There are so many sensations that fans miss out on when they watch a race on television. They don’t see just how dramatic elevation changes are, they don’t scrunch up their nose at the smell of cooked brakes, they don’t feel the waves of air dispersed around them as a pack of cars comes past them at 200 miles per hour.
And those are just the little details you get from sitting trackside. Imagine the feelings that the drivers experience that fans will never begin to know about.
“More people have jumped out of planes skydiving than have ever put themselves in a car and raced,” Andy Jeffers, owner of Sports & Entertainment Media, who coordinates placement and sales of in-car cameras for NASCAR, told ESPN.
With traditional stick-and-ball sports, the action is confined to a relatively small area. Unless you’re watching home runs land in McCovey Cove during a San Francisco Giants game, you can bet that most of the action will be contained within the arena.
In motorsports, though, racers are captured as they traverse several miles of racetrack at a time. There is a lot of ground for broadcasters to cover, which means filming from a distance and using wide angles. Those tactics deliver viewers all the action, but being at such a distance, they do so at the cost of conveying the speed drivers achieve.
“How do you show speed? That’s the hardest part in [broadcasting] any form of motorsport: showing speed,” Jeffers said. “It’s tough to go talk about a driver, ‘Man, what these guys and girls are doing, this is unreal! They’re on the edge the whole time!’ Really? The aerial [camera] is awesome because it shows so much, but it also can look like L.A. traffic.”
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That’s why so many series are working with broadcast partners and broadcast hardware developers like Broadcast Sports International to find new and unique ways of bringing fans into the driver’s seat.
Last season, Formula One began experimenting with a camera embedded in a driver’s helmet. NASCAR has been perfecting the art of capturing video from drivers’ foreheads since 2017. In MotoGP, the two-wheeled equivalent of F1, several riders’ protective leather suits now feature a camera embedded in the shoulder.
“It’s really hard to replicate the experience of a Formula One car,” Dean Locke, director of broadcast and media for F1, told ESPN. “It’s not just about the acceleration, it’s about the braking, and until you see these cars in real life you don’t appreciate that.”
It’s one thing to convey just how fast these racers are going, it’s another to illustrate the physicality they’re subjected to at triple-digit speeds.
“For the people that have never jumped on a bike, it’s unbelievable,” said Suzuki MotoGP rider Alex Rins after debuting the shoulder cam last November.
As athletes, drivers and riders are keen to share those experiences with their fans. There’s pride in showing off the strength of their bodies when subjected to the sort of g-forces that the cast of “Top Gun: Maverick” grew accustomed to throughout the course of their extensive training regimen.
In F1, two-time world champion Fernando Alonso was at the forefront of helmet-cam development, and his Bell Helmet was the first to beam video out to the series’ international audience from Belgium’s Spa last August.
“I think [the drivers] find it really interesting that they’re able to get the exhilaration of driving those cars out to a broader reach,” Locke said.
Viewers at home aren’t the only ones benefiting from this technology, though.
In NASCAR, some drivers are scooping up all the helmet-camera footage they can find and using it as a learning tool. There is value in having a real-time view of a driver’s inputs, every turn of the wheel or jab at the brakes, and seeing those actions show up in telemetry data.
“The younger drivers love it because it is a huge tool for them to learn,” Jeffers said. “The old-school drivers, how many miles have they logged in practice and tire tests?
“Those guys came up when the only way you learned anything was by your butt and what your butt felt in the seat of that car. Now, with limited practice, there’s a disadvantage for the younger guys because they don’t know these tracks or how the tires are going to wear or how the car is going to handle.”
This being sport at the highest level, though, there are always those looking to steal a morsel of information from a rival and use it to their advantage.
Cameras mounted in the footwell can be enlightening in learning how drivers get the best out of their brakes, which can be especially valuable on road courses. Ricky Rudd, a 23-time NASCAR Cup Series winner and notorious road-course ace who retired after the 2007 season, had no interest in such a camera setup because he wasn’t about to teach his rivals how to close the gap to him when the tracks went right.
Cameras that give fans a view from the driver’s seat also give rivals a look at vehicle data and information presented to the drivers via displays on the steering wheel or dashboard. Multiple teams in NASCAR now obfuscate that data by displaying inaccurate numbers, using internal codes or conversions so only they’ll know the true meaning of the figures on the screen.
As camera and broadcast technology continues to advance, so will the ways series bring their fans closer to the action. The very first helmet cam in NASCAR, worn by Danica Patrick at the 2017 Sonoma round, consisted of a visor mounting apparatus, GoPro-looking camera and a power cord. Today, the whole contraption weighs less than an iPhone.
The future of fan immersion isn’t all visual, though. Formula One is working to enhance the audio experience for viewers at home, and finding new ways to illustrate the physical forces drivers endure by means of biometric data.
“Where can we innovate? Where can we bring fans back into that experience? Biometric data is interesting,” Locke said. “Can we do something around stress levels? G-force readings that we can get from a driver, and compare them to fighter pilots and astronauts because I’m sure it’s very similar.”
Regardless of the speed at which those technological developments occur, fans at home on the couch will never get the same experience as those sitting next to the track — at least until Smell-O-Vision becomes a real thing. Until then, enjoy the dawn of this golden age of experience what racers around the world experience every weekend.