Over the past 25 years I’ve photographed all manner of racing, from Formula One and NASCAR to IndyCar, NHRA, off-road and vintage, but for me nothing quite measures up to the 24 Hours of Le Mans. This epic struggle of man and machine, held in the ancient French city every June, is in my opinion the greatest automobile race in the world. The more than a quarter million fans who make the pilgrimage to Le Mans contribute mightily to its pageantry. And the absolute best teams and drivers from around the globe make it intensely competitive and incredibly difficult. Victory at Le Mans is something every competitor dreams of, and in many ways photographing this epic race is every bit as satisfying as winning it.
I started photographing Le Mans when Corvette Racing began competing there in 2000, making the 2015 edition my 16th consecutive race. The newness long ago dissipated, but the intense challenges, powerful emotions and sheer delight I experience there have only grown stronger over time.
Sweating the Details
As is typical, my preparation began a year earlier when I was at Le Mans for the 2014 contest. Each year I do a team photo with Corvette Racing, and after so many years shooting the same team and same cars in the same place I challenge myself to do something new. So right after last year’s team shoot wrapped up, I began thinking about a concept for this year. After zeroing in on one, I spent a lot of time thinking about it and visualizing every last detail needed to execute it.
Over the course of the year, I also spent time on various logistical considerations, such as obtaining a photography credential, shipping my gear and booking travel. It used to be pretty easy to get a photo credential for Le Mans—too easy, in fact, with the result being hundreds of people without any real photography experience getting passes each year. But several years ago the ACO (the body that sanctions the Le Mans race) recognized the risks associated with indiscriminate credentialing and enacted strict new criteria. Among other things, the organization now requires a letter of assignment, copies of published work from the previous year’s race, a copy of the applicant’s national press card and proof of specialized insurance. I submitted my application packet in February, shortly after the process opened.
One of the chief logistical challenges involved with photographing any race, but especially Le Mans, is getting needed equipment there. For obvious reasons I always do my best to avoid entrusting camera gear to the ever-so-gentle baggage handlers at the airport. Airlines expressly assert that they are not responsible for checked photographic equipment—and then do their best to force photographers to check it. And while I do carry insurance for all of my gear (whose value totals around $80K US), it will be of little help if I can’t locate replacement equipment in time for the race. So the best solution is to not trust the airline.
All of my photo equipment, as well as everything else that I bring to Le Mans, is on a written “master” list that I use from one year to the next. Using that, I spun off a list of equipment to ship to France with Corvette Racing. Each year the team ships approximately 112,540 pounds of materials to Le Mans, with about 75,000 pounds going via cargo ship in April and the remainder going airfreight in May. Roughly 90 pounds of the total shipped is my camera gear, and it normally goes by sea in April. The downside of this approach is that whatever goes is obviously unavailable to me in the interim, which has meant making a substantial investment in duplicates of various lenses and other things over the years.