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Q&A With IMS Photo Chief Chris Owens

Chris Owens grew up in Indiana as a motorsports fan and a photography enthusiast, but never imagined where his passions would take him “back home.” Here, the head photographer at Indianapolis Motor Speedway describes a day in the life during the month of May.
Chris Owens holding a telephoto camera lens

Chris OwensPhoto by Dirk Fletcher

Walk us through a standard day as a photographer at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

It’s more than just taking pictures. I’m not always the first person to arrive, but most nights I’m the last person to leave. Before the first driver session begins on track, I direct a team of photographers to determine where they should be throughout the track. I manage assignments for all of the hospitality and sponsor engagements that happen daily. I collaborate with different media entities, which includes fielding questions from any of the 300 visiting photographers. After all of that, I transition into creative mode to photograph on-track action. Once my job as a photographer ends my responsibilities as a photo editor begins. Hours of shooting then require a couple of hours of editing, but that’s where I get to lean into the artistic side of the job. I might not leave until 10 o’clock at night only to arrive back at IMS early the next morning to do it all over again.

Obviously, that’s much more than what people see when they open your Instagram page. Did all of that knowledge come while studying in art school?

I attended both Vincennes University and Herron School of Art and Design for formal education, but never graduated. Maybe I was a good photographer, but I became a great photographer at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway due to the volume of work we have to produce. I would not be the photographer I am without having the high level of conditions we have here at the track.

How do you prepare for a demanding physical job that requires you to be on your feet all day long, hauling heavy equipment around these massive facilities while exposed to the sun and elements?

I sound like such a dork, but I will run sprints in the gym while imagining that I’m chasing drivers up and down pit lane. It’s all just training for those unpredictable moments, like when Helio Castroneves won his fourth Indianapolis 500 and he was running around in celebration. I train so that I get photos of his face, not the back of his ass.

Let’s talk about Helio. That guy must be a photographer’s dream to shoot.

In every 500 of my career, I have fantasized about him climbing up the fence to celebrate his fourth victory. What will I do? Where will I be? How will I capture it? Over time I resigned myself to thinking that it maybe wouldn’t ever happen. Last year, I’m standing in Victory Circle with five laps to go when it occurred to me, Oh, this is going to happen. I have to somehow be in two places at once. I run out onto the track as his car is coming to a stop and the rest of the victory celebration is a blur. I see myself in videos and I regretfully think, That wasn’t my moment, I didn’t need to be there. But I am proud of the images that I captured of him and for him, for his fans, for the sport, and for the track.

It’s apparent from your captures that you’ve developed a tight relationship with drivers. They see you on the track and you are able to spark a reaction out of them.

When I started working here I found that I was a little intimidated of taking pictures of the drivers. The cars are easy, they’re static, and without personalities. But anymore, the drivers know I am here to tell their stories and make them look good. I’ve become friends with some of the guys to the point that we’ll grab beers together or connect over a shared love of music. They trust me enough to go outside of their comfort zone where they’ll allow me to capture a goofy smile or perhaps a hyper-focused intensity on their faces.

The flipside to that is that you’re capturing images of people you’re close with participating in a dangerous sport. Do you ever think about what you might capture if tragedy should arise?

Racing is a dangerous sport and you’ll never take all of the danger out of racing, which is why I think people love it. While every part of a track is an impact zone, people would be amazed at the safety protocols that are in place, which applies to not just the tracks themselves being incredibly safe, but to the cars as well. That said, I’ve witnessed some pretty gnarly crashes. Everyone loves a crash photo because they make great action shots. Knowing the amount of safety protocols in place, I always like to click until that last possible second so that I can get a cool photo out of it.

What does it take to work on your team of talented photographers?

Photographers must have discipline, drive, a passion for their art, and an obsession for the sport. The best photographers out here aren’t just race fans that have learned to use a camera. They are photographers that love car racing and possess an ability to see it differently. To be on our staff, it takes someone who can do general event photography and has a willingness to capture a picture that isn’t a shot of a car on a race track. Proving yourself to me isn’t through taking pictures of cars. I’m interested in the ‘in between’ moments we capture, for example when it’s night at the track and there’s that one mechanic working in the garage, turning a wrench or polishing up a car. Those are the shots that make for an artful image of what racing is. My main goal every day is to create a shot that a fan cannot see on their own. I ask, ‘What can I show them that they don’t have access to?

Where’s your favorite spot within Indianapolis Motor Speedway to capture your shots?

When the race begins, I like being on the roof of the Pagoda where I capture all 33 cars coming down the fan-filled straightaway in one shot. That’s a pretty incredible sight to behold. I also love heading to the top of Turn 1 as the sun starts setting in the west, when the light shines through these pockets of the grandstand. The brightest sun of the day hits against this complete shadow of the grandstand that makes for spectacular photos.

Describe your favorite shots or moments that you were able to freeze for history.

The first image that comes to mind that I am personally very proud of is a shot of Nicky Hayden, who was a champion in the MotoGP circuit. Just before the race, I visited the garages and noticed he was sitting with his helmet on, ready to go out to the track. As I walk by, he looks right at me and winks. I captured a perfect portrait of this very iconic motorcycle racer.

Nicky Hayden photographed by Chris Owens

Nicky HaydenPhoto by Chris Owens/IMS Photo

Many people have told me that a favorite photo of mine is a shot of Mario Andretti for Autoweek magazine. I accompanied the writer to speak with Mario, but it’s in the Andretti Autosport hospitality area, which is very nice, but not necessarily ideal to capture an artful image. Mario is sitting at a picnic table and I happen to notice that he’s wearing his 1969 Indianapolis 500 champion ring as well as his Formula One World Champion ring. Knowing that I love character portraits, I asked if he could hold them up and in doing so, he covered his face with his hands and peered out. This is a shot I never could have created on my own. This racing legend absolutely helped make that shot for me.

Mario Andretti photographed by Chris Owens

Mario AndrettiPhoto by Chris Owens/IMS Photo

Where do you go from here? What are your long term dreams?

Growing up, my two dreams were to be the track photographer at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and to shoot for Rolling Stone magazine, and I’ve accomplished half of that. My images grace the front of tickets and have been published in Sports Illustrated, USA Today, and broadcast on the BBC. One day it would be really cool to work with the Speedway on releasing a book showcasing my collection of my Indy 500 photos. Racing will always be my home, and I can’t imagine myself being anywhere else in the world that here at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on race day.

IN-Focus: The Stories of IMS Photos, is a current exhibit at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum that showcases the work of Chris Owens and his fellow photographers. Visit the museum to get the stories behind the images by scanning QR codes of individual photos on display. Also follow along with Chris’s photography on Instagram: @IndyCar, @IndianapolisMotorSpeedway, and @ChrisOwens.


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