Some crew chiefs are still resistant to in-car cameras

NASCAR fans have been riding shotgun thanks to in-car cameras since the 1983 Daytona 500. The technology has become so ubiquitous that it's hard to imagine watching a race, any kind of race, without them today.

On ESPN and other networks, each race features at least eight cars serving as high-speed mobile cameras. Those eight cars feature three cameras apiece: a roof cam that pans 180 degrees, a rear bumper cam that also pans 180 degrees, and a stationary driver shot called doggie cam because it is positioned where man's best friend might ride along were he in the racecar.

"In-car cameras took off when the sport did, in the late '80s and the '90s," said Andy Jeffers, ESPN's in-car camera coordinator. "Fans wanted to know what the sport was about and in-car cameras showed them what they needed to see."

Who can forget the following exchange from the 1990 movie "Days of Thunder"?

Harry Hogg (Robert Duvall): What do you know about stock car racing?
Cole Trickle (Tom Cruise): Well ... watched in on television, of course.
Hogg: You've seen it on television?
Trickle: ESPN. The coverage is excellent. You'd be surprised how much you can pick up.
Hogg: I'm sure I would.

"In-car cameras show the drivers in their element under pressure," Jeffers said. "They bring the viewer in. There's no greater shot in racing than seeing the driver pump his fist in the car after winning a race, or angrily removing his steering wheel after getting wrecked."

Brandon Patrick and the folks at Broadcast Sports Technology have been working on improving the in-car camera experience for years now. Their innovations have given fans some amazing shots. The brake shots at Martinsville, for example, giving fans an up-close and personal physics lesson on what color brakes turn when constantly applied throughout a long race (glowing red). The front grill shots at Bristol, and the foot shots at the road courses ... two more examples of what makes races unique at different venues.

The latest innovation was high definition technology, which ESPN introduced last year when it returned to the sport.

"It's a more crisp, detailed picture," Patrick said. "We'll be adding even more later this year that will add more functionality."

"I applaud those guys," Jeffers said of BST. "They really get into the car, and with high def, it's unbelievable the things you can see."

In the old days, the cars broadcast their signals up to a helicopter above the track, which in turn sent them to the broadcast truck outside the track. Nowadays, things are a bit safer and less expensive. Signals bounce from the car via microwave to receive sites placed around the track on top of the grandstands well before the race.

While the acceptance of in-car cams has never wavered among fans, that hasn't been the case among competition, Jeffers said.

"Toward the late '90s, crew chiefs started talking," he said. "And in this sport, once something gets talked about it makes its way around the garage pretty fast. The crew chiefs started thinking of the in-car cameras as a hindrance because of weight distribution, and hated using them on short tracks and flat tracks."

Of course, the cars that don't use in-car cams have to carry dummy weights, but that didn't stop the resistance movement. Perhaps the fact that every road course race in NASCAR last year was won by a car sporting one of the in-car cams, including two by Juan Pablo Montoya in the Busch series race in Mexico.

"When they say that in-car cams are a disadvantage, I have to shake my head," Jeffers said, laughing.

One factor that may keep in-car cameras in cars to stay is safety. While they don't have the same safety value as a HANS device or a SAFER barrier, they do bring potential to the table. Here are several examples where in-car cameras can help NASCAR improve safety.

  • When a driver is leaking fluid or oil on the track. Cars just behind that driver will pick up that fluid on the windshield via in-car cameras before safety officials otherwise could.

  • When there is a slight drizzle on one part of the racetrack.

  • When there is debris on the track.

  • When a car has something loose flopping around on it.

  • When there is an incident on pit road.

  • When a driver has an issue inside the car, such as recently when a replacement driver didn't get his belt secured over his HANS device and was called back into the pits.

    In-car cameras are here to stay. They provide entertainment for the fans, information for the teams and NASCAR, and safety for the drivers in the cars themselves.