"Motorsport is Dangerous." That is what it says on the back of every ticket....and every media credential. As a working professional motorsport photographer, I'm well aware of the risks inherent with my job. I think most of us are. But a freak accident could snuff your life out in the safest spot on the track just as much as it could the most dangerous spot. And it's the freak accidents that generally generate the knee jerk reactions from a series' safety committee.
I've long been a fan of racing and I spend many boring Monday mornings watching funny/crazy/scary crash compilations on youtube, just as anyone else might. There have been some mighty close calls over the last few years with regard to photographers being in the line of fire with race cars. But at the end of the day, it's a dangerous job. No one is out there making us work against our will.
(the spot where photographers were standing for Allan McNish's 2011 Le Mans crash is now a "red [no go] zone." A car will probably never crash there again. No one was injured).
Watching the Formula One race yesterday, we saw a scary incident where Mark Webber was released from a pitstop before his tire was completely attached back onto the car. The result was that the thing went bouncing down the pitlane at some speed and ended up connecting with FOM cameraman, Paul Allen. From what I read, Paul has a broken collar bone and a few broken ribs. He was attended to immediately, but appeared to have escaped serious injury.
What surprised me most from the event was the reaction on twitter from fans. People calling for all the media to be kicked out of pitlane, improved safety measures (ie everyone wear helmets), or in general for something to change so that an accident like this never happens again....
Former FIA Medical doctor Gary Hartstein said this about the incident yesterday on Twitter...
Never EVER turn your back to oncoming traffic. No matter where one is on the circuit. Know where danger is coming from, and plan escape rts— Gary Hartstein (@former_f1doc)
You're absolutely right, Gary. But it just isn't that easy. Even if Paul had been facing the right way, with a camera lens to his eye, the field of view is so narrow that he might not have ever seen the tire bearing down on him. Most of us shoot with one eye through the viewfinder, and one eye open looking for danger. But even under the best circumstances, you don't see much around you. It's just something we accept. You learn to use your other senses. Hearing becomes super important and just a general sense of awareness becomes your greatest/only ally.
But let's slow down a minute and quit with the knee jerk reactions. In the history of F1, and for as many pit stops as F1 rolls through each race, we really don't see very many accidents at all. In fact, for as much as the media travels, we probably have a better chance of being involved with a plane crash than an accident in pitplane. F1's pit lane safety record is pretty darn spotless. I've worked in almost every series pitlane over the last two years (F1, NASCAR, Indycar, WEC, ALMS, Grandam, MotoGP, FIA GT..........) and the one I feel the safest in is F1.
So to eliminate some of the grey area that surrounds motorsport and specifically rules that help keep the media "safe" in pitlane...here is a handy user guide for the different major series and what rules they have regarding media.
NASCAR: NO ONE. And I mean NO ONE goes over pitwall. Or on pitwall. Or hangs over pitwall. No firesuit or helmet necessary to be in the team pitbox, but you do need to be wearing long pants and closed toed shoes to work in the garage area. Many tracks (Daytona, Talladega and Darlington among them) do not allow photographers to shoot from the outside catch fence. The biggest thing you have to worry about with NASCAR pit stops is staying out of the team's way.....and flying lug nuts which will leave a sizable knot on your head.
Indycar: During practice sessions, selected media with experience (and the need to shoot in pitlane) can work in a hot pit lane. From qualifying onward, no media can go over the wall. During race mode, you need to have a special sticker on your credential to even go near the pits.
MotoGP: Only media with a hard card vest can work in a hot pit lane. And they don't do pitstops, so it's really not an issue.
American Le Mans Series: Only selected media with a special "pitlane" vest can work over the wall. Helmet and fire suit are required. Behind pitwall, no helmet is needed. The issue becomes that there are generally quite a few photographers who can work over the wall and when a famous driver (like Patrick Dempsey) is running, it becomes a bit of a $hitshow with the number of media trying to snag a photo. And about half of the photographers are amateurs who know someone, who knows someone, who got them a credential. As my friend James Moy said, they're mostly there to get a photo to hang on their wall or put on facebook rather than do a job.
Grandam: No media over the wall. Ever. NASCAR rules apply (because GrandAm is owned by NASCAR).
World Endurance Championship: Similar to ALMS. Pitlane vest, Helmet and firesuit required to be over the wall during hot session. No helmet required if you're behind the wall.
My good friend Camden Thrasher sporting the "safety" equipment needed for a sportscar pitlane. As you can see, a simple bike helmet is as much safety gear as we need to wear.
And finally, we arrive at Formula One. Pit passes are hard to come by. Your media credential does not automatically mean you get pit lane access. A green lanyard means "no pitlane". a red lanyard means you do get "pit access".
During practice, there really isn't a limit to how many media can be in pit lane as as long as we all have the proper credentials. But for the race, there is a limit of six still photographers and six FOM cameramen that can be in the pitlane. And the still photographers cannot be on pitlane itself. They must be on the pit wall. So that's basically 6 videographers on pitlane with the cars. Hardly a gaggle worth worrying about especially when they tend to be the most experienced in the business. And Paul Allen (the injured FOM cameraman) is one of them.
(This was taken during pre-season testing, so I did not need to be on pitwall for this photo)
So today, in what is largely a knee jerk reaction by the FIA, it has been mandated that all media must now stand on the pit wall. Is it a huge deal? No. Not really. We'll lose those cool angles from ground level of an F1 pit stop in action from the FOM feed. But other than that, not much will change. But the real point is a larger one. In our health and safety obsessed society, at what point has it gone too far?
I know that my job as a photographer has become a lot more difficult over the last few years simply because of how many safety barriers, catch fences, and the sheer amount of run off we have to shoot over just to get a photo of a car or bike on track. And all for our own "protection." It's kind of why I LOVE covering Pikes Peak Hill Climb. I sign a waiver releasing the organizers of liability, and I get to shoot in spots that would make most people cringe at the perceived level of danger involved in it because there is no safety net. No protection. It's just me, a mountain and a race car. Kind of the way it used to be.
My decisions are my own responsibility. I understand that my profession is dangerous. I use my head and use some common sense and hope for a little luck....and so far, I've come home without a scratch on me. And maybe this post will be read at my early funeral....but somehow I think I'll be just fine. :)
- Jamey Price is a professional motorsport photojournalist based in Charlotte. He loves covering anything that moves fast. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.