Marooned on the Island

Not a desert island, mind you. Oh no – this “island” is a thin strip of land between pit lane and the front straight, the province of a select few photographers who absolutely need to take photographs of cars in front of key Toronto landmarks – the Princes’ Gate and the CN Tower – and of pit stops with grandstands full of fans in the background. That would be me, then, in my fifth year as a staff photographer for the Honda Indy Toronto, the annual visit of the Verizon IndyCar racing series to downtown Toronto.

Now, under normal circumstances, the island is somewhere you go at the beginning of the race, and don’t get to leave until one or two specific times much later on, since getting to and from it requires walking across the active part of pit lane. And also under normal circumstances, it’s hot and noisy, with shade provided only by a few spindly trees that have had many of their leaves plucked to improve visibility of the track. Saturday the 19th of July, 2014, however, did not count as “normal circumstances”. It was raining. A lot.

Marco Andretti - pit lane Toronto 2014

Now, any old sports photog will tell you that shooting race cars in the rain provides lots of dramatic opportunities. The spray from the wheels can add a wonderful element. But the CN Tower? What CN Tower?

Wet pace laps - Honda Indy Toronto 2014

Taku in the rain - Toronto 2014

The rain didn’t start off heavy. Early on, it was a mere drizzle, affording a crew member a certain air of gallantry in keeping his driver’s sign holder (the politically incorrect term is “grid girl”, I’m sorry to say) dry.

National Guard to the rescue!

And then the race began, under yellow flag conditions, the cars circulating behind a pace car driven by former Indy 500 double-winner Arie Luyendyk. Conditions became so bad that even an experienced shoe like Luyendyk managed to spin the pace car, which it turns out was rather ill-equipped with racing slicks rather than road tires. Driver Will Power also managed to loop his car, kissing the concrete wall near the pit lane entrance, resulting in his team performing a balletic, foot-powered recovery to the pits.

Pit lane recovery - Toronto 2014

And so began a parade of proceedings – a red flag, returning the cars to pit lane, and several iterations of back-on-track, back to the pit boxes, back into a starting grid, and so on. And a lot of waiting in between, while rain dribbled off my trademark Super-Excellent Photo Hat and onto my high-fashion $1.99 disposable drug-store rain poncho. If there is such a look as Goofy Photographer With Cobbled-Together Rain Protection, then I was certainly rocking it. No, there are no photographs. Be happy.

To add a certain hellish surreality to the proceedings, the PA system began playing, you guessed it, “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head”, followed closely by one of my least favourite songs, Blind Melon’s “No Rain”. Fortunately, those in charge didn’t continue their trip through the catalogue of songs containing the word “rain”, electing instead for a stony silence punctuated with tidbits of discussion, none of which I can recall now.

Dripping wet, I kept shooting – a few photos of drivers and team owners discussing things, and one or two of better-heeled members of the media, like NBC Sports pit lane reporter Kelli Stavast, neatly tucked away under an awning and having a laugh.

Kelli Stavast shares a laugh - Toronto 2014

Eventually, after three hours or so of this, it became obvious that there just wasn’t going to be enough time left to hold a race. Even if the rain were to let up – which it didn’t.

Still, a small dose of cussedness on my part did result in a few memorable photos that I would have missed had I snuck off the island earlier: seven-time Toronto race winner, and now team owner, Michael Andretti talking things over, former series champion and Formula 1 driver Juan Pablo Montoya lurking under an umbrella, and one of the vehicles belonging to the crack Holmatro Safety Team reflected in the wet pavement of the front straight.

Mr. Andretti talks it over

Juan Pablo Montoya - Toronto 2014

Holmatro reflections - wet track in Toronto

And then, my best camera began to act up, its LCD screen staunchly refusing to display anything, and its autofocus system hunting around on its own, as if possessed. I suspect that even though it was well mummified in plastic bags, water from my hands had gotten into one or other of the shutter release buttons, tricking it into thinking it to be half-pressed. The probable culprit is my aftermarket battery grip – a plastic fantastic creation that’s about as far from weather sealed as my hat is.

I finally sent a testy text to my team leader, to which the almost immediate reply was: “Officially scrubbed. They just announced it in the media room.” I don’t know how much longer it took for this information to make its way over the PA system for the remaining soggy fans, but I was out of there like a shot, heading for the comfort of the media centre and its rapidly dwindling supply of coffee. Where, predictably, I found all of my colleagues, who’d bailed out hours earlier (fair enough – the ones who were supposed to be shooting grandstands full of enthusiastic fans, or cars racing around the track, really hadn’t had a whole lot to do. But really, now.)

And that was Saturday – a postponed race, leading the “2inTO” weekend to become Sunday’s even catchier “2inTO Today”. Friday, by the way, was fair, as was most of Sunday. But Saturday, as they say, was a wash. More or less literally.

About Richard Wintle

I am Canadian by heritage, and a molecular biologist and human geneticist by training. My day job is Assistant Director of a large genome centre, where I do various things along the lines of "keeping the wheels on". In my spare time, I tend to run around with a camera, often chasing race cars, abandoned barns, and sundry wildlife.
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5 Responses to Marooned on the Island

  1. rpg says:

    “grid girl”? I think over here they’re more generally referred to as something a bit worse. At least by certain elements of the press.

    • Not just grid girls, but Sunshine Girls to boot – the whole competition for “Miss Honda Indy” being sponsored by the Toronto Sun. Jennifer, the young lady under the umbrella, was the winner, you may be vaguely interested to know.

  2. Ken says:

    Photography in pouring rain–now, that’s dedication. Hope all is well with you–I’m trying to get back into circulation and am catching up with a few blogs.

  3. Good to hear from you, Ken. Looking forward to your next book!

  4. cromercrox says:

    You got some great pictures, nonetheless.