2017 - A Period of Growth

On first glance, 2017 seemed like a bit of a letdown after the whirlwind of 2016. 2016 was all about crazy new experiences. That year, I flew to Pikes Peak with media credentials to live with a race team, flew to Texas for another team and followed them to New Orleans, and flew back to Colorado for an endurance race. Other than a brief trip to Detroit at the beginning for 2017 for the NAIAS, the farthest I went for work was Topeka. Glamorous, right?

But the more I dig through this years photos (of which there were a lot), the more I realize that this year was massive for me, just in a more subtle way. Instead of big bucket-list events, 2017 has been about polishing what’s here. Shooting nearly every day that weather permitted, in a variety of conditions, has forced me to be more accurate and confident in my camera work. As compared to the studio work I used to do at Pure Pursuit, where the light never changed, this year has seen me shooting at all hours of the day, in all types of weather, indoors and out. So I’ve had to get much better at predicting what settings will work, reading my meter, and pushing myself outside of my comfort zone.

This year I’ve also made it a point to assist photographers who are more talented and educated than I am. I bring nothing to the table other than some manual labor, but I take a lot away. Watching how others work is helping me develop my own composition skills. I have no formal education in photography. Everything I know is from trial and error, and watching a lot of YouTube videos. I’m slowly learning how to stack foreground and background elements around my subjects, as well as how to treat the light as a physical element. Instead of just trying to hide from it, use it. Shoot right into it, catch flares, play with shadow lines.

Does all that make me seem like a pretentious artist?

Sweet.

Here’s to the people that made 2017 possible:

  • Britt-for going location scouting with me in the middle of the night, tagging along for rainy photoshoots, and generally being the most encouraging and supportive partner imaginable.
  • Travis Carroll-for letting me tag along on shoots and learn how real photographers work, while showing me what’s really possible.
  • Travis Young-for generally being a rad dude, and reminding me that this shit is supposed to be fun
  • Tom-for loaning me equipment that I couldn’t afford
  • Joe-for tagging along on late night shoots to make sure I don’t get hit by a car or stabbed by a hobo.
  • Robert and Kris-for giving me a shocking amount of creative freedom, and trusting me with cars worth more than my house.

Apologies to anyone I missed.

Without further ado: my best shots of 2017.

The Internet Loves Cats

So, long time no blog.

Been busy.

But this recent project was too amusing not to share. And it reminded me that this whole thing is supposed to be fun. While it's important to take your work seriously, it's also important to remember that there was a time when I didn't get paid for this, and just shot what made me happy. 

A group of friends and I decided to do a Secret Santa gift exchange. I'll be honest, I wasn't thrilled about the prospect. Holidays have always rubbed me the wrong way. There's way too many prescribed emotions and traditions attached for me to be comfortable with. But when I wound up drawing my friend Julie, a self-diagnosed crazy cat lady, I knew what had to be done.

Cat portraits.

A calendar of cat portraits.

So we coordinated to get her out of the house one night after book club (we're nerdy old people, screw you), and I had the camera in the car.

Now, there's an old cliche that you should never work with animals or children. Good lord is that right. Herding cats is like...trying to herd cats. They won't stay where you want, or look the direction you want, or really cooperate in any way. Add that to an incredibly dimly lit house at night, and things got weird. We're talking an ISO of 4,000, and laying on the floor with a cheap nifty fifty lens opened all the way up.

The results aren't perfect, but they definitely made me, and her, and everyone else laugh. And isn't that what we're all aiming for? Just a positive reaction?

Anyways, here's some cats. Also, there's some of mine in there during daylight hours, to fill out the calendar.

2017 So Far-A Lot of Experimentation

In January of 2017, I accepted a position as the Video and Photo Content Specialist for the Soave Automotive Group. Basically, I make stuff for a network of luxury car dealerships. So I'm out shooting photos of fairly high end metal on a pretty much daily basis. Which is neat in and of itself. But more importantly, that means I need to keep things constantly changing. Nobody wants to see the same types of photos every day. So this is pushing me to constantly hunt new locations, and play with different compositions and techniques.

Here are my favorites of the last three months. Now, because I'm me, and I am fueled by equal parts caffeine and self-loathing, picking these was not easy. There were photos that I was unbelievably proud of, and then hated with a passion twelve hours later. But these are the ones I like today. 

Until I get frustrated and want to change it all again.

A Year in Review: 2016

2016 has been, without doubt, the most surreal of my professional career.

Here's the highlights:

-A photoshoot for Weld Wheels in Kansas City

-A race team flying me to cover their escapades at the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb in Colorado

-A race team flying me to cover their escapades at the World Racing League 24@5280 in Colorado

-A race team flying me to cover their escapades at Global Time Attack in Louisiana, and hang out at their shop in Texas

-Interviewed the man who holds the motorcycle Cannonball record

-Drove the supply car for one pit-stop of the team setting an EV/autonomous Cannonball record

-Became a contributing writer to Lanesplitter, Jalopnik's motorcycle sub-site

-Drove my first Aston Martin

-Rode across town in a racecar with no doors, roof, windshield, or exhaust

-Competed in an autocross in someone else's Porsche

-Helped a production company cover a professional darts tournament

-Slept in a rental car while covering a race

-Rode on a Honda Grom with another adult male

-Been laid off

-And more

Somehow I've managed to fall into opportunities that I could have never foreseen. I have made friends with some of the most insanely passionate people all across the nation. I've taken some real hard knocks, and learned some tough lessons.  I have no idea what 2017 will hold, or even how I am going to make ends meet, but I'm sure it won't be boring.

My First Autocross Was In A Borrowed Porsche

(Originally featured on www.rightfootdown.com)

About a week ago, I got an unexpected early morning message from a man I'd spoken to, but never met in person.

Hey man, still interested in some early 944 fun/shooting?”

Now I don't know about you, but when someone offers me a chance to spend some time with a vintage Porsche, I agree first, and ask questions later. The owner in this instance had read some of my other reviews, and even knew the owners of some of those cars, so an unspoken understanding was already there. I figured it would proceed in the usual fashion: we'd meet in some forlorn parking lot at a depressing hour, I'd tear around on the street for an hour or so, snap some photos, and send him on his way. If that sounds like an odd way to spend a morning, it is.

The usual hashing out of scheduling began, which is always the complicated part. At any given point, I'm working on at least side project, in addition to a full time job, all while trying to ensure that my girlfriend doesn't leave me for my cat. That’s not a joke. It’s a serious concern. I intended to get something on the books for the Porsche, but there was no rush. I’m behind on work, and spring is just beginning, so we have many months of good driving weather left. But as we were discussing his SCCA schedule, the bomb dropped.

If you'd like to co-drive my car on Sunday you're welcome to do so.”

Flogging sports cars on the street is certainly fun, but there are severe concessions made in the name of safety and staying out of jail. But on the track, I'd be allowed to drive as fast as I was physically capable of, without regard for other motorists, pedestrians, or police. Previously, I was intrigued. Now, I was enthralled. A Porsche, on a closed track, in a sanctioned SCCA event. How could I say no?

But then I remembered that I've never even spectated an autocross event. And I'd never seen the car in person. So, race an unknown car, in a type of event I know nothing about, on a track I've never seen, while the owner sits next to me? Also, the only rear wheel drive auto I’ve ever owned were some Ford Rangers back in high school and college. Both of which I totalled. Oh. This might actually be a bit more interesting than I originally planned on.
 

I know most autocross events just take place in parking lots, but this might be the one area in which Kansas City’s motorsports scene is better than some of our rival cities. Here, we have a web of paved lanes, that are then adjusted with a few cones to finalize the layout. This means there are actually grass runoff, different pavement materials, and even some very minor elevation changes. Picture it as a series of four way intersections, that you close certain arms of, to create a route.

So I headed down there, at the crack of dawn on a Sunday, with the sole goal of not breaking the car, and hopefully not embarrassing myself too badly. Luckily, we were scheduled to run in the third and final heat of the day. The downside of that was I would be spending a full eight hours at the track, and I hate spending that much time anywhere I’m not getting paid. But the upside was I would get many hours to watch and learn. The first heat I would just be learning, and trying to talk my way into any and all available passenger seats. The second heat, I would be a corner worker out on the track (complete with my own super stylish orange safety vest). Finally, in the third heat, I’d be taking the wheel.

I’ve thought about getting involved in autocross for a while, as it’s something I can get into without driving four hours, and also is (theoretically) a bit safer. Plus, my Cooper S is an incredibly popular autocross car. The man working the gate even attempted to talk me into it when I checked in to get my wristband. So obviously, the first car I talked my way into was a lightly modified Cooper S. Sure, this wouldn’t really be applicable to racing a rear wheel drive Porsche, but it would at least show me the track, and let me know what running my own Mini would be like.

Like every enthusiast, I like to think I’m a quick driver. I’ve been driving my Mini for a couple years, and like to believe that I’ve gotten pretty good at hustling it around. I’ve waxed poetically about the agile chassis on multiple occasions, and how it can play right on the grip threshold with ease. That was before I buckled myself into a car driven by an SCCA champion. His Mini only had a few bolt-ons, with some minor suspension work, so it was still very close to stock.

After the first corner, I no longer thought I was a quick driver. I was entirely unprepared for how fast you had to drive the car. Every single corner we entered, I was convinced we could not possibly stay on the pavement and out of the weeds. It didn’t have much in the way of straight line acceleration, but it just never slowed down. This was the definition of a “momentum” car. I now understood what drivers meant when they mentioned driving at 10/10ths. If that was 10/10ths, I’ve never driven above 5 or 6. Full aggression, at or beyond the limits of the tires, the entire time. My mind was blown. I couldn’t even pay attention to the course, because the physical sensations were so overwhelming.

After that, I bummed rides in a few other cars, just to get a feel for the course, and for the speed. Then was working the course. Which sounds much more complicated than it is. Basically, I stood next to the hairpin, and replaced cones that people knocked over. Pick up cone, gesture to official that a cone went down, replace cone. Oh, also try to not get killed by the Mustang on Hoosiers when it locks up its brakes and overshoots the corner.

To make things more complicated, I managed to lose my eyeglasses while working the course. So I wound up being out in the grass way longer than expected, before needing to run to the Johnny on the Spot for the important pre-race piss. I was going to be terrified anyways, the last thing I needed to do was soil myself in the driver’s seat. By the time I got done hunting for my glasses (which I did not find), and using the facilities (which were fairly unpleasant), the parade lap was beginning. So I ran the width of the parking lot, grabbed my helmet from my co-driver, and jumped in the 944. This was my first time sitting in the driver’s seat.

It was also my first time driving the circuit, in any configuration, in any vehicle. I had walked around it twice, and been a passenger three times, but that’s hardly preparation for doing it myself. I even managed to miss a cone on the parade lap. This didn’t exactly bode well for running it at speed.

After that inauspicious start, it was back to the staging lanes. For those of you, like me, who are new to autocross, how it works is you do a lap, then pull in and park, wait five to ten minutes, and then go out again. For me, I was sharing the 944 with the owner, so we had to alternate laps. The affect that these random pauses have on your mind is fairly bizarre. I would stand around and make small talk for roughly ten minutes, then sit in the passenger for a hot lap, then stand around for another ten minutes. After roughly twenty minutes of doing nothing, I suddenly had to switch my brain into full attack mode, flog the Porsche as hard as I could, then go back to killing time. The wild swings of adrenaline were difficult to process, and lead to a lot of the afternoon being a blur.

So here’s what I do remember. My first lap at speed involved an instructor riding shotgun with me to give me a bit of guidance. He seemed slightly nervous about the fact that my first time driving the car had been the parade lap and that I’d never competed in autocross. Some people have no sense of adventure.

But that went very smoothly, if a bit slow. He did question me after the fact, saying “I thought you’d never done this before?” To which I had to reply, “it’s my first time doing autocross, it’s not my first time driving fast.” Now, there’s a reasonable chance he was just trying to build up the confidence of a helpless rookie. But obviously, he was just dazzled by my sheer raw talent. Disregard the fact that my codriver was nearly ten seconds faster than me.

As for the 944 itself, it was amazing. Not a fast car, or even particularly quick, but like all great cars, it talks to you. Even on my first hot lap, I felt entirely comfortable letting the car slide out wide in the sweeper, and then lifting off the gas to get the nose to tuck back in for the slalom. Sure, I didn’t have enough experience to really test the limits of the car, but at no point did it surprise or frighten me.

I was too distracted by trying to keep the speed up to really delve into the nuances, but the fact that I was turning quasi-respectable laps with less than two minutes of seat time under my belt says the whole story. Similar to the legendary Miata (which consisted of basically our entire class), the 944 teaches you to refine your craft. You’re never going to get ahead by sheer power or grip, but instead, you need to conserve momentum and carry speed wherever you can. Push your limits, trust the car, and you will be surprised at how far beyond your expectations you can go.

As for the dramatic, dirt throwing photo here… Well, let’s just say I never quite got the hang of the hairpin at the end of the high speed section. I was always trying to eke out a bit more oomph before getting on the brakes, and always overcooked it. As with all of this, it comes down to needing to fully trust the machine. I never was able to really stamp the brake down as hard and fast as needed. There’s a degree of trust that your build with a vehicle as you slowly tease out each other’s limits. Just like with your college girlfriend, you need to try a finger before you cram it in there.

At the end of a very long day, how did I feel about my first autocross? Well, first of all, I’m slow. Like, really slow. I mean, you can watch the video for yourself. That was the final lap. The driving was an unbelievable rush, and it taught me to get more comfortable driving beyond the traction limit. I started to learn how hard a car can be pushed, and how to try and reign it back in. That being said, the amount of seat time you get compared to the length of the day is laughably poor. If I didn’t share a car, I would have had eight minutes of race time, out of an eight hour day.

I understand that this may be region specific. Our event had 150 cars enter, which as I understand it, is way higher than other regions. But because (as I often lament) we don’t have any easily accessible race tracks, anyone who is remotely interested in racing comes out. So everyone needs to get their runs in, plus has to do their time working the course. But still, a full day, and fifty dollars, for less than ten minutes of racing is a tough pill to swallow.

I say all this now, and bemoan how unfair it is, and what a poor deal it is, but then I look at my Mini in the garage.

You know, it might look real nice with a number placard on the doors.

And I’ve already got a Snell rated helmet.

And the track is only twenty minutes from my house.


Fuck.

Cannonballing on Two Wheels: Everyone Else is a Sissy

When I last wrote about the evolution of the Cannonball, I talked about how the overall spirit of attempt was more important than the ultimate timecard stamp. The point was to have your own adventures, plant your own flag in the sand, and to do those things that nobody else is dedicated enough, or mad enough, to pull off. Little did I know, there was one man out there wholeheartedly carrying on this tradition.

In 2015, Carl Reese set multiple cross country records. So why haven’t you heard his name? Well, partially it is because none of them are the overall transcontinental record, and partially it is because Reese is a fairly understated man, at least compared to Alex Roy. No, Reese is not trying to break Ed Bolian‘s coast to coast record. Instead, he’s gone back to the beginning. Not back to the muttonchopped era of Yates and Gurney, but even farther, back to the man who would unknowingly lend his name to countless quasi-legal automotive events: Cannonball Baker himself. Baker set all manner of records, in all manner of vehicles over the course of his illustrious career. Consider it the shotgun approach. Why earn just one record, when you can win multiple? Hammer your way into the history books over, and over, and over. Each escapade was one more nail in the edifice of endurance driving.

Roy sums up some of Reese’s runs over at Jalopnik better than I could, so go read up on what the digital frontier of transcontinental driving consists of. But as impressive as all of the Tesla records are, Reese claimed another record that makes me weak in the knees, and sweaty in the groin.

Motorcycle.

Solo.

LA to New York City.

38 hours, 49 minutes.

Now, I’m no stranger to two wheeled shenanigans, which is explicitly why Reese’s escapades boggled my mind. A few years back, in a whirlwind of terrible decisions, I rode a Suzuki SV650 with no windscreen for 11 hours across the Midwestern United States. Then three days later, I rode 12 hours back home. Someday I’ll gather the scraps of that trip and try to turn it into a semi-coherent article. To sum up, it involved severe exhaustion, muscle cramps, nausea, self loathing, immense boredom, and random moments of sheer terror. So obviously I had to get Reese on the phone, to figure out how he did it.

I’ve now interviewed multiple transcontinental record holders. As different as they all are in outward appearances, they have a similar core. At the end of the day, once all the bravado and trash talk has fallen away, they are problem solvers. The cowboys and daredevils get arrested. The men and women who go coast to coast in less than two days with no police encounters are not reckless people. They are very focused, intelligent, people who love to deconstruct problems, and devise unique solutions to them. Reese is the same. His day job involves troubleshooting and resolving construction dilemmas. Crossing the nation on a motorcycle as fast as possible was just one more equation to solve.

The electronic countermeasures used for these types of events have been well documented, so everyone knows that that entails. Reese’s run used a similar arsenal, but he whittled it down to the absolute bare essentials. Needless to say, the dash of a motorcycle is slightly less spacious than that of a German luxury sedan. Of course there is the ubiquitous Valentine 1 and Unidan police scanner, along with laser jammers.

The BMW K1600GT remained relatively stock for this attempt. When you’re starting with a 160 horsepower motorcycle, adding more power isn’t exactly necessary. Think of it as the two wheeled equivalent of an M5. The German sport touring bikes have always been designed for exactly this type of use. So instead of adding power, Reese added usability. He had a custom, oversized gas tank that greatly increased his range. A larger windscreen was purchased to reduce the abuse his neck and shoulders would take from the wind. Because a large portion of the run would take place at night, a pair of 15,000 lumen driving lights were added. Reese bragged during out call that you could probably land a plane by these, and they could light over three quarters of a mile of desert highway. Lastly, but possibly most importantly, an aftermarket seat was swapped in, to protect his tender bits.

Reese agreed with me that mental focus was the largest hurdle to overcome. A day and a half of solo travel, with no co-driver, is a daunting prospect. I know that eight hours into my own trip, the mental and emotional strain became almost insurmountable. I may or may not have had a minor mental breakdown somewhere in western Kansas. With no company other than your own thoughts, be prepared to come to terms with who you are as a person. You will revisit every bad breakup, or argument with your family, or job loss you’ve ever experienced. So there’s something to look forward to. This is all without trying to make good time and stay aware and focused.

The correct mental outlook was the main subject of our conversation. Reese told me that he was in almost constant communication with his support teams the entire run via bluetooth in his helmet. They served as his eyes, his ears, his problem solvers, and his cheerleaders. Constant talk. Constant feedback. Constant updates. They would update him with weather reports on the fly, allowing him to adjust his strategy in real time. Think of it as outsourcing your co-driver.

Exhaustion is always a factor on endurance events, but that factor is increased exponentially on a motorcycle. The sensory overload that makes bikes so entertaining on back roads will wear you down on the open road. Even with a fantastic touring bike like Reese’s BMW, exhaustion the biggest enemy. As a precaution about this, Reese told me that his team utilized a scale of one to ten to measure wakefulness. Similar to how hospitals develop a scale for pain, this system allowed them to quantify an inherently subjective metric. Utilizing this, whenever he edged into the dangerous half of the scale, his team could instruct him to pull off the road for rest or caffeination. For six weeks prior to the run, he abstained from stimulants, which ensured both that any caffeine taken on the trip would be that much more effective, and also that he would not experience any drowsiness due to withdrawal. If this seems like overkill, you’ve never nodded off while piloting a motorcycle. I’ve had it happen once. Never again.

Speed is the aspect that everyone wants to know. How fast did he go? Where were the stretches of triple digit cruising? Honestly, I have no idea. I never asked. For me, the overall time is almost irrelevant. More important is the fact that he did it at all, time be damned. Sure, his time is what got him into the books, but I’d still be interested if it took him 48 hours. Maybe I’m jaded after having a bit of experience in this world, but I think the adventure itself is still more important. Yes, beating another record is what gets you the attention (it’s how I got involved, so I’m a hypocrite, I know, let’s keep going), but beating your own record, or your own expectations is far more valuable.

I know people dislike men like this getting press. I understand that. But I feel that these events are such an intrinsic part of our collective culture, that to ignore them is to whitewash our own history. The Cannonball is an undeniable aspect of the automotive Zeitgeist. My role in all of this is just to serve as a historian. Short of Yates and Roy’s books, and a handful of blog posts, there is little hard data on this phenomenon. Reese is seeking to change that. He is using his own record run to draw attention to a documentary being produced on the history of transcontinental motorcycle runs. For as little Cannonball information as there is, almost nothing is known about those few motorcycle madmen who set out to break records

George Egloff got a handful of minutes in the infamous 32 Hours 7 Minutes documentary, but little else is known aside from a throwaway sentence or two about Cannonball Baker. Reese was passionate about wanting to share these stories of triumph and adversity with the public. These days, every motorcycle manufacturer has private racetracks and computer simulations to test durability of new machines, but that wasn’t always the case. For many years, the only hard data manufacturers had was when someone rode one of their machines some incalculable distance. Little was known about road conditions, or tire durability, until someone finally put them both to the test. Even today, manufacturers look to extreme real world tests to understand their products. Reese told me that Tesla made some software updates to the autopilot systems of the Model S after his record setting run. Nobody had ever used it for that long, at those speeds, so new data was brought to light.

So please, help out their project if you can. For all of us. These stories deserve to be told, and their accomplishments shared. To a large percentage of the populace, their knowledge of the Cannonball begins with Burt Reynolds, and ends with Raul Julia. This is one of those rare instances where the truth is less believable than the fiction.

Those stories have been lost in the fog of rumor and speculation. Until now.

The Nobleman (S63 AMG)

There are luxury cars, then there are German luxury cars, then there is the Mercedes Benz S-Class. It is a monolithic brick of teutonic engineering. The S-Class is a car designed to place your comfort above all else. These days it seems that everyone’s interpretation of a luxury car is to try and beat the BMW M5 at its own game. An admirable goal as the M5 is a staggering feat of engineering, but the answer to every question does not have to be rock hard suspension and Nurburgring lap records. The S63 is luxury in the classic definition. Soft leather, wood inlays, and an effortless drive.

Cars these days are heavier than they’ve ever been. It is not unheard of for a sedan to weigh over two tons. A decade or two ago, that was the weight of a Suburban, but now an Audi S8 weighs nearly the same. Most manufacturers use heavily assisted electronic steering racks to mask this bulk. You can lightly spin the wheel with one finger, completely forgetting the thousands of pounds of steel wrapped around you. That is not the case in the S63. It is heavy. Unabashedly, unashamedly so. Within the first dozen feet you are very aware of the mass at your control. But mass does not mean unwieldy. It feels solid. Stable. Monolithic.

What happens, then, when you give this paragon of old-world luxury over to the frothing lunatics at AMG? It would be easy for them to ruin the formula, but they actually keep it reined in. Well, reined in for AMG. The ride is still compliant, and the stereotypical raucous exhaust has been dialed down. Until you really put your foot in it, the performance capabilities are fairly innocuous.

Oh, sure, you can dial the Active Body Control over to Sport, and shift using the paddles behind the wheel, but that just misses the point. Manual shifting takes an eon to relay your request, and the big girl never feels light on her feet. This is not some lithe and agile track weapon, it is a bruiser of a grand tourer. The sole purpose of all that power to allow you to leave the peasants behind, choking on your aristocratic dust. For remember, you are better than them, because you have an S63 and they don’t.

The S63 was well over $100,000 when new. It may not be the most expensive car I’ve ever driven, but it certainly feels like it. But, more importantly, it looks like it. People have a primeval response to a blacked out S-Class rolling up on the curb. You instantaneously become a person of distinction. Not necessarily one of class, but one of note. Being human, occasionally you have to play up the role.

While the S63 does not encourage quite the flagrant disregard of all restrictions in the manner of a sportbike, there is the subtle suggestion that certain things are beneath you. Not because the rules are flawed, it’s just that you are important, and everyone should cater to your whims.

Surely that speed limit doesn’t apply to you.

You own an S63.

Of course you can park there.

You own an S63.

The front passenger should move out of your way when you’re in the back.

Because fuck them, you own an S63.

That’s right, the rear passenger can move the front passenger’s seat. Because the person being driven is the one with the power. With one little button press, you commandeer their seat controls. If they could have legally allowed the rear passenger to control the driver seat as well, I’m sure they would have. From the luxurious back, you also can control the shade on the rear sunroof (because of course it has two) as well as the shades on both rear side windows and rear windshield.

With some cars, it is difficult to tell where all the money has gone. Within the first hundred yards in this, it is blatantly obvious what you are paying for. The S63 just feels expensive, in the most glorious way. There is something to be said for a car that is worth more than your house, that can easily cruise at double or triple any speed limit in the nation. Whether in the front seat or the back, you feel just that little bit more important than the other plebeians on the road. Because you are. After all, they’re not in an S-Class.


The Heavyweight (Audi S6)

               In my line of work, it's easy to become jaded. The mind will eventually get used to anything, given enough exposure. This applies to everything from noise, to speed, to narcotics. Even the irreverent Dr. Hunter S Thompson got used to his own warped reality, in which the violence and substance abuse eventually became uneventful. I always enjoy my work, but at some point, the novelty wears off, and a job is a job is a job. "Oh, another 500 horsepower sedan? I suppose that will do."

               But every once in a while, something cuts through the fog, and leaves you staggered. A wild haymaker of a punch that swings past your defenses, and sends you reeling. The last car that did this was the Porsche Cayenne, which I've written about in a few different places. Recently, I encountered another one: a 2014 Audi S6. Whereas the Cayenne surprised me by being better than I expected for an SUV, the S6 surprised me by just being an astounding car in general.

               It's not the most visceral car I've ever driven. Or the most powerful. Or the fastest. Or even the most expensive. In almost every quantifiable metric, it is not the best. Certainly a podium finisher, but never taking the gold. But every time I pulled back in from doing a lap of our urban test circuit, I wanted to go out for another run. That in and of itself speaks volumes. There are certain cars where everything just seems right. The S6 is one of these.

               Of course, the one I was in was fully loaded with the Prestige package, and all the bells and whistles. I tend to not spend much time fiddling with all the gadgets and gizmos. How is the seat heater? It heats your seat. How are the massaging seats? Massagey. While these things are fantastic to have, no sane human being is going to have an opinion on one heated seat versus another. But if you do, then you're a robot, and you make me uncomfortable.

               Going off of the cars I tend to enjoy, I really shouldn't enjoy the S6 this much. I like my cars small, nimble, and nervous. The Audi is large, heavy, and reserved. It weighs over two tons, and doesn't have a manual transmission. These two facts alone should steer me away. But the car belies its size. In motion it feels much more poised than it should. Unless you look behind you, you could easily forget how large the car is. The steering is nice and direct, but not twitchy or darty. Compared to the CLS 63 AMG I drove after, the Audi felt much more direct. On center, the steering is a bit soft, but it turns in with confidence. The wheels feel actually connected to the steering wheel, as opposed to the vagueness of the CLS.

               Once you are in motion, the S6 feels much smaller than it is. It's a heavyweight boxer. A mass of muscle and force, but light on its feet. Everything feels solid, and well connected, even in comfort mode. There is no learning curve, or adjustment period with this car. It is gentle, and easy going, with no intimidation at all. You could easily forget about the 4.0 liter twin turbocharged V8 up front. It is effortless to just putter around town in.

               Left in comfort mode, it is the retirement years of that boxer. Still large, still frighteningly powerful, but a bit slow to react, and a bit squishy in the middle. The aggression is still there, but tempered by time and bulk. Stomp the gas pedal to the floor, and the S6 takes a deep breath, squats back on its haunches, and then lets that uppercut fly.

               Once the S6 gets its dander up, it keeps at it without a break. The big beast keeps pulling, and pulling. You sail forwards on a buttery smooth wave of torque. Mmm…torque butter. The V8 up front never seems strained, or stressed. There is just a seamless surge of power. In most cars, there is a point at which you start to lose momentum, as the force of the air pushes you back. This never happens in the Audi heavyweights. As long as you are at quasi-legal speeds, you will never run out of power. There is an utter lack of drama as well. No screaming exhaust or shrieking tires. The Quattro system ensures that the S6 just grips and goes.

               There is a downside to the immense capabilities of this car. Because the S6 performs such feats without distress, it is easy to forget that you are pushing the limits of the laws of nature. There is in fact a limit to how fast a two ton brick can negotiate a bend, and woe be to you when you find what that limit is. This isn't to say that the Audi is dangerous. Far from it, in fact. Just keep in mind that the car weighs more than you think it does, and that you are going much faster than you realize.

               So, is the S6 perfect? Well, not quite. It is difficult to discuss what I dislike, as some of it is just inherent to the purpose of the vehicle. Sure, I generally prefer a bit more induction/exhaust noise, and a manual transmission would be great, but neither of those fit with the design of the car. It’s not designed to be a nimble, visceral sports car. It is built to be a subtle, comfortable touring car. It is designed to cover vast swaths of highway at exceptional speeds, while still remaining comfortable and discreet.

               My one serious complaint is the transmission. Not the lack of a manual, I can live with that for what the car is. Not even the speed of it, as the shifts seem to be much quicker than some of the AMG transmissions I've used. That's the difference between a true dual clutch, and a more traditional automatic. My issue is that even in manual mode, the Audi will shift at redline. I know this is a safety feature, to prevent damage. I know that, and I accept it, but it still frustrates me. If the computers can decide when I shift, it almost makes the whole manual selection pointless. Silly quibble, but there it is.

               My only other critique is the selection knob for the Audi MMI system. The control knob seems to always go the reverse of the direction I feel it should. You scroll the knob counter-clockwise, which feels unnatural every time. I’m sure this is just a quirk that you get used to quickly, just like how everyone hated the BMW i-Drive, but now it is just accepted. Again if these are the complaints I have, I’m certainly scraping the bottom of the barrel for issues to find. “Oh, sure, it will do 0-60 in under four seconds, but I just really don’t like the infotainment selector knob.” How pedantic is that?

               These quibbles are meaningless. For what it is, the S6 is astonishing. It is a car that urges you to carry positively obscene speeds at all times, all the while staying under the literal and figurative radar. If the U.S. Express or Cannonball were to ever rise up again in some fashion, I think the big Audi might be a perfect candidate for high speed trans-continental racing. Monstrous power, discreet styling, immense comfort, and plenty of room for electronic countermeasures.

Save me a spot at the Portafino Inn, wir kommen.

The Brute (Subaru WRX)

Some cars are precision instruments, and require a delicate touch to elicit every iota of performance. The Subaru WRX is not one of these. In a world of scalpels, it is a hatchet. Some cars have you pick a laser precise racing line, delicately feathering the throttle as you tweak your steering angle. Not the WRX. Turn the traction control all the way off, drop a gear, stomp the pedal to the floor, and point it in generally the right direction you'd like to go. Less a sniper rifle, more of a shotgun. It will bounce, and crash, and slide, and hop, but it will never stop. Keep your foot in it, keep your nerves up, and trust the machine.

The sheer unflappability of it causes a distinct change in your driving patterns. You become much less concerned with things like potholes, or snow, or pavement, or traffic laws. "It will be fine," becomes your mantra. You're on an unpaved construction road tight enough that the only thing louder the gravel rattling off the undercarriage is the weeds slapping against your side-view mirrors? Just let the car settle a bit after any major hit, and keep a light touch on the wheel. It's going to squirm on you. Driving a WRX fast in the wild is surprisingly similar to driving a snowmobile: it's never going entirely in a straight line.

Along that line, you will develop a unhealthy appreciation for poor driving conditions. A WRX gets better and better the worse everything else gets. You will pray for everything sports cars hate. You'll crave rain, and snow, and mud, and gravel. When the rest of the city is asleep during a blizzard, you'll be out in a parking lot, practicing your Scandinavian Flick. When everyone is creeping along in the sleet, you're the asshole trying to see if you can keep the car sideways all the way through the intersection. You'll drive down beaten paths in construction yards, just to see where they go.

The trade-off to this is that in perfect driving conditions, you can start to notice some of the shortcomings of the car. Think of it as an AK-47. Its success is directly tied to the sheer abuse it is willing to absorb. The side effect of that is a certain ham-fistedness. The steering is a bit vague on-center, the clutch is a bit heavy, the shifter is a bit rough, and the car bounces a bit. While in a second gear slide through a foot of snow, as you steer by looking out the side windows, none of that matters, and in all reality, is probably helping. But when you're commuting to work, that slop raises its head.

But at the end of the day, none of that matters.  To put it in real world terms, I drove OVER a dead deer at 70 miles per hour, and all that happened was a crack in the front lip of the bumper. Zero mechanical issues. Zero damage to the skid plate. It felt like a hit a small speedbump. It did that, drove across the city in a foot of standing snow, slaloming stranded cars on the interstate, carried a shocking level of speed down unpaved country roads, and much more. All with never missing a beat, while still being able to run with a 5.0 liter Mustang, or haul hundreds of pounds of equipment from the hardware store. You want delicacy? Go buy a Miata. You want speed, utility, durability, and a Nirvana level of "not caring"? Buy the WRX.

Rocking the Roxy

This weekend I got invited out to a concert by local Kansas City band Adam Evolving at The Roxy in Overland Park.  Local unsigned bands tend to have a (somewhat justifiable) bad reputation, but these boys buck that trend violently.  The sheer level of technical skill, combined with strict professionalism, is a wonderful surprise in this scene.  The band consists of Darrick Deterding on vocals, Josh Seichepine on bass, Casey Miller on drums, and Jimi Rowan on guitar.

They have low-key persona, but are slowly building an extremely devoted fan base.  Everyone who witnesses one of their performances becomes an avid supporter.  The Roxy is a small venue in a strip mall, but Adam Evolving still packed the floor.  Getting people out of their seats at these small shows is a feat in and of itself, but the audience was more densely packed at during this late set than at any other point during the evening.

Watching this band perform is always an interesting juxtaposition of visuals. Deterding on vocals is always this roiling mess of anguished fervor, flanked on either side by the solid pillars of Rowan and Seichepine.  The more that he bounces, wails, pleads, and proselytizes, the more solid Rowan and Seichepine seem to become, just standing as these pillars of intense focus and precision.  Rolling beneath and through all of this is Miller, who serves as an amazing combination of aggression tempered with precision.  His sharp cadences structure and drive the whole performance.

Because this was such a small venue, I switched up my normal method.  I tried to focus much more on the details of each performer, and get in close.  There is so much distraction with these types of events, from TVs playing sports, to angry drunks, to side conversations, that it's easy to lose sight of the performance.  So I tried to utilize framing and lighting to key in on these intense little moments on stage.

If you remove all of the other meaningless visual noise and colors, all you are left with at the end are the emotions that drive the music.  And that is what music is all about: making you feel something.  That is one of my favorite things about this group.  There is no pretense, or gimmick.  Just the attempt to convey ideas and feelings through words and music.

Shooting in tiny venues is always tricky, but it also forces you to be more creative.  No, you don't have the best sight angles. No, they never put the drum kit on a riser, so it's almost impossible to get clean shots of drummer over the rest of the band (sorry Casey).  Yes, you have to work around the crowd.  No, you will NEVER have good light.  Yes, the subjects are always moving.  But at the same time, I love it, as you get these unexpected little moments of emotion that you will never see in a more organized setting.