For the foreseeable future at least, the 2017 6 Hours of COTA may very well be the last time Austin, Texas plays host to a World Endurance Championship series race. Photographer Kurt Bradley was there to capture the magic, as WEC said goodbye to a track emblazoned with red, white and blue; a track at which he calls home.
The FIA World Endurance Championship has been lapping Grand Prix circuits since 2012. The series runs eight six-hour endurance races per season, in addition to the much-coveted 24 Hours of Le Mans. Each race demands intense focus and skill, with up to three drivers per car each having to be as consistently fast as their teammates. With a mixed grid consisting of over 50 cars covering four race classes, the action on track is exceptional, and makes for some stunning images. As a photographer who has covered this series since 2013, I have been fortunate to have captured some dramatic frames in varied conditions.
Austin’s Circuit of the Americas has hosted WEC races since 2013, and I have shot at each of these stops on the calendar. WEC’s first race at COTA was a midday start, which went into sunset. However, the following three years gave the fans and photographers the unique sight of a golden hour start time, followed by a dramatic night finish.
For drivers and photographers alike, weather dictates how the race will unfold. In 2014, a massive rain storm hit Central Texas, the effects of which caused several crashes in a moment and, subsequently, a red flag which lasted for nearly an hour.
This year, with WEC no longer sharing a track weekend with IMSA, as it previously was, the start time was moved back to noon local time, to run for six hours.
Now, if you’ve ever been to Texas in the summer, you’ll know that temperatures easily exceed 90ºF (32ºC), and track temps breach 130ºF (55ºC). And with fans given open seating opportunities, many took advantage of COTA’s massive Main Grandstand, which provides a great structure with shaded seating sections and plenty of food, big screens, and amenities.
Nonetheless, 2017 may very well be the last stop at COTA for the series, as huge changes have been made to the calendar and race stage format. For now, WEC won’t return to the States until 2019, when they are due to run a 12-hour event back-to-back with IMSA at Sebring. Noted changes in the LMP1 class have evidently impacted on fan following this season, with Audi leaving the series to focus on Formula E, and Porsche announcing recently that they will also be leaving WEC after 2017.
As for the title race, Porsche currently leads Toyota, and the German team has shown since Le Mans that it has no intentions of relinquishing the title it captured in 2016.
Throughout the practice sessions and qualifying stages this weekend, it was clear that Toyota was ready to throw down in the Texas heat. When the green flag was waved on Saturday at noon, the gloves were off. The #1 Porsche 919 Hybrid flew ahead in the first lap, putting itself comfortably in front of the Toyota pair, and eventually in front of the #2 sister Porsche. Battling for 5 more hours, the two Porsches were running in front, with the #1 still holding the overall lead. With a couple of tricky moves, and possibly a few scared faces in the Porsche garage, the #2 swapped spots and ran away with the win.
As an Austin resident, I’m sad to see that we may not be getting WEC back out my home track, but I was motivated to get the best out of what looks to be this one last dance at COTA.
In 2012, when Circuit of the Americas first hosted F1, I was present with a camera in hand. Since then, I have covered over 100 races, testing sessions, and private track days, so it’s safe to say that I’m one of the more experienced photographers at the venue.
COTA provides vast stretches of pavement and runoff areas, while being settled into a plot of land with over 500 feet of elevation change per lap. There are distinct views and corners that each photographer loves to capture, and I see it as a personal challenge to create new looks of the track and its painted stars and stripes each time I’m out there. This Lone Star Le Mans weekend was no exception.
As an accredited photographer, I am fortunate to be able to travel in my work covering F1, WEC, MotoGP and IMSA. My work often features several shots per gallery with an emphasis on being behind the scenes – providing a view from where the common fan can’t see. To capture these images, in most cases, you have to be approved for pit lane coverage. Some teams will allow you garage access upon request, but for the most part you take advantage of the views into the garage from pit lane.
The LMP1 teams are extremely protective of their space, and only invited guests and media can access their garages with escorts for brief moments. Luckily, Porsche and Toyota were welcoming when I asked for access.
Nonetheless, to cover the action from pit lane, the FIA requires WEC photographers and TV crews to wear fire proof suits and bump helmets. In 90º ambient conditions, and a track temperature that resembles an oven, you pay a price to get the shots. But in the end, the sweat-filled fire suit is worth it.
Come back to Texas soon, WEC. We’ll have the tacos and friendly faces ready to greet you.
Kurt Bradley is an accredited freelance motorsports photographer, covering Formula 1, the World Endurance Championship, MotoGP and IMSA’s WeatherTech Championship. You can find and follow his work on Instagram (@kurtbradley) and on his portfolio site, at kurtbradley.co.