Once the sun rises, and the mosquitos are no longer at Biblical pestilence levels, you can truly appreciate the glory that is the NOLA Motorsports Park. It has everything a gearhead could want. There is a full 2.75 mile long road course with (allegedly) one of the longest front straights in the United States. There is an absolutely ridiculous outdoor kart track, where you can even rent out for small displacement motorcycles. There is skid pad for all of your sick drifts, bruh. There’s even a fully staffed (and air conditioned) cafe and bar.
While I was there specifically for the Global Time Attack races, that was part of the much larger NOLA Speed and Style event, which included time attack, open track HPDE, drifting, a car show, vendor booths, and probably more. So you wind up getting a wristband when you’re admitted, similar to a music festival, but one with more smoke and fire. And more EDM. So...like a German music festival, I guess.
After breaking down the tents, finding a cozy spot in the paddock, and re-deploying the tents, the racecar had to get taken through tech inspection, which was an ordeal in and of itself. One worker was adamant that we needed a windshield, up until it was shown that we didn’t have a roof, or windows, or doors. Oh...well...yeah. That’s ok. I guess? Exocet, huh? Sure. It was also noticed at tech that we no longer had a belt on the alternator. Nobody was sure if it had flown off while driving the Apexocet across the complex, or if it had been lost earlier. But this is why everyone likes to run an LS motor. Parts are literally everywhere. So we sent someone into town to scrounge up a belt, and all was well.
One of the race organizers pull me aside to give me a quick safety briefing after the drivers meeting. You, know, the usual stuff: don’t cross a hot track, don’t stand unprotected at the outside of a corner, stay behind the barriers, don’t die. There was going to be more, up until I mentioned working at Pikes Peak. At that point he laughed, and told me that this was “way less dangerous than that”, and sent me on my way. My plan to pose as a competent motorsports photographer was going well.
Shooting at NOLA Motorsports Park was drastically different from both the Pikes Peak Hill Climb and the High Plains Raceway. At Pikes Peak, one of the difficulties is that visibility is very poor. You can never see more than a small stretch of the course from any one point. That makes it difficult to pick a good location. You never know what’s around the next bend, so there’s always the temptation to keep wandering, which can cause you to miss out on the action. At High Plains, the visibility was better, but lack of media credentials severely curtailed my access. At NOLA, the track is nearly football field flat. You could see probably 90% of the track just by standing on your tiptoes. Plus, having that high-visibility vest means you can go basically anywhere. So that means you can quickly scout out what will be the best shooting locations.
The way that the Global Time Attack is structured is that the cars are divided into three groups, which run in fifteen minute heats, separated by a five minute cool down period. The side effect of that is if you want to move to another location on the track, you’ve got to clear the open gaps during that window. Five minutes seems like a lot of time, until you need to run the length of that half-mile straightaway while carrying pounds of camera gear in the Louisiana heat. You can move around some in the infield as long as you stay behind barriers, but you can’t cross those giant open expanses. So plan your moves in advance, move fast, and move early. And carry water.
So, the cars themselves. The ones that everybody remembers are the wide bodied, pavement shaving monsters crammed full of as much engine and wing as possible. These are the belles of the ball. Even among this crowd, some things stuck out. When the Apexocet of Apex Auto Works came around the first lap, I could hear another photographer mutter to himself, “what the hell is that thing?” That’s the fever dream of some madcap Texans, that’s what that is. Take Miata, shove a V8 in it, cut all the body off and build a tube frame around it, thein reinforce it for endurance racing. But as much as I love the one-off crazy builds, there is something utterly charming about the near stock cars running in Group C. Watching a near stock Dodge Dart banging curbs and tripodding itself through each corner was just sheer joy every time. Sure, he wasn’t the fastest, but goddamn did he commit.
The structure of the racing itself keeps it interesting. Because every lap is for the trophy and for the record, every driver pushes way harder than they would in a longer event. This means that each car is riding that ragged edge of grip every single corner. You get dirt being thrown, sparks being sprayed, and wheels in the air.
After doing a few races, I had a pretty good idea of what camera settings I needed to capture photos of race cars at speed. Or, at least I thought I did. Time attack cars carry a wee bit more speed than the endurance cars from World Racing League. Even with the onboard image stabilization of the massive Canon telephoto, I was still getting too much blur. So the shutter speed got cranked up even higher. Damn racecars drive too damn fast. But that’s the advantage to a road course versus a hill climb. If you don’t get a clean shot, just wait for them to circle round again.
Standing out in the middle of the track, I could feel my calves start to sunburn almost immediately. You’d think after going to a few tracks this year that I’d start to prepare better for them. That seems logical. I, apparently, am not that good at planning. So the burning and the sweating were a near constant.I’m used to a degree of humidity in the midwest, but being on the Gulf just took that to a whole new level.
A few laps into the second heat for Group B, the Apexocet exited the track. That doesn’t bode well. I stayed out on the track for the rest of the heat, as well as Group C’s heat. By the time I managed to stagger back to the paddock, the Texan team was in the midst of disassembling the entire rear half of the car. Kitchens, the driver, had noticed some looseness and clunkiness from the rear, so he brought it in for examination. With two full days of lapping, it’s worth losing out on some drive time to sort out problems. Once they stripped the hopped up go kart down, they found some cracked welds on the rear subframe. I don’t know much, but I’m pretty sure that’s not good.
I love that after completing the Chihuahua Express, Pikes Peak Hill Climb, and the Hot Rod Power Tour with no problems, it took Kitchens only twenty minutes to break it. Maybe it was the added stress of the racing slicks. Maybe it had been slowly failing for a long time, and this was the final straw. Maybe he caught a bad curb on the track. Or maybe he just has a mythological ability to break cars. Whatever the cause, the subframe got pulled off, thrown in the bed of one of the ubiquitous pickup trucks, and taken off into town to find a welder.
NOLA Motorsports Park is larger than any other motorsports facility I’ve worked at, by a fair margin. This means that everything from finding a toilet, to buying lunch, to sitting in the bleachers becomes a mighty excursion. Because of that, a squadron of mini-bikes swarm the paddock at all hours. A gaggle of Groms, if you will. Why walk a mile, when you can hop on a miniature motorcycle and putter your way around. For those of you who don’t know, a Honda Grom is what would happen if you shrunk a “streetfighter” style motorcycle down to ⅔ scale. It has a mighty 125 cubic centimeter engine, shredding tires with a horsepower figure that is almost into the double digit range, according to Cycle World’s dyno.
Now, we had a pair of these out at Pikes Peak as well, but I never rode one there. Partially because of time constraints. Partially because I didn’t want to ride on the street in someone else’s helmet. But primarily because I’m not a great rider, and riding an unfamiliar bike around a group Pikes Peak motorcycle racers makes me a wee bit insecure. I’ve got performance anxiety. But out at NOLA, I didn’t want to duck waddle half a mile to the toilet, so I used the Grom. It was everything I’d hoped for, and more.
This becomes the solution to every problem. Need to get over to the timing booth to check lap times? Take the Grom. Need to go to the bathroom? Take the Grom. Need to go to lunch? Take the Grom. Need to transport a devastatingly handsome photographer over to the event center? Snuggle up, nuts to butts, on the Grom. Riding two-up on a tiny motorcycle is one of the weirder things I’ve done, but it’s best to just own it, accept it, and move on. Yeah, I’m snuggling another man, on a bike smaller than your dog. So what? Don’t be hatin’.
The best thing about small bikes is that regardless of what you do, you just look adorable and harmless. The kind of behavior that gets the cops called on a full size machine just results in laughter when mini bikes are involved. So, do giant wheelies. Take it off roading through fields. Cut through the lawn to skip traffic. Weave between cones to find a shortcut. Nobody cares, you’re having a blast, and barely reaching thirty miles an hour.
Eventually, the repaired subframe returned, and was reinstalled using heavy doses of profanity and pizza. The two greatest tools in a mechanic’s toolbox. At least that’s how I operate. Others might want “correct equipment”, or “knowledge”. Saturday’s racing was over at this point, but that still left a full day of competition remaining.
Once the sun sets, the weather is actually semi-tolerable in Louisiana. I know everyone kept telling me that the weather was actually fairly mild for the region, but my hometown of Kansas City had been having a downright mild fall, so I was melting basically the whole time. I even managed to badly burn the backside of my knees. Which feels exactly as awesome as you’d imagine. Because of this, I learned to greatly appreciate the air conditioned portable toilet trailer. Sure, the toilet paper may have actually been indistinguishable from tissue paper, but it was cold in there. Beautifully, refreshingly, soothingly cold on my broiled flesh. Plus, a diet consisting of entirely deep fried food made frequent visits a necessity.
I’ll be honest here, I didn’t actually pay much attention to lap times while I was at the track. Yes, the times are printed and taped up on a regular basis, but I don’t think I ever looked at them. Since I wasn’t competing, that became almost irrelevant to me. I was more concerned with capturing race cars at full chat, and just enjoying myself. Race cars, drift cars, mini bikes, and good friends. What more could a man want?
After two full days of racing, plaques were handed out, records were set, champagne was sprayed, and the Apex Auto Works Apexocet came in first in their class. But more striking than any of that was reveling in the opportunity to watch some of the most insane machinery in the world run absolutely flat out with no concerns for longevity or safety. At Pikes Peak, these same cars would have to run at a conservative pace so they don’t you know, fly off a cliff and die. But at sea level, with wide open run-offs, every single car took it to the absolute limit every single lap. Splitters broke and sprayed sparks into the heavy air, clouds of tire smoke drifted on the breeze, the hairpin sent bewinged cars into graceful pirouettes through the dirt, and high curbing turned others into bouncing tripods. And somehow, against all odds or entitlement, I was there, in the middle of it all with a camera, notepad, and a vest. Louisiana, I may have melanoma and diabetes, but I’ll never forget you.