Jonathan Szczupak on the Spa 6hr Classic
Full-time automotive designer and passionate automotive photographer Jonathan Szczupak makes it a point to attend and photograph as many European classic car races as he can. He also runs the automotive photography blog Between the White Lines. Last week we caught up with him to talk a bit about his background, his photography style, and his experience capturing the Spa 6hr Classic, a few months ago in Belgium, shown in the photography in this article. Click here to check out Jonathan’s photography on Flickr.
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Q: Give us a bit of a background on where you’re from and what you do:
A: I live in Cologne, Germany. I’m originally from England, but I relocated to Detroit in the U.S. when I was 16. I lived there for 5 years, and then moved to California to attend Art Center College of Design. After graduation, I moved back to Detroit and worked at Ford as a designer for five years, and then was relocated with Ford to Germany, where I’ve been for almost a year and a half.
Photography is a hobby, but it’s become a very serious thing for me. It enables me to become a better designer. I use my photography as a reference for my design as well. I suppose it’s something I’ve been doing since I was a little kid. My dad was in the automotive industry when we were in England, and he took me to racing events when I was young. He gave me a disposable camera, so I walked around and took pictures of the cars in the pits. I have photo albums of these early shots. Since then I’ve just become obsessed with photographing cars. When photographing a car, I’m always thinking about the details of it: how one surface changes into another, how the angles look, and how I would draw the car as a designer.
Q: The photos in this article are ones you took at the Spa 6hr Classic. For those who don’t know, what is that event?
A: The race has actually been running for about 20 years. It started off as a small endurance race for older classic cars and actually runs a full 6 hours. It starts in the late afternoon and goes into the night, so the drivers get to do a mini simulation of a 24-hour race by getting some daytime, the sunset, and some nighttime racing.
From what I know, there’s not an event like the Spa 6hr Classic, which races classic cars for such a long period of time during changing-light conditions. The Spa 6hr Classic is a fantastic event, because the people are actually racing these classic cars, while most people keep their classic cars in garages or museums.
Spa itself is a very tricky track to race in general. It’s a very long track. In the Formula One season, they race the Spa track as well, and it’s the longest Formula One track on the calender. The cars racing during this event are a lot diferent to a modern-day Formula One car, since most were built as road cars first and then converted to race cars.
This race puts a lot of stress on the classic cars, so that makes it even more amazing to see them all out there racing each other.
I think there were over 100 vehicles that started the race. From the very fast cars like the Ford GT40s all the way down to Alfa Romeo GTVs and GTs. There’s a very broad range of cars at this race, and for a photographer, there’s a lot of walking, because it’s a bloody long track.
Q: Is it a competitive event or more of a show?
A: I went there thinking it was somewhat of a show—that the cars would drive around the track a little bit slower, because I went to about ten classic automotive events last year where there were always a few cars that drove really fast, and the rest that went slow like on a casual Sunday drive. In this race, everyone was driving really fast.
There’s a corner called Eau Rouge, which a driver comes to after the second main straight. It winds up the hill with huge elevation changes. These drivers were going full throttle on the corners. Cars were coming completely sideways at full speed, so the racing was just as interesting as the cars which were on the track.
It’s one thing to have a classic car and keep it parked in a garage or museum, or drive it around town slowly, but it’s another thing to see these classic cars racing flat out. These people have so much passion for these vehicles, and I feel like that really came out in my photography. I tried to photograph the passion they had, the speed at which they were moving, and how close to the edge the drivers were in almost losing control.
Q: Why did you attend this particular event?
A:I didn’t have very much experience with it before (I had gone to 24hr Le Mans race with my father when I was quite young), but since I moved here to Europe, I’ve been interested in endurance racing more and more and watching the old movies like Steve McQueen’s Le Mans, so when I heard about this race, I thought it would be a great opportunity to relive these older racing times.
At the time I moved to Germany, it was snowing and in the middle of winter—there were no automotive events coming up, so when the season started kicking off, I began to attend more events and became passionate about them. I reached out to try to get a press pass to the Spa 24hr Classic, because I was going to be doing a small article for Crank and Piston.
What really excited me about this event, was that it started in the afternoon and went into the evening, so if the weather was good (which it often isn’t in the area), I could get some beautiful lighting. Imagining the classic cars driving into the sunset and going into the night was very nostalgic for me. I always wished I could grow up in the sixties when these cars were brand new. So at this Spa event, I was like a little boy. I was in heaven being able to photograph the cars and get really close to them.
At Spa the pit lane is open to let spectators see the cars and drivers up close and take pictures. At these classic events, it is hoped that the spectators will be as involved as the drivers. People are able to get up close to their childhood dream cars, of which they once had posters on their walls, and see them racing around this beautiful track.
I wanted to see people having that experience, and I wanted to photograph it.
Q: What kind of people participate in the 6hr Classic?
A: It’s incredibly international. I think the starting lineup had a lot of people from Europe and the U.S. as well. A lot of the cars came from Belgium, and a lot also came from Germany and the U.K. There are quite a lot of owner of the cars who hire drivers to race the cars, which shows just how competitive the owners are. There are many purists, and lot of rich people, obviously. To compare, it wasn’t Nascar, it was completely the opposite. It was pretty high brow and ostentatious.
Q: Tell us about the experience of being at the race. What was the first thing that you felt or thought when you first arrived?
A: I was able to get there on the Friday during the practice day when it was a bit quieter at the track. The racetrack is a half hour drive from the highway, and it’s located in a valley with mountains around it. (The elevation is crazy: you can stand on one side of the track, and the other end looks like it’s going up the side of the mountain.) Because the racetrack is in a valley, all the sound is bouncing off the trees and elevation change, so I could hear the cars rumbling around the track. I got super excited, grabbed my jacket, grabbed all my photography gear, and quickly tried to get out of the car as fast as possible in order to not miss anything. I had to get my credentials and then walked through the paddock.
That weekend there were about five or six other support races that were going on as well, so there were all sorts of cars in the paddock. There were cars everywhere. Some people had brought big racing trailers, and some people brought a little camper van, so there was a big range of cars. For automotive enthusiasts, like myself, it was just eye candy. Everything was built for racing and had passion behind it.
Q: What was it like to shoot the event?
A: That first day, I headed to the pits after getting my credentials, where I would be able to see the drivers up close. I saw them putting on their helmets, getting in their cars, and starting their engines. Being that close to a Ford GT40 to hear it start was amazing.
I walked around the track to find the right position, the right lighting, and the right camera settings in order to best capture the cars. I was by myself that day, so I could spend as much time out there as I wanted. I went back on Saturday and took my wife with me. I was so excited, so I wanted to share the experience with somebody else.
We managed to get in a really good position when the sun started going down to get the perfect lighting and colors. The light coming through the trees and bouncing off the cars really emphasized the forms and shapes of the cars, because the old cars have a lot more shape and form than the cars of today.
Initially when I took the photographs, I didn’t think I’d do black and white edits, but I took so many pictures over this weekend, that I ended up doing two edits for the event. The Crank and Piston photos were full-color images, but the photos featured on this page were my black-and-white edits. I decided I’d try to do some different style edits that were darker and more gray. Using my color photographs that had beautiful light and deepness between darks and lights became even more juicy and gorgeous when I changed them to black and white. The scenes were very colorful, with lots of different colors of cars, so when I changed them to black and white, the colors weren’t distracting. The color goes away and suddenly you start focusing on the shapes and realize that it’s the lines and forms that make the Ford GT40s look as beautiful as they do.
Q: What was the highlight of the weekend for you?
A: Seeing the Ford GT40s. Working as an automotive designer for Ford, it was amazing to see one of our most prestigious cars in action. At Spa there were 8 original Ford GT40s on the track together. When I was taking pictures in the pits, I often had four of them in my frame at once. They weren’t lined up on the grass at Pebble Beach or at an auto show, they were in the pits at one of the most amazing tracks in the world. At one point I actually sat on the floor against the wall in the pits taking pictures of the Ford GT40s, because they are so close to the ground—the lower eye level worked very well
Another car that stood out from the crowd was a Ferrari 250 SWB (short wheel base). The cars are worth a pretty penny these days, and this was the first time that one had actually raced in the Spa 6hr Classic. It was a huge big deal to have the Ferrari racing at the event. The car was in absolutely perfect condition.
Q: What’s the next event you’re looking forward to attending?
A: I’m actually going to one on Saturday. There’s a classic rally in Belgium on the outskirts of Spa called Bouchles de Spa that will have about 150 classic rally cars in it. I think it’ll be 2º C and in a wet field covered with snow, but that’s something you’ve got to deal with if you want to get the good shots.
I also plan to attend the Old Timer event, the famous German racetrack, Hockenheim, in April, and there are three or four at Spa that I want to attend this year.
Photography by Jonathan Szczupak