Fox Sports Gophercam brings roadkill view to Daytona 500, 2008 NASCAR coverage

By Ken Kerschbaumer

Fox Sports is celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Daytona 500 with a new HD camera angle that sounds like something out of Caddyshack but would make NASCAR founder Bill France proud: Gophercam. The specialty camera, based around Sony one-third-inch CMOS chip imaging technology, a DPA microphone and built by Inertia Unlimited, will be placed within the pavement of the track on the apex of each turn and give viewers a gopher’s view of oncoming NASCAR race cars zipping overhead at upwards of 200 mph. “No gophers were harmed,” jokes David Hill, Fox Sports CEO, “and this is the most compelling shot I have ever seen in the history of sports. It reinforces the speed and precision at which the sport is raced.”

Michael Davies, Fox Sports director of engineering, says the idea for Gophercam was born last season by NASCAR on Fox Director Artie Kempner. Fox trialed an SD version of the camera in Texas, Charlotte and Delaware and showed video of the coverage to Hill. “He decided almost immediately that he wanted to have four of them at every track,” says Davies.

The cameras, designed closely with NASCAR Media Group, are nearly flush with the track and less obtrusive than a lane reflector on a highway. The discrete footprint ensures the camera does not endanger drivers while also minimizing potential damage to the camera that results from being run over thousands of times by more than 40 cars traveling great speeds.

Jeff Silverman, owner of Inertia Unlimited who designed the camera, knew the system would need to be HD to meet Fox broadcast criteria. The problem last year was that there was not an HD solution as HD POV cameras had camera control units. In addition, they were all multicore, making it impossible to get signals off the track due to distance constraints. But in the NASCAR off-season he found an imager by Sony that would do the trick. With some heavy modifications that included building a circuit board to output component HD he was able to build a small 1080i/720p switchable camera that could fit into a cylinder that is four inches in diameter and about four inches tall. Given the go-ahead by NASCAR to proceed with the project he turned around fully operational units in about a month.

The cameras have already been installed in tracks in California, Las Vegas and Daytona. Each camera requires a four-inch core to be drilled into the track and a cylinder to be placed within the core. The camera is then dropped into the cylinder and connected via a 15-pin connector by seven wires that are stacked on top of each other in a one-eighth inch channel that runs to an AJA box that converts the component signal to HD SDI. A Telecast Fiber HD POV link then muxes audio, data, and video into two strands of fiber that run back to the compound to another Telecast box.

One innovation in the camera system is the use of a prism to minimize the camera’s above-surface footprint. With the prism only the custom-designed lens is above the surface (and within a metal plate). Images are then passed through the prism and to the camera but, because of the prism, images are reversed. An Ensemble Designs frame synchronizer flips images back to normal. A Bradley Engineering-designed remote control panel controls gain and color.

“The challenge for us in the TV industry is to capture the sights and sounds of NASCAR,” says Michael Waltrip, NASCAR on Fox analyst. “This isn’t a gimmick or a gadget but a way for the guy at home to say ‘I get it, NASCAR is exciting.’”

Gophercam is the big new feature for viewers but for Fox Sports the big accomplishment was using the same production trucks back to back on arguably the two biggest televised sporting events: the Super Bowl and the Daytona 500.

“What we accomplished last year in two weeks we had to do in two-and-a-half days,” says Davies. Before the ice in champagne buckets used by the New York Giants could even melt, Game Creek’s Fox units, used in Phoenix for Super Bowl XLII on Sunday, April 4, began the cross-country journey to Daytona so they could arrive by April 7.

While the Game Creek trucks traveled day and night across the country Nascar Media Group was completing all long-haul fiber runs and interconnects at the track. Once the trucks were onsite in Daytona they had to transition from NFL mode to NASCAR mode: loading in new elements, rebuilding the tape room, redoing audio. “Software files are used for some things but it did require some hardpatching and reconfiguring the layout of the video panels,” explains Davies.

Silverman also made the trip from the Super Bowl and quickly through himself into the down-and-dirty task of using a concrete saw and drill to install the cameras. The next steps will involve constant evaluation of where best to place the cameras on the track to satisfy viewer’s need for speed.

“We’re being conservative in the placement of the cameras on super speedways,” he adds. “This is a multi-year project and we’re proceeding with an abundance of caution. But on slower tracks we should be able to get more aggressive with the camera placement. At a track like Bristol these cameras will be outstanding.”

“This gives viewers a better sense of the banking and we’ll be taking it through the full tour,” adds Ed Goren, Fox Sports president.