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ESPN Brings Full-time HD to NASCAR

(click thumbnail)Kurt Busch, winner of the Pennsylvania 500LONG POND, PA.
As dawn breaks over the Pennsylvania countryside, traffic begins to form on the road to Pocono Raceway. Racing fans in cars, RVs and everything in between slowly inch their way to the racetrack parking lots in anticipation of another weekend of speed, noise and partying.

This is NASCAR 2007.

Every year, from February to November, there are enough racing fans to fill the stands at any NASCAR event—whether it’s the Nextel Cup or Busch Series—to create a miniature city. In fact, when Pocono Raceway—which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year—hosts its two NASCAR events, the Pocono 500 in June and the Pennsylvania 500 in August, it becomes the third largest community in the state, attracting more than 120,000 fans.


(click thumbnail)HD in-car cameras are installed in many of the carsNASCAR has become the fastest growing sport in the United States and overall, is the second most popular professional sport after pro football. While a typical race will draw more than a sizeable number of fans at the local track, millions more are watching it at home on their TV, listening on the radio, online at their computer or even on their cell phones.

Despite the increasing number of platforms on which racing fans can get their fix, nothing brings the excitement of trackside better than high definition television. And as one of only three networks broadcasting NASCAR, ESPN is dedicating an enormous amount of promotional and technological innovations to retain fans and attract new ones.

This year marked a sort of homecoming for the cable sports giant. When ESPN launched in 1981, NASCAR racing was one of the more popular events on the fledgling network. For 19 years until 2000, ESPN advanced its coverage of NASCAR with the use of in-car cameras and other alternative camera angles. In 1981, the network used six cameras and three announcers. This year, ESPN/ESPN2 and ABC are covering NASCAR using an average of 65 cameras (84 cameras were used when NASCAR made its debut at the “Brickyard” at the Indy 500 race track in July), and almost a dozen announcers covering all NASCAR-related programming. Of the approximately 65 hi-def cameras, 20 are manned with the rest robotic or onboard cameras, including bumpercams, crewcams, pit overhead cams, a grasscam, wallcam, blimps, multiple robotic cameras at various points around the tracks and the industry’s first hi-def in-car cameras.

“The is the first year that everything has gone full HD,” said Jamie Shiftan, NASCAR Busch Series producer. “There’s nothing cooler than on-board HD.”

(click thumbnail)Draft Tracks illustrates the effects of air on a car’s speedDRAFT TRACK

A new feature, called “Draft Track” gives viewers a high-tech analysis of how air affects racecars on the track.

Developed in collaboration with Sportvision, Draft Track allows viewers to see air flowing over and behind race cars as they speed around the track, where there is one car of a multi-car pack on the screen. The Draft Track airflow visualization changes as the cars, in relation with each other, change position in real time on the racetrack, including passing, racing side by side or when cars are lined up nose to tail. The new effect, which was launched during the July telecast of the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard in Indianapolis, will initially be used on replays.

“[Draft Track] is a combination of wind tunnel testing, fluid dynamics, a lot of science and math,” said Neil Goldberg, ESPN senior motorsports producer.

ESPN is also using Sportvision’s satellite technology to create on-screen “pointers” to designate specific cars within a pack, helping viewers distinguish their favorite driver’s car, lead-lap cars and produces telemetry from the race cars to show speeds, braking and other information to viewers.

(click thumbnail)Inside master control in one of four ESPN NASCAR trucksMOBILE UNITS

ESPN has deployed four state of the art mobile units to cover NASCAR. Master Control is outfitted with 19 42-inch plasmas, and storage and playback are handled by EVS servers. A mobile pit studio is outfitted with LED lighting, three robotic HD cameras and a contoured video display fronting the anchor desk.

The mobile units include a radio room in which radio transmissions of all 43 teams in NASCAR races can be recorded during the races, allowing producers to be able to lift specific transmissions of any driver or team at any time. The concept adds to the image of NASCAR as a fan-accessible sport offering up close and personal attention to its stars.

“NASCAR allows us to get close to the drivers,” Shiftan said. “You don’t get that in most any other sport.”

Despite the intense loyalty of long-time NASCAR fans, ESPN is committed to adding new fans that may be unfamiliar with racing. To that end, the network has established a NASCAR “Tech Center” to help new (and old) fans get a mechanics-view tutorial in the intricate and state-of-the-art technology in a typical race car.

Sponsored in collaboration with EchoStar’s Dish network, the Tech Center includes an enclosed studio featuring a cutaway of a Chevrolet Car of Tomorrow that is racing in selected NASCAR Cup events this season and will be used in all races starting in 2008. The room also includes displays of other race car elements such as engines, transmissions and shock absorbers. At certain breaks during race coverage ESPN cuts in with segments hosted by Tim Brewer, a two-time NASCAR champion crew chief, as well as other ESPN analysts to help viewers better understand the technical and mechanical aspects of NASCAR racing.

But despite all the bells and whistles, ESPN producers broadcasting NASCAR events emphasize the story-telling philosophy behind their coverage.

“We’re surrounded by great technology,” Goldberg said. “We try to enhance the viewer’s experience in learning about the sport and understanding what we’re talking about each and every time we go out there.”

Tom has covered the broadcast technology market for the past 25 years, including three years handling member communications for the National Association of Broadcasters followed by a year as editor of Video Technology News and DTV Business executive newsletters for Phillips Publishing. In 1999 he launched for internet B2B portal Verticalnet. He is also a charter member of the CTA's Academy of Digital TV Pioneers. Since 2001, he has been editor-in-chief of TV Tech (, the leading source of news and information on broadcast and related media technology and is a frequent contributor and moderator to the brand’s Tech Leadership events.