Whether you like motorsports or not, be it NASCAR, Truck Racing, IMSA, F1, Drag Racing, Motor Cross or Indy cars, you’ve got to be impressed with how the motor sport industry has been able to continue their events amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
NASCAR is a sport that traditionally attracts some of the largest crowds during their events and have consistently seen close to 100,000 fans during their weeklong events.
In my opinion, the main reason for their success, other than the fact that they compete outdoors and can put on their events without fans in the stands, is because of their many sponsorship partners. NASCAR’s marketing and branding is huge, and their athletes compete not just for money but the love of their sport. A good example is what you see in the metal art piece we put together on Jimmie Johnson’s pit stop! You can see several sponsors and branded numbers as well as major companies that participate in the sport.
One of the coolest memories I have from covering over 100 motor sports events during my career was getting a chance to photograph Jimmie Johnson in a portrait session after winning his second NASCAR cup series championship. I was shooting the race for Getty Images and making a potential cover for Sports Illustrated.
Instead of the traditional in-garage portrait, with tires piled up and diamond plated walls as a background, I preferred to do something different than what had been done in years past. I asked the Director of Photography if he was cool with me photographing Johnson out on the track with a smoke machine and some blue lighting to match his colors. This had never been done before, mostly because of logistic difficulties, and I was told that it would have to be very late in the evening or early morning because Jimmie would have to complete all his other media commitments first if we wanted to take him out on the track. If we had done it in the garage he could’ve bounced in between interviews and got it done much earlier, but because we wanted to get it as an environmental portrait, we were told it would only be after he finished all his other TV, sponsor and media commitments.
We began setting up around 5 PM, after the race ended at 4:30, and we had a crew of about a dozen people. I specifically remember having to send one assistant outside of the track and all the way around the parking lot, up to turn four so he could send some blue colored light behind Johnson! This took him over an hour just to get there and set up the lighting and the generator for power. We also had a Halloween smoker I had in my garage for the cool smoke affect in the photo.
Jimmie finally came out around 1 o’clock in the morning and my first thought was relief (you never know if an athlete is going to just say, “nope not going to do it”), but Johnson did show up and was so into the different look he stayed well past the 20 minutes his publicist promised us. One other thing to note, if you’re able to look very closely at the names on the trophies sitting on the track, you will see that one of them actually has the name of Jeff Gordon. Jeff was Jimmie Johnson’s teammate and had won the championship two years before and since they didn’t know who was going to win until the very end they had to use Jeff’s championship trophy from the year before in order to show “Back to Back” titles. Gordon had brought his trophy with him for a media event. Jimmie Johnson had forgotten and left his first championship trophy back at his home garage!
NASCAR has had some issues in these weird times, including Jimmie Johnson’s bout with COVID, but it’s staying true to its core–good family fun, honest competition, and kick-ass cars!
And as for me, I got a cool pic too! It’s definitely the closest I’ll ever get to the finish line!
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