Motorsport Wonderland

December 4, 2017

Central Europe is lousy with racing, and I have made it a point to attend as much of it as I can during my time here. It is home to some of the biggest and most significant events in motorsport, as well as a lot of somewhat quirky smaller scale local events that can be even more fun. It has been not only thoroughly enjoyable, but in many ways inspiring as well.

One of my dreams for Europe was to spectate a lot of motor racing. That may seem a bit unambitious, just to go watch some races, but as a longtime race fan and aspiring motorsport photographer, central Europe is something of a Mecca in that regard. Spa and Nürburgring are regarded as two of the most scenic race courses in the world, in addition to hosting a number of high-profile events each. Not to mention the other slightly lower-profile tracks nearby that host their share of events, as well as local hillclimbs and rallys. Between all these options, there was some kind of motorsport to see on almost every weekend from February through November if I wanted to. I just had to pull up the schedule I put together, and see what I was in the mood for.

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I didn’t go to a race every weekend. Sometimes the weather was unpleasant. Sometimes I was travelling. Sometimes I wanted to go hiking. And sometimes I just needed to take a weekend off (two full days at home on a weekend started to feel weird at some point). But I certainly did not under-utilize this opportunity, and it was wonderful. Because, as it turns out, shooting photos at a race is one of my favorite things to do.

I get a real sense of discovery from every photo I take. As I play with settings and shooting techniques, it feels more like I’m discovering art with scientific experimentation than creating it with an artistic tool. (This is how I, an engineer, find myself capable of art.) This goes for all the photography I do, but racing in particular (especially motorcycles) seems to give me so much more to experiment with than any other genre of photography. With the cars or bikes on track, you can embrace speed and motion,

or you can freeze it;

Shoot a wide scene,

or focus in on the nuts behind the wheels.

In the garage, paddock, or pit lane, you can take still-lifes of tools & accessories,

try to capture the energy of repairing a transmission,

or catch the look on a rider’s face as he mentally prepares to take his life into his own hands.

Then I come home and get a proud sense of accomplishment when I find those kinds of images on my memory card.

So, I enjoy motorsport photography. I knew this coming in, but indulging so much in it these last two years has taught me so much and solidified that love. I may go into that in more detail at a later date, but for now I wanted to talk some more about the events themselves. I attended not just a huge quantity, but a massive variety as well. I went to circuit races, hillclimbs, rallycrosses, and road races; saw touring cars, formula cars, sports cars, vintage cars, trucks, motorcycles, and sidecars; sprints, endurance, and time trials; from national level club races to Formula 1 and MotoGP.

I don’t want to sell North America too short here, as most of these things happen there as well, on some true world-class circuits. And there is a lot more low-level club racing going on, which can be just as fun if not (a lot) more-so than a Formula 1 or WEC event. But it’s just so dang CONVENIENT in Europe! Out of the 22 race weekends I attended at 8 different venues (including DTM, WEC, F1, WorldRX, MotoGP, and Blancpain GT) I only needed a hotel for three of them. Sometimes I would wake up without a plan, decide at 10 am I wanted to go to a race that day, and be at the track before the main event started. It was the best. (And if you were wondering, only four of those events cost more than 40 EUR to get in. For all of the under-40 events I purchased tickets at the gate.)

I might have liked to write more about some of the more interesting experiences among those weekends. The sheer scale and ridiculousness of the Goodwood Festival of Speed; The unique environment of a motorcycle Road Race; Bushwhacking through some woods to find the next vantage point at a hillclimb; the festival atmosphere of the Spa Classic; riding my bike around the outskirts of the Nordschleife for a VLN race. But I never quite got the inspiration for writing after those events, focusing instead on photos. I will take a moment now, however, to talk about the best event out of all of them, the one you should, as a motorsport fan, use as an excuse to visit Europe. And it is NOT the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

In my opinion, THE motor race to see in Europe is the 24 Hours of Spa.

I say this with a couple caveats: First that I (unfortunately) was not able to go to the 24 Hours of Nürburgring, which could be a better event due to the incredible track and scale of the event, or it could be worse due to overcrowding and generally being TOO big (like Le Mans). I just can’t say, because I wasn’t there. Second, the Goodwood Festival of Speed was incredible, and highly recommended, but not quite a singular, cohesive “race.” Goodwood is a bit of a different species to the Spa 24, with a lighter, more relaxed and social atmosphere.

What the Spa 24 Hours has going for it over everything else is a perfect balance of scale and significance vs. manageability and accessibility on top of a beautiful, scenic venue.

To begin with, it is (obviously) a 24-hour endurance race, which is its own kind of special. There is a certain madness to such an event, and it only seems to intensify after the sun goes down. There’s a trackside concert, beer and frites and red bull and sausages, merch vendors, ceaseless activity in the paddock, and the cars are spectacular in the dark. There is nothing better for a motorsport photographer than night racing.

The size of the Spa-Francorchamps race course is perfect for a 24-hour race as well. As a spectator, it’s easy enough to navigate that you can make your way to every vantage point during the day, then grab dinner and walk around the paddock for a while, then go check out every vantage point at night, and still be leisurely about it. This is unlike the Le Mans or Nürburgring 24 Hour races, where it can take 90 minutes to get from one place to the next and you would be lucky to check out every decent viewing location just once in 24 Hours. Yet Spa is also a large enough venue that you won’t quickly get bored like you might at a smaller track like Zolder.

The race itself is no minor event either. It is a major international competition bringing big-name teams, drivers, and manufacturers, and it’s the largest GT3 race in the world. With over 60 teams competing, there are more cars on track than at Le Mans. With all this comes sponsor attention and crowds that contribute to the mad atmosphere of it. Yet the crowd is still a fraction of what you’d find a Formula 1 Grand Prix, giving freedom to move around, shorter wait times for everything, and much more manageable traffic to & from. Plus, the whole thing is only about 50 EUR, including parking, general admission, and access to the paddock & every grandstand!

And, like I said, Spa is beautiful. Perhaps the best Europe has to offer, if not the world.

Unfortunately I didn’t get to go back to the event a 2nd time. And I never made it out to see a WRC event, or any local stage rallys. And I would have liked to go to more hillclimbs, VLN races, Zandvoort events, and maybe a drift competition or two. But even as my time in Europe starts drawing to a close, I can hardly be disappointed in the adventures I did have after two racing seasons in this motorsport wonderland. And upon my return to the US, I shall make it a point to attend more events than I used to, especially the local ones.

(This blog post originally appeared on Wordpress, while I was living in Belgium, and is republished here on May 23, 2020. Since then, my choice for best motorsport event in Europe has changed to the Isle of Man, but the Spa 24 Hours is still pretty awesome. I have also followed through on going to more local race events.)

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