Monday, November 30, 2009

Sunday, November 29, 2009

A Little Moorish. The Wheelers On Holiday. Jerez To Valencia

Imagine two weeks between races, in Southern Spain with the most important person in your world....
I have been looking forward to this. Emily and I hadn't been away on holiday together (aside from her joining me at Indy, for MotoGP) for over two years. So for her to join me for both last races of the season, AND have a holiday touring in Spain in between WSBK at Portimao and MotoGP at Valencia was a true blessing and something that we both had been looking forward to ever since we started planning the trip. In so much as Emily didn't take hardly any vacation in 2008 just to make sure she had enough to cover her for the time we were aboard (the US is not terribly generous on leave so three weeks vacation is almost considered abandoning your job...).

Emily kept a sort of "rolling blog" on her Facebook page here and here which will go into greater depth. But here it is in some sort of order...and some other odd pictures.

We left Portimao and drove to Faro airport where we dropped off the rental car. At Faro airport we ate some of those tasty Portuguese egg/caramel pastries whilst we waited for our shuttle. The shuttle would drive us from the airport to Hertz Rent-a-Car in Huelva, just across the border in Spain (the reason being it would cost us nearly €700 to drop the rental car at our final destination at Valencia and so the shuttle was a lot cheaper). Whereupon we picked up another stunning German rental car, a BMW Series 3 diesel (much to my surprise actually). From there we drove roughly 2.5 hours to the house I stayed at during the GP earlier in the year in Jerez. Now I can enjoy some time in Jerez with Emily at a location that was super convenient.This would be our base to visit towns such as Seville, Cordoba and other towns nearby.The Tuesday after we arrived from Portugal, we pretty much took it easy. I really needed a day to just breathe, and we woke late and pretty much just walked about Jerez during the day. Wednesday, we took a trip to Cadiz and with Emily as my guide we walked around the town, and the old town, ate fried fish, Emily commandeered my Canon G9 and we just had a blast.The next day we would go to Cordoba. Did I mentioned we're going to move here? Anyways, we visited the Alcazar and the coolest of places I have ever been to in my life, the Mezquita. What can I say, one of the most amazing places to visit, just walk around and realise what the Moors brought to Europe (and the world) via Spain. To think, they brought, toothpaste, alcohol, eating meals in courses, and their culture added so much to how we live today.The next day we went to Seville. It's almost too much for words. The history, the cathedral, the minaret, just walking round, looking up. Over the next few days, we'd go to Tio Pepe in Jerez to take a tour of the "bodega", my second trip, and Emily's first. We'll worth the small fee, but make sure to buy the little extra for the tapas at the end of the tour. It's a nice way to finish off the day. Before leaving Jerez we'd visit one of the signature "white-washed" hill towns that are part of the landscape in the region.We'd visit Arcos de la Frontera, a stunningly beautiful town on a hillside not too far from Jerez (and coincidentally not too far from the race track either...).On the Monday, we'd be up early and leave for Granada, the last major castle of our trip. We'd be staying in the Alhambra Palace Hotel which is literally a 10 minute walk away from the Alhambra itself. What struck me is how "high up the mountain" this place is. Something like 1800 feet above sea level, and with mountains behind, the Sierra Nevada's, it almost does really feel like California!After a lovely walk and self guided tour around the Alhambra, lunch at an outdoor restaurant (along with feral cats circulating for "snacks"). We rounded off with a lovely dinner in the hotel restaurant we headed off to bed. On the Tuesday morning we had to check out by noon and we'd be on our way to Valencia, for the final leg of our trip, that would end with the last round of MotoGP. As I mentioned above, if you go to Emily's Facebook links above, you'll see a chronological, and just more logical, reportage of the trip.Next, we arrive in Valencia and wind down the year.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

To The Wire. Ben Spies vs. Nitro Nori. Portimao. World Superbike Championship

It was a quick turnaround. Quickest I've ever done, and Emily was convinced that by Sunday I would be a total wreck.
Why? I left Melbourne on Monday, October 19 at 10.30am in the morning. After a quick change of plane in Sydney, it's off back to San Francisco. I arrive at 10.15am on the same day. In less than 48 hours, Emily and I would be going in the other direction (time wise) to Lisbon in Portugal. Just enough time to get home, change ones knickers and head off again (that's just a colloquial phrase...meaning just enough time to do the washing...)! Well. Everything went well. Our shuttle took us to SFO, we caught our flight to JFK, waited for a few hours, then caught our flight to Charles De Gaulle, waited a little whiles and then flew onto Lisbon!Thursday afternoon and all the luggage arrived (breathe a sigh of relief especially as we were travelling via CDG). We met John Hopkins and his crew at the Hertz Rent-a-Car and in fact, ended up with his rental car as it wasn't big enough for all their stuff, which worked well for us as the car I had been assigned wasn't big enough for all my stuff. Everyone happy, we head off to Portimao where we'd be staying. We'd rented a house in the town of Portimao which in turn wasn't that far from the track. The bed in the house, however, was torture, but the house was super comfortable and big. But all things aside, we had arrived. We took a quick trip to a supermarket nearby, but oddly many of the people working there spoke English to buy some provisions. GB arrived later that evening and after catching up we all settled down for the night. Friday morning we took the scenic route to the track. Last year was the first year for the race here at Portimao and this was the only route to the track. However, the motorway has been constructed and so there is a quicker route to the track but by no mean as interesting. The drivers in Portugal are rather, shall we say, excitable....! After the almost "Paris-Dakar" ride to the track (Emily's coined phrase for my exuberant driving) we arrive at this extremely modern, out in the middle of nowhere, facility. Emily and I pop into the administration offices to pick up her credential and we're in!A brief walk to the media centre, more money for (lousy) internet access and we're all set up. Time to go wander, arrange for scooter during the weekend and check things out.What a track! Huge sweeping downhills, uphills, crest's and such a beautiful surface.The areas around the track are a little "Miller-esque", meaning they're a little dust-bowl-ish and still needing some landscaping, but there's nary a bad view from anywhere on the outside. With Emily armed with my Canon G9 and all "media-accessed up" we go to get it sorted so she can visit and hang out in the Yamaha garage. Mary Spies, Ben's mum, greets Emily with a huge hug! Tom, Ben and Woody also are pleased to see her (me, I end up getting the now obligatory "salute" - all in jest mind).Tom (Houseworth) has brought his wife Suzie with him to the final round and for a brief moment it didn't dawn on either of us that it was Suzie, Tom's wife, when she introduces herself to us. DOH!Friday carries on as normal....with a little more tension in the air. This weekend would decide the winner of the World Superbike Championship, and it was going to be either Ben or Nori that would win it. The excitement in the air was palpable. Although for Tom and Woody, they had been here before (in the AMA) and even though they appeared to be calm, I did sense just a tinge of reservation that I hadn't seen or felt from my prioir visits to the Yamaha Italia camp...Evening trips back to the house were always fun. With the warm late autumn temperatures in the Algarve, it is a real treat driving with the windows down. Friday night I had decided to cook dinner. Saturday, following a tense day with practice and qualifying, Superpoles and wotnots, would be a trip into the town of Portimao and the "Restaurante O Alcaide". We found this local gem simply searching on Google Maps. We were not disappointed. We were joined at Kevin Allen from Pirelli later that evening and although he wasn't planning on eating the food was so tempting he caved and joined the rest of us. We had an assortment of dishes, one of which, the mixed seafood cataplana, was simply delicious. We left the restaurant around 11pm once it dawned on us that they don't stay open as late as Spanish restaurants, and the owner/chef, was getting a little bit irked that we were still there. Needless to say we'd go back to this place again.Sunday arrives. The BIG DAY! Although as far as Greg "Woody" Woods is concerned it is just "Sunday". Which is true, but there was a lot of nerves in the Ducati garage as well as the Yamaha garage next door. With all the finishing permutations Ben (Spies) had to achieve to win the Championship, and similar permutations applying to Nori (Haga) to allow him to win, the win itself was becoming a class in mathematics! As I wouldn't necessarily have access to Bens' scooter for both race one and two, I had decided I would go and photograph the grid and race on track for the first race, and then (nervously) cover the goings on in the garages for race two. Well, as we all know, Nori made a mistake in race one and crashed. Of course, the made race two even more tense and so I felt I made the right choice in being "in garage" during race two. Ben only had to finish something like 5th or higher to win the Championship.The atmosphere in the garage was incredible. I mean, people, glued, almost magnetically to the monitors and timing screens. With Ben (Spies) losing some ground, and Nori (Haga) gaining, you could visibly see sweat on people faces. Strained, anxious eyes watched the monitors and no one said a word.After numerous battles with misinformed security telling me I couldn't do this or that I simply went to the pit wall once it looked like Ben was going to snag the Championship. As Michael Fabrizio raced past the pit wall and mechanics in first, closely followed by his team mate and Championship runner up Noriyuki Haga, followed by Rea, Byrne it was Ben's turn. With Yamaha mechanics swarming all around me Ben road an arc towards the pit wall while his crew started to lose it!! Back to the Yamaha garage and people were jumping around, excited. Amazing stuff.Everybody runs down the pit lane to parc ferme to wait for Ben to arrive. It's a battle trying to get any burnout shots of Ben as he pulls up. With more fans than photographers I stand back and observe, as Massimo Meregalli arrives, arrives in tears, being hugged, and hugging well wishers, from fans to team mates to fellow competitors. It's an emotional moment for "Maio" and in a way one for me too. Both Emily and I have witnessed Ben's Championship wins through the AMA and now into World Superbike.With the podium ceremony completed, there is even more frolicking with team members being "dunked" into the pond that is next door to the media centre. The celebrations and buzz in the paddock are amazing.The last business of the day is the final Championship photos on the track and then that's pretty much it for the World Superbike Championship. With Ben heading off to MotoGP, the number 1 plate will only exists on the Yamaha Superbike for the purposes of this, the final photo shoot. In a way I felt sorry for Massimo and the team. One works so hard to get that number 1 on a machine, and sadly, with Ben moving onto face the top level of motorcycle racing in MotoGP, this number 1 plate will not be paraded on a bike during the 2010 World Superbike Season. But I guess that's racing!With a huge lump in my throat, and a feeling of sadness, like it's the last day of school before people leave to find jobs or go onto University, I bid my farewells to the team. It's a sad feeling for me. I have always been welcomed and looked after by everyone in the Yamaha Italia squad, from Maio, to Jure, to Giulio and of course Gavin the PR dude...the same sentiments and kindness were shown to Eily on her visit to the teams. So I have to say a huge THANK YOU to Yamaha Italia for making my work away from home and my wife a joy. I look forward to seeing them all again soon. Also a huge thank you to Graeme Brown, Matteo Cavadini, Marco Morittu, Gavin Mattheson and others who made 2009 so much of a pleasure. Also a big THANK YOU to Yamaha's advertising agency who have been very supportive and have used many of my images through 2009 in the advertising campaigns.Monday am arrives, and we're up early and off to begin our holiday. That post is coming up next...

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Five days at home! Off to Australia..Spies? Haga? Rossi? Stoner? WHO!!?

Even though this has become a common view this year, it's always nice to come home. Back home to Emily my wife, Thor the dog, Bean and Widget our little cats and my own bed. There is nothing nicer....Two weeks away from home in a single trip it starts to push the envelope of tolerance. Knowing that Emily is home having to take care of the pets, and everything else, whilst I'm away. I feel somewhat guilty, but then again, this is my job and I try my best to promise Emily that she'll get pictures each day. Fortunately this was only my second back to back race this year and the last. The next time I'll be away from home for more than a week will be the trip to Portugal and Spain for World Superbike and MotoGP and Emily will be with me (or was with me...!)In the meantime it is home for five days then off to Australia for the second time this year. The first was for World Superbike at the beginning of the year. This is for MotoGP. A different beast! As is the case the five days at home whizzes by. Washing is all done, suitcases repacked with all clean clothes (you really do not empty your suitcases at all...) and before you know it we're back in the car, heading up Highway 280 to SFO. Upon checkin, the Customer Service Manager (I've mislaid his business card so I can't add his name here) at the Qantas desk recognizes me (from past flights) and upgrades my seat to Premium Economy. SCORE! I get to sleep properly on the way day. I am so thrilled. Emily and I spend an hour or two having a bite to eat before she has to head back down home. It never get's any easier, and I do really not enjoy saying cheerio to her. I wish she could come with me all the time.The plane leaves on time and we settle in for the trip down....a few beers, champagnes and whiskies later sleep happens. We're woken and we're not too far from touchdown at Melbourne. I'm always amazed how long the flight looks numerically, but in reality seems to fly by. I really wanted to enjoy my comfy seating! Oh well. I have a few hours to kill in Sydney before my connecting flight to Melbourne and I meet Maurice Murray. Good friend and the man in charge with Yamaha US Parts and Accessories Division. Hilarious who you meet in places you'd least expect it. Time to go catch the flight down to Melbourne.The weather isn't looking very good, it's cold (and yes it is Spring down here but it has been warmer...). I load my stuff into the rental, fire up "Gladys" (my trusty TomTom 300) and head on down to Phillip Island. Stopping, as I have always done, at the McDonald's in Cranbourne for some funky curry flavoured snack wrap and a coffee...a couple of hours later I'm at the house on Phillip Island. Making sure I do not speed. Speeding tickets seem to be a hazard with this job. But as I write this many weeks later it does appear that I have been well behaved and so far, nothing from the State of Victoria has landed in our mailbox...yet). One super treat is that John Hanson, good friend from back home (the US) will be joining me (along with GP regular Martin Heath) at the house along with his Australian girlfriend. John is a super nice fellow and extremely talented photographer with who I had had the pleasure of working with since we met at Road America in 2005. He also does work with RoadRacerX and also has a unique style of photography that I like. So that was something to look forward to as well. Sadly there wasn't any trips to the penguins, nor the koala reserve, the weather was far too stormy and I think I was just tired from travelling and pretty much ended up waiting for the race weekend to roll around...But then again, when the sun comes out, it is super blue skies although it looks comfortable, it does get chilly pretty damn quick...One thing that I notices covering races all over the place. Is the spectators clothing. It's rather entertaining in some ways, becuase, for example, in somewhere warm, like Spain or Italy, people wear bright colours, even in the rain the colours are bright and the nice thing about this is that as a photographer you can use this to your advantage, especially in slow motion shots. By lowering the shutter speed you can create a high bright and colourful background. However, at Phillip Island most folks where dark sombre colours and so a motion blur shot is usually only speckled with an odd flash of yellow or red.The race weekend was pretty predictable, baring some sort of stupid mistake from either Casey Stoner, Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo or Dani Pedrosa, and it's been known to happen mind you, the race would be won by one of these four. As it turned out one does have to feel a little sorry for poor old Nicky Hayden after yet again, having his race ruined before even a single lap under his belt by a little over exuberance by Jorge. That said it would be Casey Stoners weekend, and a a home win is well, which must feel good.Monday am it would be up bright and early, a steady drive to Melbourne (no speeding) then a commuter flight to Sydney then home. But I wouldn't be home for long. After getting home Monday afternoon, within 48 hours I would be on a plane heading to Lisbon in Portugal. This time would be different as Emily would be with me..FOR THREE WEEKS! Next installment coming up. It is about the racing right?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

From Pizza to Poulet, Imola to Magny Cours, Ben Spies and Nitro Nori!

Sit tight, grab a coffee, put some kindling on the fire, or grab your kindle and read on....

I will be updating in "chunks" during the next day or so, beginning with Imola and Magny Cours, then Phillip Island in Australia, then Portimao which will include the road trip my wife Emily and I had en route to the final round of MotoGp in Valencia. Then we'll have some current updates.

The last time I put words to this blog, I was staying in a small gite, in a small beautiful town called Brisighella, a picture of which can be viewed down page. This was to attend the World Superbike race at the famous race track at Imola. I had never been to Imola, much the same as I had never been to Monza. In fact, it's the one thing in common I had with Ben Spies! Many of the tracks he would be racing at, he hadn't seen either. Let's just say that's where the similarities ended. Italy is a wonderful place, and this part of Italy is beautiful. Still rather rustic, but full of history, architecture and kind people. The gite I had rented was a converted barn. The entire property was a vineyard, not huge, but they make and sell their own wines and we had just arrived at harvest time. So the roads that we would travel on would always have at least one tractor with a trailer full of grapes. Occasionally, you'd round a corner and see a rather futuristic tall, spaceship looking tractor designed to remove grapes from their vines. At night you'd hear these tractors, with their "night into day" lights following a strict path up and down the well placed vines removing the grapes.Needless to say, the air is full of a pungent fruity mustiness as they're taken from the vines, and crushed at many of the small independent wine producers in the valley. The entire region is noted for it's wine, and it's wild boar. In fact, at the place we were staying, the woman who ran the facility, and who owned the vineyard and who also runs a cooking school, would tell me that if I went for a walk in the evening to watch out for wild boar... Ok, I will. In the mornings you would sometimes wake to the crack of gunfire and hunters would be up at dawn looking for game, and no doubt, the odd wild boar...! Imola holds a very special place in many racing fans' hearts. As with many famous racetracks it also has a rather sad side to it's history, being a race track where many fine racers have lost their lives. One of the most well known, and still loved to this day, is Ayrton Senna. On the Thursday afternoon, Graeme, another photographer by the name of Gareth Harford and myself walked the track, a useful exercise just to get some idea of the layout, angles and so forth. When we came upon Tamburello we went behind the catch fencing, where, to this day, Senna fans place flowers, and memorials to the famed Formula 1 (cars) driver. On a quiet Thursday afternoon with the only sound being some birds and the faint toot of cars horns from the city that surrounds the race track it made for a moment of reflection, and a reminder that sometimes there is a price to pay for speed, competition, and the ultimately, life does go with everything Thursday ends and the race weekend gears itself up. In Italy, this means chaos. Organised chaos! Italian race fans are really, very enthusiastic. Climbing fences, firecrackers, disco Eurotrance music blaring from huge mobile panini vans. All serving food and coffee as good as anything you can buy in a decent Italian restaurant in the US. The Italians love food, and good food. Umm, so do I so it's a dangerous combination! The racing? Oh yes! Well, as expected this is a Ducati track, meaning, they really always perform well here and this weekend wasn't any different, however, MotoGP 250 superstar Marco Simoncelliput in an appearance for the Aprillia Superbike team and finished third in race two! To the delight of the many fans that turned out to watch the Italian. With Ducati riders, Haga and Fabrizio winning race 1 and race 2 respectively, the weekend wasn't helpful for title contender Ben Spies.But that's racing I guess!! A quick hop skip, quick plane trip and we're off Paris, then a swift drive to Burgundy and Magny Cours!I have a soft spot for France. I spent many years motorcycling here (or there), I would go on school trips all through junior school, the food, language, countryside, everything about the country I love. Even my wife Emily and I were engaged in Paris 23 years ago! This time I'm staying in a converted 16th Century converted building next to the church in the centre of a very old town by the name of La Charite-sur-Loire. The apartment itself backs up to the 12th century Clunic priory church of Notre Dame. Notably, the winding narrow medieval stone staircase inside the apartment will always stick in my mind because it felt like you were walking up a tower (which you were) to fire arrows upon the invading (insert favourite invading medieval army here). The town itself is one of a few towns in France that is known as the "City of Books", and as you'd expect, there's a lot of booksellers, with new, used and antique books, most in French, all for sale! Back to the track at Magny Cours, which is out in the middle of nowhere and so it is a nice pleasant and relaxing 20+ minute drive. However, I would only find out after I returned home that my rather enthusiastic driving style would be rewarded with four driving violations, in other words, speeding tickets from some sneaky hidden speeding camera somewhere en route between the apartment and the track. No flashes to alert you, nothing. Perhaps the cows were disguised as speed cameras, who knows..but there you go. The price of racing I suppose! This weekend would fare a little better for Ben's championship attempt as he would go onto win race 1.However, Noriyuki Haga would maintain his side of the championship tussle by winning race 2.This track is huge! A scooter (Thanks Maio! [Merrigalli]) is essential. There's plenty of opportunities to capture something a little bit different, with brightly coloured kerbs, huge swathes of green paint and the light is actually quite good there (or here)...One thing that struck me, especially as I spent a lot of time working in and out of the Yamaha garage was watching the extremely high level of team work, combined with a good sense of humour to get the work done. With Tom Houseworth who has been with Ben for years, and Gregg 'Woody" Wood, who came on board the Spies championship efforts a few races previously the team developed and second sense for making sure all their work played out.With the championship now set to come down to the final race in Portimao, Portugal, the weekend is over. Next, we head home to California for a few days, then it's off to Australia and Phillip Island for MotoGP.