Shooting a Land Speed Record in the Alvord Desert

For all the challenges with being freelance in this industry, not many jobs afford the opportunity to participate in once in a lifetime opportunities quite like camera work does. This past week, I was lucky enough to shoot a "jet car" roaring down a 7 mile track at well over 400mph in an attempt to set a female land speed record.

The North American Eagle after the first day of runs on the Alvord Desert

I was shooting for an online show by AOL Studios called The List: 1001 Car Things To Do Before You Die, and we went out to document a land speed record attempt by the North American Eagle. The team at the helm had taken a scrapped F-104 Starfighter jet body, rebuilt it and converted it to a monster of a wheeled vehicle.

They had about 7 miles of track in the salt flats of the Alvord Desert in southeastern Oregon, and did several runs over the course of two days. My position was in the middle of the track, somewhere around mile 4 and about a quarter mile from the lane. I was dropped off with a Sachtler tripod, Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 7D, and a nice assortment of lenses - including the incredible 500mm f4 IS L prime lens. 

Me trying to hang on to a thread of sanity while sustained 40mph winds do their best to rid me of it.

Tracking the North American Eagle screaming down the salt flats at several hundred MPH is no easy task. It's almost as hard as trying to maintain your sanity when you're alone in a huge desert being pounded by 40mph sustained winds all day with no shelter. But when I got the shot dialed in with that big glass, the results made it all worth it.

I also had great help from a Varavon "Multi-finder" that made these DSLR's much more user-friendly in video mode. I highly recommend the Varavon - it mounts quickly and easily, looks great, and has a very adequate mirror system for low-angle shooting without having to mount, power, & cable an external monitoring solution. Just about anything that keeps me from having to touch a mini-hdmi cable is a winner in my book.

In the end, one of the drivers and co-host of the show, Jessi Combs, wound up breaking a FIA record on her final run - with a top speed of 440mph! This was a big achievement for this team who are on their way to a goal of setting the overall world land speed record by reaching 800mph in the North American Eagle. These are a dedicated group of engineers, scientists, mechanics, and enthusiasts, and they are pretty much all volunteers and working on this project in their spare and vacation time. I'll update this blog post with a link to the show episode once it's available. In the meantime, here are some photos I took from the event and our shoot:

My lonely outpost at in the middle of the flats.

Southeastern Oregon, where the Alvord Desert is located, is a beautiful remote region of the country. There's almost 100 miles between towns out here, and not much to it even when you get to one.

The Alvord Desert is a 12 x 7 mile dry lake bed at an elevation of about 4000ft.

Crew and talent wait at base camp in the morning to see if the team will proceed with runs despite the high winds. Left to right, Chris Otwell (DP/Producer), Patrick McIntyre (Host), & Graham Suorosa (Producer).

Fueling up the vehicle for the first run of the day. Gas mileage is not one it's strong suits.

Inside view of the cockpit. With this car, the line between driver and pilot gets a little blurred.

Looking down the nozzle of the North American Eagle's General Electric LM1500 turbojet engine.

Checking playback from the 500mm/7D combo after a nearly 500mph run. It only takes the North American Eagle a few seconds to go end to end on the 7 mile track.

Gathering at the end of the track after the record-breaking run

My big rig: 500mm prime lens, 7D, Varavon Loupe on a Sachtler Video 18