Around the Track at Daytona

The weather was what you’d expect for the Daytona 500 last Sunday: sunny with temperatures close to 80 degrees. But they had been anything but that in the days leading up to what’s known as America’s Big Race: nighttime temperatures had dropped near or below freezing on several nights during run-up events, such as a truck race on Friday and the Alert Today Florida 300 on Saturday. That made for an interesting week for the Fox Sports audio crew, which included supervising sound mixer Fred Aldous, production mixer Kevin McCloskey, and submixer Chip Weaver.

“Drastic temperature changes really affect microphone performance,” observed Aldous, who was officially handing over the reins of the main production mix to McCloskey after having mixed that race for 14 years. “Especially the low end, because the diaphragm isn’t able to travel as much; as the temperature warms up, the diaphragm loosens, and the low frequencies return. Humidity causes similar problems: the diaphragm is quicker to react and more efficient when it’s dry than when there’s moisture in the air. It’s nice to have the qualifying runs for us to set levels and sounds ahead of the race, but the radical changes in temperature means we have to reset everything between the morning and the afternoon.”

McCloskey, previously Fox Sports’ effects submixer, has filled in for Aldous numerous times in the past and said the transition to full-time production mixing was smooth. “The big difference is that, when you’re mixing the effects, you’re mainly listening to them and the director. Now I hear the director, the producer, the AD, the talent. There’s a lot to respond to.”

But, like Aldous and other NASCAR mixers, McCloskey, working from Game Creek’s FX B unit at Daytona, adheres to Fox Sports’ preference for assertive on-air mixes, with lots of elements, including such effects as “roar” microphones that pick up the direct sound of passing cars and crowd sounds from as many perspectives as possible. “If there’s a camera someplace,” he said, “we want to hear it, too.”

At Daytona, that included the three gopher cams embedded in the track, each with three microphone elements inside. There were about 150 audio channels altogether, including mono and stereo microphones, with more effects mics to fully cover the 2.5-mile-long track.

A key component to the race’s audio mix is in-car communications, between drivers and crew chiefs. These were managed by BSI, which used its dual-stream transmitter and an embedded quad antenna system around the track to pull in wireless audio and video from three or four cameras in each of eight of the 43 cars that started the race, as well as a dozen wireless cameras and microphones in the pit area.

Using the 1.4 GHz, 2 GHz, and 2.3 GHz frequencies, the telemetry is bidirectional, allowing the same pathways that send the audio and video to also send back control data to adjust camera functions, such as pan, zoom, tilt, and iris control. At Daytona, Audio was sent to Racer Radio’s truck, where it was processed and a two-second delay added, and then sent to McCloskey’s console. These transfers used MADI between the trucks.

Sean Seavers, the EIC for BSI, said that the comprehensive AV inside the cars makes the race more vivid for viewers. He recalled watching driver Danica Patrick pull her hands away from the steering wheel just before her car hit the wall at Daytona two years ago, a defensive move to prevent a broken wrist when the steering wheel whips as the car’s steering mechanism crumples from impact. “Drivers have been doing that for a long time,” he noted, “but we really learned about it on Fox, watching through the cameras in the cars.”

All of this was taking place just off the track’s turn 3, coming out of the backstretch, where the broadcast compound was moved last year. To compensate for the longer distance, the track laid in two runs of 288-strand single-mode fiber-optic cabling back to the infield. From the compound, Fox Sports sent its backhaul to Los Angeles, with a single feed to NASCAR Productions in Charlotte. NC, which was used for the world feed from NASCAR’s studios there.

A first for this year was the implementation of a proprietary digital pit-road officiating system, developed jointly by NASCAR and Hawkeye Innovations. Ensconced in a 53-ft. custom trailer in the broadcast compound, eight officials monitored pit stops and any violations, which were sent to race control. (Another slate of officials remained on pit road but behind the pit wall.)

The officials in the truck monitored video from HD cameras mounted on the grandstand side of the racetrack, with one camera focused on two pit stalls throughout the race. Using other data from integrated timing and scoring systems, the officials watched for infractions of the pit-road rules. Infractions appeared in red on the official’s monitor; a “possible” infraction, in orange. After a review, officials had the authority to clear an infraction deemed legal.

According to Steve Stum, VP, operations and technical production, NASCAR Productions, NASCAR is working toward making the data available to the teams, to allow them to see their individual infractions, and its TV partners, for possible integration into the television broadcast.

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