NASCAR Gets CAMCAT; Sound Tries To Follow

If NASCAR coverage on Fox Sports sounds familiar this season, it’s because the shows’ audio has reached a point where refinements come in minuscule increments: a shotgun microphone tilted a bit more acutely here, a tad more low end on the speed-shot camera mics there. Fox Sports’ crews have raised track sound to a kind of sonic feng shui: microphones grouped just so, such as the pair of DPA 4007 omni mics around an Audix D3 hypercardioid dynamic to pick up the nuances of the speed shots while handling brutal SPL of upwards of 142 dB.

Then the optical folks go and change the game, and audio has to respond.

This year, viewers get to see perspectives from the Gyro-Cam, a gyro-stabilized, in-car camera that is mounted in the center of the cockpit and rotates as cars enter extreme 31-degree banked turns, keeping its view level with the horizon at all times; and from the 4K Super Zoom camera, which produces pictures with five times the resolution of normal HD cameras and captures the action at 300 frames per second.

But perhaps the coolest new view is through the CAMCAT, an advanced, two-point flying-camera system developed in Austria that skies over the tri-oval along pit road. Previously used to cover F1 and certain Olympic events, the camera is suspended up to 140 ft. in the air and dips to 45 ft. above the track at its midpoint. The camera can speed up to 85 miles per hour along a 2,900-ft. cable. It made its NASCAR debut on Fox Sports at Daytona in February.

Fox Sports consultant and Senior Mixer Fred Aldous reports that the visual effect is stunning, but, he adds, trying to get audio onboard it was a challenge. “First, there was a weight-and-balance issue: it was hard to find the right types of microphones and where to place them that would work on a sled that’s going 90 miles an hour over a racetrack,” he explains. “Then, once we got them placed, we found that there was an enormous amount of noise from the mechanical operation of the camera system and its sled, and from the wind noise that you get at that kind of speed. It’s a tough environment for audio. I mean, you wouldn’t want to use this thing on a golf show.”

Ultimately, he says, the audio folks conceded to physics and used synchronous live audio from microphones already in place along pit row between Turns 4 and 1 to provide the sound for the CAMCAT.

But the fact that they put that kind of effort into trying to get microphones aboard the sled itself reflects what Aldous says is a natively aggressive philosophy about broadcast audio at Fox Sports: “We’d never seen anything like the CAMCAT before so, naturally, we wanted to put a microphone on it. We want to put a microphone on everything; that’s just how we are.”

That approach will likely be fundamental to Fox’s new Fox Sports 1 network, scheduled to launch in August. Fox is converting its Speed channel, a motorsports-centric network with 81 million subscribers, into FS1; another niche channel, Fuel, will become FS2.

Aldous says former Fox Sports Chairman David Hill, who will run the new sports network, places a high premium on audio as key differentiator for broadcast sports.

“That’s saying a lot, because Fox has always made audio a priority for sports,” says Aldous, who will work for FS1 as an audio consultant while continuing as senior mixer for Fox Sports’ NASCAR and NFL broadcasts. “He’s a great advocate for audio.”