Skip to main content

NASCAR goes high-tech

Sports-technology firm Sportvision has signed a six-year deal to provide special graphics, visual effects and statistics to NASCAR for its racing coverage. A combination of GPS (Global Positioning System) satellite technology and ground-based sensors will track race cars in real time, and in-car electronics will report on gear position and engine RPMs to create a wealth of statistical information that can be incorporated into Internet and videogame applications as well as live broadcasts.

"We're tracking 43 cars moving at 200 mph, and we're able to completely reproduce a digital record," says Sportvision President Bill Squadron.

The system, called RACEf/x, is scheduled to make its debut at February's Daytona 500, which will be broadcast by FOX. The extent to which NASCAR rights-holders FOX, NBC and TBS will use it is yet to be determined, says Squadron. But chances are good that FOX will use the system, considering that Sportvision was founded by former FOX executives, FOX owns a small equity stake in the company, and FOX and FOX Sports Net currently use Sportvision's 1st & Ten virtual first-down-line system in their coverage of pro and college football.

Some aspects of RACEf/x, in fact, trace their origin to the hockey-puck tracking system that Sportvision Chief Technology Officer Stan Honey created while at FOX. Like that system, which added a glowing effect to hockey pucks, RACEf/x can highlight individual stock cars on a NASCAR oval with any sort of video overlay, whether a glow or a graphic with statistical information on car performance and lap position.

The system also uses digital mapping technology that Honey developed while at Etak, a vehicle-navigation firm that he founded in the '80s. Sportvision makes a precise digital map of a race track, such as Daytona. Then each race car is outfitted with position sensors that incorporate GPS and telemetry data from several "base stations" located around the track. That telemetry data is relayed to Sportvision's 60-foot control truck, where it is assimilated and overlaid on the precise map. The result is a real-time system that can accurately track cars to within a few centimeters.

The sensors that track performance data like engine RPMs and braking were developed by the UK's Pi Research, the leading company in race-car electronics. They are independent of driver gauges; RPMs are measured by a sensor on the engine, not the tachometer, Honey explains.

Any broadcast effect will take place in the network's production console, he adds, not the Sportvision truck. Sportvision will pump the RACEf/x data to the television network, Web sites or other content partners.

The system's real value, says Squadron, is that the data it generates can easily be repurposed into a Web application or game environment. Possibilities include tracking a live race on the Web, creating a real-time video game that can put a player in the driver's seat at a live Daytona 500, or sending extensive wireless data to fans trackside.