NASCAR TV Broadcast: Gimmicks, Gadgets and Graphics
As NASCAR has progressed from its roots of country boys racing on dirt roads, so too has the broadcasting of modern racing. In addition to announcers keeping viewers apprised of developments on and off the track, networks have developed a variety of high-tech enhancements to jazz up the viewing experience.
On-screen graphics, such as a running list of drivers in order from first to last that scrolls across the top of the screen, provide constant data on the status of the race. GPS units placed in each car allow for tracking of drivers and immediate updating of the leader board. This information includes placement in the race, lap number, car number and the amount of time each driver lags behind the leader. The leader's lap splits will also be updated each time he or she comes around the track. GPS units also allow producers to graphically highlight specific cars as they're being discussed.
Other graphics may include a faux-dashboard on the bottom of the screen, where viewers can monitor a particular driver's odometer and speedometer, as well as placement on the track itself, courtesy of an oval with a dot making its way around it.
Visually, producers make ample use of split screens, showing two different drivers at once, or a driver and a crew chief, or a pit reporter and the race. The screen can be split in many ways, so that the left side of the screen may show three boxes featuring three different cars in motion, while the right side shows statistics superimposed over an aerial view of the race track.
With the shrinking size and growing capabilities of cameras, networks place them everywhere: on the back of the pace car, on dashboards facing forward, in the back of the car facing backwards, and inside facing the driver. Producers can then use the split screen to simultaneously show a car's position on the track as well as the driver inside that car, and they can do it in high definition.
Producers can also patch in radio conversations between the driver and his team, giving the audience the chance to hear strategy changes, admonishments and reassurances as they occur. Fox can broadcast from any of 43 race team communications radios, one for each car on the track. Tiny microphones placed inside certain drivers' helmets also allow analysts to speak with drivers before or even during a race. Additionally, more than 150 microphones are placed around the track.
ESPN developed a simulation called "Draft Track," a digital visualization of the air as it passes over and around cars. Special GPS units allow tracking accuracy within 2 centimeters, and computer modeling of wind tunnel data allows viewers to understand how cars draft behind each other and benefit, or suffer, from changes in wind current as the cars inch ever closer.
FOX will at times cut out all commentary and let the roar of the motors do all the talking. This is a very simple and lo-fi way to give the viewer at home a more intense and visceral experience (but it can't compare to having your bones rattle when cars pass by the stands at the live events).
DIRECTV upped the ante by offering viewers the chance to choose their own driver (out of four choices) to follow during the race. Viewers can switch between cameras in different cars, change audio streams and listen to radio feeds of driver and crew chatter.
Some fans think networks get excessive with the use of graphics and gimmicks, and would rather just focus on good old, plain racing. However, others find it adds to the experience and makes for a more pleasurable broadcast.
In the next section, we'll look at which networks cover which races and more.