Occoneechee Speedway

· Reading Time: 17 minutes

Thursday, January 23, 2020

I have mentioned many times that so many of my venues that I shoot at are due to suggestions and hints from other folks.  Where I went on this trek was completely due to a suggestion and I am very appreciative for it.  You see, I had just woken up and had noticed that the weather was supposed to be a little cloudy which would make for some decent photography.  I just didn’t really know where to go.  I’ve had a lot going on here this past week and I hadn’t been able to spend my normal time in putting together plans on destinations in case the weather turned good.  As if on cue, I received a message from Randy, a friend of mine asking if I had ever been to the Occoneechee Speedway in Hillsborough, NC.  Well, I had never heard of, much less been there before.  I started to do a little research on it and found that it was one of the original dirt tracks that Nascar had which was opened in 1949.  The history was cool, but I wasn’t sold on the location just yet.  However the more digging I did I was able to find that there were some racing artifacts left on the property which included some of the old race cars.  Looking at the pictures it appeared that there were several of them present and ready to be photographed.  That was enough to get me very interested in the location.

I looked at the weather once again and found that the clouds were going to be on and off through the morning and then gradually thickening up in the afternoon.  Since the cars were in a pine forest, I decided to wait for the sun to be covered by the clouds as much as possible before trying to do any photographs.  Pine trees are very good at letting light in and creating some very harsh shadows, which I really wanted to avoid.  I decided to start my journey around noon so that I would be able to shoot pictures starting shortly after 1pm when the light was starting to get better with the sun dropping in the sky.  I spent the next few hours trying to talk myself out of going since it was going to be a couple of hours away and I had no idea what the current condition was of the cars or how many people would be there.  I wasn’t even sure I was going to be able to get decent compositions on the cars since I was looking at snapshots online to get an idea of what I was going to find.

I knew that there was a mile long dirt track which has been transformed into a walking path through the forest.  I had no idea where I would be finding the cars in the park, but it looked like they were along the track, so if nothing else I would be getting some walking in later in the day.  I was really wondering what all was there to be photographed since the pictures were obviously showing some events that had taken place there over the years.  The more I looked, the more I became interested in seeing just what was out there, so when it came time to leave I was ready to get a little photography in.  I got in the 4Runner and headed East which is a very odd direction for me to travel in.

When I got to the speedway, I found about a half dozen cars in the parking lot which wasn’t too terrible I suppose.  I grabbed my Lowepro bag and tripod before starting the hike.  I didn’t know how far I would be walking but the weather was good and I didn’t mind the walk at all.  The trail was well marked and eventually came to the gate of the racetrack.  I had the option of following the path that the spectators would use, or going straight to the track.  Since I was pretty sure that the cars were there on the track, that was the route that I took.  I was almost immediately rewarded with one of the cars that I had seen in the pictures.  It was an old ’40’s coupe with the nose removed.  I wasn’t sure what to make of this car with my favorite parts missing.  I didn’t have any headlights or grille details to focus on, and to add to the confusion, there was a tow bar attached on front.  There was character in the car though, and I wanted to capture a photograph of it.

Win By a Nose“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer, Galen Rowell 3-stop soft ND Grad

I looked around it and determined the best compositional angle to work with.  I decided to put the pine trees behind it to give a sense of repeating patterns as a background.  The car was removed from the trees well enough that separation was easy to come by.  However, in order to accentuate that separation and pull the car a little bit further away from the trees I opted to shoot this one a little wide.  I didn’t want to go overboard, so I went with my standard 24-70mm lens which would remain on the rest of the day.  I added my Color Combo Polarizer to keep the glare at bay and started to frame up the composition as I had imagined it.  I found the right angle and elevation for the camera to get the perspective that I wanted, but noticed that the sky was coming into the frame a good bit.  Usually, I don’t want to include any sky at all when it is solid overcast like this, but I was kind of without an option in this situation.  To elevate the camera more would have introduced an unnatural perspective distortion to the car and would have made it look very uncomfortable.  If I pulled back and zoomed in to eliminate the sky then I would lose the visual tension and drama that the wide angle created.  My only option was to slide in a Galen Rowell 3-stop soft edge ND Grad to take the bite out of the sky and to make sure that I didn’t completely blow out the clouds.  According to the histogram, that did the trick and I had a nice spread of tones without losing any information.

I started to make exposures with subtle changes to the composition to try and get all of the separation I needed with the trees in the background while still having the patterns flow with the car.  I was thinking that I would be cropping this down to a 16:10 ratio in post, but when I started to look at it, there was really no need to crop it down. The composition was pleasing and well balanced at the native 3:2 ratio.  One thing that I didn’t like was the overly warm tone to the image so I started off by processing it as a monochrome picture.  That actually was going really well for a while and then as I was in the final stages of the editing, I was getting to where I liked the image less and less.  I had processed another one in color and had found the right way of doing that image and really liked the colors there.  The composition wasn’t as strong though, so I decided to take the original composition back to the drawing board and process it as a color image with the basic adjustments that I had figured out with the later image.

The more I worked with it in color, the more I liked how it was turning out.  It almost drove off of the screen with the perspective that I had introduced shooting it at 24mm.  There was just enough cool tones in the colors thanks to the clouds, door and windshield to balance out the overall warm color cast.  By pulling back the saturation in the image and then bringing it back in gradually on the car I was able to get the color balance that I was looking for with this shot.  This image represents the longest edit of any of the images from the day but in the end I think that the effort was worth it.  This is probably my favorite image of the day just for the way that the composition came together.  The processing brought it home with just the right subtle changes here and there to make it work.  There is a lot of story with this image, or more accurately, a lot of unanswered questions that forces the viewer to really examine this one.  Those are the types of images that I love.

Grandstanding“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

With my first images in the bag and feeling pretty good about the location, I was ready to see what else awaited me.  I had already spotted a second car a little further down near the bleachers.  I went down to that one and started to look at the layout to decide what the best way to photograph that car would be. This car was the most colorful of the two and I was looking forward to finding a composition that showcased the colors here.  I found angles that I liked on both sides of the car, but the one that really told the story the best was the one shot from the driver’s side.  I liked this one because the number was visible on the door and you could see the bleachers in the background.  This seemed to really tell the story of the car by adding some context to where it was sitting.  Keeping the camera set up the same, I started to dial in the composition.  I quickly realized that I didn’t need the Grad filter, so that was removed and put back in my filter wallet leaving just the polarizer attached.

The exposure was perfect with some very even light across the scene.  I chose to frame the image with a tree trunk on the right side to keep the track from pulling the eyes out of the frame to the right.  I elevated the camera just enough to give some separation between the roof and the stairs leading up to the bleachers.  Everything fell into place and it was looking really good.  I tried several different variations on this composition before I was satisfied that I had the best combination of elements before moving on to something else.

There were different details on each side of this car and while the driver’s side had the number, it was the passenger’s side that had a really nice red ram painted on the quarter panel.  That was a nice element that I wanted to capture with this car, so I wen to the other side and started to look at the different compositions that were available.  It seemed that every composition that I was coming up with minimized the size of the ram which seemed to cause it to get lost in the composition.  I decided that I would be better served with an isolation shot of this particular element so I got in close and started to frame up a straight on image of the side of the car.  That was working fine, but there was no depth and no texture to the image.  No matter how I framed the scene, it was looking like a snapshot to me, and I didn’t like that one bit.

Billy’s Race“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

I changed gears a little bit and went for an angle shot of the side of the car.  I used the wheel as a complementing element to the ram while using the door as a frame to the image along with the trees and pine needles on the opposite side.  There was a large swath of blue at the top of the car which balanced out the overly warm tones of the image.  The ram horns complimented the wheel very nicely giving a bled of curves to the hard lines of the car.  The damage below the ram was another interesting bit that added some texture to the image as well.  It was an interesting composition and one that I don’t normally do.  it did tell the story of the race though with the wear and tear on the car, the hand painted details, and the safety equipment.

I tried some other compositions of this car before realizing that I was pretty satisfied with what I already had.  I started to look at the bleachers and the grandstand to the side.  There were no real great compositions available to me here so I didn’t spend a lot of time looking.  I started on down the track to see what else awaited me.  It wasn’t looking like there was anything else close by and when I saw a walker coming up which I had seen once before, I asked him if there were any other cars along the mile track that he was obviously walking laps on.  He said that there weren’t any more cars or other relics along the track so that was a good indication that I didn’t need to make the mile walk around.  Instead, I opted to back and look at the two cars that I had to work with.  It seemed that the pictures that I had seen online included a lot of cars that had come out for events and not part of the park.  I was a little disappointed in this discovery, but I did have two cars that were interesting to work with at least.  Since I had covered the parts of the later model car I wanted, I went back to the older of the two cars to see if there was something else that I could get from there.

Pinewood Derby“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

As I was coming up to the car I happened to see a composition from the rear of the car that captured the curves of the car against the hard lines of the pine trees.  I got the camera set up for this shot and had to really play with the positioning in order to get the separation needed with the trees and car.  I found a natural path of pine needles ahead of the car that I chose to include to give the car some breathing room and a place to go in the frame.  There was one tree in close on the right side that I was able to use as a frame to the image as well as a prominent tree on the left side for that bookend effect.  The curved trunk brings the eyes into the frame and through the pine needle trail.

The colors in this one were quite difficult for me to work with.  From this angle the car seemed to match the colors of the woods and it didn’t stand out well at all.  I tried it as a monochrome but the textures in the trees were just too much for the black and white and started to overpower the senses.  By keeping it in color, I was able to soften the scene significantly with the color tones.  I desaturated the entire image to start with to keep just enough color in the frame to keep it interesting.  I then started to gradually add saturation back in with local adjustments while dodging and burning to direct the eyes through the scene as I had designed the composition.  In the end, I had a muted image that had just enough color balance between the reds and greens to make it work.  There was a story here as well that I kind of liked.  I also really liked the smooth curves on the back of the car as opposed to the very abrupt lines of the missing nose.  In the spirit of full disclosure, I did clone out the tow bar which was visible from this angle.  It didn’t flow with the car and didn’t help tell the story at all.  It had become a distraction in this composition.

Double Four“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f2/8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

I still wasn’t finished with this old car though.  I loved the way the door looked with the number on it along with the very rudimentary name stamp under the window.  There was also a bit of chrome trim that I really liked along the side of the hood with a painted “Special Deluxe” emblem.  These details kind of got lost in the overall shot of the car, so I wanted to get in closer to make another image to really showcase the details.  Finding a composition that included enough context to tell the story was not the easiest thing to go.  I actually ended up doing something that I don’t normally do with car photography.  I framed the image by omitting the front of the car as well as the front wheel.  I used the top of the fender as well as the chrome trim to pull the eyes into the frame.  The broken windshield added visual interest to the upper right third and the blue door occupied the lower left third for the balance that I was after.  The side window matched up with the trim and emblem while the back wheel framed the left side of the composition.

The colors were much easier to deal with in this composition because I had a lot more cool tones to work with so that the warm tones would remain balanced in the image.  Most of the final presentation of this image was due to work inside of the HSL panel in Lightroom with very subtle adjustments to give that perfect balance to the scene.  It was a risky composition for me, but I was very glad that I gave it a try.  It catches the eye and you end up looking at just the right parts of the car.  There is so much aging present here and that is what I was trying to capture with this car.

When I got done with this composition I was pretty well done for the day.  With only a couple of cars there to shoot, I was satisfied that I had all that I wanted.  I had shot nearly 50 frames in about an hour and a half.  With the sun getting lower and the shadows increasing I decided to call it a day and head back to the house.  I wasn’t overly happy with the images that I had captured so I decided to shelve the camera for a while and come back to the images the next day.  That is a pretty good way of mitigating a less than stellar outing and allowing me to work with the images with fresh eyes and mind.  I hadn’t captured the images that I had hoped to get, but those images just weren’t possible with the limited subject matter there.  However, looking at things the next day, I found a lot of merit in what I had shot.  I ended up with five images that I felt were keepers from the bunch.  I managed to keep all but two of my compositions which wasn’t bad at all.  The other two just didn’t really hold up well against the others and I decided they weren’t worth holding onto.

I’ve been trying to decide where I want to display the best of these here in the gallery.  Obviously, these are Old Iron images, but they have a little different feel to them.  I think that I am going to post a few of them in the Local Flavor gallery since Nascar is such a big part of North Carolina history.  Hillsborough isn’t exactly local to me in Winston Salem, but I think that the subject matter really fits the local flavor.  Speaking of local flavor, be sure and sign up for the next live Singh-Ray Webinar scheduled for February 20th when I will be talking about shooting local.  It is a concept that has become near and dear to my heart over the years.  I know that it is all too easy to fall into the trap of feeling like you have to travel to spectacular places in order to get capture epic images.  That isn’t true at all, and will be the focus of my presentation.  The webinar is free, and I would love to see you there!

Photography in Your Own Back Yard with Greg Kiser

I’m glad that you were able to join me on this trek.  I’m also very thankful to Randy for making the suggestion.  I wouldn’t have know about this place had it not been for that message.  It gave me a new place to go, which was close to home and I was able to come back with a handful of new images.  It also gave me some historically significant subject matter for the state where I live.  I count this as a huge win for a quick little photo shoot.  I don’t now if I will go back here again, but I definitely am happy that I went.  Who knows, I might find another set of conditions that will yield completely different images in the future.

Until next time….

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