When Tony Stewart was recovering from a crushed right leg after his winged sprint-car accident last August, he felt, in many ways, a million miles away from the track.
Then he found technology that could keep him close.
“I used NASCAR.com when I was laid up last year,” Stewart said on Monday. “I would get on for every practice, qualifying, the race. It was easy. You didn’t have to know very much.
“I mean, I’m not very technologically savvy by any means, but it was easy for me to use and it was easy to follow. I got the same information watching the screens on NASCAR.com that I got in the pit box with our official time and scoring.”
Stewart just got affirmation of something that he already knew: The racing world is becoming more sophisticated when it comes to delivering information to the fans.
For years, scanners have been available at the track that have allowed the fans to rent one and follow conversations between their favorite driver and the pit crew. Those old-time scanners now are like black-and-white televisions.
More info to seats
A new generation of racing fans want instant gratification when it comes to race-day coverage, whether they are at the track or at home.
“The most important thing I do every day is trying to figure out how to make the fans’ experience better at IMS (Indianapolis Motor Speedway),” said Doug Boles, the IMS president. “When they come through the gates, it’s all about the experience that will cause them to come back, or more importantly, to bring somebody with them.
“So we look at how to get more information into the fans’ seats.”
On Sunday, many fans watching the Brickyard 400 will be wired into FanVision.
“We have been in racing since 2004,” said Ted VanZelst, the senior vice president of marketing for FanVision. “Years ago, everyone did the scanners. But our device brings everything in terms of the total experience. All the racing data comes in and fans can compare race times, speed, their favorite driver’s speed against other drivers.
“We’re tapped right into NASCAR and you can prioritize what you want to listen to. You can follow all 43 drivers and crew chiefs and what is going on with all of them. We deliver video right into their hands. Video comes in less than two seconds and data in less than a second.”
VanZelst, who said FanVision rents for about $50, or less with an Internet coupon, said the best testament to his company’s product is that the drivers and their crews all use the device.
“Every single spotter uses our device,” VanZelst said. “That’s how consistent and reliable it is, and I think that tells you a lot. It is part of the industry now.”
Stewart returned to the race track this season, he found himself using electronic gadgets to follow the action.
“This year while I’ve been back in the car for the knockout qualifying sessions, it’s as simple as we use a (FanVision) that the fans can rent at the racetrack. And after I come in after the first run, I keep track of where I’m at, whether I am getting ready to get bumped down or if I’m in a comfortable spot.
“Again, it’s user friendly. So just because it involves technology, it doesn’t have to be complicated. It’s really easy to follow the sport. I honestly can’t see any reason or inclination we have to go backward from that. I think it would be an injustice. It’s cool for the fans to have all that information and knowledge about what’s going on.”
A tough sell
Boles said the drivers and crews are all on board when it comes to giving the fans more access to the races, whether that information is sent online, through electronics at the track on over television. Providing more information means more cameras on cars, more audio from the driver and crew chief, more little aches and pains.
“We are in the entertainment business,” Boles said. “We need to give the fans an in-the-huddle view of what is going on. It really is like being in the huddle and knowing what play (Colts quarterback) Andrew Luck is going to call.
“A lot of things have happened, especially as television technology gets better,” Boles said. “It used to be that not every car had an in-car camera. Now we are creating apps. We keep asking, ‘How do you take the great television experiences to the fans in the seat?’ Our challenge is how to make the track experience worth leaving the living room.”
It’s a tough sell when the television networks continue to find new ways to make racing more interesting for fans at home.
ESPN, which is televising Sunday’s race, has been a leader in trying to find ways to enhance coverage. ESPN was the first network to televise NASCAR fully in high definition and was the first network to provide playback for all 43 team radios during a telecast.
In 2011, ESPN introduced NASCAR NonStop, using a split screen during commercial breaks. In 2011, ESPN began streaming its coverage so it would be available on computers, smartphones and tablets.
It goes on, with the introduction of “dual path” technology in Sprint Cup coverage, allowing views from two different onboard cameras in same shot for first time. ESPN could show a replay of a crash from two different onboard camera views at the same time in a split screen, perhaps one view of the driver fighting the wheel during a spin, and another view of the camera that looks forward as the car is about to impact another car.
“We work to enhance our NASCAR coverage with point-of-view cameras when it makes sense,” said Andy Hall, the associate director of communications for ESPN. “We also work to balance what we do to avoid being too gimmicky or simply being too distracting from telling the story of the race. Our first mission is documenting the race.”
On Sunday, ESPN will use 72 high definition cameras, including four Ultra Hi Motion cameras for replays. One will be mounted on pit wall near the “Yard of Bricks” that make up the start/finish line at the Speedway while another robotic Ultra Hi Motion camera will be mounted to provide a low shot in the first turn.
Two others will be in the second and fourth turns. Eight cars competing in the race will carry onboard cameras and ESPN also will have a helicopter camera for overhead shots in the Brickyard 400 and for all
17 NASCAR Sprint Cup
But as technology advances, it is easier for fans to get that expanded television coverage delivered right to their hand at the track. That means the track faces a different kind of problem.
“Part of our venue problem is that we are overloading our cell service,” Boles said. “When 300,000 people have apps, the cell service is struggling. We are looking at what we can do to make things easier for the fans. Maybe it means adding more Wi-Fi. But all those things come with significant expense. The push is to get information to the fans that will engage them.”
IMS is considering selling a ticket package where fans get a seat and a device like FanVision. The track has added a new scoring “pylon” that sits on the front stretch and is a vertical message board. “It’s like what you would see in Bankers Life or Lucas Oil,” Boles said.
“It’s clearer, brighter,
“We’re reaching out to our fans with more video boards with a higher-definition, television feel.
“The other thing we have to do is consider what we offer fans when they leave their seats. Ways they can watch the race, or concerts or autograph sessions. Little things like that enhance the fan experience.”