Indianapolis Motor Speedway: The photographic stories

Indianapolis Motor Speedway: The photographic stories

“IN-FOCUS: The Stories of IMS Photo” was an exhibit at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum (IMS). I was lucky enough to be able to attend the member preview event thanks to my brother, who is a member of the museum.

The exhibition at Indianapolis Motorspeedway Museum (June 2022)

The official exhibit description from the museum’s website:

“IN-FOCUS: The Stories of IMS Photo” highlights the photographers of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Photo Department (IMS Photo) and their work. At 220-plus miles an hour, it is hard to keep up with an IndyCar, but the photographers of IMS Photo have the task of capturing a vehicle traveling the length of a football field in less than a second with extreme precision. Their cameras record scenes of determination, triumph, defeat, daring on-track passes, fan activity, and everything in between at the Speedway and NTT INDYCAR series races.

Guests can listen to stories from the photographers while surrounded by their work, learning what it took to capture the images on display. IMS Photo continuously adds to the photo department’s 110-plus-year-old archives, which is often a resource for the Museum and its exhibitions.

Each photo they have on display has a brief statement from the photographer with it. There is also a QR code you can scan and listen to the photographer tell the story of the image they captured. There are truly some great stories to hear. It’s nice to find out the photographer’s view and thoughts about some of their favorite moments and images.

You can see a brief overview of the exhibit on Chris Owen’s Instagram feed and a news story from WTHR. The exhibit ran through June 2022. The museum also has a preview here on its Instagram profile.

IN FOCUS — The Stories of IMS Photo ©Chris Owens

An interview with Chris Owens, Manager of Photography, Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Chris Owens was part of a panel discussion during the preview event. Chris is the Manager of Photography at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and has worked as a photographer at IMS for over 10 years. He and his colleague Joe Skibinski, Archivist and photographer at IMS, told stories about their favorite images and answered questions about being a photographer at the racetrack.

How did you end up working at Indianapolis Motor Speedway?

“It’s kind of a long story but I’ll try to go to the short version of it, I was always a lifelong fan of the Indianapolis 500 and the track. I moved to Indianapolis to go to art school here in Indy and part of my decision to do that was to be near the track. I spent a lot of time sending emails trying to connect through phone calls and even showing up in person to try to contact the gentleman who formerly ran the program at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. After doing that for a year and a half to two years I ran into someone who he knew.

“I had my portfolio with me at that time and when she saw the images, she said, “oh wow, these photos need to be shared with the track.” So she kind of gave me the contact at the speedway and let him know I was a good photographer. The next thing I knew I got a phone call so that’s how I ended up coming on as a contractor. 

“Then through doing that from 2010 to 2012, I was there in 2013 when there was some shuffling around of personnel at work, people retiring and leaving for various reasons, I was just kind of there and available. At that time Bob Maryellen Loscar who ran the program and operations management side thought I could do the job. That’s the short version of the story. Basically, just hanging out and paying my dues I guess you could say.”

How many images do you take on the day of the Indianapolis 500? Total? Per photographer?

“It’s hard to say, I’m not a big quantity guy and I don’t really concentrate on those numbers. I do know that at the end of the month of May for the Indianapolis 500 every year I have somewhere around the 100,000 image mark.

“On race day I take upward of around 10,000 shots.”

How many photographers (including/not including the press) are there to cover the Indy 500?

“In the past, there were around 300 photographers. Due to the pandemic, in the last couple of years, there have been somewhere around 80 photographers. This is still plenty of people to cover the race. This includes all outside media and the IMS staff.

“On my staff here at the speedway, there are about 15 photographers. They cover what’s needed including requests that go beyond just the actual racing images.”

What is the process to become an IMS photographer? 

“Any photographer on my staff would be through a portfolio submission and on top of that and whether that’s actually looking at images or a digital website is typically what I look for.

“Has to be someone really well-rounded, including using a flash. They need to be willing to photograph hospitality programs and meet-and-greet events. We photograph a wide variety of subjects around here. From the garbage can sponsor to the Kidzone activities. People think it’s going to be only photographing races, drivers and race cars but we do quite a bit more than that.”

IN FOCUS — The Stories of IMS Photo ©Chris Owens

Do you have help culling through images after each race or does each photographer go through their own images?

“Each photographer is responsible for going through their own pictures at the end of the day. They decide what their selections are and what their edits will be. They turn those in and organize them with the proper metadata in the folder they go into based on name and event.

“We do have personnel in the operations department but they have their own work with the archives. The photographers in racing are tasked with going through their own work. I know some wire agencies, submit their images for someone else to cull. But, here at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the photography staff likes to put their own creative vision into the images submitted.”

You mentioned software you found that helps you cull your photos, what software is that and how does it help you?

“For myself, I recently started using Amazon Photos for my personal archive. I wasn’t even an Amazon Prime user until five months ago. Basically, I signed up just for the Amazon Photos program after asking around the photo community for what options there were. 

Chris Owens Instagram feed Indianapolis

“Amazon Photos has facial recognition technology which is really cool. This helps me identify the faces of friends and race car drivers. For anyone who has a Prime membership, it’s also a free backup of unlimited photos. I’ve literally thrown everything in there I have. So far, I am up to 2018 and I already have 1,300,000 images uploaded. It is a little cumbersome in some spots when searching through for subjects that are not facially recognized, like humans and pets. But I’ll pay the $136 a year just for me knowing that my art is living somewhere else in case something gets broken, lost or there is a hard drive failure. It is real peace of mind.

“I am exploring other options but I found it to be the highest volume data with the least expensive cost and most features. I am still getting used to it. I’ll see what I think in six months or a year, but for now, I think it’s just fine.”

Is the technique you use for oval tracks different from how you shoot street circuits?

“Yes, absolutely the technique is different. For me street circuits and road courses are all about backgrounds and what can I get in the shot. Can I get a palm tree in the frame, can I get some water in the shot? Is that neat skyscraper able to be in the frame? You have to figure out where you have to go to get the shot you want. Road races are really about scenes. Also, the car is moving much slower to be quite honest so it’s easier to capture the cars on the track. There are more compositional options during road coarse races because of mirrors at turns and the zigzag of the track.

“With the oval tracks, is all about having your focus on things coming at you so fast. 230-240 mph so tracking is really important. Ovals typically don’t have great backgrounds either. A lot of times you’re shooting down at the cars so your background is pavement. There are only so many options on an oval track. Usually, you get side views of the cars going by or front views of the cars coming at you.”

As most photographers want to know, what gear do you use? Do you have go-to settings you use?

“Right now I am using Canon equipment. I recently switched from Nikon and I much prefer the Canon. It’s been a nice and easy transfer process. I will be picking the Canon R3 after using loaners at Sebring recently. The car tracking was amazing, finds the car and focuses on it. Impressed and amazed. 

“Settings depend on track and use. Go to gear though — 70-200 [is my] favorite, 11-24 and a 500mm. Between those and a prime 50 for driver portraits, that’s 95% of what I use. It covers what I need. Every now and then I use a fisheye for some overhead cockpit shots of the drivers in their cars.”

Thank you, Chris

I just wanted to add my own personal thank you to Chris for taking the time out of his busy schedule to answer these questions and take and send the images of the exhibit. While I was enjoying the exhibit I did not take any images of my own because it didn’t feel right to take images of someone else’s photos.

For many years I went with my dad and my brother to the Indianapolis 500 Time Trials. I had my trusty Minolta XG-1, a 50mm lens and a 70-300mm lens. During time trials you have much more access to the track and pit row. That meant you were much closer to the action and drivers. Some of my favorite images are of the drivers. Like this one from 1983 of Rick Mears, who was my favorite driver for years.

Indianapolis 500 Rick Mears Pole Position 1983
Rick Mears — 1983 time trials with Chris Economaki from ABC Sports.

I’m very appreciative of being pulled back into the world of Indy cars by this. Following both Chris and Joe on Instagram and being able to see the incredible moments they are capturing makes me want to get back out there myself. If you are at all interested in auto racing, Indy car or otherwise, I highly suggest checking out their work.

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