Thursday, November 29, 2012

New Friends and Fast Times at the Formula 1 U.S. Grand Prix

Formula04 My only experience with motor sports is my annual trip to Indianapolis for the Indy 500 and the IndyCar race at Texas Motor Speedway and I love every minute of it. I married into a racing family and prior to that I had zero interest in the sport. Thanks to my father-in-law I'm now an avid open-wheel racing fan. So when Formula 1 announced that they would be bringing a race back to the United States and that the track was going to be built near Austin, just three hours from my home in San Angelo, I had to be there. I immediately started looking into what it would take to add Formula 1 to my racing repertoire.

Formula 1 has not been run in the U.S. since 2007 and with the new track installment in Austin, it looks like a race will be run here for several years to come. The only thing I knew of the racing series is that it travels all over the world, it's very expensive to field a car and the names of the drivers are very hard to pronounce. That being said, I started to watch all the Formula 1 races leading up to the Austin race on television to try and learn the drivers' names and what their cars looked like so I could identify them from the stands.

I had originally anticipated on buying a three-day general admission pass into the track which would allow me to sit on the numerous grass berms around the circuit. But the day that I logged on the track's website to purchase my pass the general admission tickets had been sold out. Crap. The next cheapest pass was several hundred dollars more and track officials had sent out a notice that there would not be any RV camping allowed at this year's event. I was heart-broken. It looked like I was not going to be able to see the inaugural Formula 1 race at the Circuit of the Americas. However, out of the goodness of his heart and the fact that there was not going to be any camping allowed, my father-in-law offered his ticket to me. Sweet! Austin, here I come.

Formula02 Formula10 Formula06 Formula07 Formula03 I drove in to Austin on Thursday night to meet up with my buddy Jeff who was flying in from Connecticut. I first met Jeff in 2006 when I attended my first Indy 500. Along with meeting up with Jeff, I was also going to meet two of his friends who live in Canada, Rich and Sue. I have to admit I was a little nervous about meeting Rich and Sue. I didn't want to come off as some dufus they would have to put up with over the next three days. But, I quickly learned that Rich and Sue (they're married by the way) are fellow citizens of Nerd-ville (or at least Rich is) and have a discriminating, some might call it snobbish, opinion on one of man's greatest inventions: beer. I knew we would be friends right away.

So for the next three days Jeff, Rich, Sue and I hit the road early to head out to the newly built Mecca of United States Formula 1 racing, the Circuit of the Americas. And when I say newly built, I mean the asphalt was still drying kind of newly built. Not really, but the track was finished maybe a month before the event. It still had that "new car" smell if you know what I mean. To put it simply, the track is beautiful. It's got everything you could want in a road course: elevation change, hairpin turns, a long straight-away and multiple passing areas.

We had a great time exploring the track. On Day 1 we went to almost every grandstand to see what the view would be like on other portions of the track. Our tickets had us sitting near the top of Turn 12. With maybe the exception of Turn 19, and that's a big maybe, Turn 12 was the best seat in the house. Day 2 was all about the Formula 1 qualifications and Day 3, of course, was all about the United States Grand Prix.

Formula09 Formula08 Formula11 Formula13 Formula12 This was to be my very first Formula 1 race as well as my first race to watch on a road course. I've always wondered how much of the race you actually get to see when you're watching a road race in person. But with our killer seats in Turn 12 we got the see the drivers decelerate from 200 mph to 30 mph in Turn 12, speed back up a bit to get through Turns 13 and 14, hit the brakes hard again for another tight left in Turn 15 and then finally accelerate and disappear into the fast Turn 16. And because of the elevation changes on the far side of the track, we could also see the cars head up the hill to Turn 1. It was awesome.

The race itself was a great experience. There was tight racing, several lead changes and, surprisingly, no crashes, especially since none of the drivers had been on the track for more than three practice sessions and one qualification session. Lewis Hamilton, who drives for Vodafone McLaren Mercedes, ended up winning the race, his fourth win this season. But Hamilton wasn't the only winner that weekend. It was a win for the U.S., the State of Texas and the City of Austin to be able to host such a fantastic event. And, of course, it was a win for me. I got to witness the inaugural race weekend at the Circuit of the Americas, fulfill a dream of seeing a live Formula 1 race and I got to meet some new friends along the way.

Farm Road 812 Racing Club for life!

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Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A Long Day in the Texas Hill Country

HillCountry06 I have often wondered what it would be like to be a landscape or nature photographer. To travel the world's beautiful places with nothing but a camera slung over my shoulder and a backpack full of gear, a vagabond of nature taking pictures of the secret corners of the earth sounds like a life I would love to live. So when my friend Toro, the same friend I followed to Cambodia last year, asked me if I wanted to escape the trappings of San Angelo and go on a hunt for fall colors in the Texas Hill Country I immediately said yes. For the last few years I have made it one of my resolutions to take more photos for myself. Because I make a living with a camera, it's hard for me to pick one up on my time off. I figured this outing would be a good opportunity for me to make good on that goal. And, yes, I realize it's already November, but better late than never.

The plan was to meet up early for coffee and donuts and then head south on US Highway 87 to Brady where we would make our first stop in Richards Park. The local park sits next to a small river and is also home to the World Championship BBQ Goat Cook-Off. My only memory of the park is when I get the nod the to cover the cook-off and grills and smokers stretch as far as the eye can see. So it was quite surprising to see the park almost completely empty when we arrived. I parked the car, grabbed my camera, took three steps toward the river and instantly felt like an idiot as I fumbled around looking for something that would make a nice nature photo. My brain just doesn't know how to look for photos out in the wild.

HillCountry03 HillCountry04 HillCountry01 HillCountry02 After an hour or so at the park, Toro and I decided to head on down the road to Mason, the next town on US Highway 87 and my favorite town in the Standard-Times coverage area. Mason is a beautiful town set just on the edge of the Hill Country and in close proximity to Fredericksburg  and Austin. If I could live in any other town in our coverage area it would be Mason.

We drove around Mason for a little while and stopped near a river crossing south of town. I thought for sure we would find some good fall color there, but to no avail. There was, however, some very nice butterfly specimens floating about. It was getting close to the lunch hour so we loaded back into the car and headed south once more to Fredericksburg where we stopped at the Fredericksburg Brewing Company. They make the best porter in the area. And from there we headed to Enchanted Rock State Natural Area for some hiking.

HillCountry15 HillCountry13 HillCountry12 HillCountry11 HillCountry10 HillCountry09 Enchanted Rock is about 17 miles north of Fredericksburg and essentially is a giant, pink granite dome that sticks up out of the ground 425 feet. It's a nice little area for hiking, camping, rock climbing and taking pictures. By this time I had given up on my dream of being a nature photographer and settled in on taking more photos of Toro than anything else. I came back with more than 10,000 photos of him in Cambodia, why not a few more?

I learned two things while trudging up and down Enchanted Rock:
1. I need to lose weight.
2. I need to go camping.

I have visited Enchanted Rock a few times before and have always enjoyed my stay. This time was no different. Once you make it to the top of the rock you're greeted with a 360-degree view of the surrounding countryside. Even though you may be doubled over and gasping for air, the experience is worth while. I decided to sit for a while and rest on the far side of the dome loving the cool breeze of the late afternoon. And then I remembered that I'm supposed to be taking pictures.

Toro and I decided to walk down the backside of the dome for a different view of the park taking photos as we went. By the time we got back to the car the sun was dipping close to the horizon and the temperature had dropped at least 10 degrees. It was time to make the drive home and end our day of searching for the elusive Texas fall color. It was a fun, relaxing day and I see more of these in the near future.

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High School Football Week 10: Central vs. Midland Lee

CHSLee04 CHSLee10 Normally, photographers are not sent out on the road with our two biggest schools, Central and Lake View, due to the long distances they have to travel. We like the photo staff to stay closer to home and cover the area schools, but because Central's week 10 game was so big and had playoff ramifications, I was sent to Midland, about an hour and a half away, to cover the Bobcats' final regular season game against Midland Lee.

If you remember from the last Central football post, the team had to win this game against Lee in order to make it into the post-season. It was an all or nothing, do or die, no holds barred kind of night for the Bobcats. And it didn't really start off all that great. Lee managed a 14-0 lead at the half against a Central team that seemed to have every opportunity to punch the ball in for a score, but couldn't manage to get the job done.

At the start of halftime, I ran up to the press box to edit and transmit photos to the office. I had picked Central to win the night's game in my pick-it line simply believing they would come out swinging due to the previous week's controversial loss at home. I wasn't having second thoughts on my choice of picking the Bobcats to win, but I have to say they were making me sweat a little. Not that Central winning the game would matter much in the overall standings of the office pick-it line because I am hopelessly in last place.

CHSLee03 CHSLee08 CHSLee06A majority of the time it takes me well into the third quarter before I am done editing and transmitting photos back to the office. Most of the time I'm sitting in the passenger seat of my car or in an office in some field house and on some occasions, I'm sitting in the parking lot of a local fast-food restaurant trying leach off their open wifi network to transmit photos back to the office and I never get to watch what's going on in the game while I'm off the field. But because Grande Communications Stadium in Midland is extra awesome, I could sit in the press box, do my work and see everything going on in the game.

The momentum of the game began to change on a 15-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-11 on Central's opening drive of the quarter. Central's defense then forced Lee to punt the ball away twice and with just less than five minutes remaining in the third quarter, Central again scored with another pass knotting the score at 14-14. I had just sent my last photo back to the office and I knew that I had to get down to the field as fast as I could because if Central was going to take the lead, I needed to get that shot to send to the office if they pulled off the comeback. I gathered my gear and made a mad dash for the elevator.

When I got back to the field Central was back on offense and driving the ball toward the end zone at a fast pace. I positioned myself in the back of the end zone just as Central ran a trick play on third down with wide receiver Landon Sawyer floating a pass back across the field to quarterback Mickey Scott for the score. The Central fans went nuts. The comeback was now in full swing and Central now had the lead 21-14. The pesky Lee offense wouldn't back down and tied the game again at 21-21 with less than 10 minutes to play, but Central answered the challenge with a 54-yard touchdown when Scott hit junior slot receiver Nick Barron putting the Bobcats up 28-21. Central cemented the win with a fumble recovery deep in their own territory and the Bobcats were on their way to the post season. It was a great game and I wish the Bobcats the best of luck in the playoffs.

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H.S. Volleyball Playoffs: Water Valley vs. Sterling City

WaterValleyVolleyball09 Here's something a little different... volleyball! Believe it or not but this is my first coverage of high school volleyball this season. And it's already the playoffs! With football already in full swing most of the other high school sports go by the wayside. And that's a shame because we have some great teams in our area.

Two of those teams, Water Valley and Sterling City, were going head-to-head in a Class 1A regional quarterfinal with the winner advancing to the next round of the 2012 playoffs. Volleyball, for me, is one of the more difficult sporting events to photograph. The action is all over the court and it is so fast-paced it's hard to follow it through the camera's viewfinder. Usually what I do is focus on players at the net and wait for them to try and make a block or a kill on the ball. Once I have all my standard photos of the game I set in on getting the emotion from the teams.

WaterValleyVolleyball03 WaterValleyVoleyball01 WaterValleyVolleyball07 Water Valley was ranked as the top team in the state going into the match and they had already beaten Sterling City a few times this season. In the first set Water Valley jumped to a 7-2 lead but allowed Sterling City to come back and tie it at 16-16. But, being the top team in the state, Water Valley went a 9-3 run to close out the set 25-19. The second set was not as close. Water Valley rolled to a 25-12 win with the carried over momentum from the first set.

WaterValleyVolleyball02 WaterValleyVolleyball05 WaterValleyVolleyball08 The third set proved to be much harder for Water Valley to win. Sterling City upped their game for the third set taking the lead several times. Water Valley came back late in the set to tie it up at 19-19 and the score went back and forth several times until Water Valley was able to squeak out a 25-23 win. It looked like Water Valley was well on their way to defending their Class 1A state title.

That should pretty much do it for me as far as covering volleyball is concerned. We only had one other team left in the playoffs and they were not projected to go very far. And I won't be able to cover more of Water Valley because I'll either be out of town or on other assignments. I'm even going to miss the Lone Star Conference volleyball tournament hosted by Angelo State University because I'll be out of town. Dang! And the Rambelles are supposed to be awesome this year. So I guess a goal for next year would be to try and shoot TWO volleyball games.

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Friday Night Football Week 9: Central vs. Abilene Cooper

CentralCooper02 Originally, I was slated to cover the Standard-Times Game of the Week again last week, but due to a freelance photographer having to drop out of the lineup, I was put on the Central game as they played Abilene Cooper. This game had the potential for being extremely important for the Bobcats because it had playoff implications attached. Win and they're in. Lose, and they would have one more chance to get into the post-season by beating Midland Lee the following week. However, Midland Lee is one of the top teams in District 2-5A so Central needed to win against Cooper.

Defense shined for most of the first half with Central leading at the half 10-7. This is when I take my usual time to edit through the first half photos and transmit back to the office so we can get the color pages of the Blitz sections rolling. (By the way, did anyone notice that the flag in the above photo is folded in such a way that it reads "Oats" instead of "Cats"? Ha!) It usually takes me late into the third quarter to finish up and get back to the field and this is when the game takes a turn for the thrilling.

CentralCooper05 CentralCooper04 CentralCooper06 As I'm walking out of the field house I look up at the scoreboard and see that Central has scored another touchdown while I was away. The score was now 17-7. But I also notice that the Cooper fans are going crazy on their side of the field as Cooper's Fred Lawrence speeds down the sideline and into the end zone for a 98-yard touchdown on the ensuing kickoff cutting the Central lead to just three points. We now had a game on our hands.

More strong defense dominated most of the fourth quarter until Cooper scored again with just over four minutes left in the game making the score 21-17. This is when the game takes a controversial turn. After the following kickoff, Central quarterback Mickey Scott threw an interception with 4:17 remaining in the game. Fifteen seconds later, the Central defense forced a Cooper fumble to give the offense another chance at winning the game. Central ate up most of the time on the clock and found themselves in a fourth down situation. Central converted the fourth down when Nick Barron wrestled the ball away from a Cooper defender to give the Bobcats first-and-goal from the 8-yard-line with less than a minute to play.

CentralCooper08 CentralCooper10 CentralCooper11 Okay, so Central then found themselves in yet another fourth-and-goal situation still on the 8-yard line. Central quarterback Mickey Scott rolls right and floats a pass to Jordan Charles who catches the ball and runs over the pylon on the front edge of the end zone. Happiness and general merriment ensues and all is right with the world for Central fans. But wait, the sideline referee has something else to say. Instead of signaling a touchdown, he waives off the catch citing that the ball was caught out of bounds.

Take a look at the above series of photos. They're not the best photos I've ever taken but they're all I've got of this particular situation. Note that Jordan Charles' left foot is obviously down and in-bounds and he has control of the football. The very next frame should have shown whether or not Charles hit the pylon breaking the plane of the end zone with the ball or stepping out of bounds before the end zone, but as you can see, the game official is blocking my shot. We will never know if Charles was in or if he was out. What we do know is that the referee called the catch out of bounds and the ball went back to Cooper with 18 seconds left on the clock. Central lost 21-17 thinking they would now have to beat an even tougher competitor, Midland Lee, in the regular season finale the following week to get a bid to the playoffs. It's a shame that I had to wait until almost the end of the regular season to get to cover an exciting game.

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