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THE INAUGURAL 2011 BALTIMORE GRAND PRIX

INTRODUCTION

DAY 1 FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 2, 2011

INDYCAR PADDOCK RACE CAR PREPARATIONS
STAR MAZDA SERIES PRACTICE SESSION
AMERICAN LE MANS SERIES PRACTICE SESSION
INDYCAR PRACTICE SESSION

DAY 2 SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 3, 2011

INDYCAR QUALIFYING
INDYCARS RETURN TO PADDOCK
USF2000 SERIES RACE
AMERICAN LE MANS SERIES RACE

DAY 3 SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 4, 2011

INDYCAR PADDOCK RACE DAY PREPARATIONS
INDY LIGHTS RACE
INDYCAR RACE

(Click photos to enlarge)

           
  Finishing track construction on opening day
Finishing catch fence construction on Light Street
IZOD IndyCar Pace Cars
IZOD Pace Cars in Baltimore Convention Center
Holmatro IndyCar Safety Vehicles
Holmatro Safety Team vehicles
Dreyer and Reinbold Racing hauler and paddock
Dreyer & Reinbold Racing paddock
KV Racing Technology hauler and paddock area
KV Racing Technologies paddock
Team Penske haulers
Team Penske haulers in paddock
Engine testing on the Ryan Briscoe car
Engine testing on Ryan Briscoe car
Team Penske consulting with Honda engineer on the Ryan Briscoe car
Consultation with Honda engineer on Ryan Briscoe car

INDYCAR PADDOCK RACE CAR PREPARATIONS

A year and a half of anticipation was finally over on Friday, September 2, 2011, opening day of the inaugural Baltimore Grand Prix. My tickets had been purchased the previous December in the first few minutes of the one-hour pre-sale for registered buyers, and had finally arrived in the mail just a few weeks before the event. I had purchased a three-day VIP pass for the Light Street Terrace area, a triangular shaped and tree lined grassy knoll along Turn 2 of the race course, right across from the Harborplace Light Street Pavilion, and those tickets also came with three-day paddock pass, allowing me access to the racing teams garage areas within the Baltimore Convention Center. The Light Street Terrace supposedly afforded the closest possible views of the race track, separated only by about ten feet from the catch fence and barriers immediately surrounding the track itself.

I had planned to get downtown earlier than I did, but in checking the latest news bulletins, I found out that the beginning of on-track activities had been delayed significantly by the continuing re-assembly of track fencing that had been dismantled in the face of the threat from Hurricane Irene. Once arriving downtown at 11:00 a.m. and crossing a pedestrian bridge into the infield area of the track, it was apparent that crews were still very busy reinstalling the locking pins between the sections of catch fencing. At that point in time, the Indy Lights cars were supposed to have been on-track for their first practice session, but it would be several hours more until the course was open to on-track activities. The entire schedule for Friday had to be reworked, because they still had hundreds of these pins to reinstall, and crews were working along the entire length of the course.

So instead of being disappointed, I walked over to the Baltimore Convention Center and was greeted by the gleaming sight of the IZOD IndyCar Series pace cars souped-up Honda Accords and the Holmatro Safety Team vehicles in the atrium lobby, lined up in precise formation, as though lasers were involved in lining them up. This was not only my first-ever visit to the Baltimore Convention Center, which is quite nice by the way, but also my first indication of the attention to detail that IndyCar puts into their presentations. Exhibit Halls A, B, C, and D of the convention center, totaling over 100,000 square feet, were taken up by the IndyCar teams their haulers and the garage areas they set up next to them plus the IndyCar technical inspection area, and haulers for the Honda engineers and their equipment. Exhibit Hall E was the paddock for the Indy Lights cars, and honestly I didn't make it further than that the whole weekend, but I assume the Star Mazda and USF2000 paddocks were beyond.

The Holmatro Safety Team has been working with the IZOD IndyCar Series since the formation of the Indy Racing League (IRL) in 1996, and are the first responders to any on-track incidents. In addition to their own expertise in extrication they coordinate with the local firefighters, ambulance crews, tow-truck drivers, and track maintenance crews to provide on-track and spectator safety and emergency response. The Holmatro team includes as a minimum at each IndyCar event two trauma physicians, three paramedics, and nine firefighter/EMTs.

Entering the exhibit halls housing the IndyCar paddock, I was immediately overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the traveling circus that is the IZOD IndyCar Series. Literally dozens of huge tractor-trailer team haulers were neatly parked within the exhibit halls, separated according to teams with large expanses of space between them onto which the teams, in most cases, had placed modular shop flooring for their garage areas, sometimes even color-coordinated to their team colors and including logos.

The haulers themselves were all immaculately showroom clean, despite having just traveled across the entire width of the U.S. mainland from the previous week's race in Sonoma, California. You could sort of get a basic idea of each team's financial backing from how elaborately their haulers were decorated with fancy graphics, including photos of their drivers, and the logos of their sponsors. Among the teams with the fanciest haulers are those of Team Penske, Andretti Autosport, Chip Ganassi Racing, and KV Racing Technologies. Of course fancy haulers with cool graphics don't always translate into podium finishes, but they do tend to represent those teams who can garner the most financial backing from sponsors, which can in turn translate into advantages of one sort or another. 

These haulers are as large, tall, and low-slung as most cross-country moving vans, and contain offices, mechanic workspaces, vast quantities of tools, parts storage, and everything necessary that might be required to support the racing team's cars as they travel from race venue to venue across the continent. IndyCars themselves aren't very tall off the pavement only about 38 inches so the hauler trailers are divided into two levels. The lower level houses workspaces, tools, and parts storage. The upper level is where the cars themselves travel, winched up and down via platforms from the rear of the hauler, which you can see in their raised position in some of the photos. Each hauler can carry at least two completely assembled cars in their upper level. And you have to admire the skill of the hauler drivers, too notice how closely the three Team Penske trailers are parked inside the convention center, lined up perfectly, mere inches apart.

Another interesting aspect of the paddock was the level of cleanliness maintained in the areas in which the cars were being worked upon. This is not your typical neighborhood garage. Everything is immaculate the floors are spotless, without a single spilled drop of oil, grease, or other fluids; parts and tools are neatly laid out; even the mechanics team uniforms are clean and pressed.

Soon after walking into the paddock area I heard the unmistakable sound of an IndyCar engine being revved, and followed the sound and the crowd to just outside the convention center where Team Penske crew members were testing the engine on the Ryan Briscoe car. Stripped of its side pod covers and engine cowling the car doesn't look nearly as sleek as it does on the track, but it's possible to get a good, close look at what's under the hood. The Honda Indy V8 engine made its debut in 2006, and has been the only engine used in IndyCars through the 2011 season. Manufactured in a partnership with Ilmore Engineering, which is owned in part by Roger Penske, it has been an extremely reliable power plant, never having experienced a single race day failure.

The Honda Indy V8 is a 3.5 liter, 32 valve, fuel injected, normally aspirated engine that delivers around 650 horsepower, and is rev-limited to about 10,300 RPM. The whole point of having each team use the same engine is part of the "formula" aspect of racing, and is intended to level the playing field in the same way that Tony George intended when he started the Indy Racing League in the 1990s, the predecessor to the IndyCar Series of today. The engines are designed for multiple uses, and can go over 1,000 miles between rebuilds.

You don't purchase one of these engines they are supplied to the teams by Honda Performance Development on a lease basis. To run the entire 17 race season, an engine lease cost $935,000 in 2010. Of course the race teams themselves don't have to work on the engines Honda engineers travel with the series to all races and testing sessions. If you have a problem with your engine, Honda provides another one for you

At left you see one of the Honda engineers consulting with the Team Penske crew members. While one crew member sits in the cockpit and blips the throttle, as though pulsing a giant blender, the Honda engineer holds a laptop computer hooked up to the engine telemetry to analyze its performance. 2011 will be the last year to feature the Honda Indy V8 in the IndyCar Series. A new formula for IndyCar will debut in 2012 which is designed to address multiple issues.

Turbochargers will return to IndyCar engines for the first time since 1995, which in and of itself is going to dramatically alter the sound of the cars on the track. The engines will be limited to six cylinders with up to a 2.4 liter displacement, but because of the turbochargers, and increased upper rev limit to about 12,000 RPM. the engines will actually be capable of producing more horsepower, which will vary between 550 HP for oval tracks to 750 HP on street and road courses. There will be two more engine manufacturers joining Honda both Chevrolet and Lotus have announced their intentions to be engine suppliers.

Dallara Automobili will remain as the exclusive chassis supplier through 2015, and as a result of that agreement is building a brand new facility in Speedway, Indiana, adjacent to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, to build the new rolling chassis for the IndyCar Series. A carbon fiber monocoque protects the driver, as it has for years, but for 2012 the driver will be afforded additional protection by sitting slightly higher off the track, with more padding surrounding the driver. New aerodynamic packages will result in a non-interlocking design to minimize the chance of wheel-to-wheel contact, which has long been a cause of concern, sometimes causing cars to become airborne when it occurs. The new aero packages will result in a dramatically different look, especially at the rear of the car with large fairings in front of the rear tires, decreasing their aerodynamic drag, and allowing for significantly lower and smaller rear wings. Downforce will be accomplished less by the wings and more dependent upon ground effects provided by the channeling of air beneath the car. Overall the new formula has been thought out with several key ideas in mind: increased safety for the drivers, reduced costs for the teams, and here's the kicker increased speeds. It is thought that the new 2012 IndyCar might be capable of challenging the record speeds achieved at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway before the CART/IRL split, which were approaching 240 MPH.

As to the reduced cost to the teams, the new IndyCar rolling chassis will be priced at $349,000 advertised as a 45% price decrease from the 2011 chassis, from which it follows that the 2011 chassis was going for $635,000. Aero kits, which include the front and rear wings, side pod covers, and engine cowling, will be available exclusively from Dallara for $36,000 in 2012, and then increase to an imposed ceiling price of $70,000 thereafter. After 2012 the aero kit market opens to new developers which can also include the racing teams themselves, so long as their design meets with IndyCar approval.

And there's a very special discount on the first 28 new Dallara 2012 IndyCar chassis ordered by Indiana-based teams they can take $150,000 off the price, bringing it down to a very affordable $200,000 driver's seat not included. Engine lease, aero kit, extra tires, and probably the steering wheel not included, either; and you'll probably want some spare parts, too, so budget accordingly. You might also want to factor in a hauler, mechanics and crew salaries, a few tools, and some other miscellaneous stuff.

        Giorgio Pantano car in paddock
Giorgio Pantano car in paddock
Ryan Hunter-Reay car in paddock
Ryan Hunter-Reay car in paddock
Ryan Hunter-Reay car in paddock
Ryan Hunter-Reay car in paddock
        Sebastien Bourdais car in paddock
Sebastien Bourdais car in paddock

Simona De Silvestro car in paddock
SImona De Silvestro car in paddock
Tone Kanaan car in paddock
Tony Kanaan car in paddock
        A. J. Foyt talking to crew in ABC Racing hauler
A. J. Foyt talking to crew members in hauler

A. J. Foyt spots the photographer

Helio Castroneves car in technical inspection
Helio Castroneves car in technical inspection
Helio Castroneves car in technical inspection
Tony Kanaan crew members move his car to technical inspection line
Tony Kanaan crew moves car to tech line
Steering wheel of the James Jakes car
Steering wheel on the James Jakes car
Steering wheel on Sebastien Bourdais car

Steering wheel on Sebastien Bourdais car
Steering wheel on the Vitor Meira car
Steering wheel on the Vitor Meira car


I did manage sometimes inadvertently to capture a few celebrity photos during my opening day paddock walk around. The first occurred when I was photographing the Vitor Meira ride in A. J. Foyt's ABC Racing paddock. I was at the side of their hauler, and when I looked up, through the open side door I saw "Super Tex" himself emerge from his office area in the front of the hauler and start to head down the aisle towards the rear. So I walked around to the back just to see if he might emerge so I could capture some shots of the living legend who was the first driver in history to win the Indianapolis 500 four times during his driving career a feat matched to this day only by Al Unser, Sr. and Rick Mears.

He didn't emerge as I was hoping, but he stood just inside the two-way mirrored doors at the end of the hauler having an apparently jovial conversation with his crew. All the team haulers have those two-way mirrored doors at the back end, which allows those inside to see out without those outside to see in except when the ambient light inside is greater than the ambient light outside, in which case you can clearly see right through them. I'm not sure, but I think that A. J. might have forgotten that we were inside the Baltimore Convention Center, and the brightly lit interior of his hauler was much brighter than the relatively subdued lighting outside his hauler. So I stood there and snapped off a few pictures of him, in awe of one of my boyhood racing heroes standing just 20 feet away.

After a few photos, A. J. suddenly turned his head to the right and looked directly at my camera lens, and it seemed to suddenly dawn on him that those of us outside the hauler could in fact see directly into it. I didn't want to misinterpret his expression, which I think is priceless, and wait for him to send out one of his crew members to smash my camera, so I decided to beat a hasty retreat at that point and go check out some of the other activities going on within the paddock.

Across the aisle from the ABC Racing paddock was the IndyCar technical inspection area, where each car is required to make several passes in order to make sure that their car is within the specifications dictated by the IZOD IndyCar Series official rules. At the heart of this operation is what is known as the tech pad, or Technical Inspection Tool, a platform about 20 feet long and 18 inches tall, with long ramps at the front and back to allow cars to be manually pushed onto and off of it. The tool itself is shrouded in quite a bit of secrecy, but insiders confide that it is capable of making about 50 different measurements when a car is presented for inspection.

The Helio Castroneves ride was going through technical inspection when I wandered by, and you can see that it didn't even have its front wing attached at the time of this inspection. Once wheeled up onto the tool, each one of the four tires rests upon a sensor pad which measures the weight of the car. I could see a red laser light at the front to which they aligned the end of the chassis, sans front wing. There are a lot of folks in red shirts in the photos at the left; coincidentally both the Castroneves crew members and the IndyCar officials were both wearing red shirts. The IndyCar officials are the ones with the black sleeves on their uniforms. There seemed to be quite a lot of friendly chatter and camaraderie between the crew members and the IndyCar officials as they went through the inspection process a lot of smiling and joking around, despite the seriousness of what they were doing.

IndyCars have to conform to numerous specifications, among them a minimum overall length of 192 inches; a wheelbase of 120 inches, +/- 2 inches; a width of 78 inches, +/- 1/2 inch; and a minimum weight of 1,530 pounds for oval events, or 1,600 pounds for road or street courses, including all lubricants and coolants, but not the driver or fuel. The wheels are 15d x 10w for the front, and 15d x 14w for the rear. Firestone has been the exclusive tire supplier to the series for several years, and the tires have a diameter of about 26-27 inches and are inflated to about 35 PSI.

Speaking of tires, you might notice that in many of the photos here various different teams had different tires mounted as they wheeled their cars around in the paddock, and between the paddock and the pit area. The Helio Castroneves car pictured going through technical inspection here is seen wearing rain tires easily distinguished because they have a tread pattern. All the teams had rain tires available to them during the Baltimore Grand Prix weekend because it's a street course, and IndyCars will race in the rain on a street course up to a point if it becomes necessary. They don't do that on oval tracks because it's simply too dangerous.

My only theory as to why some of the teams used rain tires to move the cars around prior to and between on-track activities, while other used slicks, is that perhaps the thinking among the teams using the rain tires was that they thought the likelihood of them actually having to use those rain tires in the race or for qualifying, for that matter were slight, given the weather forecasts, and they wanted to prevent any possibility of their racing slicks being damaged or picking up some debris that might damage them while moving the cars around. As it turned out, the Indy Lights cars actually did end up having to use their rain tires for qualifying, but not during their race.

Treadless racing slicks are the standard for dry race courses, and IndyCar and Firestone decided it would be interesting to add yet another competitive factor with the slick tires. For several events throughout the racing season, Baltimore included, two different versions of the Firestone Firehawk racing slicks would be included in the competition. The black sidewall tires are a harder rubber compound which have the advantage of greater durability at the expense of less track adhesion, while the distinctive red sidewall tires are a softer rubber compound and are less durable, but provide greater track adhesion that translates into better handling and faster speeds. Only three sets of the "reds" are supplied to each team on a race weekend, and they are required to use one unused "sticker" set for at least two green-flag laps during the race. If you think about it, it's just an amazing new twist added to all the other strategic elements the teams have to deal with during a race. The question becomes, "When do we use the red tires?"

One obvious time is during qualifying, which is just a few laps during which you want the greatest possible speed in order to gain the best possible starting position in the field. So all the teams used the red tires for qualifying, which gave them all one set of scuffed reds to use during the race, leaving them two sets of red sticker tires in reserve. If you put them on during your first fuel stop, then you could have to pit out of sequence later on if the race goes green for an extended period and the reds get worn out. One thing is sure in racing, and that's that you cannot predict when a caution period might happen. The possibilities are endless, and the inclusion of the reds into the already complicated strategic mix is, in my mind, a brilliant new factor that adds to the excitement of racing.

As far as Baltimore is concerned, from my vantage point in Turn 2, I was quickly able to determine which tires the cars had on as I watched them exit the 120-degree Turn 1. Cars on the black wall tires would invariably bobble as they exited the turn, getting a little sideways and having to correct; while those on the red tires would stick through the entire exit of the turn. I'm sure the situation was similar in other corners on the course.

Another thing you don't get a chance to see every day relatively close-up is an IndyCar steering wheel, which is a fascinating device that does a lot more than just steer the car. IndyCar steering wheels have evolved over the years and are now highly technical and highly expensive command and control centers for the driver that contain the entire dashboard data and communications functions that the driver needs. Formula 1 cars were the first to have such elaborate functionality built into their steering wheels, and the ideas were adopted and adapted for the IndyCar over the years. They are not an off-the-shelf item, and estimates on their cost vary, but $35-40 thousand dollars seems to be a good guess, which is more than most people spend on an entire car to get them to and from work every day. Apparently they're built to take it, too, because most times a car wrecks, the driver always removes the steering wheel and slams it on the cowling in front of them disgustedly. That's actually a signal to their crew and safety teams that they're not seriously injured. Actually they're pretty easy to remove, and you can't even get into an IndyCar with the steering wheel attached, the quarters are so cramped.

The shapes of the steering wheel tend to vary somewhat between teams and driver preference, as do the labeling of the various controls, but they're all similar in shape to what you would find in an aircraft grips at 9 o'clock and 3 o'clock, and an oblong rounded rectangular shape. Across the top portion are a series of colored LEDs that function like a tachometer, from green to yellow to red, indicating engine rev limits and points at which the driver should shift gears, although I have a feeling that they don't really rely on those lights to know when to shift. The actual sequential gear shift actuators are behind the wheel, and are known as paddle-shifters, which the driver actuates with their fingertips. The paddle behind their right hand moves the transmission upwards through the gears, while the one on the left does the opposite. If you have ever listened, either on television or in-person, to an IndyCar shifting gears you might wonder how they manage to make those gear changes so quickly. Anyone familiar with driving a manual transmission car knows that you have to back off the throttle as you're depressing the clutch pedal, move your gear shift lever to the next gear, then back off the clutch as you're depressing the throttle to make a smooth transition between gears. It's one of the hardest things to learn about driving a car with a stick-shifter.

But IndyCars make those gear changes in a split second thanks to the combination of their paddle shifters and their transmissions, made by Xtrac, which feature computerized electronic/hydraulic controls alleviating the need for the driver to use the clutch pedal at all between gear shifts, except when engaging the transmission from a standstill, like exiting the pits. This results in significantly less time when the engine is not under full power. Actuating the shift paddle automatically cuts the throttle and disengages the clutch while the gearbox does its work, then re-engages it when everything is ready to re-apply torque to the drive axles. And it all happens very fast. From my vantage point in Turn 2 of the Baltimore course, I was almost directly adjacent to a shift point after the cars had exited Turn 1, and they all shifted gears at almost the exact same point on the track within 20 or 30 feet of the same point each time. Every time the cars shift gears there is a split-second when the engine makes no sound, and then there is a huge "bark" sound when the engine re-engages that sounds as loud as an M-80 firecracker going off. The stress on all those mechanical parts is mind-boggling and a testament to the engineering that goes into these cars.

The grips on the steering wheels seem to take on a variety of forms, from custom molded rubberized materials to friction tape wrapped around foam, each conforming to the driver's individual hands. An LED display towards the center of the steering wheel can be scrolled between various pages of display modes, depending upon what data the driver needs to see. Buttons located near the driver's thumbs on each side control weight-jacker settings, which allow the driver to modify the handling of the car depending upon under-steer or over-steer conditions, variously labeled "WJ" on both sides, or "Understeer" and "Oversteer" on others, for the abbreviation-challenged. Other buttons operate the in-car radio communications between driver and crew, modify fuel settings from lean to rich, activate the "push-to-pass" feature giving the car extra power for a brief time, bring the car to the accepted pit lane speed limit, and even give the driver a drink of water through a plastic hose attached through the helmet. There is no horn button if you're driving one of these cars, everyone will definitely hear you coming.

           
        Star Mazda Series practice session - Tatiana Calderon and Sage Karam
Star Mazda practice session:
#10 Tatiana Calderon and #88 Sage Karam
Star Mazda series practice session - Gustavo Menezes
Star Mazda practice session:
#28 Gustavo Menezes
Star Mazda series practice session - Tristan Vautier
Star Mazda practice session:
#5 Tristan Vautier
Star Mazda series practice session - Sage Karam
Star Mazda practice session:
#88 Sage Karam
Star Mazda series practice session - Tatiana Calderon
Star Mazda practice session:
#10 Tatiana Calderon
STAR MAZDA CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES PRACTICE SESSION

Finally at around 2:00 p.m. the reconstruction of the track fencing was completed and the Streets of Baltimore course was opened to race cars for the first time in history, with a practice session for the Star Mazda series that had originally been scheduled to occur some five hours previously. The Star Mazda Championship is one of the "Road to Indy" racing series which provide a training ground for aspiring open wheel race car drivers, also including the USF2000 and Indy Lights series. The history of the Star Mazda series goes back to 1983 when the first cars were built in Japan for the Jim Russell Racing Driver's School, featuring Wankel rotary engines built by Mazda. The current formula is powered by the same twin-rotor engine that is also used in production Mazda RX-8 sports cars, a 1.3 liter displacement engine that delivers 260 HP, rev-limited to 8,600 RPM.. Featuring a carbon fiber monocoque chassis with a 100 inch wheelbase 20 inches shorter than an IndyCar the cars have a top speed of 160 MPH and can accelerate from 0-60 MPH in 2.8 seconds. Front and rear wings are constructed of carbon fiber, as are the rest of the aero components. The Star Mazda series ran 11 races in their 2011 season, plus a few testing and training sessions, with 19 drivers competing.

I was anxious to finally get cars onto the track, not only because that's what everyone was there for, but also because I wanted to begin practicing some of the photographic techniques that as yet I had only formulated in my mind, never having previously had the chance to do any race photography. Heading back over to the Light Street Terrace from the convention center, I checked out various positions along trackside, and immediately became aware of what a challenge it was going to be to attempt obtaining good images through the two layers of fencing separating me and my camera from the action on the track.

Having previously checked out various racing photos from the web for which I could obtain EXIF information the imbedded data contained in a digital camera image that contains the camera's settings, such as focal length, shutter speed, and so on I had already determined that the best results were likely going to be obtained with a very fast shutter speed and a wide aperture. Also, I was certain that it was not going to be possible to hold the camera stationary and hope to frame a car as it went by, given my close proximity to the cars and the track. It would be essential to track the cars manually in the camera's viewfinder, and pan as smoothly as possible while shooting in high-speed continuous mode. Plus, since the cars are a moving target, the camera would have to be set in AF-servo focusing mode, allowing the focusing to continually change as the cars approached my position.

Fortunately my Canon EOS 50D was up to the rather daunting task and can shoot over six frames per second. I set the mode dial to Tv (shutter priority) and set the exposure time to 1/2000 second, and set the ISO to automatic, given the lighting conditions which varied from cloudy to sunny. I selected the center focusing point only, which I used to acquire the target car as it exited Turn 1. Almost instinctively I developed a body position with my knees  bent and my feet spaced about 2-1/2 to 3 feet apart, somewhat complicated by the fact that I was not standing on level ground. My chosen spot within the Light Street Terrace became a point just to the north of the permanent Light Street Pavilion pedestrian bridge over Light Street. There is a narrow sidewalk there, next to which is a grassy hump at the top of which, about three feet from the sidewalk, was located the spectator fence, that light-duty chain link distraction.

So my technique quickly became to listen as the cars came down the Pratt Street straightaway and approached Turn 1. When I heard that sound, which quickly became unmistakable the cars make a lot of noise as they decelerate using not only their mechanical brakes but also engine braking which is extremely loud I would get into my crouch position and look through the camera's viewfinder aimed at the exit to Turn 1. I would select a car to photograph and depress the shutter button halfway down to acquire a focus, then follow the car while panning, keeping the focus point on the car. As the car got closer, I depressed the shutter button all the way down to begin shooting, continuing to pan and shoot until the car was directly in front of me or slightly beyond.

On average using this technique I would get about four or five images each time, and if I was extremely lucky I would capture an in-focus image of a car without any of the steel poles supporting the catch fence getting in the way. Extremely lucky as in it didn't happen very often. Although there was no way of getting rid of the catch fence in my pictures, I was more successful in minimizing the chain-link spectator fence in most of the shots that I took thanks to my proximity to it. I had to choose my stance carefully so that as I panned to the right my lens hood wouldn't actually strike the spectator fence, but I would be as close as possible to it. Thus, given the maximum aperture of the lens which provided for the shallowest depth of field as possible, the spectator fence was blurred to the point where in many shots it's only visible as faint diagonal shadows across the image. However, if the spectator fence was illuminated by direct sunlight, it would be brighter and more obtrusive in the resulting image, despite being blurred, so my positioning became even more critical. I tried to choose a specific position which was not only ideally located to be between the support poles of the catch fence, but also in the shade of the pedestrian bridge and surrounding trees so that sunlight wasn't glinting off the spectator fence.

This was not easy to do, especially on Friday and Saturday, when general admission spectators learned that they could make their way into the north end of the Light Street Terrace VIP area via the rear of the concession area located nearby. Fortunately by Sunday the race organizers realized this problem, and an additional spectator fence was erected to prevent it, although it only held those general admission ticket holders to the other side of the narrow sidewalk where they stacked up on the multiple levels of the non-functioning fountain located there. They got a good vantage point from there, considering what they paid to get in, and I only felt a few seconds of remorse for positioning myself between them and the track. But when you spend $425 on a ticket that's supposed to give you priority access, you really don't want to have to share that access with those who have only spent $35 for a general admission ticket. Fortunately those fans seemed to understand the situation and there were no hard feelings expressed to me by those standing a few feet away. The most important thing to me was that the spectator fence where I was standing was not nearly so crowded on Sunday as it had been the previous two days, even though Sunday was the most heavily attended day of the entire weekend.
 

           
        ALMS practice session - Eric Lux and Elton Julian
ALMS practice session:
#63 LMPC Eric Lux & Elton Julian
ALMS practice session - Guy Smith and Chris Dyson
ALMS practice session:
#16 LMP1 Guy Smith & Chris Dyson
ALMS practice session - Chris McMurry and Tony Burgess

ALMS practice session:
#12 LMP1 Chris McMurry & Tony Burgess
AMERICAN LE MANS SERIES PRACTICE SESSION

Following the Star Mazda practice session, the various classes of exotic prototypes and sports cars that comprise the American Le Mans Series (ALMS) took to the track for their first practice session on the Streets of Baltimore race course. The addition of this series to the Baltimore Grand Prix weekend was a huge bonus to race fans and the overall success of the event, not only because the ALMS cars are relatively rarely seen in the auto racing world, but also because the series attracts an entirely different group of devotees. The title sponsor of the series is Tequila Patron, whose banners were stretched across the catch fence directly opposite from my vantage point in the Light Street Terrace area, which is why you see their logos in so many of my photos. It wasn't my choice, and I have never even sampled their tequila, although if price is any indication it must be really good stuff because it's absurdly expensive like many other aspects of motorsports. Le Mans prototype cars, for instance.

ALMS is unusual in the world of motorsports competition in that it is not a single class, or formula, of race cars which compete together on track. There are five classes: three prototype classes LMP1, LMP2, and LMPC; plus two GT classes GT and GTC; and they all race together. The ALMS web site has a terrific downloadable PDF which describes in a nutshell the basic technical specifications of each separate class. Le Mans prototype cars are purpose-built race cars whose manufacturers include Lola, Peugot, Aston-Martin, Oreca, Honda Performance Development and others; while the GT classes include modified production cars from Porsche, Jaguar, Lamborghini, Ferrari, the venerable Chevrolet Corvette, and others. Engine types and horsepower vary widely, but the prototype cars are the most powerful with top speeds that can approach 250 MPH.

To be honest, prior to the Baltimore Grand Prix, Le Mans racing had kind of fallen off my radar for a few decades, not because it isn't very cool, but it just doesn't garner the same level of media coverage enjoyed by higher profile series like NASCAR, IndyCar, and Formula 1. I remember seeing portions of the 24 Hours of Le Mans on television when I was a child, but hadn't seen much coverage of the series since, so it was great to have the opportunity to see these cars in action.

It's interesting to note that the ALMS cars had both the loudest and the quietest cars on the Streets of Baltimore course all weekend. There were a couple of yellow Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 cars in the GT class that took the prize for the loudest likely due to their massive 7.0 liter displacement "small block" V8 engines that pump out 505 HP at a relatively low-revving 6,300 RPM. These cars were chest-thumping, earth-shaking loud. At the other end of the sonic spectrum were the elegantly-purring Oreca FLM09 cars of the LMPC class, powered by a 6.2 liter Chevrolet V8 delivering 430 HP. Of course a lot of race fans want the cars to be loud, and I've read some complaints online about the mandated exhaust mufflers on those Oreca FLM09 contributing to robbing car of some of the power it should have, but they're part of the rule book for the present time.

But I was particularly taken with the LMPC cars, which just made their ALMS debut in 2010 as an entry-level prototype class, designed to reduce the enormous costs involved in prototype racing. The Oreca FLM09 can be purchased race-ready for the bargain basement price of just $400,000, so if the racing bug is in you, get a few of your friends together and go get one today!

        ALMS practice session - Chapman and David Ducote
ALMS practice session:
#89 LMPC Chapman & David Ducote
ALMS practice session - Toni Vilander and Jaime Melo
ALMS practice session:
#62 GT Toni Vilander & Jaime Melo
ALMS practice session - Ricardo Gonzalez and Gunnar Jeanette
ALMS practice session:
#06 LMPC Ricardo Gonzalez & Gunnar Jeanette
        ALMS practice session - Ryan Lewis and Ken Dobson
ALMS practice session:
#52 LMPC Ryan Lewis & Ken Dobson
ALMS practice session - Jan Magnussen and Oliver Gavin
ALMS practice session:
#4 GT Jan Magnussen & Oliver Gavin
ALMS practice session - Anthony Nicolosi and Jarrett Boon
ALMS practice session:
#18 LMPC Anthony Nicolosi & Jarrett Boon
        IndyCar practice session - Dario Franchitti
IndyCar practice session:
#10 Dario Franchitti
IndyCar practice session - Martin Plowman
IndyCar practice session:
#17 Martin Plowman
IndyCar practice session - Sebastian Saavedra
IndyCar practice session:
#34 Sebastian Saavedra
IndyCar practice session - Vitor Meira
IndyCar practice session:
#14 Vitor Meira
IndyCar practice session - Simona De Silvestro
IndyCar practice session:
#78 Simona De Silvestro

INDYCAR PRACTICE SESSION

At around 4:00 p.m. the Indy Lights got their first chance to practice on the Streets of Baltimore, and they were followed by the IndyCars a little past 4:30 p.m., marking only the second time in my life I had the opportunity to see my favorite race cars in action, and I was considerably closer than I had been at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway back in 1972 for a rain shortened qualifying session. Granted, this time the cars weren't blasting down the front stretch at Indy getting close to breaking the 200 MPH barrier for the first time, but it was plenty exciting nonetheless. By this point in the afternoon I had already had some good practice time myself behind the camera, working out my technique, so I managed to get some pretty decent shots.

One thing I wanted to try and accomplish during the weekend was to get at least one good on-track shot of each car, and I almost did that. In fact I was able to capture every single IndyCar at least once I just wasn't able to get a good shot of every one of them. Some of the cars, as it turned out, were more photogenic than others when it came down to tracking and focusing with the camera, so my apologies to those teams whose cars aren't represented among my photographs. It wasn't because I didn't try.

After this first practice session the fastest car on the track was Will Power in the #12 Team Penske car, who drove around the course 29 times and made his best time on lap 28 with a speed of 89.411 MPH. Dario Franchitti and Helio Castroneves also had a good practice session, each turning their best lap times at over 89 MPH. The entire field of 28 cars were separated by only a little more than 4 MPH. The following morning the IndyCars had their second full hour of practice on the track, and taking what they had learned the day before managed to bump up their speeds more than a mile an hour faster. Again Will Power was the fastest car on the track, turning in a top lap of 90.647 MPH, and even the slowest car in the field showed almost exactly the same increase in speed over the Friday session.

These practice sessions are essential to any race course the teams visit over the course of a season, allowing the drivers to gain or re-gain familiarity with each circuit, and giving the teams the opportunity to fine tune their particular setups and optimize their performance. But with a brand new race course like the Streets of Baltimore, the practice sessions take on an even greater importance. Bear in mind that, until Friday afternoon, none of these drivers had driven a race car around this course. The previous afternoon they had a chance to walk the course, examine the surfaces, and express their concerns to race organizers, mostly for future reference since by then it was too late for any major modifications to what they were presented with. They would have to deal with it as best they could.

A great deal of planning went into the design and preparation of the course, with input from the best minds in motorsports. After $4.75 million in street repairs, and another $1 million to construct the pit lane, it's still a temporary street course and there are some things you really can't do much about, like manhole covers, and undulating surfaces that seem smooth when you're in a passenger car doing 30 MPH, but can make an IndyCar bottom out. But that's part of what makes racing on a temporary street course so exciting for the fans, and so challenging for the drivers.

Decisions have to be made: Where do you begin braking as you approach each turn? Where do you shift gears? Where is the best racing line? Where are the best opportunities to pass? Where are the best opportunities to crash? And so on. The fact that these drivers can get into a million dollar race car and start whipping around a two mile circuit with 12 turns that they've never driven before, on bumpy city streets designed for a 30 MPH speed limit, and do it at an average speed of three times that fast, is a testament to their skill and professionalism. Of course in various sections of the track they were traveling much faster than those average speeds, which take into account all the slowing down they have to do in order to negotiate the turns, some of which they had to take very slowly.

The long Pratt Street straightaway was obviously the fastest portion of the course, and the cars could approach 180 MPH before having to brake heavily into Turn 1, and then accelerating very quickly into a long, sweeping Turn 2, where I was located, and down another short straightaway and heavy braking again into the hairpin Turn 3. So when they passed my position they were under maximum acceleration, and probably approaching 100 MPH when they passed in front of me.

IndyCars are loud. Race cars in general are loud. If you've never been to a race before and are planning to go to one, do yourself a favor and get some ear plugs, or else rent one of those scanner headsets that are available at most big-league races nowadays, which allow you to listen to the radio chatter between the drivers and their teams. Do not stand trackside without hearing protection. Seriously. I took along a handful of disposable earplugs each day, and even handed out a few pairs to some hapless fans whom I could see were in distress, unprepared for how loud these cars really are. I saw so many people instinctively put their fingers in their ears when the cars would pass by. It is louder than the loudest rock concert you've ever been to, and the sounds can be a lot sharper and more damaging to your hearing than you realize. These cars tend to backfire a lot, when decelerating under engine braking, when shifting gears, and even when they go over a bump in the track, and when they do they emit very high transient sound pressure levels that can damage your hearing. The drivers themselves wear custom molded earpieces they use to listen to their crew and spotters, as do the crew members. Spotters, team owners, and other team members working in the pits wear headsets not only for communication, but to protect their hearing as well. And if you're doing any photography at a race, you don't want to drop your camera just to stick your fingers in your ears and miss a great shot as a result.

       
IndyCar practice session - Mike Conway and Will Power
IndyCar practice session:
#27 Mike Conway & #12 Will Power

IndyCar practice session - Danica Patrick
IndyCar practice session:
#7 Danica Patrick
IndyCar practice session - Ana Beatriz and Alex Tagliani
IndyCar practice session:
#24 Ana Beatriz & #77 Alex Tagliani
        IndyCar practice session - James Jakes
IndyCar practice session:
#18 James Jakes
IndyCar practice session - Ana Beatriz
IndyCar practice session:
#24 Ana Beatriz
IndyCar practice session - Takuma Sato
IndyCar practice session:
#5 Takuma Sato
             
       
CONTINUE TO DAY 2 SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 3, 2011 PHOTOS & COMMENTARY

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