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Backmarker: Interview with Andrew Wheeler

Thursday, April 18, 2013
As soon as I hit ‘send’ on this edition of Backmarker, I’ll be hitting the road and heading to Austin. Andrew Wheeler, whose Automotophoto Archive is the web’s largest motorcycle racing photo archive, is already there. He’s one of the top motorcycle racing photographers, but he doesn’t fly in at the last minute and high-tail out right after the race, like the rest of the MotoGP circus.

Andrew Wheeler is one of the top motorcycle racing photographers and has captured some legendary moments in MotoGP competition over the years.
Andrew Wheeler is one of the top motorcycle racing photographers and has captured some legendary moments in MotoGP competition over the years.
Nope, Andrew’s known in the paddock for never staying in hotels. At every race, he finds an apartment he can rent for a whole week, so he can have his own home-away-from-home and, most importantly, his own kitchen.

Since I’ve been his guest and tasted his cooking, I know that no matter where the
MotoGP circus happens to be, Andrew’s place is one of the best restaurants in town; I understand why he prefers his own cuisine. But his unique travel strategy is just one of the ways he zigs when the rest of us zag.

With three ‘home’ Grands Prix in the U.S. this year more Americans than ever will probably fantasize about running away and joining the circus. With that in mind, I thought I’d chat with this 50-something British ex-pat (he’s from Bath, England, a city with so much history the whole town’s a World Heritage Site) about how he came to be a hardcard-carrying MotoGP shooter.

His story’s probably not what you think; he didn’t start shooting pictures seriously until he was almost 40, and has been shooting motorcycle racing less than ten years.

Backmarker: I can still hear a trace of your accent, but it’s faint. When did you move to the U.S.?

AW: Sept. 5, 1990.

Backmarker: Wow, you remember the specific day?

AW: It was a life event. I left right after my dad’s birthday; I came to the United States with three suitcases and $20. [Backmarker note: His wife Emily, an American, was waiting for him.]

Backmarker: You weren’t a photographer, then, were you? Tell us how you got started in photography.

AW: In 2000 or 2001, Emily’s horse Ginger foundered – her hooves collapsed. Normally, a horse in this state would be put down, but Ginger didn’t seem to be in any pain, so our vet wanted to try a procedure that would allow her hooves to rebuild. The process required that Ginger by regularly x-rayed and that we take matching photos.

I bought my first digital camera, a Canon G2, and to pass the time I took a few portraits of people’s horses. It blossomed from there. With the money that I made from those portraits I bought a better camera, a Canon D60 DSLR. And there was a feature on my photography in Arabian Horse World. Ginger recovered and lived a long, happy life, but as more and more people bought their own digital cameras, there was less and less money to be made in horse portraiture.

One Christmas, Emily suggested that I go and shoot [the AMA Superbike test] at Laguna Seca, since we live just down the road. I went there with my D60 and my 70-200 lens, and a 300mm f2.8, and shot a bunch of photos. That was in the days when there were Honda, Ducati, Yamaha... loads of factory teams.



Backmarker: So you were a horse photographer. Had you ever even been to a motorcycle race?

AW: A long time ago. My mum and dad met on motorcycles, and my dad was a marshal at Castle Combe, so motorcycles were always around. I’d been to a couple of races, and been to the Isle of Man; I’d always been an avid motorcyclist, even to the extent of nearly killing myself, either by falling off or having people hit me!

I came back from Laguna Seca, and Emily looked at the photos and said, “These are kind of good, why don’t you send them to someone?” So I did; I sent them to Matthew Miles at Cycle World, because that was the first magazine you thought of. That would have been the end of the 2004 or the beginning of 2005.

Matthew said, “Why don’t you go to [the next test at] Infineon?” It kind of blossomed from there. Cycle World made sure that I always had a credential for AMA races. In 2005, I built up a nice archive of AMA photos, and I was on the grid for the MotoGP race at Laguna Seca, which was a thrill.

Towards the end of the year, Chris Jonnum, who was the editor at Road Racer X, contacted me because they were doing a feature called ‘Pictures of the Year’. I sent in a couple of pics, including one of Eric Bostrom checking his helmet. That became the opening spread of the feature.

For the next couple of years, I covered the AMA for Road Racer X, then I did their World Superbike coverage. Unfortunately, the magazine folded. By then, I was also working with magazines like Motorcycle Racer, and Bike, and Superbike in the U.K. Ironically, AMA racing was probably more popular over there than it was here, because the TV coverage was better there.

Backmarker: You got into the business just in time for a period of real struggle for the magazines. Road Racer X folded, and the others are all having difficulties -- although some won’t admit it. A lot of people think, “I’d like to hang out with Rossi and Nicky too,” but you can only do it if you can make a business of it. What’s your secret to surviving at a time when the motorcycle business in general and magazines especially are moribund? Do you also work directly with sponsors, supplying them with images for use in their ads and PR, for example?

Josh Hayes 2011 Valencia
Spies Qatar 2012.
Josh Hayes as a wild card entry at Valencia in 2011 (above) and
American Ben Spies on the MotoGP grid (below). Wheeler has
shot both in the AMA and Grand Prix paddocks.
AW: I think a lot of it has to do with being good at customer service; you have to develop a style and be recognized for doing good work, but it starts with customer service. If timing was on my side, it was that I got known inside the racing community before it collapsed; it wasn’t going that bad until the people that ran racing in the United States reorganized it.

At that point, the person I had the best relationship with was Ben Spies, and Ben had already decided to go to World Superbikes. That was a transition year for me, I decided that the AMA had run its course - which was a shame, because I really liked the people involved, but the financing of racing was impossible.

For that next year, I did a few AMA races because I had some commitments, but I focused on World Superbikes and MotoGP. The community is so incestuous that a lot of people I had met in the AMA, like Paolo Ciabatti, were also moving to the World Championships. So it helped being in the AMA paddock before it went downhill.

I did some work with Kawasaki for a while, I did some work for Yamaha; I’ve done a lot with HJC, through Ben.

When Ben was in the AMA, the person I got along best with was his mother; Tom Houseworth intimidated me. There’s a part of me that doesn’t like sticking a camera in people’s faces; it’s intrusive. I always thought it was rude, but that’s what I do for a living; I just try not to be obnoxious about it. Ben and I aren’t super-friendly, but we chat, and Tom’s a friend now. And with Jorge coming along [and wearing HJC, too] there’s a little friendship developing there, too.

Backmarker: Are there any motorcycle racers that you’re particularly close to?

AW: My first really good friend in racing was Josh Hayes. He still reminds me that I turned down shooting his wedding with Melissa, so I could shoot MotoGP in Australia! Neil Hodgson is another friend. Formula 1 and MotoGP can be stuffy; you can’t just barge in and be accepted, but Hector Martin, Jorge’s manager is another one. It surprised me how kind and helpful he is, and how accessible Jorge is as a result.

Backmarker: Do you cover every single MotoGP race?

AW: I think I went to 14 last year. Emily’s having health troubles, so I’m trying to commit to three races at a time. Some races don’t pay for themselves; Assen, for example -- there’s too many photographers there!

Backmarker: Do you always stay in your own apartment? Never hotels?

AW: Yes. In fact, I always go to the same apartment in each city. Qatar was the last place that I had to stay in a hotel, but I’ve found an apartment there now, too. To get a decent plane ticket, you have to stay over a few days; by flying in and out on Mondays, I save enough money to pay for the rentals.
Simoncelli 2011 Mugello.
Marco Simoncelli in action, Mugello 2011.

Backmarker: Do you adopt the cuisine of the region?

AW: Yes, I cook indigenously, you might say.

Backmarker: I know you’re an excellent cook. Is getting invited to one of your dinners ‘a thing’ now, in MotoGP?

AW: A couple of years ago, in the apartment that I rent in Valencia for the season finale, Chris Jonnum, Aaron Frank, Eric Putter, and John Paolo Canton came over. That might’ve been the most fun.

On the Tuesday and Wednesday, I make enough food that there’s something ready to eat when we get back home from the track once the race weekend begins. That’s especially important at a place like Aragon, where there’s not that many places to eat. Sometimes I share with David Emmett, and he’s a vegetarian, so we eat a lot of fish.

Backmarker: One thing that’s happened with photography in the digital age is that photographers are under a lot of pressure to deliver images quickly. So you shoot all day then immediately have to sort images. How long is your work day?

AW: I get up at 5:30 or 6:00. I always eat breakfast before heading to the track. After a day’s shooting, I’m not one of those guys who hangs around the media center. I sort a few images, then get back to wherever I’m staying and have a glass of wine or a beer. I have a shower and a bite to eat. I always make sure my rental has a good DSL connection, and I work until about 11:00 p.m.
NGM Girls Valencia 2012
NGM paddock girls in Valencia, 2012.

Backmarker: One of the photo sequences you’re famous for is Rossi’s pass on Stoner, through the gravel in the Corkscrew at Laguna Seca. Was that your crowning achievement as a photographer?

AW: You know, a few years ago Riders for Health did a charity auction at Indianapolis. I made a giclée print that Rossi saw backstage. He’d donated a helmet and boots to auction off, and the deal was each person could come out on stage for the auction of one item. He saw that print and said, “I want to take that out.” It ended up raising $8500. I’d say that was the highlight.

Backmarker: Is there a secret to the Andrew Wheeler style?

AW: The secret might be, ‘look up’. I think that there’s three parts to it: there’s story, there’s location, and there’s weather. When you ride motorcycles, you get the weather. You don’t just take a picture of the motorcycle going around the corner, because the only thing that changes is the curbing. Some people don’t take pictures of umbrella girls, but I think they’re part of the pageantry. The location, the colors, the food; it’s all part of the palette. For example, whenever I go to Catalunya, I take some time and visit the Salvador Dali museum, because it puts color back in my head.

I always try to please myself; I don’t try to guess what other people will like. Whether it’s a style or not, I think one key is not putting yourself above people; you have to keep yourself grounded.

Staying grounded seems to come easily to Andrew Wheeler, which is perhaps surprising considering how many air miles he logs every year. While he’s one of the few of us willing to really run away and join the circus, you can follow his adventures vicariously, online.

If you want to explore his archive, go here: www.archive.automotophoto.com.

Visit his main website (where you can buy a cool print of the famous Rossi-Stoner pass, or his Marco Simoncelli commemorative book) here: www.automotophoto.com.

Friend him on Facebook.

And last but not least follow Andrew on Twitter. 

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