Fox To Debut Hot Cameras at Daytona 500

The phrase “hot new thing” will take on a whole new meaning at this weekend’s Daytona 500. Fox Sports and Inertia Unlimited have teamed up with thermal-imaging company Flir to incorporate two HD, highly sensitive thermal-imaging cameras into Sunday’s broadcast. The partnership will make Sunday’s race the first time that HD thermal imagery has been used in a NASCAR broadcast, and the cameras are so new that their serial numbers are 1 and 2. To add even more excitement to the unknown, the cameras were developed for industrial use, not broadcast, and, when they arrived in Daytona, were missing many of the basics — including an eyepiece.

“When they built this version of the camera, these guys had no conception to use it on a broadcast show,” says Jeff Silverman, owner of Inertia Unlimited, who has been hounding Flir since he first brought SD thermal imaging to NASCAR several years ago. “The first time I saw this camera ever was two days ago, so I’ve had some things shipped in, and we’re fabricating some simple things here, such as a way to hook it to a tripod.”

The Thermal Story of Daytona
The thermal-imaging camera was originally developed for industrial use, to determine the heat radiating out of machinery. The camera can work in pitch-black conditions because it sees strictly in heat, but many such cameras output only to a computer, which would not be usable for broadcast applications. The Flir version, however, has a standard HD-SDI output, which allows Fox to integrate the camera output into its Daytona 500 broadcast in real time and tell the thermal story of the track.

“The way the drivers draft so close and so long causes some potential overheating of the tail car,” explains Michael Davies, VP of technical operations for Fox Sports. “We’re hoping to show some of that. What also should be visible is the groove of the track, where the cars are running, to see what kind of thermal story that is. We should also have some potentially interesting thermal images in the pit.”

The cameras can also show the temperatures of the drivers’ cockpits and the tires of each car, which has the potential to create some fascinating images.

“We are lucky enough to have a couple of thermal experts from Flir that are helping us to understand this technology,” Davies says. “Their knowledge and expertise in this area are truly helping to shape the product.”

From Factory to the Field
Just two days before the race, the production team is still determining where and how to use these cameras, but the latest plan is to use one as a hard camera near turn four and the other as an RF camera that can travel into the pit.

“That’s pretty off the wall, to come up with a camera that is not intended for any of this use and make it a handheld camera, put it on an RF link, and have someone troop around the pits and shoot at will,” Silverman says. “We’re definitely pushing the envelope on this, but everything we’ve done with it so far has looked great.”

The cameras have been tested during practices and Thursday’s Gatorade Duel qualifying races, and the technology has come together quickly.

“We’re learning on the fly,” Davies says. “We’ve got another two days of testing and education, so hopefully, when Sunday comes, we’ll know a good time to use it.”

Creating a Translation
The thermal images will be used only in replay situations, and Fox is working on a graphics package that will help explain to viewers what they are seeing. A color spectrum will explain that blue translates to cooler temperatures while red and white are hotter, and the on-air talent will help decipher the imagery as well.

“We’ve been showing the talent what we’re doing and taking their suggestions in terms of what might be interesting and where the cameras can be placed,” Davies says. “This isn’t the kind of thing that can be used all the time. We’re not going to put it in just for the sake of using it; we’re only going to put it in if it explains something.”

The biggest challenge of getting these industrial cameras broadcast-ready has been the constant need to add components, especially in an unforgiving environment like Daytona.

“If the camera was sitting here in the compound, it would be no big deal, but we’re trying to use it in the pits, where we can’t run wires,” Silverman explains. “We’re trying to have it handheld, so we need to figure out how to power it. We’re trying to have it used in ways that the manufacturers and technicians never intended it to be used, but we’re going to create something that’s extremely unique and offers a great insight into what may be a major story in Daytona: how these cars handle drafting and heat.”