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Shooting Drag racing from the air with a drone



An exciting evening at the Drag Races, shooting motorsports with a drone

By Colin Smith

What can be more exciting than the smell of burning rubber and the ground shaking, body moving sound of highly tuned dragsters tearing up the tarmac?  How about shooting them with a drone?

That’s exactly what happened this weekend. Professional motor racing photographer Peter Liebig (Who also happens to be the track manager for Barona speedway) reached out to me after I mentioned shooting with drones while conducting a seminar in San Diego. When Joe asked if I would like to bring my drone to the race track and shoot drag racing, there was only one answer really. A resounding yes!

Saturday, I packed up my gear into the car and took the 2 hour drive to to Barona Drag strip. I was fortunate that my friend and renowned  wildlife photographer, Laurie Rubin offered to come down and shoot some BTS shots. She also got some great car shots with her Nikon camera and Bessie, her DJI Phantom 2 Vision + drone.

Because I’m instructing at Adobe MAX this year, I thought this would be a great opportunity to shoot some footage to use in my video editing in Photoshop sessions. The goal was to shoot video on the iPhone, GoPro, Drone and 5D Mk3 and use them all together with my students. So here I am, all ready to go with my DJI Phantom 3 Professional and Canon 5D MkIII unpacked for the hard shell P3 case by GoProfessional Cases and Think Tank (City walker) Camera bag.

This Photo of me and my gear by Laurie Rubin.

© Laurie Rubin-2514

To warm up, I fired off a few shots with the 5D. This helped me get used to the noise, the smell and most importantly, the timing of the cars and they way they move down the track.

The sheer horsepower and torque of these cars is so strong, it causes the front wheels to lift off the ground and the chassis to twist on launch! There are a few basic safety rules that need to be followed and you really need to keep your eyes open and stay alert when you are this close to the track. Wearing hearing protection is a must!



The drivers always start with a burnout to warm up the tires and increase grip. This can cause clouds of rubber smoke to drift across the track. Once you get use to the smell, it can be pleasant (If you are a gear-head). I learned to like the smell.



Once, I got comfortable with everything, it was time to get the drone in the air. What a unique viewpoint you can have with the flying tripod. This completely changes the way you can view the sport.



Something I had always wanted to do, was to look straight down on the cars, just like they are little toys. On certain races, I had permission to fly over the cars themselves. On other races I wasn’t allowed to fly directly over the track. I have looked on the internet and as far as I can tell, this the first time that anyone has shot directly down (full bird’s eye view) on the dragsters from a drone.



Here is another just as this modified dragster peels away from the starting line. You can see the smoke coming off the tires. Some of the faster cars were hitting speeds of 160mph in low 4 seconds in 1/8 mile.



Not only modified and pro-street cars were racing, but also motorcycles. The bikes are longer than usual bikes and also have wheelie bars to keep things o the ground where they can move faster.



As the sun started to set, there was a beautiful pink sunset. Here is an aerial panorama of the track, nestled in the hills. It looks like a scene out of a movie, Close Encounters of The Third Kind comes to mind. This was several images stitched together into a panorama in Lightroom CC (see tutorial on how to make a panorama in Lightroom). 


Here is a shot by Laurie Rubin of me flying the Phantom 3 over the track, setting up my next shot. Notice the earmuffs? I was very happy I brought them with me.

Photos from Above © Laurie Rubin IMG_2522

Getting trackside

Once it got too dark for flying the drone, it was time to hit the DSLR again and get close and personal with the cars. I was given permission to get right up to the cars and even shoot between them at the start line. As you can imagine, this quite an experience being this close to thousands of horsepower. I couldn’t just hear the cars, I could feel them through my whole body. It really gave a fuller appreciation of how powerful and fast these cars are. I loved every moment of it!



Here I am at ground level photographing this car right as it takes off. This is a real rush to experience at ground level, just a couple of feet away from what is essentially a launching missile. Just don’t go directly behind that cars and risk getting hit by rubber chunks or other debris thrown off the back tires. These tires spin hard!


Setting up the shots

One thing I really wanted was to get an inside look and put the viewer into the driver’s seat. To accomplish this, I needed to get a camera inside one of the cars.

(Image by Laurie Rubin of me and my GoPro Hero 4)

© Laurie Rubin-2484

One of the drivers, Austin Hayward was very kind and let me put my GoPro Hero 4 actually inside his car. Here I am talking to Austin and showing him how to flip the camera so that we could hang it upside down on the roll cage.  (Image by Laurie Rubin)

© Laurie Rubin-2493


And here is a still frame that I pulled from the video of Austin racing (he won this race BTW). I will sort through all the footage (from 4 cameras) and post it separately on our youtube channel as soon as I have the time.



All in all, this was a great day of shooting with my drone and other cameras. I have shown a few of the images on this page. I have a ton of video that I will be using for my Adobe MAX presentation. Ill also posts some as soon as I sort through it all and have a chance to edit.

Check out more of my aerial images here

I also regularly post my shots on   Facebook | Instagram | Twitter | G+ | youtube

Thanks for reading! Let me know your thoughts and questions.

© photos and text by Colin Smith. |  © BTS photos by Laurie Rubin
Colin on Sky Pixel,  Laurie on Sky Pixel  (We are both official “DJI Experts”

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