INSIGHT: RACER's Indy 500 cover shoot

Outtakes from RACER's 2018 morning after shoot. Image by Mike Levitt

INSIGHT: RACER's Indy 500 cover shoot


INSIGHT: RACER's Indy 500 cover shoot


Will Power arrives unshaven, hair tousled, very much in energy conservation mode even though it’s first thing in the morning. The ruffled look is a departure from the norm for one drilled in the ways of Penske, as is the fact that he’s running a few minutes late.

But he’s earned a pass on both fronts. The tardiness is the result of someone absconding with his golf cart overnight. And the just-got-out-of-bed look? That’s because he has just gotten out of bed, after a night completely devoid of sleep. Roughly 15 hours ago, he was in victory lane after winning the Indianapolis 500. Now, the milk shower euphoria has worn off, and as the sun rises over a quiet IMS paddock on Monday morning, the process of adjusting to the new reality of life as an Indy 500 winner is just beginning. It’s right around this moment that RACER’s flashbulbs pop, and create the image that graces the cover of our July 2018 issue.

As Indianapolis 500 traditions go, RACER’s morning-after photo shoot has some way to go before ‘Back Home Again in Indiana’ needs to start looking over its shoulder. But over the years, it has become an entrenched item on the to-do list for the newly-minted winner, and created some of the most evocative images to have appeared in the magazine.

Capturing that shot each year requires a lot of outside help – primarily from IndyCar, which make the whole thing possible in the first place by allowing us that window of access on one of the most PR-intensive days of the year, but also for props. This year, that meant an Indy 500 milk bottle (supplied by IndyCar), two tires (supplied by Firestone), and milk (bought by your writer from a gas station across the road from the hotel). The studio was built and tested on the second floor of the IMS media center during the month of May, with a pre-shoot using a stand-in for the driver to allow for any final lighting or set tweaks three days prior. RACER’s window with Power this year was 10 minutes – for a photo shoot and an interview – so everything had to be ready to go the moment he walked through the door.

“The weirdest thing about the morning-after shoot… well, there’s a bunch of weird things about it,” says photographer Mike Levitt, who has been on the other side of the lens for many of the shoots. “You never know who you’re going to get, but you have to plan for it ahead of time. So you’re essentially just taking a shot in the dark with an idea. Some of the things we’ve done have worked out really strangely, but I think we’ve been pretty lucky. We’ve done a couple with Dario which was pretty fun, because Dario tends to party pretty hard after winning the Indy 500, so we’d get him in the morning and torture him by making him drink a bunch of milk and stuff.

“But everybody’s exhausted. The driver is trashed, you’re exhausted, there’s usually an exhausted PR person, and a writer, and everybody is completely fried. And of course a half an hour later the driver has to go out and sit in the sun for three hours for the yard of bricks shots. So it’s a really weird atmosphere, but it’s also extraordinarily cool, because that morning is generally when it hits the driver that they’ve won it. They wake up in the morning and go, ‘f***, I really did win this thing’. And that’s right when we get them. So it’s pretty extraordinary.”

Concepts for the shoots change every year. Some are pinned on a setting; others, like this year’s, are a study of the person. And that requires some extra creativity: in this case, a hand-scrawled note.

“I’d made a sign saying what he’d yelled over the radio after he’d won the day before – ‘Show me respect, mother******’, and I stuck it inside one of the lights,” Levitt says. “So I told him to look over at the light, and when he looked over and saw that, he laughed – and that was the shot.”

Like every year, the idea for this year’s shoot had been hammered out between Levitt and RACER editor-in-chief Laurence Foster weeks before.

“Basically, Foster and I get on the phone and we throw around ideas; just based on instinct,” Levitt says. “Some years I’ll already have the studio built at the track and we’ll just use it; sometimes we’ll build a studio just for this shoot; sometimes we won’t use a studio, like with the [Takuma] Sato one – just portable and hand-held lighting. We try to do different things every year, and sometimes it’s like lightning strikes. This year, I’d done something earlier in the year that I liked, so I sent it over to Foster and said, ‘what do you think of this for Indy?’. Our mission was to try to capture the mood of the driver on the day after, and the moment that it hits them. And we got really lucky with Will.”

Foster elaborates.

“You’ve got a certain kit of parts to play with,” he says. “You’ve got an Indy 500 winner who, depending on the year, is either going to be into it or not into it, so you have to cover for those eventualities. You’ve also got a limited range of locations, because they’re not going to leave the Speedway, but you also want to be somewhere where you’re controlling the exclusivity. And you don’t want to be somewhere where you’re repeating yourself from one year to the next.

Takuma Sato, 2017. Image by Mike Levitt

“The one thing we can’t do is make it up on the spot. We’re lucky enough to get that slot with IndyCar, and you’d like to think that IndyCar keeps giving us that slot because they know we’re going to do something cool with the Indy 500 champion. And you don’t just have a driver; you have certain visual cues. We wouldn’t be so presumptuous as to think that we could drag the Borg-Warner wherever we want to. [But] what I don’t want is to do something where people may think it was just a pre-season shoot. One of our conceits is that we want to make it obvious that this person has just won the Indy 500, so we have visual cues, whether it be the wreath, the milk bottle, the general demeanor of the bloke…

“It’s a team effort, but it also owes a lot to the fact that IndyCar and the teams know that when we say we need 10 minutes, we genuinely only need 10 minutes. And that comes down to pre-preparation.”

But, there’s that saying about best-laid plans. For all of the i-dotting and t-crossing that goes on behind the scenes in the weeks leading up to the morning after, there’s always the potential for something unexpected. Case in point: 2016. The idea that year was to shoot the winner sitting on pitwall alongside the sign bearing their name. What could go wrong? The sign being stolen overnight, for starters.

“I’d say that that was probably the biggest curveball that we had – we showed up to shoot [Alexander] Rossi sitting by his sign, and the sign was gone,” Levitt says. “But it kind of makes the shoot more authentic.”

The poached sign was recreated in the published version of the shot by RACER’s digital artist Ree Tucker, who drew upon the remaining signs along pitlane as a reference for how each letter should look. (“Although I think she had to improvise the X”, says Foster). Tucker’s digital trickery has made rather more subtle appearances in the final versions of other shoots, ranging from removing the cap from Power’s milk bottle to lengthening Dan Wheldon’s pants (see below).

The end result of all of the planning is one, maybe two published photographs: just two among the tens of thousands that will be taken of that driver on that day. Our hope is that we’ve captured that moment in a way that you won’t see anywhere else.

Wheldon and the bricks

As compelling as stripped-back, moody ‘window into the soul’ photo shoots like this year’s with Power are, sometimes you need to go extravagant: a ‘Waterworld’ to counterbalance ‘Citizen Kane’, if you will. RACER met its Waterworld in 2011, when it was decided that the centerpiece of the morning-after shoot would be a throne built of bricks. Foster takes up the story:

“We’d found a place a couple of miles from the Speedway that was basically a brick specialist. We weren’t going to be able to get an exact match to the original bricks, but we were able to get something that was pretty close. But when we worked out the calculations for how many bricks you’d need to make a throne… we basically ended up putting about 400 bricks into the back of a rental SUV. And then we had to get them up to the second floor of the media center, which involved having the alarms go off in the elevator.

“We built it during breaks in the action on Carb Day and then covered it with a sheet, although it was pretty bloody obvious that there was something throne-shaped underneath. The good thing was that we managed to save about 150 bricks, because the throne was basically empty on the inside, other than a little stool for the driver to sit on. But it was also pretty perfect that Dan won, because instead of going out and getting terribly drunk and then arriving in a state and demolishing it, Dan had just spent the evening with his family, came in, and in that Dan way, said ‘this is fantastic!’ and played along.

“But given that Dan was such a fan of the tighty-whitie race suits, when we got the cross-legged images back his race suit was riding about three inches up above his ankle. So Ree had to rebuild his racesuit back down to the ankle.

“However, the shoot was the easy bit. We had the perfect prop, the perfect driver, but then we had to get rid of all the bricks. We had about two hours before we had to get to the airport, so we spent that time bundling them up, and every single dumpster behind the grandstand ended up with about 50 bricks each in it. We ran out of time so a few got left behind, and for two or three years afterwards you’d go back and there’s still be a pile of bricks there. That was one of those situations where you have the good idea, but then you have to actually follow through. You can’t let your idea down at that point!”