Having got into photography in late 2017 / early 2018 I’ve been attending short oval racing events in the UK with my son Damian, who races a 2.0Litre Hot Rod, a custom built race car with a Ford Zetec 4 cylinder naturally aspirated 2.0 litre petrol engine, most commonly from cars like the Ford Mondeo. This is his car:
Taking photos at oval tracks, specifically as a spectator, means shooting through a safety fence that surrounds the track. This is a mixed bag depending on the venue. Some tracks are ‘OK’ whilst some are terrible (for photography I mean). Our local track (Foxhall Stadium, just outside Ipswich where we live) allows spectators to stand very close to the fence, and the fence itself consists of a fairly large grid so isn’t particularly obtrusive. At other tracks, like Aldershot, the fence is a tight grid and is difficult to blur out. Yet others, like Hednesford, have a secondary barrier keeping spectators 2 – 3m away from the fence, making it impossible to shoot through. There are options at some tracks with high banks to shoot over the fence, but those opportunities are limited as well.
Having spent 5 years shooting through the fence and posting 1,000’s of photos on a dedicated Facebook photography page ( https://fb.me/photo114 ) Damian surprised me for Christmas 2022 by arranging for me to attend a safety briefing with Spedeworth, the UK’s largest oval track promoter, with a view to becoming an accredited in-field photographer, to get me inside the fence!
The safety briefing was a day long event attended by all other race officials, from marshalls, to scrutineers, to starters, clerks of the course and all other track staff. It was very interesting, and very informative, with most of the talking being done by a chap called Adam Leslie, who I’d seen around the ovals over the years and has (in my opinion) a rather broad ‘midlands’ accent. He spoke with authority and obviously commanded the attention and respect of everyone in the room.
I filled in some forms and paid a fee, and a couple of weeks later a log book arrived with my name on it, granting me access to any oval track in the UK governed by the ORCi (Oval Racing Council), of which Spedeworth is just a part.
I learned that access isn’t guaranteed, in that Spedworth only allow 4 photographers on track at any one time (although that may actually be an ORCi rule, not sure?) and I would have to book in with one of the ‘official’ track photographers for any meetings I wanted to attend. A lovely bloke called Martin Kingston takes bookings for Northampton and Hednesford, and is the official photographer for the National Hot Rod formula (similar to Damian’s 2.0 Hot Rod but a ‘no expense spared’ premium version). Another super nice guy is Matt Bull who personally covers every meeting at Eastbourne and Mildenhall, and is also responsible for bookings at Aldershot, Ipswich and Yarmouth. There’s another guy called Chris Berry who is the long time official photographer at Ipswich, and interestingly provides a rather unique service that I may expand on in another post. I’ve also met several other photographers along the way who’ve all been super friendly and approachable. I’m not sure I was expecting anything else but I’m still really grateful for the time and consideration they’ve all provided me.
At any event where there are more than 4 photographers Matt or Martin would decide on a rota, and the first one I did was at Aldershot where there were more than 4, so I had to come off for some races, which unfortunately on this occasion included the feature final race for the 2.0 Hot Rods, but I wasn’t complaining, I’d tasted the thrill of the race from the inside at last!
There is a private ORCi photographers page on Facebook, where Matt and Martin will from time to time ask for volunteers for events that no-one has booked in for. I did 2 of these at Yarmouth earlier in the year, covering formulas I’d never ordinarily be interested in, but I came away from both absolutely delighted to have done them.
The first one I did featured a formula called Junior Super Twos. These are small custom made ‘stock’ cars (a contact formula), powered by a tiny engine sat behind the driver. The formula is strictly for kids, I think 16 or under? Above is the winner of one of the races on that day, and although there were more officials present than paying spectators the kids loved whizzing round the track in their little cars and the joy on their faces when they won and were presented with their trophies made it all worth while for me. 5 formulas, 5 hours on my feet, in cold and damp conditions, is not something I’m used to!
And this brings me on to where I think my journey differs to others. Pretty much everyone I’ve come across does what they do for the love of the sport. I don’t (or didn’t?). I started going racing to support Damian, I didn’t care much for the racing, it’s just cars going round in circles after all. Even when I started taking photos it was the desire to take good photos that drove me, not the subject matter. Several of the photographers I’ve met told me they were fans long before they started taking photos, that came later and is simply the means by which they now choose to express their love of the sport. I spoke to a marshall at Aldershot who said, “I’ve loved stock car racing since I was a kid, I’m here every week, so I figured why not help out!”.
And that’s the thing, all these race officials are just helping out, they’re volunteers, they get paid what’s described as ‘subsistence pay’, which I suspect is maybe £10 for the day, even though it can be a very long day for some (arrive 2 hours before a 5 hour event and stay for a couple of hours after to clean up).
The photographers don’t get paid. Some sell their photos via websites (some sell them at the track). I’ve provided photos that can and are used by the promoters but not been paid for them. Handing over my photos is one of the conditions of being allowed on the in-field. Almost everyone that makes racing possible, from the ladies taking payments at the turnstile, to the safety crews, to the caterers, to the officials in charge of the racing, all of them do it for the love of the sport, and they do it week in week out in all weathers. It’s quite remarkable, and the more I get involved myself the more I admire them, and the more I understand their motivations.
Blimey, I think I might be turning into a stock car racing fan after all.