One of the remarkable things about sending a 3,000lb machine around a half mile of road at 200mph is that after you survive one lap, you’re expected to complete 499 more. So what gives any NASCAR driver the confidence to keep driving come hell or high water? It’s the pit crew at his back that — with record-speed mechanics — see him through each drift, turn, and tumble to make it to the finish line first.
Greenville, South Carolina-based photographer Will Crooks recently photographed a pit crew training center for a feature in Road & Track magazine. Working with writer Alanis King, the two visited Joe Gibb’s Racing’s NASCAR shop to see the masters behind the machinery.
Ask any sports and fitness photographer and they’ll agree there’s an artistry to athleticism. Beyond the skills of the human body, every athlete has a drive and purpose that pushes them to test the limitations of their own limbs. When highlighting a person’s capabilities, Will finds a documentary approach the best way to capture that momentum of the moment, while using natural lighting techniques to craft a compelling portrait of the subject. His personal project on a local boxing gym in Greenville was the body of work that landed him this project.
Personal projects are essential for me to build a portfolio that shows my interests and my range as a photographer. That boxing series showed I could capture quick movement well in a fly-on-the-wall setting while combining it seamlessly with my environmental portrait work where I focus on deep connection with the subjects.
Creative Director Nathan Schroeder reached out to Will to see if he’d be willing to accompany one of their writers to a NASCAR Pit Training Center. They felt confident in his ability to gauge the energy, speed, and specs of the shoot, as he’s worked for them before photographing Formula One Haas Team Principal, Guenther Steiner, for a previous issue.
Nathan Schroeder wanted me to take my style of working with warm painterly light and apply it to the motorsports space.
Will soon learned this wasn’t your average automotive photography project. Nathan asked him to focus on capturing portraits of the pit crew that had a natural feel, and that would create a strong connection with the subject through their expression or gaze. It takes grit and guts to charge head first at a steaming-hot car while carrying 48lb tires or loosen 5 lugs in under a second flat, and Nathan wanted to highlight these fearless workers on a personal level.
Nathan is incredible to work with as he looks to bring in photographers who don’t always work in the motorsports space to bring a different perspective to Road & Track’s photographic voice.
Collaborating with creative directors that really let you bring your voice to the piece is one of my favorite parts of doing editorial work.
Joe Gibb’s Racing Center is located in Huntersville, North Carolina, just north of Charlotte, home to the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Once on location, it was determined that the shoot would focus on two areas of the racing facilities: the weight room, and the pit stop training track. Will, Alanis, and Tara (his photo assistant) spent two days following the team around during their entire training routine.
Alanis was going through the actual training, as the article narrates a first-hand experience of what it is like to be a part of a Nascar pit crew team. We were given great access, and everyone on the Joe Gibbs Racing team was game for any and everything we wanted to photograph!
This project differed from Will’s other editorial assignments, as the nature of the article allowed them to spend a lot of time with his subjects, including writer Alanis. Will provided the photographic element that would give Road & Track’s readers a true sense of the training she endured. As he captured Alanis training alongside the professionals, he made sure to highlight her own ability and expertise, leading up to her taking part in a pit crew practice.
I love being a photographer as it gives me an excuse to interact with some really talented passionate people who work in so many different fields. It is nearly impossible to make a powerful portrait without connecting with your subject on a personal and emotional level first.
Some of Will’s favorite moments came during the downtime when he got to spend time getting to know the team members. Taking the time to learn about their lives and how they found their way into this niche profession aided him in finding the personal connection desired from the creative brief.
These guys are top-level athletes and many come from other professional or collegiate D1 sports backgrounds. I am always genuinely curious about their lives and their passions and think a strong sense of curiosity and empathy is essential to being a successful portrait photographer.
Will felt it was important to game plan what frames would work well and systematically work different angles, distances, and focal lengths. He created several gifs, videos, and long exposure shots that do their best to capture the intensity, timing, and execution of the pit crew’s motor skills.
The challenge at the track was capturing strong moments and intentional compositions as the pit stops are executed with incredible speed and usually last only a few seconds. I made sure to work different angles and heights to give the images a feeling of variety while being in just one location.
This project was a great opportunity for Will to showcase his ability to craft naturalistic lighting in a gritty and action-focused photoshoot. His background in sports photography allowed him to focus on the athleticism of the subjects, who operate like a well-timed engine, running on sheer human strength. While most people credit the one behind the wheel, when it comes down to it, the guys who jump the wall are the driving force on whether you win or lose a race.
See more of Will’s images on Instagram.
Creative Director: Nathan Schroeder
Writer: Alanis King
Photography Assitant: Tara Ashton