Q&A with IMS Photo Chief Chris Owens – Indianapolis Monthly

Chris OwensPhoto by Dirk Fletcher

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

It’s more than taking pictures. I’m not always the first person to arrive, but most nights I’m the last person to leave. Before the first riding session begins on the track, I lead a team of photographers to determine where they need to be along the track. I manage assignments for all hospitality and sponsor engagements that occur daily. I collaborate with different media entities, which includes answering questions from one of the 300 visiting photographers. After all that, I go into creative mode to shoot the action on the track. Once my work as a photographer is finished, my responsibilities as a photo retoucher begin. Hours of filming then require a few hours of editing, but that’s where I lean into the artistic side of the job. I may not leave until 10 p.m. to return to the IMS early the next morning to start all over again.

Obviously it’s a lot more than what people see when they open your Instagram page. Did all this knowledge come during your studies in art school?

I attended the University of Vincennes and the 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 Indianapolis Motor Speedway because of the volume of work we have to produce. I wouldn’t be the photographer that I am without the high level of conditions we have here on the track.

How do you prepare for physically demanding work that requires you to be on your feet all day, hauling heavy equipment around those huge facilities while being exposed to the sun and the elements?

I look like a jerk, but I’ll be running sprints in the gym while imagining that I’m chasing drivers in the pit lane. It’s just practice for those unpredictable moments, like when Helio Castroneves won his fourth Indianapolis 500 and was running around celebrating. I train to get pictures of her face, not the back of her ass.

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

In every 500 of my career, I’ve fantasized about him climbing the fence to celebrate his fourth win. What will I do? Where will I be? How am I going to capture it? Over time, I resigned myself to the thought that it might never happen. Last year I was standing in Victory Circle with five laps to go when it occurred to me, Oh it’s gonna happen. I somehow have to be in two places at once. I run down the track as his car comes to a halt and the rest of the victory celebration is a blur. I see myself in videos and I regretfully think, It wasn’t my time, I didn’t need to be there. But I’m proud of the images I captured of him and for him, for his fans, for the sport and for the track.

It appears from your captures that you have developed a close relationship with the drivers. They see you on the track and you are able to trigger a reaction from them.

When I first started working here I found I was a little intimidated to take pictures of the pilots. Cars are easy, they are static and without personalities. But more than that, riders know I’m 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 have beers together or connect over a shared love of music. They trust me enough to step out of their comfort zone where they will allow me to capture an awkward smile or maybe a hyper-focused intensity on their faces.

The flip side is that you’re capturing footage of close people participating in a dangerous sport. Have you ever thought about what you could capture if tragedy were to occur?

Running is a dangerous sport and you will never take all the danger out of running, which is why I think people love it. Although every part of a track is an impact zone, people would be amazed at the safety protocols in place, which not only apply to the incredibly safe tracks themselves, but also to the cars. That said, I’ve witnessed some pretty gnarly crashes. Everyone loves a crash photo because they make great action photos. Knowing the number of security protocols in place, I always like to click until the last possible second so I can get a cool photo out of it.

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

Photographers must have discipline, drive, a passion for their art and an obsession for the sport. The best photographers here aren’t just racing fans who have learned to use a camera. They are photographers who love motor racing and have the ability to see it differently. To be part of our team, we need someone who can do general event photography and who is willing to capture an image that is not of a car on a race track. Proving to me that you are yourself is not by taking pictures of cars. I’m interested in the “in between” moments we capture, like when it’s dark on the track and there’s this mechanic working in the garage, turning a key or polishing a car. It’s the clichés that paint an astute picture of what racing is all about. My main goal every day is to create a shot that a fan can’t see for themselves. I ask, ‘What can I show them that they don’t have access to?

Where is your favorite spot within the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to take your shots?

When the race starts, I like to be on the roof of the Pagoda where I capture the 33 cars coming down the full fan at once. It’s quite an amazing sight to see. I also like heading to the top of Turn 1 as the sun begins to set in the west, when the light shines through those pockets of the grandstand. The brightest sun of the day beats against this full shade of the grandstand which makes for spectacular photos.

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

The first image that comes to mind that I’m personally very proud of is a shot of Nicky Hayden, who was a MotoGP circuit champion. Just before the race I visited the garages and noticed he was sitting with his helmet ready to hit the track. As I walk past, he looks me straight in the eye and winks. I have 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 one of my favorite photos is of Mario Andretti for Automatic week magazine. I went with the writer to talk with Mario, but it’s in the Andretti Autosport reception area, which is very nice, but not necessarily ideal for capturing a nifty image. Mario is sitting at a picnic table and I notice he’s wearing his 1969 Indianapolis 500 mile championship ring as well as his Formula 1 world champion ring. , I asked if he could hold them and as he did, he covered his face with his hands and looked out. This is a photo that I could never have created myself. This racing legend absolutely helped me get this shot.

Mario Andretti photographed by Chris Owens

Mario AndrettiPhoto by Chris Owens/IMS Photo

Where are you going from here? What are your long term dreams?

Growing up, my two dreams were to be a track photographer at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and to shoot for rolling stone magazine, and I’ve done half of it. My images adorn the front of tickets and have been featured in Sports Illustrated, USA Today and broadcast on the BBC. One day it would be really cool to work with the Speedway to publish a book featuring my collection of my Indy 500 photos. Racing will always be my home, and I can’t imagine being anywhere in the world but here in Indianapolis Motor Speedway on race day.

IN-Focus: the stories of IMS Photosis an ongoing exhibition at Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum which features the work of Chris Owens and his fellow photographers. Visit the museum to discover the stories behind the images by scanning the QR codes of the individual photos on display. Also follow Chris’ photos on Instagram: @IndyCar, @IndianapolisMotorSpeedwayand @ChrisOwens.