It’s not very often that a photographer has the opportunity of traveling to a professional level event only 30 minutes from his hometown. Luckily for me, starting in 2011, Formula Drift added Palm Beach to their US series. With a track so close and a group of friends who also shared my love for racing, I had made the trip to PBIR many times before Formula Drift started traveling to Florida. I’ve come to know the small track like the back of my hand, watching it transform into the great facility it is today. Surrounded by Florida’s finest wildlife, Palm Beach International is certainly a unique stop on the trip that Formula Drift makes across the country.
While the official days of Formula Drift are Friday and Saturday, all the magic happens on Thursday as teams and staff prepare a great show for the onslaught of people arriving the following afternoon. Media gets the opportunity to run around the pit area while show cars stay tucked away to sleep before the fingerprints of starstruck teens smear away their shine.
Come Friday at 2 pm, this scene would become impossible to shoot as a dozen vendors would be setting up shop and visitors would be tripping over me in my photographer stance.
While the drivers receive upgrades in the form of new cars and new performance parts, the media were given a new tent to call home for the weekend, a big upgrade to the tent used in previous years. Little things go a long way to making a photographer happy.
Of course setting up tents and washing cars aren’t the only activities scheduled for Thursday, with drivers given the opportunity to pay a small fee in exchange for a few hours of seat time to familiarize themselves with the course. Here Chris Forsberg explains to his team the best line to take when heading to the restroom.
Only a handful of media come out to the track on Thursday, giving those who do make the trip the opportunity to have a more intimate experience on track. With only a few media zones allocated, it is such a nice feeling to have plenty of room for panning without the risk of ruining a dozen other shots in the same sweep.
I personally focused on shooting entries for the day, since these spots are extremely popular Saturday when both media and fans crowd these areas to see who has the best entries. Since the starting line is hidden from the grandstands, it’s one of the few spots you can stand see the entire track from start to finish.
After hitching a ride with the Denofa team, I called it a night and headed home to go through my photos and prepare my equipment for a long day of qualifying.
Friday is a day full of listening and standing around waiting. The judges do all they possibly can to make sure the drivers are aware of what they are looking for during qualifying. There are three judges each evaluating each run for the driver’s ability to wow the crowd with style and speed, follow the correct line, and go beyond a minimum angle at each clipping point. Of course the drivers always have questions, leaving these meetings to be quite tedious, but at a great reward to teams that closely pay attention.
Chelsea Denofa seems to partially approve, with a half thumbs up sending us an odd signal.
The meeting is let out and a mad rush ensues as everyone heads to the stands and grid to ready themselves for more practice and then finally qualifying. Daigo Saito is always pedal to the floor on entry, with smoke pouring from the back of his Achilles monster.
The drivers then flick the car and attempt to put their rear bumper as close as possible to the outer clipping points at the perimeter of the track. One touch of the clip and your run was finished, so a lot was at stake if you pushed to the limits, with many receiving zeros for at least one of their runs.
The drivers then circle around the media pit and swing their rear ends around and head toward the wall, coming as close as possible to accumulate as many points as possible.
The track staff was kept busy through the whole weekend, running after each mangled cone and retrieving the countless body panels scattered across the course. After talking to a handful of the staff, I learned that they were all locals and were excited at the opportunity to be so close to the action, even if it meant being prepared at all times to sprint across the hot tarmac.
Following qualifying, the drivers are given a short break before being sent in to the media tent to sign autographs and hand out hero cards. With the session being sent in doors, the models were left with nothing to do since opening an umbrella indoors would bring bad luck to the drivers.
Tandem practice started shortly after the autograph session, giving the drivers who made it to Top 32 a chance to feel out their competitors in conditions similar to what they would face the following day.
Unfortunately, the rain we were all expecting finally arrived. And boy did it come down hard. After just a few moments, the track started to flood, causing an unnecessary risk for drivers to practice in, forcing practice to end a little earlier than planned.
For media, it meant running and hoping for a tent to hide under and drain the water from our now flooded gear. Luckily for most of my fellow photographers, we had all checked weather forecasts previously and saw how high of a chance for rain there was and planned for it accordingly. Nothing beats a garbage bag!
Saturday proved to be the driest day of the weekend, which served as a blessing for both media and drivers alike. A dry track made for exciting battles and dry equipment meant that I would have one less thing to worry about. On grid there is enough activity already going on without the added distraction of rain.
Nothing beats having these race prepped cars doing burnouts next to your ear. If you are a fan of headaches and are running on a couple hours of sleep, I suggest making the long walk to grid, you’ll leave wide awake grinning from ear to ear.
Walking from the starting line all the way to the finish line brought me to the realization that I haven’t been to a gym in quite some time. I wasn’t the only one facing a challenge on Saturday, with a David versus Goliath battle of the big burly all American Vaughn facing off against Ryan Kado. Unfortunately for Kado, Goliath was packing a ton of extra American horsepower giving him the win.
If you are an attention seeker like myself, then heading to the wall facing the crowd is a great place to shoot from. With all in attendance keeping their eyes in your direction, you feel like you are the one in the spotlight instead of just a man behind the lens. Once the smoke comes in through the fence though, that dream is washed away.
As the sun set over Palm Beach, the Top 16 were introduced to the crowd and obligatory burnouts ensued as the excited final group of drivers headed into battle under the lights. At this point in time, my equipment started having issues, preventing me from continuing to shoot what I love so much. I ended up heading to the stands and realized just how much more enjoyable my time is from the media zones, no matter how crowded they get. Next time I’ll bring a back up camera!
I leave you with a few more shots showing just how impressive Formula Drift has become. With a fan base that continues to grow each event, the competition is becoming more and more fierce.
Michael Essa has finally made it to the podium and looks stronger than ever in his new BMW for the 2013 season. We certainly look forward to more from him and the rest of the Formula Drift field as the series heads for New Jersey. Hopefully I personally will be there, since I have yet to make another round besides Atlanta and Palm Beach. I had a great time meeting so many of you and I look forward to seeing more new faces before the end of the year.