On Track for Success: VCD Junior's Eye for Photography Takes Him Places

When he was 15, VCD junior Thomas Gruber signed up for Hudson High School's photography class because he thought it sounded fun. Little did he know at the time that this was one door opening that would change his whole life.

"There was one class project where I thought, 'Oh, I could be kind of good at this,' and it just went from there," Thomas recalled. "The teacher, Tim Naujoks, was a really big part of my life, inspiring me to take a serious look at photography."

Halfway through his sophomore year, though, Thomas' family moved to Columbus, but the seed had been planted. "I saved up my money and bought a camera and just kept going at it," Thomas said. "I would drive downtown to Columbus and walk around and take pictures of random things. I would also go to a lot of concerts."

That's where things started to get interesting. Thomas' photos of shows garnered some attention, leading to jobs with big name rappers and working with record labels like Grade A Productions. "In winter of 2022, I went on tour with DC the Don and met so many people. It opened up so many opportunities with promoters and others in the area," he said.

VCD student Thomas Gruber in an arena before set up

And doors kept opening for Thomas from there. "One artist flew me out to Los Angeles for a couple weeks of making content," Thomas said.  "I actually got to go to New York Fashion Week with him. I flew from Cleveland to LA to New York. It was a really good time."

While Thomas was making professional connections, his family was making personal ones. Thomas' sister had become engaged to Michael Ilavia, who works for Honda's IndyCar racing program. One weekend, Michael wanted to bring his future in-laws to a race to show them what he did. Thomas said, "He got us pit lane passes through one of the racers, Pato O’Ward, who he grew up racing go karts with. And Michael mentioned to Pato in passing, 'Oh, by the way, my fiancée’s brother takes pictures. He'll send them to you.'"

Thomas sent his photos to Pato, the 2018 Indy Lights Champion, McLaren Formula 1 Reserve Driver and five-time IndyCar race winner, who texted him back and asked, "What's your travel schedule next year?"

And just like that, yet another door opened for Thomas. "It was a chance to do something really cool," he thought, "something that I never even really knew existed." Two months later, Thomas found himself at Texas Motor Speedway starting off the racing season.

VCD student Thomas Gruber standing with IndyCar driver Pato O'Ward

"The Indy 500 was the coolest thing I have ever seen. I think it was something like 300,000 people all packed in filling grandstands. There are 33 cars on the grid for the 500. And when they do the whole 'drivers start your engines' thing, the roar of the crowd just drowns out the cars. It’s a really special moment you can’t describe with words.”

Thomas took photos at 12 IndyCar races his first year and is arranged to shoot the season this year. While touring, he will be working for Pato exclusively. The racing team, Arrow McLaren, have a photographer of their own, Alex Brisby, “Who is awesome. Everyone on the team is so welcoming, especially the whole media team."

When asked what's it like working for a major racing celebrity, Thomas smiles when he answers. "Pato, he's an awesome guy. He's so nice, fun, light-hearted, but when it's time to be serious and get in the car, he's a different guy. He's there to win."

So, what comes next for Thomas? At the end of last year's IndyCar season, Thomas worked with Formula 1 photographer and YouTuber, Kym Illman. “So, I got to shoot the F1 race down in Austin, Texas, and I got to shoot the inaugural Las Vegas race which was the highlight of my year probably. Just wild. I photographed so many celebrities there, Paris Hilton, Usain Bolt, Heidi Klum, Patrick Dempsey, and so many more.”

And like that, another door is opening.



Three Lessons Thomas Has Learned

  1. From my classes, I learned to know when I should be listening, knowing how to extract the best from a situation when you're still in it.
  2. You should always say yes to a big opportunity because you never know if the phone will ring again.
  3. Take lots of pictures. Just take a lot. I probably took like 500,000 photos before I ever got a dime for anything.



POSTED: Thursday, May 2, 2024 01:24 PM
Updated: Monday, May 13, 2024 12:11 PM