It’s hard to wrap your mind around the sheer enormity of the Ford Michigan Proving Grounds in Romeo, Michigan, and that makes it a veritable photographer’s paradise. For a previous issue of My Ford magazine, photojournalist Bridget Barrett got a sense of just how gigantic the 3,880-acre test facility is when she photographed Matt Konarski, who has been a high-performance driver for Ford for the past 23 years.
“There are just a plethora of courses in Romeo,” Bridget says.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the facility in Romeo is that it’s a complex ecosystem, not only of drivers, engineers and machines, but of wildlife as well. Coyotes, deer, turkeys and fish all can be found within the confines of the track, and Ford employees are allowed to hunt there on occasion because too many animals can cause hazards for drivers.
Shooting photos on a course the size of the one in Romeo certainly has its challenges, but for Bridget, the experience is actually more relaxing than some of the time she’s spent at the smaller Ford Dearborn Development Center. “Because there’s limited space elsewhere, you can’t play as much,” Bridget says. “You don’t always have the luxury of waiting for a certain light because you can’t be on the track for five hours straight.”
Because the proving grounds are so vast, some areas aren’t constantly in use, offering a little more leeway to wait for the perfect environmental circumstances. For photographers like Bridget, the quality of the environment – light, landscape, precipitation – is essential. And on this particular story, it made the game a little more interesting than usual.
“It started out as a pretty dreary day,” Bridget says. “Then it turned into a drizzle, which turned into a downpour and almost killed the shoot.”
But the adventure doesn’t begin until the plans go awry, and the rain break gave Bridget time to explore the part of the story that always intrigues her most: the human element. One of the angles that made this story so interesting was not just that Matt regularly pushes Ford cars and trucks to the limit, but also the fact that long ago his family used to own the dairy land that would become the Ford Michigan Proving Grounds. Bridget, Matt and his dad (also a Ford employee, just like more than 10 of their relatives) tracked down the century-old family home, which had been moved off the property and had new owners.
“Matt knocked on the front door because he wanted to get their permission to take pictures in the front yard,” Bridget says. “It turned out that the people who lived there had been researching the house, and they invited us in. And Matt walks in and says, ‘My god, it still smells like my grandmother.’ But that’s why we do this stuff: Because you want to meet interesting people and learn their stories. Finding the human element of the car – that’s what motivates me.”