spoiled by how pristine Barber is. It took me by surprise, but the down home charm hooked me in and made me fall in love. This was, after all, only my second trip to a road course as media, so I was very much star-crossed.
Mid-Ohio is popular among fans and personnel alike for its tremendous campsites. The sea of tents and RVs in the lot is impressive, and it's no surprise campsites are in such high demand given the views from every inch of the course. This place, although showing its age, is still just as beautiful as I imagine it was when the first generation of Rahal and Andretti were going toe to toe there.
The media center is in The Treehouse, the big tower behind pit road, and upon entering I quickly felt more like I was at summer camp than a race. This was going to be a fun weekend.

I got there just about as early as possible on Saturday morning. The media center opens at 7AM and I was checking in for the weekend at 7:15. With no cars on track, I ran to the paddock and shot some beautiful breakfast time B-Roll (I just love alliterations). Pat came to greet me shortly after 9 and I was off to the races, pun very much intended. She reintroduced me to her coworkers and to some new people with whom I'm eager to work at some point, but the coolest thing she showed me was the view of the paddock. It's amazing, and it's not just for media, it's for fans too. You can walk up a short set of steps and look down at your team of choice working on their car. It's a full overhead view, one from which you can see everything. It's a one of a kind experience exclusive to Mid-Ohio, and one that any gearhead will appreciate.

One of the big things I noticed throughout the weekend was just how interactive IndyCar is. It reinforced a lot of what I learned at Barber. If a driver is within a fan's line of sight, they're more than happy to take a photo or sign an autograph. Even the legends of the sport like Mario Andretti take time to speak with fans. I saw two younger women gushing over getting to meet the once ruler of the racing world as if they were teens meeting the Backstreet Boys in 1999. Unlike other forms of racing where drivers are often behind a fence and hard to talk to, IndyCar's stars are friendly and more than willing to make a fan's day. Nowhere else was this more proven than when I assisted in Graham Rahal's judging of the annual campground decorating contest. Originally just for contestants, Graham hauled  3 boxes of t-shirts to give away. Rahal is the hometown hero, the fan favorite, and word got around quickly that he was riding around the campground. He gave a shirt to each and every fan who asked for one, passing them out like Halloween candy. He even threw some at unsuspecting campers. What was supposed to take an hour turned into three as he took selfies, signed autographs...oh yeah, and judged the contest. It turned out to be a lot of fun.

Meanwhile I had shot 4 hours of footage throughout the day, and qualifying was next up. Pat told me I could shoot the P1 Award celebration alongside the “real” production crew and photographers. I was nervous yet excited. Imagine being a teenager getting asked out by the prom king. It's tense, but the kind of tension you live for. This was, after all, my first chance to mix it up with any and everyone who shoots this sport and gets paid for it. And if I ever want to rock The Peacock on my polo shirts, I'd darn well better get in there and mix it up like my Mom's chili. And I'd say it went well, nosing my way into the pit and getting within a brush stroke of PoleWinner Will Power's silver and red Chevy, being front and center for his reception of his 49th P1 Award trophy. Not bad for my first time being thrown in with the sharks.

After qualifying, exhausted doesn't even begin to describe how I felt. 36 Hours with no sleep, combined with the massive adrenaline dump meant I was falling asleep in my dinner at Denny's. I felt like Elvis that time he passed out in soup, except the burns on my face were from the sun. To decompress, I spent an hour in the hotel pool and decided to not even think about the race day ahead. I plugged my camera batteries in to charge, put on some Lou Reed, and fell asleep on the pull out couch.

I awoke a few hours later to race day, and if those two words don't excite you, nothing will. The tension in the press room, the drama on track, it's the kind of thing that gets your blood pumping. I shot footage on the grid for the first time, and I noticed a strange juxtaposition between the innocent jubilation of the fans and the brutally intense focus of drivers and teams. Peeking in on a Team Penske prerace pep talk with The Captain himself hammered home the point that this was serious business, even if just yards away fans were going wild over the mere sight of team owner (and personal hero) David Letterman.

When the grid was cleared to begin the race, I was kicked out of pit road. Security was confused as to which pass meant which, the only complaint I have about the whole weekend. When that was resolved, I watched part of the race from behind the pitbox of Graham Rahal. He was running near the front and was a short jog from the eventual winner's pitbox. Everything was going great until about halfway in when I went to scratch my ear and it felt like it had exploded. The sound was even more savage. I ran to the medical center behind pit road where, after a series of questions that put blood banks to shame, I was told I had severe sunburn and that what had exploded was a blister. I was given some burn cream and was back in the game.

The drivers were gearing up for the only restart of the day, and realizing this might be a repeat of Barber, I ran down to the pitbox of Josef Newgarden. Watching the finish of a race from behind the pitbox of the winner is emotionally intimidating. The nailbiting, the anxiety that this could be the moment all hell breaks loose and the race is lost-surely, I thought, these guys have been here before, right? I mean, it's Penske. I realized that doesn't matter, winning  is a dream come true every time, and losing feels like a dagger in the heart. Walking that line until the fat lady sings is excruciating.

Newgarden won, and for the second time this year I got to run to victory lane. It's pretty funny, if you watch the broadcast, you can see a green dot rushing to get as good a shot, to get as close to the car as possible. That's me. I was in the best position, able to sit on the left sidepod if I so chose. The next thing I know, I'm next to Roger Penske, across from Will Power, Josef gets out of the car and I get the best shot of my career- or so I thought. My battery went dead and the file became corrupted mid-shot. I was furious, but I decided to make up for it at the podium celebration. Third time I had to wade through a sea of journalists and photographers, and I think I'm getting the hang of this. Even though I busted my best pair of dress pants crawling under someone, bah gawd I was once again at the front, getting a clear shot of the confetti cannons showering the top three with paper stars. I felt like I had done myself proud by hanging tough with the big dogs, something I continued to do in the press conference. Those are funny, because new journalists seem to have to ask tough, out of the box questions to get noticed and earned respect. I asked Josef about whether he was nervous or not about St. Louis being the only track at which he hasn't raced, and how the pressure of being the points leader could affect that. I proved, at least to myself anyway, that I actually knew what I was doing and could thrive in this environment if given a week to week chance.

When the champagne evaporated and the sun began to set, I shot my wrap arounds and went back to the Treehouse to say thanks to Pat, Mike Kitchel, and everyone who made the weekend possible. This series is filled with good people and I'm happy to get to join them when possible. It was likely my last race day experience of the season, and as my brother pulled away in the Fiesta, I began to think about the year I've had. A once dear friend once summed me up as pensive, and boy was I as the gorgeous Columbus skyline came into view. This year, I rode the rails of local TV until the train rolled off the tracks, ventured into a new world in standup comedy, and most importantly got to cover the IndyCar Series for two races, all things a ten year old me would have squealed over. It was through perseverance and the help of some kind strangers turned friends and colleagues that I was able to do any of it.
It's just over 8 months until Barber next season, if the 2018 schedule mirrors this year's. I have no idea what I'll be doing or who I'll be working for, but I'd like to imagine I'll be enjoying my third media experience, or maybe fourth, fifth, etc. by that point.
I've learned a lot from these two races, the most important being that tenacity is key in motorsport, no matter if you wear a firesuit or a suit and tie. I feel like that will take me farther than anything. These opportunities have been nothing short of amazing for a kid raised in stock car country, and you can bet I can't wait until opportunity comes knocking again.

Link to my piece on the race:      https://youtu.be/lFNWGDwBOv0

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