One for the Petrol Heads

(Originally Posted 28th Feb 2007 to cpix.co.nz)

Covering bike speedway for the paper a couple of weeks ago, and got this cool shot.

0702117201”Close racing action in the first turn at Moore Park on Sunday as Martin Emmerson of England, Andrew Alridge of Halswell and Craig Ramsey from Hastings all jostle for position in the fourth A grade heat of the Robin Mackinnon Memorial speedway meeting at Moore park on Sunday. Andrew Aldridge was the eventual winner of the Robin Mackinnon Memorial Plate.”

These are 500CC single bangers, on tuned pipes. Tuned for power that is, not tuned for making the neighbours happy while they prune their lilies before green tea at 10 with the Smythe-Joneses.

Off the line they reach about 100km/hr before the first turn, which is only 50m on loose dirt. Not fast, but enough to make it difficult to pan the camera without looking like a silly spinning top.

Just watching the bikes get off the line is an event. Waiting as the bikes line up I’m checking settings on the camera, looking for numbers on the front of the bikes, need local riders for the paper. Checking where the safety marshals and other photographer are standing so I don’t take a portrait of their high-viz jackets instead of a bike, and wondering if I let the cat out before I left home. It all leads to rising adrenaline, and that funny tingling feeling you get when you lick a nine volt battery.

The five bikes are all lined up behind the starting gate, and tension is building, the riders scuff their boots through the loose top layer of clay. I assume to get a kick off on the ground to help with the launch, or because they play cricket as well, I’m not sure.

0702117298The arena announcers are talking about how Jim wearing number 12 has come back well this year from an ingrown toenail, and the cousin of number 17 once had a horse that was lame. It really doesn’t matter what they say, it merges in with the barp-barp blap-blap-blap of the miss-timed 5 cylinder idling orchestra like an other-worldly chatter from long lost friends you’ve never met.

The starter drops his hand, or a handkerchief, the speedway equivalent of the yellow lights on a drag tree. The five pot band leaps from oddly timed acid jazz tempo to roaring death metal faster than I can shell fresh peas, which is pretty quick I’ll have you know.

The tingle down my spine is now more of a sizzling as adrenaline and the five cups of coffee I had for breakfast leap to attention and fire off a 21 gun salute in my synapses.

1000th of a second, F/4.0 Don’t change the settings. Centre focus point on my man, Number 1, Andrew Alridge. Half press the shutter button, focus tracking.

The wild animals are left clawing at the fence for no more than a second, the fence lifts, and they burst free. Roaring and snorting towards the waiting corner, like 2 tonnes of prime beef in a Spanish village.

Don’t take any photos till the day-glow of the first safety marshal blurs past the lens. He’s standing closer to the action than me, but at least he has a red flag, the bikes will stop for him. All I could do would be to throw six grand worth of camera gear and hope it takes one of them out.

A blur of orange and plumbers butt-crack dances through the now wildly shaking viewfinder. Press the shutter button full down, get some photos. The camera fires off the images, clack clack clack.

Concentrate. Zoom back, keep some space to the left side of the frame, number one, white vest, blue leathers, centre focus point. Clack Clack Clack.

As the bikes slide past I can feel them more than see them. The view I have though the viewfinder is odd, constrained and disturbingly close to the action. The thumping, vibrating sensation in the core of my body is more real, believable. The sound of the five bikes on the first corner while they are bunched up is thunderous, and resonates off the wooden walls around the track. Clack Clack Clack.

The caffeine and hormones are messing with my nerves and and possibly my judgement, I’m sure it’s moments like these people agree to join pyramid schemes to pawn off odd products on unsuspecting friends. I think I got a good one on that pass, I’m sure they were close together this time. Finger off the shutter button.

The left side of my face is blasted by fine clay dust from the passing cacophony. I stopped ducking three races ago, they remove all the stones from the track, don’t they?

0702117222At least one of the bikes is running castor oil, a shot of sickly sweet exhaust fumes, mixing with dust and sweat.

By the time the riders come back my way, seventeen seconds later, they are spread all over the place, I half-heatedly rattle off some more shots in their direction. Three more laps to go.

5 minutes till the next race. Get my next fix.

Good thing I’m not a petrol head, I could get hooked!