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Fox Sports Puts New Tech to the Test for Daytona 500

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.—The sheer number of possibilities today’s technology puts on the table for television production—especially high-profile ones where there is no dearth of money or people—makes it imperative that the way technology is applied enhances storytelling rather than getting in the way, says Michael Davies, senior vice president of field operations at Fox Sports.

“We are in a technological era where we are sort of in a dream—if you can dream it, you can do it,” says Davies, who this weekend will do his 13th Daytona 500 production. “That creates a lot of opportunities, but it can be a bit of slippery slope.”

This year’s Daytona 500 (Sunday, Feb. 17, starting at 2 p.m. EST on Fox and also livestreamed on the Fox Sports Go app) is a case in point. While Fox Sports will deploy all of the technology normally associated with the production of such a high-profile race, it also aims to enhance coverage with several tech goodies making their Daytona debut, including the high-speed Fox Sports Rail Cam, a body jib, enhanced data analytics and a new 3D virtual studio.

Pre-race, the challenge for Davies and Fox Sports producers and directors is separating the wheat from the chaff when considering technology.

“There certainly are many technologies out there that might seem cool on the surface, but in terms of an actual tool for what the producers and directors actually use and then finally what winds up on the screen, it’s a little bit more of a vetting process,” he says.

“A pretty good way to start [in determining what tech will enhance storytelling] is something called ‘the bar test,’” Davies explains. “The bar test is simply can a viewer understand what we are doing from a technology standpoint while sitting in a bar. And the other thing we determine is whether a technology will show the audience things they just otherwise can’t see.”

The rail cam, which Fox Sports first used at the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., and Charlotte Motor Speedway in Charlotte, N.C., is a good example of the tests.

“It’s often quite difficult to convey on television how fast the cars are going,” says Davies. But the rail cam, the work of robotic dolly specialist Mega Trax, provides a dynamic shot that does the trick.

Positioned behind the inside wall of Turn 2, the camera can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in about three seconds and reach speeds exceeding 90 mph along its 1,000-foot rail.

“Say the camera is going 80 mph and the cars coming out of that turn are going about 180 mph, the shot lets viewers see the foreground and background moving,” he explains.

Another approach is to go against traffic at 80 mph with the cars coming at the camera at 180 mph. “That’s a dynamic shot that looks great,” says Davies.

In terms of passing the tests, not only does the Fox Sports Rail Cam convey speed to the viewers, it also offers a solution for covering the backstretch. “One of the things we always struggle with is covering the backstretch in the most meaningful way,” says Davies.

“We’ll always get everything, but having a camera like this in a place where you don’t generally get a lot of good close-up shots is pretty cool, especially on the inside wall.”

The body jib, commercially branded the DigiBoom from Redrock Micro, is another new production element that passed the tests. At the Daytona 500, Fox Sports will position an operator wearing the body jib inside the pits to capture stabilized cameras shots.

“It’s like a Steadicam,” says Davies. “In fact, I have a Steadicam operator using it. But with this, you can get high—about 6 feet over [what’s being shot]. You can also go right down on the ground, which you can’t do with a Steadicam.”

The body jib and stabilized camera will be used to get a variety of shots providing a new perspective on the race, including shots of the pit boxes at eye-level with the crew chiefs looking on and shots over the wall showing cars coming at viewers as they go to their pit stalls, he says.

Yet another new production addition for this year’s race is a new touchscreen analysts in the booth will use to break down data in ways that have never before been seen in NASCAR, according to Fox Sports.

“The one great thing about NASCAR is you get more real-time data and real-time telemetry than any other sport,” says Davies.

At Daytona, Fox Sports will use loop data NASCAR captures at multiple point on the track to enable analysts to identify important race changes, such as when each driver is making up or losing positions. The touchscreen format will make it possible for Fox analysts to tell accurate stories about the race in near-real time.

The new 60-by-60-foot virtual studio Fox launched for the start of the 2019 NASCAR Cup series also will contribute mightily to the storytelling. The Charlotte, N.C.-based space enables 3D analysis of racetracks, cars and race shops, and will interact with live coverage of the Daytona 500. (Editor’s note: See “New NASCAR Studio Puts Fox Sports in VR, AR Driver Seat.”)

Of course, these new technologies are layered on a well-established complement of tested production technology, which includes seven main mobile production units, two satellite uplinks, 2MW of power independent of local sources, 12 production trucks, 20 manned cameras, three in-track Gopher Cameras, Super Slow Motion HD and 4K cameras, a 1,100-fps X-Mo camera at the start/finish line, 10 high-speed robotic cameras and 12 on-board in-car camera packages.

While Davies is a champion of the technology that will be used to produce the event, he is quick to acknowledge that it’s the people behind the production who ultimately are responsible for telling the best stories of the race.

“We were very lucky to have won a Sports Emmy for Technical Team Remote [in 2018],” says Davies. “What is different about this NASCAR crew is these men and women eat, breathe and sleep the sport. If you go there and start talking to people, it is like a living, breathing history of NASCAR among the people who work on the show.”

Phil Kurz

Phil Kurz is a contributing editor to TV Tech. He has written about TV and video technology for more than 30 years and served as editor of three leading industry magazines. He earned a Bachelor of Journalism and a Master’s Degree in Journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism.