By CARA COOPER
A couple of weeks ago I covered my TENTH race weekend at Martinsville Speedway. The newspaper where I work is just five miles from the track, and I sort of serve as the unofficial track beat reporter, so three times a year I cover races in various forms there.
And every time it’s an anxiety-filled disaster.
I’ll start by saying the anxiety is totally self-inflicted, and everyone who works at the track and in the media center is pretty great. But every race I’m typically the only “local” media for a good portion of the weekend, while everyone else follows racing and/or NASCAR across the country week-to-week. So I live in constant fear of those people, because I’m constantly worried I’m going to do or say something for them to realize I really don’t belong there.
I’ve suffered from imposter syndrome since elementary school when I realized there was always that one class that was the “cool” class and I was never in it. All the way through high school, college, grad school and into my adult life I’ve been very conscious of the fact I have never been, and probably never will be, “cool.” And the fear is that people who may briefly think I am will soon figure that out.
(I guess I should mention, Wikipedia defines imposter syndrome as “Impostor syndrome (also known as impostor phenomenon, impostorism, fraud syndrome or the impostor experience) is a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud’.” (Yes I know Wikipedia isn’t a reliable source. Please don’t think I’m stupid.))
It’s little ways like that that my brain constantly puts me down. Like, I never tell people I went to Northwestern. I say it’s because I don’t like to sound braggy, but it’s really because I’m always worried people are going to think “OOOO Northwestern. Miss fancy-pants. Who does she think she is?” or “woah, Northwestern is a good school, why did they lower their standards to let her in?” I also never talk about cool things I’ve done in my career, like covering NASCAR or the Olympics. I rarely post pictures of myself or those “LIFE UPDATE!” posts on Facebook or Twitter, and if you try to give me a compliment there’s a 95 percent chance I’ll never speak to you again.
I’m so good at having imposter syndrome, I could probably make a career out of it. But actually, probably not, because I’m sure there’s someone out there who does imposter syndrome better than me and would be a better choice for the opening.
(…That was a joke.)
Anyways, that’s a long way of saying when race weekends come around, my brain never cooperates. I can’t stand to spend time in the media center because I’m constantly worried there’s some really smart NASCAR person reading over my shoulders and seeing I’m not very good at writing about racing, or see my computer screen thinking “this girl has been on Twitter all day while real journalists are here doing real work.”
So on these weekends, to try to cut down on my anxiety I try to do as little “reporter-y” things as possible. I don’t hang out in the media center unless I have to (also I apologize to people in the media center who try to say hi to me and I’m too scared to say hi back), and I hate watching the race from the press box. So the last two races I decided to not be a journalist for a while.
Okay, I’m always a journalist, (I have to say that or my job will quit paying me to go to these things), but I do other fan things, which not only is more fun and better for the brain, but I think makes me understand racing better and improves my stories.
I walk around a lot doing social media stuff for work while mostly people watching and looking for celebrities (I think saw Wil Myers once! That was weird.), and observing crew guys doing work on cars and trying really hard not to get run over. (Every race, at least once, I almost get run over by a racecar pulling out of the garages. Every time, and every time I get a stern look and a point from a cop with a whistle, and every time it’s the most embarrassing thing to happen to me since the last time it happened to me. Every time. Never fails.)
During the race before last (not a NASCAR race, but a lower series, so much less crowded and strict), I decided to watch the entire thing from right up against the wall in the infield. I got yelled at for standing on the wall three times! That was fun. And gave me a much better perspective of the newsworthy things that happened you don’t always see from up top.
My photographer, who works in racing and has forgotten more about the sport than I will ever know, has also started giving me his radio to listen to so I can hear the radio call of the race OR listen to the drivers talking to their spotters. Which is cool because racecar drivers are the most passive aggressive group of people I’ve ever seen. Before this last Truck Series race one of the drivers said of another “I f***ing hate that c***sucker.” (If I knew what driver it was I wouldn’t tell you, but also I really don’t know because my radio was in my pocket and it scanned off the channel before I could check. Sad.)
So in my quest to work race weekends in new and less stressful ways, this time on Sunday, the big Cup Series race, I asked my photographer if I could follow him around during the race and see it from a photographer’s perspective.
(My poor photographer. I always ask him a million questions about taking pictures and racing and drivers and if I can awkwardly follow him around and he has never once told me to shut up or go away. I don’t know how he stands me.)
He was, of course, awesome and obliged. But first, I had to convince the people at the track that I was a photographer so I could get a fancy photographer’s vest.
That meant I had to go to a meeting and promise I wouldn’t put myself in a position to get hit by a car (I never do that…) and I wouldn’t accidentally drop anything onto the track because if I did NASCAR would throw a caution and it would potentially affect the outcome of the race (I heard that and got REAL nervous. I don’t know what I could have dropped onto the track but I made sure my pockets were secured and my hands stayed in them as much as possible. Like when I was a kid and my parents would take me to a store that had anything made of glass.)
I also had to not be nervous about the fact that I did NOT look like a photographer. I only decided to do this after I got to the track, so I didn’t have my big camera lens, only a smaller one that fit in my bookbag. I know I looked silly standing on the roof next to all these professionals with camera stands and two-foot long lenses. That made me nervous, but I also just kind of stood back and didn’t get in their way and they didn’t really care. Also, the guy who is apparently in charge of all the NASCAR photographers was SUPER nice to me and said “oh, you’re going to try your hand at photography? You’re going to have so much fun!” Then I saw him later on and he asked how it was going and if I was enjoying it. He wasn’t mad at all that I was obviously just pretending. I was shocked but super glad.
Oh yea, the roof!
(Those boxes are not the tv cameras, which I thought at first, but they’re what NASCAR uses to watch cars in the pits to make sure they’re not speeding or doing any other violations.)
The roof was cool but I had snuck up there before (I meannnnn totally walked up there with the correct credentials and have never once been in a place I wasn’t supposed to go. #ProfessionalJournalist). It was the next place we were going that blew my mind. My photog pointed to the back straightaway and said “down there by the fence, that’s where we’ll go next.”
Now, usually before the races I like to go to the back stretch up the hill and watch the plane flyovers after the anthem and the first couple of laps. THAT’S where I thought he meant we were going. So when he walked to the back of the track (Turn 4 if you know Martinsville) I was kind of confused. Then we walked down in front of the front row of fans, which made me feel like a baller. (“I’m down here, you’re up there. Look at the vest. #ProfessionalPhotographer.”) And he kept walking, which kind of bummed me out because I was like “dude, we’re SO close, let’s shoot here for a while.”
But he walked past all the stands, and down.
Down some steps. Stopped for pictures. We were CLOSE.
Then we walked further, and down more steps.
Next thing I know we’re legit on the back straightaway up against the fence.
Now, you need to know that, yes Martinsville Speedway is a short track but coming out of Turn 2 and down that straightaways the cars can get up to 120 miles per hour. And the only thing separating us and them was a brick wall, some safer barrier (which feels like not-squishy Styrofoam) and a chain-link fence.
NOW I KNOW WHY THEY WORRY ABOUT PHOTOGRAPHERS DROPPING STUFF ONTO THE TRACK.
My mind alternated from “omg omg omg this is the coolest thing ever in the history of the world” to “omg omg omg if one of the cars wrecks here I’m definitely going to take some shrapnel to the face.”
I don’t know how long my photog planned to stay in that spot, but we were there for like 1/3 of the race, and I think it was partly because he could see through my sunglasses that my eyes were as big as a tire.
We went back the way we came, and I briefly stopped in that first spot I wanted to stop at to get a few shots, but honestly it wasn’t as appealing anymore.
We went down to the infield again and started shooting by the pit boxes, and this happened.
Not only did that happen, but I had someone come up to me a couple days later and say “did you know you got on TV during the race?” and I was very worried he was going to say when I accidentally walked right behind the guy giving the opening prayer (sorry), but he said “When that car caught on fire, you were right behind him taking pictures. I made my wife pause the TV and said ‘that’s Cara!’”
I was even in this gif!!
I’m the girl on the right taking pictures. I saw the car was on fire, was definitely close enough to feel the heat and be in the danger zone should it blow up, so I took a like half-step backwards and thought “this is safer” and went on taking more pictures. #ProfessionalPhotographer but also #MillennialWhoWillDoAnythingForThePerfectInstagramPic.
We stopped in the media center because I needed to get my other camera battery, but I quickly realized both batteries I had with me were blinking red batteries, and there was still like 150 laps to go. So not only was I in all these cool places only photographers could go, but I couldn’t really shoot anymore because I wanted to save what little battery I had left for the end of the race. So I was just like, standing in these places next to photographers, holding my tiny camera and just watching the race. I know I looked like a lame-o. But I didn’t care. Because not only was I having a blast and learning something new, but I was able to see the race better than I ever did in the press box and could write about it so much easier.
We went to one last spot just outside of Turn 4 where we could see cars coming around and heading for the finish line. We stood there a while and I got this (my favorite pic of the weekend).
But my photographer wanted to go back to the infield to be ready to get stuff at the finish line when it was over. I stayed, because I figured if a big something were to happen it would happen right in front of me.
So when Joey Logano and Martin Truex Jr. came around Turn 4 and bumped into one another right before crossing the finish line, this is what I got.
Head smack emoji.
But it was fine because missing the finish was okay given everything I’d seen leading up to that.
And I went down to victory lane afterwards. It was crowded so I couldn’t get any good pictures, so these had to do. (I like them better.)
Is the way I spend my race weekends something my j-school professors would approve of? Probably not. Definitely not. I’m not going to win any Pulitzers, but at least I’ve learned to enjoy what I’m doing while still doing a good job (probably better, actually). And that’s all that matters.