NASCAR is back for 2020, with the Daytona 500 kicking off the newly title sponsor-less Cup Series tomorrow in Daytona. For Fox Sports, NASCAR’s television broadcast partner for the first half of the premier Cup season, Daytona is a field laboratory for trying out new technology for motorsport storytelling.
For the past few years, there has been a particular focus on drone technology. First it was a tethered drone, flying along the backstretch but connected to the ground. Then, last year, Fox flew an
untethered drone for the first time. This was a major accomplishment, requiring coordination and permission from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the track, law enforcement at all levels, as well as the Daytona Airport which is literally adjacent to the track.
Fox Sports reporter Lindsay Czarniak stands in front of new green screen technology employed during the 2019 NASCAR season.Photo by Jordan Golson
It was, according to Fox executives, the first time an untethered drone was flown legally in a “temporary flight restriction zone”.
Fox Sports has long been a pioneer in on-air tech, launching the yellow First Down line in football more than 25 years ago — which is now standard across football — as well as other innovations that were a little less successful, like the FoxTrax glowing puck in hockey.
Last year, Fox launched a new green-screen “virtual studio” where an entire broadcast studio was generated with augmented reality. That required new tech to insert artificial backgrounds on the green screens of the set between the camera shot and the control room, as well as new makeup techniques to offset the green on presenters faces.
Though the untethered drone last year was an accomplishment, it didn’t give the Fox Sports production team video shots it didn’t have before. It floated over the grass infield of the backstretch at Daytona — well away from fans and the cars, which it wasn’t allowed to fly over. It worked as a test, which was great. But it wasn’t footage that couldn’t have been achieved in a more traditional manner.
“We had this thing out there and it worked and it was good quality,” said Michael Davies, senior vice president of Field & Tech Operations, Fox Sports. “But, we could have gotten that from a jib. So we scratched our heads and said is it really worth it?”
This year, they have an 80-foot crane between turns one and two that was partially inspired by the shots the drone was able to get last year. “You’d be hard-pressed to tell that it’s not a drone,” said Davies.
But to make things a little more exciting, Fox has partnered with Beverly Hills Aerials, a drone firm that specializes in television and movie drone shots. Below is some footage from their test shoot during a NASCAR practice session at Daytona on Friday.
They built a custom racing drone that can go as fast as 80 mph. It’s little more than some propellers, a battery good for six or seven minutes of flying time, a flight camera for the pilot, and a GoPro Hero 4 shooting at 720p and 60fps. It is surprising that the team would be using such an old camera (GoPro is selling the Hero 8 these days), but reliability is most important and since it works for them, they keep using it. Also on board is a transmitter that sends the GoPro footage straight to the control room and that’s about it.
“It’s a racing drone. And with racing drones, your platform is your drone. There’s no gimbal and the camera is totally fixed,” said Davies in an interview this week. “The movement of the camera comes from the movement of the drone. There’s no two-man operation. We needed something that was faster and more agile.”
The goal, says Fox, is to help put the viewer in places they’ve never been before. They’ve pioneered things like the Gopher cam, a camera literally inside the hole on a golf course, as well as the lipstick cam in baseball to show interesting views of the pitcher or batter.
“We want to cover the game from the inside out, versus the outside in,” explains Davies. “Typical coverage is cameras placed around the field of play or track or whatever. What makes it interesting is a little bit more access in terms of putting cameras in places people haven’t seen.”
Thanks to the rise in the popularity of video games, which can put a virtual camera wherever you want, viewers aren’t satisfied with static camera views. Even in-car cameras are considered commonplace these days, so Fox is putting cameras right on the helmet of the driver, making it even more personal.
“We can push in terms of in-car technology to give people a more intimate view of the race,” explains Davies. “Fundamentally, that makes my job and what I’m able to do at Fox kind of interesting.” Though the camera might be used during the race, he’s also excited for other things that the speed of the drone, as well as the unique camera-angle, makes possible.
“After what we see Saturday and Sunday, we’ll come up with other regimens of things we’ll be able to do,” says Davies. “It’s literally a flying camera, topping out at 80 mph.” That’s not enough to chase a 200 mph stock car down the back stretch, but it’s enough to be one of the fastest cameras that Fox has ever deployed.
“It’s interesting to keep finding different things to do,” he said. “I think from this one, there’s gonna be no mistaking it. This is what I’m excited about. There’s no other way to get these shots.”
Below is the video feed from Fox Sports featuring the crash at the end of the NASCAR Xfinity Series Nascar Racing Experience 300 on Saturday afternoon.
The ability for the drone to fly during the Daytona 500 is unique, not just because of the technology, but because of the presence of President Donald Trump who will serve as grand marshal. Ahead of the race, the FAA and the Secret Service are restricting all flights within 30 miles of Daytona International Speedway unless they are approved law enforcement aircraft or military aircraft directly supporting the U.S. Secret Service or the Office of the President.
Looking up at the race will also allow attendees to see a flyover from the U.S.A.F. Thunderbirds — their 10th in a row and their 11th overall —and the Goodyear Blimp.