NASCAR and IRL television coverage innovations

Auto racing coverage, sports coverage in general, has blossomed over the last ten years.  Indeed, advances in video and computer technology have enabled all kinds of innovation in all areas of sports television coverage.  Football coverage has had several major innovations, most notably, the yellow line.  Auto racing, however, has made several huge leaps to enable viewers keep better track of the action on the track.  Most of this increased coverage was spurred by the NASCAR television package deals that began in 2001.

In conjunction with the NASCAR web site as well as network television innovations, the coverage exploded.  FOX Television introduced the race bubble, which could follow the cars around the track and display the driver name, number and speed or position.  The technology involved in this alone was incredible, auto racing anyway.  It involved transponders, computer representations of each track, in car telemetry and other geeky fun stuff.  Since NASCAR had mandated the in-car telemetry, viewers were treated to all sorts of information such as speed, RPM, when the drivers were braking and how often, fuel, etc.  This information was not restricted to just television either.

NASCAR made available, for a fee, of course, the same information that the networks had.  You could visit the NASCAR site and follow your driver as they raced around the track.  You could see an at a glance view of the whole field, follow just a few drivers, see the dashboard, view a graphical representation of the track and the drivers position on the track.  Of course, there was a cost involved.  You could subscribe to a partial or complete season.

ABC and ESPN, when they took over for NBC, introduced several innovations of their own.  The first gimmick-which did not survive, thankfully-was supposed to ‘show’ the draft.  Unfortunately, the process was flawed and never really fully baked.  One of the better things that ABC/ESPN did was hire Tim Brewer to explain the race car and problems the drivers would encounter thru out the broadcast.  Among Mr. Brewer’s arsenal of tools is a cool touchscreen based computer, complete with animations showing just about every facet of the car.  The two channels also had a fresh graphics package and clean presentation.

All of the broadcast partners made one very important leap over the coverage of previous years:  live scoring.  Until the very late 1990’s, scoring was always laps behind and only given every so many laps. Since then, however, viewers get live, updated scoring.  At worst, it might be a half a lap old.  At best, it is real time.

The high tech coverage is not limited to just NASCAR events.  The Indy Racing League has also enjoyed it’s own high tech coverage.  Unlike NASCAR, it’s online offerings are free.  I was able to enjoy the Richmond race both on television and on the web.  The IRL site had a video feed and you could select several drivers to follow.  Some of the drivers also had an on board camera which you can also see in the drivers info box.  Unlike NASCAR, IRL cars have always provided telemetry, which you can also see in on the web.  In many ways, I like the IRL web site better, not only because it is free, but because it seems to be far less intensive and does not rely on JAVA to work.

During TNT’s coverage, not only do they have an hour and a half of pre-race coverage, but they also offer free video on the NASCAR page.  Called RaceBuddy, the video is available as one screen that you can choose from five different streams or one video wall that shows four of the streams. You also get TNT audio and the bottom of the page is full of live data feeds.

Today’s auto race coverage is far above anything that came in the years prior to the NASCAR TV package.  Because of the innovations in the NASCAR coverage, other series have also benefitted from those same innovations.  The coverage has come so far from the days of filmed or tape delayed broadcasts and, what looked like, hand typed scoring cards held in front of the camera.  Quite a leap indeed.

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