Shooting Homestead Speedway from the Air

November 21, 2007 | By Doug Benc | Creative

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Sports fans in Florida are spoiled compared to most states across the country. We have three NFL football teams. Two very good NBA teams (one of which won the NBA Championship two years ago). Two NHL hockey teams, and countless other college teams that consistently challenge for titles.

But if you are a NASCAR fan, you don’t first think of Florida. You think of North Carolina, Georgia or maybe even Alabama. Fans in those states can be considered borderline rabid for the sport. Still though, Florida gets the “Super Bowl of NASCAR” with the Daytona 500 in February. Not to mention the Pepsi 400 in Daytona during the summer.

But this last weekend, fans got the opportunity to come to South Florida to crown a champion at Homestead Speedway in Homestead. I am so lucky that I get to cover two of the biggest events that NASCAR has to offer every year.

When I arrive to the track on Friday and get my assignment, I am told by my boss that I will need to do an assignment for Direct TV on Sunday during the race. Then he goes on and tells me what that assignment will be. I will be photographing the Direct TV blimp in flight from a helicopter over the track, from the beginning of the race until just after sunset. Inside I am very excited. On the outside, I try and remain calm because you never know what can happen and change the assignment completely. The more I talk with the sales team and emails start flying, I realize, this is really going to happen. I start picturing what he images will look like and what equipment I will have to bring with me.

On Saturday night on my way out of the track, I get a call from our sales staff, explaining that there have been some changes. She tells me that TSA approval for the flight has been late and my not arrive at all. So what does that mean to our shoot? Well, we can fly up until one hour before the race and beginning again one hour after the race. I am given the pilot’s phone number and we are to connect sometime the following morning to make sure we are on the same page.

In the morning, I call my pilot Juan Carlos before he leaves his home airport. He tells me that he will meet me at the Homestead General Aviation Airport at 1 pm. Anticipating the usual race traffic; I get on the road early and arrive at the airport over two hours before Juan is to pick me up. As I drive into the airport, I see the Direct TV blimp is also docking there and hasn’t left to join the pattern over the raceway. This is my chance to get as much information as I can about how their flight might impact my shoot.

I find Ian Schwilk, and engineer that flies on the blimp when it is over the event. I start asking all kinds of questions; some pertaining to my shoot and some out of plain unadulterated curiosity. Ian is very patient as he tells me what their flight pattern will consist of and how we might be able to get a decent shot of the video screen on the side of the blimp. We exchange phone numbers as he prepares along with his crew to take off and do their job. Along with that phone number, he gave the the frequency they will be using while over the stadium. Not sure if I will need it, but it doesn’t hurt to have it either.

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Juan arrives a half-hour later in a Robinson R44 helicopter. This helicopter is known as a very affordable dependable aircraft that is used in a variety of purposes including law enforcement, training and a variety of civilian applications. In the military, I flew in much bigger machines that had tubine engines and power to spare. With a mere 260 horsepower (I had cars with more horsepower) to get us up in the air and keeps us flying, I decided not to eat breakfast that morning. The less weight the better I figured.

Juan had the doors removed so I would have a better chance to make images and he was right. The air was crystal clear as we left the airport. As we climbed to our operating altitude of 2500 feet, you could see the Florida Keys stretching south and still see Miami and Fort Lauderdale to the north. Conditions were perfect for the flight and the assignment.

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The closer we get to the track, Juan has to change frequencies and keep in constant contact with the local traffic controllers. He tells me all the rules that we are going to have work around during the flight. At the same time he tells me to keep an eye out for any aircraft that may come up on his blindside, which happens to be my side of the craft.

We spend about an hour shooting and moving and trying to get as close as we can without breaking any of the flight restrictions that have been place on us. But I really can’t seem to get a good shot of the opposite side of the blimp. Then I remember that I have the frequency that the blimp is operating on. I tell Juan that I have it and can we dial it in and call them? He gets them on the radio and I tell the pilot that I could really use the opposite side of the blimp and would he be willing to turn the blimp around and goes in a clockwise pattern for me? He tells me he will check with the tower and let me know. After about 5 minutes of waiting, I look down and see the blimp making a big wide turn out over Biscayne Bay. At the time, I get a call saying they will be able to make one pass in the opposite direction.

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After getting the shot, I tell Juan we have what we need and I call the Direct TV blimp and thank the pilot for his cooperation and we begin the 20 minute flight back to the airport. I thank Juan for his effort and I jump in my car and head to the track so I can shoot the race and festivities well into the night. My only regret is we couldn’t get a shot during the race. But we will probably work that out next year somehow.

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