Tuesday, July 24, 2007

ESPN will show the unseen of NASCAR

By Michael Hiestand, USA TODAY
TV sports often brings up things you can't see. Like when overheated announcers talk about "thrilling game action" that's undetectable to your own eyes.
But as ESPN returns to covering NASCAR's Cup circuit for the first time since 2000, says ESPN senior vice president Jed Drake, it will follow its "fascination with things you can't see" to show viewers something they've really never seen on TV — swirling air.

Not just any air. The idea of ESPN's new Draft Track is to show air flowing behind cars and drivers drafting in it.

"I know what it feels like," says ESPN analyst Rusty Wallace, the ex-driver who says the new animation will show viewers things such as "the coefficient of drag" and "the dreaded aero push."

So what will "aero push" look like when the animation debuts on Sunday's coverage of the Allstate 400? In collaboration with Sportvision Inc., the Chicago company born from creating a "glowing puck" in 1996 for Fox's NHL coverage, ESPN has made the air churning in the wake of cars look sort of like green flames.

The graphic, says Drake, is "based on computative fluid dynamics" — which have been ignored in TV sports for far too long — and computer modeling that shows how air moves behind race cars.

Then, the idea is to take real-time information — Drake says GPS data can locate race cars "within two inches" of their actual location and track speeds "down to thousandths of a mile per hour" even as it changes "microsecond by microsecond" — and put it in the computer models to create the green waves that represent air.

(Makes you wonder: If all of that is possible, can't we get some sort of technology that tracks where you left your TV remote?)

Wallace acknowledges that Draft Track's swirling air, which will be show only on replays, won't exactly be self-explanatory: "We're going to have to verbally clarify this thing. It's complicated, but revolutionary!"

It took nearly a decade for the revolution to be televised. Drake says he got the idea of showing air in 1998, just after ESPN worked with Sportvision to make football's computer-generated first-and-10 line.

But ESPN, which began covering NASCAR races in 1979, its first year of existence, lost rights to the sport in 2000. After ESPN had aired 262 NASCAR Cup series races, those races went to Fox, NBC and TNT.

But starting with Sunday's race, ESPN/ABC inherits rights to the second half of NASCAR's season — which used to air on NBC and TNT — and will hunt you down to let you know. ESPN TV outlets this week are airing a mere 66 hours of NASCAR-related programs. Check out UltimateNASCAR: The Dirt at 4 a.m. ET Friday.

And ESPN this weekend, says senior coordinating producer Rich Feinberg, also will unveil TV's first "mobilized traveling TV studio" devoted to cars' innards. During races, he says, former NASCAR crew chief Tim Brewer will report from the so-called Tech Center — filled with all kinds of props such as "shock absorbers, transmissions, fuel cells, helmets" — to delve deeply into issues like "tire stagger."

While discussing technology has become standard on NASCAR TV coverage, the idea of a stand-alone technology studio means analysts won't have scream over race noise. And while various networks have long used "cutaway cars" — cars stripped of outside parts to create a sort of automotive frog dissection — Feinberg says "this is the next step of the evolution" in providing viewers with "educational tools."

(Feinberg also explains the creation of the Tech Center in what could be a handy clip 'n save for his next ESPN employee self-evaluation: "Without being too corny about Disney, some dreams do come true around here.")

And NASCAR's TV tonnage always expands. Feinberg last produced NASCAR races for ESPN in 2000 with two or three track-level robotic cameras; now he can deploy as many as eight. Then, he didn't have high-def cameras; now even in-car cameras are high-def. And he has four production trucks, up from two.

So what else, aside from maybe race coverage from spy satellites, could there possibly be left to add? Feinberg suggests there'll always be a frontier: "I personally believe that in the world of sports television, there'll always be the next thing."

Obituary: Bill Flemming, a versatile sportscaster who called ABC's football, golf and Olympic action and reported on more than 600 events for Wide World of Sports, died Friday of prostate cancer in Petoskey, Mich. He was 80.

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