Editor's Blog: In Memoriam - Andrew Wheeler

On Thursday, January 5th, Andrew Wheeler, motorcycle racing photographer and the man behind automotophoto, was found dead at his home. Andrew's body was discovered by his friend Rachel Wilken, who reported his death on her Instagram page. Andrew was 60 years old, and although details are still unclear at the moment, he appears to have died from the consequences of a stroke he suffered at the last race he worked at, the Japanese grand prix at Motegi, in October. Andrew had been in poor health for some time.

I knew Andrew well. An incredibly talented photographer, he had been among the first friends I made in the MotoGP paddock when I arrived there in 2009.

His life revolved around three things: his wife Emily, good food, and motorcycles, in that order. Born in Bath, in the west of England, he had grown up the son of an RAF engineer. He had grown up with a love of bikes, and ridden all over Europe on a BMW /7 series as a young adult. He kept riding even after a horrific crash in which he was hit by a drunken driver who crossed the road.

He met the love of his life in 1988, when a young American girl called Emily turned up in Bath. Andrew knew immediately that this was the woman he wanted to spend the rest of his life with, and, as he told it, set about wooing her in the most awkward and gauche way possible.

It worked though, and two years later they were married. In September 1990, he threw a few possessions into a suitcase and stepped onto a plane to California. After several professional meanders, through software and marketing, he finally turned his photography hobby into a career.

It started with horses. With so many stables around Capitola, where Emily and Andrew had moved, he quickly made a name for himself shooting horse portraits, something which took him to the Middle East, to shoot Arabian thoroughbreds. But a sense of dissatisfaction still lingered, and one day Emily asked, "Why don't you start shooting motorcycles?"

After brief forays into car racing, including F1, Andrew became a regular at AMA races. His cheerful persona and friendly nature, allied to a canny ability to market and sell his photos, saw him quickly establish himself in that paddock. Entering at the peak of the Mladin-Spies era, he started working for Yamaha USA, as well as a host of racing publications.

When Ben Spies moved to WorldSBK, Andrew moved with him, to shoot for Yamaha. After Spies won the World Superbike title at the first attempt in 2009, and moved to the Tech3 Yamaha team the following season, Andrew followed. He would remain in the MotoGP paddock until the pandemic hit, and Dorna restricted the number of photographers to the absolute minimum. After that, he would attend only a couple of MotoGP races before his death.

What kept Andrew in the paddock was his incredible talent. His photos were always beautifully framed, and he had a knack for capturing the light, for finding contrast between the bright lights and deep shade around a motorcycle. But he also understood racing, as was evident to anyone who spent time discussing the sport with him.

That understanding, allied with an incredible attention to detail, gave him something like a sixth sense for where magical moments were about to happen. That sixth sense put him at the Corkscrew during the 2008 MotoGP race, where one of the fiercest battles in the history of the sport reached its climax, with Valentino Rossi's iconic pass on Casey Stoner. That moment would be a turning point in the 2008 MotoGP season, when Rossi seized the initiative and turned the tide again, going on to win the title.

As if he knew it would happen, Andrew was the only professional photographer at that corner at that point in the race, and caught the entire moment on film. His photo sequence became as iconic as the pass itself, the canonical record of one of the most important races in grand prix history.

I could try to capture what made his photos so good, but it is a much better use of your time to look at them, and see the intensity for yourself.

Andrew's talent as a photographer was rooted in his uniqueness as an individual. A lot of people like to claim they are unique, yet fall meekly into line. Andrew was who he was, with no desire to fall into neat categories. That individuality made him memorable. Everyone knew who he was, more for the size of his personality than the size of his frame. He was famously warm, friendly, and welcoming, and generously lending a helping hand to newcomers such as myself. Where some photographers jealously guarded their secrets, Andrew was all too willing to share.

Unique individuals have their quirks. That is what makes them unique. And not all of those quirks are universally endearing. Andrew was as remarkable for his odd habits as he was for his photographs. He had a knack for falling asleep sitting bolt upright, his chin on his chest and his eyes closed. It was a running gag among those who knew him that he would brag how he never suffered from jet lag, yet would fall asleep at his laptop at the strangest times.

He was an accomplished cook, and when I shared a house with him, I got to enjoy his culinary talent. He was as serious about cooking as he was about photography, carrying a set of chef's knives with him when he traveled. One year in Mugello he even bought a pizza stone, and carried that with him when he traveled to Italy.

Again, as good as his cooking was, it was produced in the most Andrew way possible. First, a mount of shopping would be procured. Then, when he arrived at the apartment where he was staying, he would get his laptop out to edit photos, and sit down with a drink. Then he would move to the kitchen, and start food prep. Then back to the laptop, and another drink.

It was usually at this stage that he would fall asleep sitting up again, then 30 minutes later repair to the kitchen again to move to the next stage of the cooking. This pattern would repeat a couple more times until eventually, usually around 11pm, when we had almost given up on eating, dinner would be served. It would be magnificent.

Andrew's warmth was also his weakness. Emily's death in 2014 hit him terribly hard. His whole life had revolved around his wife, and the tenderness with which he spoke of her was genuinely touching. The two of them together were fun, Emily's sharp wit a fine balance to Andrew's warmth.

Without Emily, Andrew lost his bearings. Unused to being alone, he reached out for companionship. That did not always work out well for him, which is how he ended up leaving Capitola and moving to Austin. An ill-conceived relationship saw him lose half his house, and so he moved to Texas. Being near the Circuit of The Americas also gave him a better chance to earn a living doing what he loved, taking photos of motorcycles.

That move would prove fateful. A spider bite caused Andrew massive health problems, including a bout of paralysis in his leg. Those issues further exacerbated previous problems, Andrew having already been hospitalized several years earlier for a pulmonary embolism. Andrew's talent as a cook meant he also loved his food, and the combination of food, drink, and ill health proved a poor one.

Ill health left him often frustrated. Andrew wanted to get back to work, to get to more races and take more photos. But the aftermath of the spider bite made it very difficult to walk and to travel, so picking up where he left off after the pandemic was very hard. After Austin he traveled to Motegi, another race he loved, because of the culture and the food of Japan.

There, he suffered a minor stroke, which left him with even more mobility issues. He had planned to come to the final race of 2022 in Valencia, but he was unable to travel. He was busy lining up work for 2023, and a full-time return to shooting races. It was not to be.

Andrew may be gone, but he will not be forgotten. Because of his immense talent as a photographer. Because of his warmth and friendliness. Because of his passion, for racing, for food, for travel. Because of his love for his wife Emily. And yes, because of the quirks and idiosyncrasies that made him the unique and memorable person he was.

We do not truly die when our hearts stop beating and our bodies fail us. We live on in the memories of those who knew us and loved us. Andrew Wheeler will live on for a long time.

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Comments

Great commemorative piece here David, thanks. I'm sad but there is also warmth. Likely his.

Warmest wishes to Andrew, family, friends and caring community. Thanks for the great pictures! 

Beautiful piece of writing that gives a warm insight in to someone I never knew. One hopes he now rests in peace in Emily’s arms.

Thank you.  Beautifully written and a sensitive and amusing profile of the man.  Andrew would be very grateful and very proud.

and strength for his family and friends in this time of loss. What a wonderful and warm tribute to a life lived! Thanks David 

Despite never having met in person, Andrew was a friend of mine. We met in racing forums 20-25 years ago and stayed in contact as we both lost our wives around the same time. We messaged each other over Christmas, commiserating about our losses and how lonely the holiday season is now. I was stunned to hear of his death. Thank you for remembering him in such a nice light - he was a good guy.

 

Thanks for that David. Also thanks for including his photographs in the link you provided. I see from that he was a big time fan of the riders. Particularly SuperSic. I am surprised he left Portola. He obviously loved the area, not only for being close to Laguna Seca, but the beauty of the central California coast and its quaint towns. Such great motorcycling there too! Austin had to be a big change. RIP Andrew Wheeler.

What an interesting and heartfelt obituary. I must say that the photos were  distinctive too - very defined contrasts. Thanks for sharing your friendship with such generosity.

I didn't have the luck of knowing him personally, but I followed him on Twitter and the memories I have are of a big heartful person, always with a kind word and feelings. A true gentleman.

Someone passionate about his food and photography, but a good human.

Your words are felt and corroborate my feelings.

I just wish to keep seeing his work. I do appreciate his photographs and I was wishing to see many more.

Thank you, David!

….just a few days before he died he had posted on Facebook how much better he was feeling 😢

Yet, not all that uncommon. One may experience lightness of being just before their body passes, especially after a long period of physical suffering and/or pain. At least he had some respite before he died. 

Another great article, David. Thank you.

You were the first person I thought of when hearing of Andrews passing David.  It has been clear from your years of writing that you had respect and admiration for him.  Not as a colleague but as a friend.  I’m sorry for your personal loss and the loss to broader motorcycle enthusiasts who enjoyed his work.