Mario Andretti's Indycar at Honda Dealer's Show

The Start of Something New: Part 1

Las Vegas was hot.  The sun beat down on my rental van as I pulled in front of the Mandalay Bay convention center glass doors.  I had about 400 lbs of equipment in the back of the SUV, and the hike from the door, past the aquarium, up the little grade, to either elevator or escalator — and finally ball room —  was long and daunting.  I was already sweating.  Las Vegas was HOT.

There was a woman  waiting by the door.  She had two guys with her, and a flat bed cart, and was clearly on the lookout for someone.  Me?

My heart skipped a beat.  Could it be my client?  Was the cart for me? And the two guys? My mind was full of question marks. And hope.

I climbed down from the van, raised up and arched my eyebrows: “Ashley?”

“Hi, Mike,” she said, sticking out her hand, “it’s so good to finally meet you.”

With that, the two guys unloaded all the equipment, put it on the flat bed cart, and led the way through the cavernous convention center.  All I had to do was wheel my camera bag behind me, as artificially cooled air evaporated the sweat soaking my shirt.  I felt  like Annie Leibovitz must have felt traipsing through Buckingham Palace on her way to photograph the Queen.

It may not seem like a big deal that a client met me at the door, complete with two guys and a cart, to help unload equipment and truck it to the ballroom.  But it was.  Let’s just say this: it happens so seldom that, NINE YEARS LATER, I recall it like it was yesterday.  Of the 100 or so days of shooting in a normal year, almost no clients ask to help cart equipment to the shooting location.  (It’s like when you ask a friend to help you move.  Politely, they always have other things to do.)  Which I totally understand.  It’s one reason they hire me.  It’s my job to get everything set up, and that includes lugging it to the shooting location.  And,  I’m a work horse.  I can traipse equipment across the miles without breaking a sweat.  It’s a talent.  It’s also the hardest part of my job.

But not this time.  It wasn’t going to be the hardest part of this job, that was for sure.

Some background.  I was hired to set up a photo experience with Mario Andretti’s two seat Indycar for a Honda Dealer’s Conference.  The car was set up in front of a huge background that looked roughly like a race track: participants would climb into the back seat, and I’d snapped their photo.  The photo would print on our high speed printers, and then they could email, text, or post to Facebook the photo marketing image from a couple of iPads set up in back of me.  The entire process, start to finish, would only take a few minutes.  We were expecting a couple of hundred people to move through the photo area during a few hours of open exhibit floor.

Mario Andretti's Indycar at Honda Dealer's Show
Two participants (the guy in the front seat would become legendary later) at our Honda Dealer Show’s 2012 Mario Andretti Honda Racing Experience.

The shoot was the next day.  After I set up the lights, internet, laptop, camera and iPads, I tested everything.  It ran like clockwork.

No worries.  And I always worry.  I worry about internet, or rather, not having any available. Especially 9 years ago.  We’re talking 3G.  I worry about lighting.  I worry about my assistant not showing up.  I worry about intranet — the private linkups between my camera, laptop and iPads that make everything work.   I worry about everything.  To keep worry at bay, I carry two of almost everything.  Two cameras.  Two laptops.  Three iPads.  There’s backup for backups.  It helps me sleep.

Which, in Las Vegas, I find hard to do.  That first morning, I always wake up at 4 am.


I used to try to go back to sleep, but now I just get up.  That’s why I was back in the Ballroom at Mandalay Bay about 7 am the next morning, even though the photo experience wasn’t due to start until 11 am.  I was alone.  Ballrooms are creepy when you are in them by yourself.

But it’s also peaceful, and I’ve gotten in the habit of getting there super early, resetting everything, re-testing, and then disappearing until it’s time to work.  That’s when I eat breakfast.  Or suck down coffee numbers four and five.  Or call home.  I like a bunch of restaurants at Mandalay Bay.  When I was there for my first visit, with my dad, on one of my first shoots ever, we had Belgium waffles at a cafe just off the casino floor.  They were DELICIOUS.  Fresh berries and whipped cream dribbled down the side of the extra puffy waffle.  I could taste them.  Lots of warm maple syrup- I love real maple syrup.  One of my weird talents in life is being able to vividly recall meals eaten years ago in excruciating detail.  I’d eaten the waffles with my dad in early 2003.  So about 18 years ago from today, as I write this, and about 9 years before that Honda shoot.  But I can recall those waffles like I’d eaten them this morning for breakfast.  I remember the red raspberries, and the syrup, and the fresh blackberries and even the paper table cloth that stuck to the orange juice glass when syrup leaked from the plate.  But I swear it’s that love of eating out- of visiting new hotels and resorts, that pushed me into our business and, basically, travelling for a living.  And, it’s a talent that lets me remember where to eat when I return to a spot years later.  That morning, after setup, it would be warm waffle time on paper table cloths with fresh orange juice.  And powdered sugar.  Oh, the powdered sugar dusted on top like Vermont snow.  My stomach growled.

First thing I always do for setup is turn on my laptop.  It can take forever to boot, download software for that day’s shoot, and connect to the intranet.  So I always flick it on first, letting it work while I set up the rest of the equipment.

I pushed the power button, and started setting up the umbrellas.  A minute or so later, I checked the laptop’s progress.

The screen remained blank.  No boot up welcome.  No worry wheel. No welcome music.  No…nothing.  Just… blank.

I hit the power button again.  I jiggled the plug, checked the extension cords.  Now it was 7:30 am.

Blank.  Not even a power light.  Not a whirl of a fan.  Not a hum as the hard drive spun up.   Nothing.  Dead quiet.  A cadaver of a computer.

My heart pounded.

I had 2.5 hours before the first participant was due to climb in the car and a laptop that was toast.  Toast that was as close to food as I’d get that morning.  There would be no breakfast waffles, there would be no coffee and there would be no fresh squeezed  orange juice.  There would be no powdered sugar!  I had 2.5 hours to figure out what to do.

….To Be Continued.