New NASCAR 'On-Track' Technology A Hit

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What sports fan wouldn't love to listen to Peyton Manning in the huddle or talking strategy with his coaches on the sideline?

Or stand beside Joe Torre and his infielders and listen as the Yankees manager tells Mike Mussina how he wants to pitch to the guy at the plate?

Or see through the eyes of LeBron James as he soars toward the basket for a slam dunk?

None of those things is likely to happen anytime soon. But NASCAR fans are breaking through the wall between drivers and teams and the grandstands in unprecedented ways.

You want to ride along with Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Daytona from your couch? OK.

How about listening from your family room to Jeff Gordon talk with crew chief Steve Letart about what he wants done on the next pit stop? No problem.

You left your grandstand seat just long enough to get another beer and you missed "the Big One." Just watch the replay as many times as you want on your new handheld device.

Oh yeah. What position is your favorite driver in after that last pit stop? Heck, just check the live stats at your fingertips.

During last Sunday's Daytona 500, fans both at home and at the speedway were able to do all of the above, thanks to a new era of technology.

"It's a wonder of the times," said Jay Abraham, president and CEO of NASCAR Images, which boasts that it manages the most technologically advanced television compound in the world. "Most of this wouldn't even have been possible just a few years ago."

All of the new technology is funneled through that compound, which is made up of trailers and trucks connected by more than 100,000 feet of fiber optic cable and sprouts a maze of antennas and microwave dishes.

Steve Stum is director of field operations for NASCAR Images and the man who oversees the TV compound, which has expanded in size by 2 1/2 times this year to accommodate all the new technology.

"It's three times the size of the compound at the Super Bowl," Stum said. "And we have two days to move it from Daytona to California and 48 hours to set it up for the next race _ all the equipment, cables, everything.

"We have more RF (radio frequency) transmitters in our compound than there are in New York City," Stum said. "There are 17 or 18 production trucks, 23 work areas and about 600 workers. We feed everything through here, including NASCAR's timing and scoring and whatever television feeds there are."

And it's not just the fans who benefit. The new technology also allows NASCAR officials to view replays from up to 16 different camera angles.

"We even give them touch screens, so they can make images larger or see some part of the replay more clearly," Stum said. "Everybody benefits from all this new technology."

But fans benefit the most.

Each of the new technologies has its own trailers or truck, designed specially to handle its specific needs.

DirectTV built a truck with individual, cubicle-sized production studios to accommodate its new NASCAR HotPass, five fully produced channels allowing fans to watch the race from the vantage point of a single driver and team.

The thing that makes HotPass unique is that each of its five channels has its own announcing team, director and producer and offers multiple camera angles, real-time stats and telemetry, and in-car audio.

The first two Cup races featured nine different drivers, with only Dale Earnhardt Jr. carried over from Daytona to California. The lineup for Las Vegas, on March 11, will include Kasey Kahne, Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin, Dale Jarrett and Carl Edwards.

A spokesman for DirecTV said there is not yet any system in place to determine which driver is being watched the most each week.

Here's a rundown of some of the other services available these days:

_ Sirius Satellite Radio has "Team Talk," 10 fully produced channels putting fans inside the helmet of one of 10 drivers for the whole rce. It includes all radio communications between the driver and his team. When team members aren't on the radio, the live race broadcast audio comes up, allowing listeners to follow the race.

_ At the track, Sprint Nextel has FanView, a state-of-the-art scanner offering live audio, video and real-time statistics.

_ Fans can follow the race on their computers through NASCAR.com's TrackPass, which now has a 3-D offering and a "social networking" component.

_ NASCAR.com To Go with PitCommand is a mobile phone service that allow fans to listen to driver-crew conversations on their Sprint Nextel phones. It also provides real-time race data over the phone.

_ TrackPass RaceView is a 3-D application on NASCAR.com that features animation similar to sports video games. Fans can watch race data displayed on a computer screen showing drivers' positions and movements to within a few inches. They can select one driver or switch among the full field, following them around the track while viewing driver data such as live position, speed and time behind leader, as well as listening to in-car audio feeds.

Three different race views are available for each driver, including Lead View, which shows the front of the driver's car, as well as the cars in pursuit; Flyover View, an aerial view from above; and Draft View, showing the car from behind and the field in front of the driver. Other features include pit road statistics, lap-by-lap editorial commentary and a fantasy game integration.

Mike Metz, a laptop technician from Chino, Calif., was at California Speedway last weekend after watching the Daytona 500 on DirecTV. Metz, wearing a Jeff Gordon No. 24 jacket, makes no secret of his racing allegiance, and that was why he had one complaint about the new technology.

"They didn't have Jeff available until after Jimmie (Johnson) crashed out," Metz said. "Then they switched over and that was cool."

So, will he try Hot Pass again next week at Las Vegas?

"There's different drivers and, from what I've heard, none that I really follow," Metz said. "So I'll listen to the in-car radio for Jeff on NASCAR.com. That was pretty cool at the Daytona 500. You can hear the pit strategy and how the car is handling and stuff like that."

Father and son Worth Beacham Jr., from Greensboro, N.C., and Worth Beacham III, from Columbia, S.C., were also on hand at the Fontana, Calif., track after watching Hot Pass from home the previous week.

"I'm an Earnhardt fan," Beacham III said. "You could watch him in every turn and watch his speed, his RPMs, see everything from his point of view. You could tell everything about what he is doing, but you could still see what everybody else is doing, too, because of the Fox broadcast."

His father, who also follows Earnhardt, added, "I didn't really like the announcer they had on the Earnhardt broadcast. I thought they ought to have an Earnhardt fan. I mean, if it's the Earnhardt channel, they ought to have somebody who is going to get excited about Earnhardt. It might not have been as professional, but it might have held fans' interest more."

Kevin Harvick, who won the Daytona 500, was asked how he feels about people listening in on his race-day conversations and watching his every move on track.

"I guess I better watch my language more," he said, grinning. "But I think it's fantastic that our fans can get so close to the sport and see what it is we're trying to do. It just gives them a better understanding of how hard our guys work and how competitive this sport really is."

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