Andrew Wheeler compares motorcycle racing to ballet.
“It’s like dancing on a knife edge at higher speeds,” he says. “You can relate to their form, on a human level.”
This is what inspires him to photograph the sport: being able to connect with the human form through his camera lens. Since 2005, Wheeler has spent time wandering tracks in search of story-telling photos that show off the human form pushing its limits. He’s one of the few U.S.-based photographers who cover all of the 18 international Moto Grand Prix World Championship, the top tier of professional motorcycle racing.
He also rides bikes for fun, which allows him to notice and understand little nuances in the riders when he shoots—like calculations that dictate turning radii, gas use and tire levels.
“These guys are mathematicians,” Wheeler says. “They are able to evaluate so much information in such a short period of time while they’re riding.”
After a while, he explains, an attentive eye starts to notice what a rider is doing with their hands, or their body language when they lean into a turn or move their body to change the momentum of the bike. He translates this geometry into his work.
“I want people to climb inside the photos,” he says. “I want them find something in it and come back for a second look.”
Matthew Miles has been back for lots of looks. He is the managing editor of Cycle World magazine and the first person to publish Wheeler’s photos after he shot winter testing for the American Motorcycle Association (AMA) Super Bike road racers at Laguna Seca.
“He has a completely different vision [for photos],” says Miles. “He’s not just photographing a motorcycle. He comes away with something different.”
Miles explains how Wheeler shoots wider than most shooters to incorporate the entire scene, which editors like for full page layouts.
“There are very few photographers that I have worked with that turn around that quality of work he produces,” says Miles. “His perspective on photography is completely different and that’s apparent in his work.”
From 2005 to 2008, Wheeler spent most races shooting AMA for Cycle World and shot the occasional Moto GP and World Super Bikes race for clients like Yamaha USA and Road Racer X.
Wheeler has a special fondness for Laguna, his home track (he currently resides in Capitola with his wife, Emily). He likes the compact, flowing hills and making photos with the vast, green landscapes.
Wheeler is also known as quite a character around the media center.
“He is jovial and never not smiling,” says fellow GP photographer Andrew Northcott, who shoots for Honda. “And he is a bloody good cook as well.”
Apparently Wheeler’s got the right ingredients both at the track and in the kitchen.
His shooting style and attentiveness to detail proved a powerful combination during the U.S. Grand Prix at Laguna Seca where race fans remember Italian superstar Valentino Rossi making a ballsy pass in front of rival Casey Stoner on the steep, inside of the turn 8 “Corkscrew.” Wheeler caught 13 perfectly sharp images from top of the turn to the bottom.
“At the time, I had no idea what I had,” says Wheeler. “I like shooting the Corkscrew horizontally, while most people shoot it very close-in and vertically.”
The pass was revisited this season as Rossi took out Stoner on turn 1 during a very wet race in Jerez, Spain. Rossi took a last-minute braking line and slid out, catching Stoner’s front wheel and wrecking both riders. Track marshalls helped Rossi get his bike restarted and he rejoined the race. Stoner did not finish and, like in the Laguna race, complained about favoritism towards Rossi.
The Australian Stoner may have the last laugh though. Since Jerez, Rossi has only reach the podium once on his Ducati, while Stoner, now racing for the factory Honda team, took home three consecutive victories and has only been off the podium once in this season’s nine races. He has 168 points.
Last year’s MotoGP champion, Jorge Lorenzo, is in second, down by 15 with 153 points. Stoner’s teammate, Andrea Dovizioso is third, with Rossi, now riding for the Italian factory Ducati team in fourth. American riders Nicky Hayden, Ben Spies and Colin Edwards are in sixth, seventh and ninth respectively.
View Andrew Wheeler’s work at www.automotophoto.com. The 2011 Red Bull U.S. Moto Grand Prix runs Fri, July 22 through Sun, July 24. Friday/7:00am-7:00pm; Saturday/8:00am-6:00pm; Sunday/8:00am-6:00pm. Moto Grand Prix races Sunday, 2pm. $50/general admission, Sunday; $40/general admission, Saturday; $30/general admission, Friday; $80/general admission, 3-day; $70/general admission, 2-day (Saturday and Sunday). 1-800-327-7322 or www.mazdaraceway.com.