2011 NHRA Arizona Nationals from Firebird International Raceway – The Funny Cars

I love photographing NHRA Drag Racing, it’s like all the action and excitement of a two-hour Motorsports event compressed down into a little 4 second burst.

The action starts on Fri. with first round qualifying and as the sun dips below the horizon and the sunlight fades enough to really see the header flames you can make some intense images. In this shot from Friday’s qualifying session, Mike Neff makes a pass in his Ford Mustang.

To see the rest of the exciting NHRA action, click on the more link below.

The thing about photographing NHRA Drag Racing is that many of the sessions happen during the day with very bright, harsh sunlight. Bright, harsh mid-day sunlight doesn’t lend itself to making nice images. When the lighting is less than optimum for car on track images I head to the staging lanes for driver shots.

It’s always hard to tear yourself away from the intensity of funny cars launching down track at 300 + mph but when the lighting is harsh you will have to work a little harder to get the images to “pop.”

During the daylight hours it can be a real challenge to clean up the backgrounds of your images. There are power poles, TV camera guys, TV camera dolly cranes and lots of team members just standing around that add a lot of clutter to your images. For this shot of Alexis DeJoria doing her burnout I tried tilting the camera and using the burnout smoke to clean up the image as much as I could.

For this shot of Melanie Troxel doing her burnout I was shooting across the track and tried panning to blur the background but I felt the image still has a somewhat distracting background.

As the sun starts to go down the images just look nicer with the header flames glowing and it make the colors “pop” like in this shot from Friday evening of Jim Head making his qualifying run.

As any photographer knows the light fades fast at sunset, so you are constantly changing your ISO and shutter speed to compensate for the changing lighting conditions. When it all comes together you can make some beautiful images.

Trying to get both cars in the shot is a challenge as well. In this shot of John Force (near lane) and Jeff Diehl you can see the cluttered background, mid-day light and the timing-tree is covering part of Jeff Diehl’s car.

Trying to get good panning shots of funny cars leaving the starting line is understandably difficult and not for the faint of heart. Standing up tall with your eyes in the viewfinder only a few feet away from a car going past you at about 140 mph with three-foot flames coming out both sides of the car is a bit nerve-racking to say the least.

I always come back to the early evening shots like this one of Robert Height from Fri. qualifying. I can’t tell you how cool these images look printed as a two page spread or poster sized, the intensity captured in that image is insane.

I kept trying to make some nice images of cars on track in the harsh mid-day light so I tried using a circular polarizing filter to give the sky some pop.

At some point I just decided to head into the staging lanes and get some driver shots like this one of iconic funny car driver John Force. Shots like these are not as simple to get as you would think, there are a number of factors to account for like crew members helping the driver strap in and getting the car ready for its run, you as the photographer staying out-of-the-way while they do what needs to be done, and diving in just at the right time to grab an image of the great John Force in his car.

After making some nice images of John Force getting all ready in the car you just can’t help yourself but run out to the track to try to get some shots of his pass. To be honest Force just wasn’t a factor this weekend. It was warm and the track was slick making it difficult for the competitors to get good traction and make a fast pass.

Alexis DeJoria makes a pass in her Patron Tequila sponsored Toyota. I had to get some detail shots of the paint scheme on her car, it was amazing.

Trying to get panning shots of two cars running down the track was difficult because of the lighting conditions, heat-haze, lingering burnout smoke and mid-day lighting but I liked this shot of Alexis DeJoria (near lane) and Robert Height as they make their runs.

Another driver shot, this time of Toyota driver Alexis DeJoria and she gets ready for pass.

Jack Beckman seemed to have the Firebird track dialed all weekend and in the end won the big prize. It took me all weekend to figure out how to make cars on track in the mid-afternoon sun look good. This shot of Jack Beckman’s Aaron’s Lucky Dog Dodge from Sunday is in the bright sun, but still looks good.

I was still trying to make the both-cars-on-track image and this shot of the burnout of Jim Head (near lane) and Paul Lee worked real well for me.

Besides Don “the snake” Prudhomme and Tom “mongoose” McEwen there isn’t a more iconic figure in drag racing as John Force. John is a very personable guy, you see him all over the track checking conditions, talking with the other competitors and fans and playing it up for the TV cameras. How can you not love John Force.

John’s car was all bare carbon fiber with stickers and wasn’t very exciting to photograph and he didn’t qualify well for this race so we didn’t see him come up to the line very often. I think he was trying to send his winning vibes to Robert Height and Mike Neff and didn’t have anything left for himself.

Toyota driver Melanie Troxel does a burnout in her IN-N-OUT Burger sponsored car and again I tried to tilt the camera use the smoke to clean up the image.

I love the graphic on the front of Jim Head’s Toyota. How could you not love a giant chrome blower skill!

Jack Beckman was watching the Super Gas and Super Comp cars and checking track conditions before the funny car final on Sun. and when he made this great face I made a few nice frames.

When it came down to it, Jack Beckman took home the big prize for the weekend in his Aaron’s Lucky Dog Dodge.

I spent some time Saturday for the early rounds shooting from the top end of the track. Dealing with the heat-haze and harsh lighting didn’t yield many impressive images so I didn’t stay too long.

I tried to keep some shots straight and traditional looking without any tilt but I bet there are 20 or so other photographers that got exactly the same shot with not much difference.

I tended to like the tilted images a bit more than the traditional look so I ended up shooting most of my stuff like this. Some people don’t like the effect and some think the images look boring without any tilt. I guess I liked a bit of both.

Another tilted burnout shot, this time of Jeff Arend’s DHL Toyota.

And one last shot of Melanie Troxel (near lane) and Tony Pedregon from the top end of the track.

I know, “that’s all?” you want more, well stay tuned for a future blog post with the top fuel dragster and pro stock cars from the NHRA Arizona Nationals.


3 thoughts on “2011 NHRA Arizona Nationals from Firebird International Raceway – The Funny Cars

  1. I love your images and have to say that Drag Racing is the only sport where even at faster shutter speeds the moment you capture still screams of the insanity that follows or was just unleashed, all 6 seconds of it anyway!

    The Funny cars with the heat haze and flames, tires under immense stresses left me wanting more. Just incredible I have been inspired!

    Thanks so much I followed your POTN post here.

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