Al Arena: Motorsports photographer

Al Arena started shooting motor racing back in the mid-noughties, focusing on the nascent drift scene. After covering a grassroots Miata race in 2008, she was hired by Mazda USA to photograph the whole Mazda racing program, which included the MX-5 Cup, The Road to Indy series, ALMS, Grand Am and then IMSA. Thirteen years later and Al’s association with Mazda is still going strong. Here she takes us through some of her favorite images of the last decade…

“Car-to-car photography is 100% my favorite way to shoot. It’s exhilarating.”

IMSA RT24-P prototype racing cars and a Mazda MX-5 Miata RF, Daytona International Speedway, Florida, 2018.

“This shot was taken at sundown, with me hanging out the back of a minivan. Car-to-car photography is 100% my favorite way to shoot. It’s exhilarating, but at Daytona especially so. When you’re shooting on the banking there you really have to keep your speed up so that the cars can keep their positions in the frame. And you only get two laps, so you have to work fast. I remember when I took this shot we were going at something like 90 mph. Getting the same shot at most other tracks you only have to go at 50 or 60 mph. So, it’s definitely very exhilarating.”

Mazda IMSA Prototype drivers Harry Tincknell, Oliver Jarvis, Tristan Nunez and Jonathan Bomarito, IMSA SportsCar Grand Prix, Long Beach, California, 2019.

“Some people who see this shot assume it was posed, but it wasn’t. I usually get a natural photo of one driver by themselves or two together every once in a while. But occasionally you can get them all together, and this was one of those moments. They were all walking side by side, perfectly in step and in great light. I remember shooting this and thinking ‘don’t screw this up.’ And I really like the light on this shot. With a lot of people, their instinct is to shoot with the sun away from them, but I think there are occasions when it should be the exact opposite. You can get a lot of really nice stuff shooting into the sun. On this image you get that rim light on the drivers. It’s a kind of glowing light which works for people and for cars. Just turning around or shooting from an angle that you wouldn’t necessarily think of can produce great shots sometimes.”

Mazda 787, Mazda 787B and Mazda RX-792P, Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, California, 2011.

“I took this shot at the Monterey Historics event at Laguna Seca back in the days when it was still called the Mazda Raceway. This was my first ever experience of car-to-car photography. It feels like a long time ago. I remember thinking that I had to keep all the cars together in the shot and make sure that they didn’t crash into each other. I really had no idea what I was doing. To get a shot like this you’ll be leaning out the back of a minivan and you have to make doubly sure that you’re directing the cars really well. You can use a radio but when the cars are right behind you, traveling at speed, it’s just easier to use hand motions. It was definitely a bit worrying doing my first car-to-car shot with a trio of legendary race cars worth several million dollars, but luckily it all worked out.”

Mazda Watkins Glen Indy Lights Grand Prix, Watkins Glen International, New York, 2017.

“This is an image from back when Mazda was part of the Road to Indy program. There was the USF 2000, Pro Mazda series and Indy Lights, which was like the top ladder of the program. I shot this at the start of the race, at the green flag. This particular race was 45 minutes long and I remember there being something like eight different race conditions happening in that time. The cars started their out lap in the rain, so with the cars being so close together at the start there was a lot of spray on the track. Then it stopped raining and then it was cloudy, and then the sun came out but there was still spray on the track so we got sun and spray, which is always kind of fun.

“At races like this I’m busy. I need to get a start shot, a whole bunch of race action, then get back for the checkered flag and shoot the drivers going to the podium. Every lap I try to get something slightly different, using a different lens, a slightly different location, and then at least two different spots completely. I always shoot with three camera bodies hanging off me—one with a 400, one with a 200 and one with a wide-angle lens. There’s no time to change lenses and you don’t want to anyway as you can get dust in your sensor. It’s a mad dash, every single race. I’m really sweating at the end of the day.”

Harry Tincknell, round 4, IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, Road America, Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, 2019.

“Every time he drives, it’s like he’s just put his whole life into that race.”

“There had been a real slow build to the Mazda IMSA Prototype car winning races. At the beginning, the car was definitely not running as well as the other ones in this class. There had been this build-up where the car would run mid-pack or in the front of the pack, and then there would be a technical issue or they’d run out of fuel. They got so close, more and more times, and then it all came together and it was win win win. And when the wins came there was just so much emotion within the team. This shot kind of sums it all up. Harry’s sitting on the steps right after the race, kind of taking a moment. He looks like he’s been defeated, but he actually just won. I thought that difference was really interesting. Every time he drives, when he gets out of the car it’s like he’s just put everything and his whole life into that race.”

Spec Miata NASA Championships, Circuit of The Americas, Austin, Texas, 2018.

“I took this shot at the start of the race from a little tower at turn one of Circuit of The Americas. There are a lot of incredibly talented grassroots level drivers in the Spec Miata Series, and they’re extremely competitive. So these races can be a little more chaotic than a lot of other racing. The Mazda MX-5 Cup Shootout allows the top drivers at this level to progress up to the MX-5 Cup for the next season. The drivers are purely there for the passion of racing, so it all gets kind of crazy. At the start, they’re all charging towards you and there’s a lot of jockeying for position before they take a really quick left hander. It’s exciting.”

Tristan Nunez, 12 Hours of Sebring, Sebring International Raceway, Florida, 2017.

“This is Tristan Nunez during a driver change practice. He has a tendency to do everything with real gusto—when he gets out of the car, when he gets into the car. He’s good to photograph because he puts a little bit more into it, which definitely makes it more interesting. He has an intensity but also a kind of playfulness. I started shooting him when he was 17, when he started racing in the prototype car, so he’s used to being photographed. When I’m taking shots like these in the pit lane I can get as close as I want, but I have to make sure that I’m never in the way of the team—I have to anticipate what they’re going to do. It’s a process of assessing and reassessing and making sure that I know what’s going on at all times.”

IMSA RT24-P Prototype cars at Turn 13, 12 Hours of Sebring, Sebring International Raceway, Florida, 2019.

“There are a few different really awesome spots to shoot sunset at Sebring, but I kind of find myself coming to this one a lot just because it’s really pretty. The cars are coming straight at me here before they go into a tight turn so they’re on the brakes, but they’re going at quite a pace. I used a 400mm lens for this image, shooting through the fence. This was a lucky shot because a lot of the time there are cars or trucks in the background.”

Words Luke Ponsford, Images Al Arena. See more of Al’s photography @ignitemediaphoto

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