Pandemic Motorsports

(some of this material has appeared elsewhere)

The pandemic may have severely curtailed my activities as a tennis and motorsports photographer but it did not diminish my desire and ability to produce creative images in that vein. In some ways it might have been easier for me since I still work part time as a health provider and the pandemic made me busier than ever in this regard. It’s that type of distancing that tends to cultivate the very best in creativity. If I had been a full time photographer I may have been too preoccupied with a lack of income and professional activity to think of alternatives.

A classic staple of car portraits is the vehicle captured in perfect focus yet frozen in motion with spinning wheels and background blur connoting great speed. This is typically shot from an open chase vehicle travelling parallel and at exactly the same velocity. I decided to use my own vintage 1985 Mazda Rx7 as the model and because of the pandemic performed this as a strictly solo effort. I spent an early weekend morning in a relatively empty parking lot.

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My 1985 Mazda Rx7 (with the 1.1 L rotary engine) at speed. This first generation series was manufactured between 1978 and 1985 and was Mazda’s first commercially successful rotary engined sportscar. The car was also successful on the professional racing circuits, dominating IMSA for years, competed in Le Mans, and won the 1981 Spa outright against 5.7 L Camaros and 3.0 L BMWs.

I manufactured a camera boom with one inch square aluminium tube and a pair of powerful suction cups used in automotive body shops to help pull shallow dents out. Better still would be to weld something triangulated with supporting cross members to attach to the underside of the car’s chassis but I only have a MIG welder with no shielding gas so the welds would be dangerously weak. Despite significant swaying movement at the camera end, the movement was mitigated by the excellent sensor stabilization of the Olympus camera body I used as well as long exposures allowing me to physically (and out of sight) push the car at very slow speed. I shot with a Samyang 12mm f/2.0 at ISO200 and with a 10 stop B+W ND 3.0 neutral density filter giving 8 second exposures fired continuously by an intervalometer. It is important to buy quality neutral density filters since inexpensive ones tend to exhibit more color cast and B+W filters are made strictly from Schott glass, the company that supplies Zeiss with all their glass needs since the beginning of time.

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Removing the camera boom requires lots of time with Photoshop but the process can be expedited by shooting an image of the stationary car with no boom but from the same angle and distance so that segments can be cut and pasted to cover the boom and suction cups.
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Shooting the car from the rear meant mounting the boom on the roof of the car which makes post processing even easier since the boom never crosses the body of the car and only needs to be deleted from the sky (the reflection of the boom is still evident on the side glass and rear quarter panel).
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I duplicated the shot with my daily driver, a Genesis G90, using a Laowa 7.5 mm for a wider field since the car is so big. I used a weaker ND filter and exposures were only 2 seconds because the car is also too heavy to push and I was forced to drive it, albeit slowly. Vibrations seemed to be tolerated by the camera body sensor stabilization although the camera did shake furiously for half a minute when turning the ignition!

My FB friends were delighted to learn that after a lengthy Pacific voyage followed by rail transportation across the country I finally received shipment of a rare 1968 Mazda Cosmo sport coupe. I posted photos of the car parked outside my house, and in my driveway!

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Then I revealed that it was actually a 1:18 scale Autoart model of the Mazda Cosmo, shot with forced perspective. Attention to small details sell the illusion. In the first image it is the shadow cast by the car, the ability to see the tree trunk through the rear glass and the grass through the driver’s side window. The seamless alignment of my ersatz asphalt with the curb is actually cork board sprayed with flat black paint. I use at least two tripods, each with a Manfrotto 410 geared heads for ultra fine control of yaw, pitch and roll so that the camera body and model are precisely placed.

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The custom made license plate and I contorting my body to appear to be folding myself into the driver’s seat (right hand side for domestic Japanese cars) and having the steering wheels turned in one direction are the small details that subconsciously sell it. I shot with wide angle primes like the Leica 15mm f/1.7 closed down to their smallest aperture, typically f/16 – f/22.

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The famous movie Casablanca was shot entirely on Warner Brother’s soundstage so in order to film the end scene at the airport, a 1/2 scale Lockheed Elecktra was built and “short” actors played the ground crew. They were then shot in forced perspective as a distant object waiting outside the aircraft hangar where Bogart says final goodbyes to Ingrid Bergman. More recently, in Lord of the Rings the actors portraying the much smaller Hobbits were shot with advanced forced perspective techniques that included camera movement in scenes involving their much larger human and elfin allies. The Christmas movie Elf starring Will Farrell had 47 scenes shot with clever forced perspective techniques because its small budget would not support CGI. In the end the forced perspective scenes give the movie a timeless quality because the audience knows Will Farrell cannot be 5x larger than Bob Newhart yet the illusion would speak otherwise.

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I staged this shot with another 1:18 Autoart model of the 1991 Le Mans winning Mazda 787B prototype racer. Le Mans is the ultimate motorsports race in the world and may have entered the general public’s consciousness with the recent movie, Ford vs Ferrari, about the events of the historic 1966 Le Mans race. At Le Mans, cars race for 24 hours stopping occasionally for driver changes, tires and gas. For a car to simply finish Le Mans is a feat onto itself. I chose a parking lot overlooking a ravine which motivated the owners to install both a fence and Armco barrier to prevent cars from driving over the edge. Even if people don’t know its name, when they see Armco they think racetrack. I had a small USB powered ultrasonic humidifier generating a foggy mist through a hole in my ersatz asphalt to simulate the characteristic exhaust of the 787B which burns oil and gas simultaneously by design. I dressed myself in my racing suit and helmet and suddenly I’ve been invited to Fuji International Speedway just outside of Tokyo for a rare test drive of this priceless icon.

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I reenact a scene from the famous 1971 Steve McQueen film, Le Mans. I am actually dressed exactly like his character from the movie and have used a third tripod to position my helmet as if it is resting on the sloped side contours of the Porsche 917K racer. A destroyed rear left tire completes the story.

I resurrected the same 1:18 scale models and carefully retrofitted some miniature white LEDs into their headlights to recreate a fantasy night race between two Le Mans icons from differing eras that would never meet in real life.

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Rain effect was simulated with a spray bottle, a large industrial fan blew accumulated water off the cars as would occur at race speeds and canned air to blow off unrealistic large water droplets forming on the cars in between takes. Shot in a mostly dark basement with directed light to faintly illuminate car bodies as they would be from race track night illumination and the treadmill run at speed to give the model tires real motion to be captured. Along with leaving real tread marks in the rain.

Remember to dry off the treadmill at the end of the session to avoid raising the ire of your spouse!

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This forced perspective image is with me dressed for another track experience, this time with the 1981 IMSA GTU Champion, the #92 Kent Racing Mazda Rx7 race car. This car no longer exists but I recreated it with a Biante 1:18 model, painted all white and with custom made water transfer decals to replicate the race sponsors’ stickers. My helmet is positioned by a tripod to appear to be casually placed on the roof and I am leaning my body weight in the direction of the model to simulate leaning against the car itself. I had experts on FB astounded and fooled.

And for my final forced perspective creation, I paid a visit to Mazda Canada Head Offices just north of Toronto on a quiet weekend. I had painted some white parking stripes on my ersatz asphalt and parked three famous Mazda race cars in front of the building. In real life these three vehicles would never appear together, such is the impossibility of arranging such a feat.

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#86 Holman Moody fabricated race car for Z&W Enterprises Inc, first Rx7 to finish Le Mans and placed 21st in 1980.   #77 Mazda DPI RT24-P won the IMSA Mosport race in 2019.   #82 Mazdaspeed Rx7 finished 14th in the 1982 Le Mans and was the last factory backed Rx7 to contest Le Mans. All three models were of the much smaller 1:43 scale which makes it harder to produce the illusion since the camera must be placed even closer to the models.

As the 30th anniversary of the Mazda Le Mans win came and went, I felt inspired to recreate a famous Mazda poster that has been hanging in my home office all these past years.   And make it better.

The original was shot with film around twilight so it’s underexposed and grainy.   Part of the circuit consists of small rural French roads with no street lighting so I imagined the perfect way to naturally illuminate the car. Rotary engines run much hotter exhaust gas temperatures than reciprocating engines because there is no exhaust valve train paraphernalia to absorb some of the heat.   Under sudden off throttle circumstances such as slowing for a corner or in between shifts, the suddenly rich combustion mixture goes mainly unburned and on contact with the hot exhaust system ignites and produces a very characteristic fireball out the exhaust tips. This would create additional dynamic drama and also serve to illuminate the race car.

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I created the blurred panning background by visiting my favourite parking lot and taking such an image. This was displayed on my 27” iMac desktop computer at the proper image scale. The large bezels on the display were hidden by raising the treadmill and the image shifted downward until only the Armco barrier was visible, at the same level as the treadmill running platform. This also allowed the black edge of the plastic standing platform on the periphery of treadmill belt to become the empty space between the Armco and the ground. I ran some tubing through the engine compartment of the model to a spray can of contact cleaner. With the camera body carefully positioned and shooting automatically with an intervalometer, the computer display turned to its lowest brightness and all room lights shut off to eliminate reflections in the computer screen except one diffuse overhead light, I lit the tip of the tubing protruding from the exhaust bay of the model while carefully depressing the spray can. Too little and only the gas pressurizing the can would escape and a candle flame would result. Too much and the solvent would cause an enormous fireball that would threaten to immolate the treadmill and be just as unrealistic!

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Clearly, this is what the original poster should have looked like. The rapidly spinning wheels are accentuated. The blur of the background and the road surface corroborate the sense of high speed. The exhaust fireball strategically illuminates the car and convinces the observer that he must be seeing the real thing. You can easily imagine hearing the eardrum shattering wail of its exhaust note as it blasts past your position.  E-M1.2, Zuiko 14-42mm f/7, ISO1600  1 s exposure.

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After several attempts, the model began developing authentic soot marks reminiscent of that which coated the entire flanks of the real car after 24 hours of flat out racing.

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This image documents the unwanted fireballs that occasionally developed!

With careful staging you end up with a final image that requires no Photoshop meddling and is inherently convincing because the wheel are spinning, the roadway is a blur, the exhaust fireball … is real!

I duplicated the text as best as I could by stretching and condensing the fonts available with Photoshop.   The content of the text is superb and the placement in the upper corner inspired.  My only criticism is that the list of cars on the left hand column was too small and illegible in the original, I’ve enlarged it to emphasize the calibre of the competition, and that a Japanese rotary engined car beat them all, fair and square.

You can probably perceive the personal joy I experienced throughout these creations but both the techniques and the activity can have real photo journalistic value. Although these events may never have happened in reality (notwithstanding driverless cars of the future) they can revisit history in a way that is both informative and entertaining.

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