Interview: Andrew Wheeler - MotoGP Photographer
File under Interviews Racing
Author: Mike Werner
Location: San Marino
Most of us watch a MotoGP race on TV, and then can't wait to read about it in our favorite motorcycle magazines, or better yet, our favorite web site. But often it's not the story that interests us since we've seen the race on TV, but it's the photos.
Looking at beautiful photos of the racers and their fast motorcycles not only allows us to relive the race, but to actually see the motorcycle and racers up close. Often real close. Some MotoGP photographers take interesting photos of the race, while others not only make interesting photos, but creative ones too.
One of those photographers who excels in making not only some of the best action photos of MotoGP races, but also very creative and often very inspiring photos, is Andrew Wheeler from AutoMotoPhoto . I caught up with Andrew in the Media/Press Center of the Misano Circuit during the 2013 San Marino GP.
Andrew is a gentleman and a real character, and has been doing this job for a while and knows a lot of stories and is not afraid to share them. I often had to suppress laughter since it would be louder than my recording of Andrew's interview. Needless to say, I had tears of laughter in my eyes.
Here is Andrew's interview:
Q: What's your nationality?
A: British but I am doing my (ed: USA) citizenship right now. I live in California now.
Q: How long have you been doing professional photography?
A: In 2001 I started with horses, and then after four years of photographing horses the money ran out and my wife Emily suggested that I do something or get a proper job. So she suggested, as I have always loved motorcycles since I have been riding motorcycles at the age of seven, and there was always testing going on in Laguna Seca, since in those days there was a bit more money going around, to go to Laguna Seca and make some photos. There is never any problems with access over there.
So I started doing that in the winter of 2004-2005. That is where it all began for motorcycle racing photos. I still did some horse photos, but it was now primarily motorcycles. The whole thing came about when I came back home after photographing some stuff and Emily who loves motorcycle racing but doesn't know the technical side, she just likes motorcycle racing, suggested I send them to Cycle World (ed: a US motorcycle magazine).
Andrew Wheeler on the track
So I found out who the editor was, Matthew Miles, and sent him a brief selection of images I had taken for an evaluation. And he liked them and he suggested that perhaps they could organize for me to go to testing at Infineon which is in the wine country, Napa Valley. So I did photographs of testing at Infineon and then sent those in for them to have a look. Matthew Miles was pretty thrilled with what I had done, so they pretty much took me on to cover the AMA (ed: American Motorcycle Association) races and other stuff and freelance work; bike shows and so forth.
In essence I received all the necessary credentials to go to AMA races. In 2005, my first race was California Speedway and throughout the year I started, the editor of Road Racer X picked up some of my work. At the end of 2005-2006 they started running a feature picture of the year at Road Racer X magazine. They picked up one of my pictures, which is still probably one of my favorite ones of anything I have ever taken, it was Eric Bostrom when he was riding for Austin Ducati closing his visor. Because his visor was mirrored it had an alien quality to it. That took the place of the picture of the year.
From that point onwards, Road Racer X picked me up as their primary photographer, and retained me to photograph the AMA races for two years. And then some magazines in Europe, especially in the UK - Motorcycle Racer for example and Bike magazine - picked up on my other stuff and started using it. After those two years Chris asked me if I wanted to do World SuperBike. Similar deal, retainer. With Ben Spies, who I had been pretty good friends with in 2006 when I started the AMA, he went over to WSB so I followed him there. And then during that year, when Ben was working on the (ed: WSB) title I knew I wasn't going to be doing AMA because it almost crashed and burned with what was going on with their reorganization. So it was going to be either WSB or MotoGP. So that in that transition year, I did AMA, WSB and I did MotoGP, 22 races that year, which was insane.
As it turned out, my decision to go to MotoGP was done when Ben flipped over to Tech3 in MotoGP. From there on, Road Racer X shut its doors and became an un-retained, fully freelance, photographer. And from that point onwards, I just cover MotoGP, and I work with Yamaha USA and various other clients like Bell Helmets. I just now take photographs and send in my work and people use it.
Andrew Wheeler on the track
Q: How many days are you away from home covering the MotoGP races?
A: It's funny you should ask that, because with the US citizenship you have to say in the last five years how many times you have been out of the country. And in five years, I have been out of the country 11 months! Quite a healthy period of time.
Q: Is it difficult with family and social life?
A: No, social life doesn't really matter, my wife and I are not really big on going out and so. The only down side is I suffer from homesickness. I discovered this when I was covering the AMA series: staying in the hotels is not good for my health. They kind of remind you that you are away from home. So it was probably in my second year covering the AMA I thought I needed to look into this house sharing thing, or finding residences inside hotels that have a kitchen and feel like a normal home. That kind of fixed it, because I never felt I was going back to a hotel. So renting apartments or houses always felt like to some degree like home.
But it still doesn't alter the fact that I miss my wife, I miss my pets. I don't think it would have been as easy to do this job without the advantages of telecommunications. That has been a big part a saving grace for me that I am able to communicate visually with some one. It's not perfect, but you feel a little bit less distanced from home. With what's going on now, I feel sometimes a long way, because for whatever reason whenever I would leave home to cover a race, something would happen at home and that drives it more home to you that are not there. Emily is happy for me to do this, but if she turned around and said I'd rather you stayed home, I probably would.
Andrew Wheeler playing a joke on a colleague
Q: Cameras are heavy. How much weight do you need to carry in gear?
A: 23 kilos. My camera bag holds two (ed: camera) bodies, 300mm lens, two wide angles, 70-200 lens, 2 flash guns, 4 batteries. It all weights just over 23 kilos.
The thing you got to worry about, is no one can touch your bag!! No one from an airline can pick up your bag. Because it will fit in a sizer (ed: the boxes airlines use to ensure that your bag fits under your seat). But the game is over when someone picks it up. So traveling with it is not really a problem. It's more of a problem in Europe than it is in the US. Sometimes you have those people who live by the rule book. And they decide on a commando check and start picking up stuff. The trick is to know the habits of airports and their staff.
The only problem I have every year is flying back from Phillip Island, because they have entrusted the weight checking to the security guards, and it's a nightmare. So when I go to Australia I have a donkey vest, a camera vest, that I literally put everything that is in my camera bag on me. So I walk through security with an empty roller and wearing 23 kilos of lenses and bodies. So I look like an electrical department store. It's so stupid. I walk in to security with an empty roller and all the gear on me. But they can't tell you what not to wear.
So you leave Australia after having your passport stamped, you get to the other side, and you put it all back in.
Q: On the track, how physical is it lugging all that gear around?
A: I used to wear one of these belts, but I got away from it because I thought why am I carry all this stuff that I am not really using. It's affecting my back, so now I go out with a long lens, 70-200, and a wide angle in case I want to get some sky shots. It's a big wide angle. And that's it. I have pretty much minimized what I carry on the track.
Andrew Wheeler on the track
Q: Which circuits are the most fun to be at?
A: I like Phillip Island, I like Mugello, I always enjoy Laguna Seca but it's a selfish thing because I can go to bed in my own house in the evening - there's always a good vibe in Laguna Seca. I also love Malaysia. I absolutely adore going to Malaysia. The track is kind of interesting, they got varying elevations, dramatic backdrops that look like the came of the set of Apocalypse Now because all these enormous rubber trees. It's hot. And then you got what I call the happiest people on the planet. You come away from there with the feeling you had a lovely weekend, even though you are probably drenched in sweat. You just don't shower, you just take a bar of soap and wash. But no, seriously, Malaysia is a lot of fun.
Q: And which circuit would you see as difficult?
A: I would say you are setting yourself up for failure mentally if you think there is a problem with the track, because you shut down that part of your brain that creates resentment. So why in earth are you going if you don't like the track? So you can't have that thought.
I'd say what would be a more challenging track would be Indianapolis because there are not service roads (ed: the roads that service staff and photographers can take in cars or scooters on the sides of the track) because it's what they call in the USA a Roval, a combination of Road and Oval. Indianapolis doesn't have a service road, so getting to places involves getting through a lot of pedestrians which can have its liabilities. Silverstone is another I can take or leave. I don't do Sachsenring simply because for me they don't make me any money freelance.
Q: Do you develop friendships with the riders?
A: I think they know who you are. People like Crutchlow know who I am, very close with his wife or people like Ben Spies, but when you have a relationship with these people, it spins off on the team when the rider changes team. You get to know the mechanics, and when they change team, then you get to know another team of people. But I try to keep it separate.
Q: Nikon or Canon?
A: I use a Canon because I started out with a Canon so I am using one, but if someone comes over and said "here, use all this Nikon kit" I'd use that too. I don't have this rigidity. I would get more excited with a properly seasoned cast-iron frying pan.
You can say "Nikon does this", or "Canon does that". But it's the person using it. It's as simple as that. It's not your tools, it's how you use them. Some people can't fry an egg, so why would a 300 dollar copper pan make any difference?
Andrew Wheeler on the track
Q: What kind of a motorcycle do you ride?
A: I don't have one right now. Occasionally I get loaners from Ducati or people will loan me a bike. The last bike we had in our garage was a Kawasaki ZX-10R. And that was entertaining, because it had been a little while since I had ridden large motorcycles because I had always had what I call big touring bikes, like BMW - not the flat stuff which I lust after. This chap loaned us the ZX-10R, so I just drove it around the block the get the feel of the thing and then I decided to take it on the freeway.
So I got on the on-ramp, onto the freeway, and you adjust your speed to the traffic, I was in first gear, 30 to 80 (ed: mph), I thought "crap I better change up", so I changed to second, and it just got faster. Before I knew it I was getting on the freeway at 120.
I then figured out that this thing has got lots of power. Lots of stupid power. But it was quite a comfortable sports bike for me. And then I thought I would take it out on some twisting roads. I thought it was broken, that there was something wrong with the bike, because I grew up using engine braking. I'd go into the corner, and there was no engine braking. Where's the engine braking? So I got back to the house and I called the guy who loaned me the bike and said that there was something wrong with it, that there was not engine braking. So he goes to me "it's got a slipper clutch"... I went "ohhhh". You just bang in out through the gears, it will not skip. It was the first revelation I had. So I went out again and said to myself "ohh look at this". I can go into a corner and slam down through the gears. This is easy".
So right now we have nothing, but I love riding motorcycles. I have since I was seven. In my family we've always had motorcycles. When my mother went into labor with me, my dad threw her on the back of a BSA and took us to hospital where I was born like one hour later.
I used to train people to ride motorcycle when I lived in the UK. And here I am still working with something that is a big part of my passion.
Thank you Andrew.
Click here to see many of Andrew's wonderful photos on his Facebook site .
Click here to access his AutoMotoPhoto site