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Intentional wrecks, rules being ignored, but it is all part of the experience at PIR

Covering high school sports is a privilege, nonetheless, sometimes it's nice to photograph something "more significant."

Hopefully you saw that more significant was in quotes. That's because the importance of an athletic event all depends on who you are talking to. To all those involved, high school sports are important, and as a sports photographer and reporter, that should be reflected in my work. Each sports event, regardless of the level of play, the number of spectators and the regional or national exposure should be taken seriously as a reporter. PMG PHOTO BY LON AUSTIN - Scott McLaughlin dominated racing over the weekend in the Indy Car division. He won the pole and eventually took the race as well.

Normally Labor Day weekend I would be in Paulina covering the annual amateur rodeo. This year, I wasn't there. That's because I applied for and received a press pass for the NTT Indycar Grand Prix race weekend at Portland International Raceway.

I like the Paulina Rodeo. It's a fun event, but I also like auto racing, and the opportunity to challenge myself photographically doesn't come around every day.

I will admit, I am a lot more of a NASCAR fan than an Indycar fan, but racing is racing, and there's something compelling about standing behind an 18-inch-wide wall and a catch fence maybe four feet away from a car traveling 190-plus miles an hour. The same can be said for standing in a crowded pit stall watching people fearlessly change tires as other cars pass just inches away at 45 miles an hour.

Shooting the pits in NASCAR means standing in a vacant pit stall and shooting the action from a couple of pit stalls away. In Indy Car, on the other hand, it means actually getting in the pit. It's pretty amazing that they would even allow me in the pits. Their air hoses for the air guns strewn around and one false step could easily get a photographer tangled in the hoses, messing up a pit stop. Even when you avoid the hose one of the pit crew is pulling the air hose back over the wall so forcibly that I was nearly hit with a flying air gun on one of the two pit stops I photographed.

Anyway, the race weekend was a lot of fun. Nine races in three days, three each from the USF 2000 and Indy Pro 2000 series, which are part of the feeder program for Indycar, an ARCA Menards Series West Race, an Indy Lights race, and, of course, the NTT Indycar race.

A little bit about Portland International Raceway. PIR is not a normal racetrack that is owned by a racing corporation. It is owned by the city of Portland and is part of the Delta Park complex. That means that it is possible from time to time for people to drive their personal cars on hot laps around the track, which is 1.967 miles long and has 12 turns. The track has a long front straight stretch followed by an exceptionally tight chicane, then a series of flowing corners. The backstretch isn't technically straight, but is still driven at full throttle, leaving three final corners before cars come blasting back up the straight stretch.

PIR has a reputation of having wrecks on the opening laps of the race at corner one or two in the chicane. That reputation is totally deserved. Of the six USF 2000 and Indy Pro 2000 races held over Labor Day weekend, only one saw all cars survive the first corner. More about that later.

In order to prevent that kind of carnage ARCA elected to skip the chicane on the race start and on each subsequent restart. The Indy Car drivers were so concerned about the start that they had a private meeting on Friday without race organizers or officials and decided that they would alter the start of the race and go green coming off of the 12th corner rather than when they hit the flag stand more than half way down the first straight.

The strategy worked. There were dozens of photographers gathered around the chicane waiting for the inevitable wreck at the start, who instead saw an uneventful first series of turns. So uneventful, in fact, that photographers who had told me a day earlier that they intended to stay at the chicane for the entire race quickly left for greener pastures.

Anyway, the Indy Car race did not have a lot of drama. Driving for Roger Penske, the owner of both the racing series, and Team Penske, one of the most successful teams in racing history, Scott McLaughlin dominated the race weekend. McLaughlin had the fastest car in practice, won the pole, and other than pit stops led the entire race. Teammate Will Power finished second while rival Scott Dixon, a six-time series champion, finished in third.

In fact, probably the most exciting thing about the Indycar race was not the race itself, but the people with Mexican heritage who had turned out in force to watch their hero, Pato O'Ward, the lone Mexican driver in the series. To say his fans are rabid would be an understatement. They not only sat in the grandstands together, they went to get foot together, went for pit stops together, and spent the entire prerace and race chanting in support of O'Ward, who finished the race in fourth place. Watching their enthusiasm was something else.

The next to last race in the series for 2022 drivers left Portland with just five still in the running for the series championship, including Power, Josef Newgarden and McLaughlin, all driving for Penske, Dixon, and Alex Palou.

Palou won the final race of the year this past weekend at Laguna Seca Raceway in Salinas, California, but it was not enough to win the series as Newgarden finished second and Powers third to give Powers his second series championship.

Photographers who drove themselves to the race track had passes to park on the infield. That's something that I have done before at NASCAR races. However, on most tracks parking on the infield means driving through a tunnel under the racetrack. Not at PIR. There it means driving on and then across the track. Friday, I missed the turn to the infield parking and ended up taking a lap around the track. Anyway, once your car is in the infield you can only get out at specific times when the track is closed to race cars, and there aren't a lot of those times. Photographers were required to attend a safety meeting each day first thing in the morning each day. So, Friday I left home at 4 a.m. to pick up my credentials and attend the safety meeting. Those meetings are necessary, but they mostly consist of obvious things like don't go over the wall onto the track or into the pits, don't go into areas around the track that are marked closed to photographers on the map they provide, don't go shirtless or wear shorts, don't stick your camera or any body parts through the catch fences, don't hog one of the photo shooting sights and not let any other photographers share it, do wear hearing protection, and try to act professional or if caught you will be ejected and never get another press pass. Also, if you have a red and white vest, which means that you only have a pass for that set of races, you must defer to the photographers who have blue and white vests, which means they photograph the entire series.

Strangely, some photographers seemed to resent those with blue and white vests. Personally, I thought that they were a good source of information and were very helpful to those who asked for their expertise.PMG PHOTOS BY LON AUSTIN - Jake Drew flies the checkered flag out his car after winning the ARCA Menards race Friday. He won all four road courses in this year's series.

When they say don't break the rules or you will be removed, they mean it. At Sunday's safety meeting, they informed us that a photographer who for reasons unknown decided to wear no shirt and instead just wear the safety vest we were each provided with was removed from the track Saturday. It's one of those situations where not following the rules makes absolutely no sense, as each photographer's vest is individually numbered with the numbers on both the front and back in very large print. That means they can readily identify you if you break the rules.

Another photographer, who decided that he didn't actually need to wear his vest, was also removed from the grounds.

Just seven of us that were wearing red and white vests were given pit access. Since I was officially shooting for the Portland Tribune, I was one of those lucky few.

Anyway, although there wasn't a lot of drama in the Indycar race, the same was not true of the other races on the weekend. In the ARCA Menards race Friday night 22-year old Jake Drew won. What made that win significant is that Drew swept all four road course races in the series this year. There were several cautions in the race, which kept things close for a while, but each time the green flag came out, Drew literally drove away from the field. It was an amazing and dominant performance.

The Indy Lights race was won by 23-year-old Danish driver Benjamin Pederson. Linus Lundquist, of Sweden, also 23, won the series, and earned a scholarship to move up to the Indycar series next year.

Those scholarships is what created most of the drama over the weekend. With both the USF 2000 and Indy Pro 2000 series ending at PIR, and the winner of each division earning a scholarship to move up to the next series up, competition was fierce.

And, that's the thing about race car drivers. Sometimes in the interest of going fast, they don't use a lot of common sense. Friday morning Louis Foster, a rookie from Basingstoke, England, won the first Indy Pro 2000 race, wrapping up the series championship and earning a $614,425 scholarship to move up to Indy Lights in 2023. Reece Gold, who was second last year, won the Friday afternoon and Saturday morning races, but it wasn't enough to catch Foster, as he finished second for the second consecutive year.

It was the USF 2000 races where all the drama occurred. Myles Rowe, who drives for Force Indy, entered Portland with a 23-point lead over teammate Jace Denmark and a 25-point lead over Michael d'Orlando of Hartsdale, New York. Friday morning there was a wreck on the first turn of the USF 2000 race, but Denmark and Rowe, who started on the front row, survived the wreck unscathed. Denmark went on to win the race, while Rowe made a series of mistakes. Instead of staying in second place and heading into the next two races still with a comfortable lead, he tried to pass his teammate, and failed. In the process, he lost all of his momentum, got two tires off into the grass, and ended up in 14th place. He eventually moved up to 11th, but had lost most of his points lead as Denmark closed to within seven points. In Friday afternoon's race, Denmark, who is 18, and Rowe, who is 22, once again started on the front row, and they collided with each other on turn 1. That left the two with damaged vehicles one lap behind the eventual winner. Then in Saturday's finale, the two once again started on the front row, but this time Denmark was hit from behind entering the first turn. He then appeared to make the deliberate decision to wreck Rowe, turning hard right into the side of Rowe's car. Denmark finished five laps down, while Rowe dropped to the back of the field and eventually worked his way back up to fifth place, but it was not enough as d'Orlando, 20, who had entered the weekend in third place, won the race and the series title by six points.

Denmark reportedly said following the race that he wrecked Rowe deliberately saying "If I can't win the series, then he isn't going to either." If that's true, it was an incredibly childish thing to do as it cost Rowe a more than $400,000 scholarship to move up to Indy Pro 2000 for next year.

In any case, it was a fun weekend with lots of races, and plenty to photograph. Hopefully I will get another opportunity some day.

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