A Behind the Scenes Look at Shooting Formula DRIFT Motorsport Series

John Pangilinan

For the past seven years I've had the opportunity to be the PR manager for the Formula DRIFT Pro Championship Motorsport Series. In this post, I wanted to go behind the scenes and share the media application process from my perspective and dive into what it's like to shoot a Formula D event. A majority of these images were captured a couple weeks back at Wall Speedway in New Jersey specifically for this blog post as I jumped between duties.

First a quick tutorial on Drifting and the Formula DRIFT Series. Drifting is unique in that it’s not a traditional race where drivers are awarded depending on who crosses the finish line first or who has the fastest car on the track. Drifting is subjective, similar to action sports like skateboarding, in that it is a judged competition that awards the driver based on skill and the car control showcased. In its eleventh season of competition, Formula DRIFT has quickly become the global leader for the sport with seven national competition rounds in the Pro Championship, an Asia championship and several overseas demos and one-off competitions.

As the PR manager for the Series, I am responsible for filtering all of the media applications for each event, which often receives over 200 applications per round of competition. As in many other forms of motorsport or sporting events, applicants must follow specific guidelines in order to be approved for the coveted media credential. Media at any given event may consist of television news, local newspapers, automotive media and more. Early on while the Series was still in its infant stages any media was seen as good media, so the requirements were a bit more relaxed. Up-and-coming photographers and videographers were given their first chance to shoot motorsports, and many took the opportunity and have made thriving careers from it. Now with the growth of the Series the amount of requests for media credentials has gone up considerably, so we have increased the requirements of each application to include high website traffic, circulation and viewership for editorial content. While I would like to give an opportunity to everyone who applies, there are many instances where the photographer or videographer is just looking for a free pass and exclusive access to the venue, or is trying to build their own portfolio, but the Series really won't benefit from having that photographer or videographer there; in that case, the Series would be unnecessarily taking on the liability of an extra person at the event.

If you are one of the lucky ones that has your online media application approved, then you will receive a confirmation email with all the details of the event and what to expect along with additional requirements (i.e. media briefing time, attire, etc.). During the media briefing, which is held usually twice per weekend before the venue doors open to the public and before the cars hit the track, I go over protocol and safety procedures. For me this is one of the most important jobs during an event weekend as I personally feel responsible if I do not prep the media members properly and they get injured while shooting. Motorsports can be dangerous and with drifting the only thing that can be expected is the un-expected.

Once on track, the cars are driving fast and sideways, creating bellows of thick smoke from the tire rubber, often making it hard to see and breathe. The sounds of the turbo-powered four-cylinder vehicles or powerful V8's are loud and booming. With your senses being attacked by the beauty that is motorsports, you can often fall into a daze while shooting, but you must remember to keep your bearings as anything can happen--a car might slam into a barrier and bounce off like a ball in any given direction, or parts can shatter and fly--so you must remain focused at all times. This is what you signed up for, and hope to get the shot without getting injured in the process.

Getting the shot isn't the hardest part. Aside from fighting for position in often cramped shooting locations filled with veteran shooters that instinctively know where to go or how to shoot, at each venue there are the physical demands of carrying the gear, standing in the sun often for hours on end until the track goes "cold", or simply culling through the thousands upon thousands of photos taken within the day to find the perfect shots. Then begins the expectations. After being given media credentials, there is usually an editorial assignment that is due (after all, you are there to get paid), and often you have to meet those deadlines only a few hours after the event concludes. After the podium ceremony, tired and hungry, you must remember to return your media vest in order to get your collateral back (often a credit card or drivers license). Hopefully you're able to find a nice quiet place to work from at the track (unless it's a NASCAR track with nice media center facilities, the media areas are honestly not the best place to work from) or head back to the hotel or any suitable location with Wi-Fi to begin working on your photos.

I've asked a few of the photographers that have traveled on the circuit for several years what keeps them going, and it seems the answer is usually the same: They do it for the love of the sport as a fan. They do it for the camaraderie and friendships, a reason to travel and a way to sharpen their photography skills in the process. These are also the reasons I decided to pick up a DSLR a few years ago and begin my real photography journey; before this I played with film cameras in college then moved into smaller digital cameras that would fit in my pocket such as the Panasonic Lumix LX series (I took that camera everywhere for years and many early photos that I shared on my Fatlace.com blog were shot with that). I realized I had this unique opportunity and position working with the Series, while also working at an advertising agency, to really learn the craft from the professionals. My "hobby" and fascination with photography has now led me to this point, where I look forward to sharing some behind the scenes adventures in shooting. 

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