In a year where Fernando Alonso raced at the Indy 500 and newer, sexier bodywork has been unveiled, topping those achievements was always going to be difficult. But the HD helmet cameras that IMS productions and Broadcast Sports International introduced rank among the most important develpopments we’ve seen in IndyCar this season.
Introduced during the Indy 500 in May, the high-definition ride inside open-wheel cars traveling at speeds exceeding 230mph – all from the driver’s perspective – has given the footage aired on ABC, NBCSN, and via live streaming from IndyCar a feel of HD gaming; an experience that is 100 percent real, yet could easily be mistaken for virtual reality.
Working directly with its partners at BSI, IMSP president Robby Greene says sheer persistence has led to one of IndyCar’s greatest experiential assets. “It’s been a personal pet project of mine for five, six, maybe seven years,” he told RACER.
Starting in 2014, the use of visor-mounted GoPros to capture in-car footage, albeit without the live transmission, helped accelerate the initiative.
With hundreds of thousands of views generated from the new perspective, IndyCar’s digital team soon made GoPro visor cam features a regular presence on IndyCar.com.
After seeing the spike in online traffic, and the complementary rise in social media activity brought by the fixed GoPro footage, Greene says IndyCar CEO Mark Miles quickly approved the budget to develop the HD helmet camera for broadcast.
“Mark and I were on a trip to New York in February and I told him I was really close to having something, and that I thought that this was critically important to draw attention to the innovation in our series and the technology of what we do,” he said. “Right away, he came back and said, ‘If it’s that important, we ought to support it.'”
With IMSP and BSI working in the background to have a prototype ready for testing during the first practice session of the year in March at St. Petersburg, Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden gave the rudimentary camera a try around the bumpy street course.
Held in place with dual-lock Velcro and helicopter tape, the young star gave Greene the proof of concept he was seeking.
“I don’t mind trying things out, as long as they’re not inhibiting what I’m doing in the car,” Newgarden said. “If it’s something that’s going to bug me, then I don’t want to run it, but when we first debuted it in St. Pete to see if it worked or interfered, there was no issue whatsoever.”
With the planned introduction for the Indy 500 broadcast, IMSP and BSI used Newgarden’s feedback and incorporated it into a series of improvements. First, a smaller camera affixed inside a streamlined housing was manufactured. The Velcro used in the short test run was never intended to be carried over, and with multiple mounting holes available just above the visor on Bell’s HP7 helmet, the unit was designed to be bolted in place. For 2017, all HD helmet cam footage has been limited to drivers using the HP7, but Greene is working on installation options for Arais and other helmets in 2018.
The last major development involved working directly with IndyCar engineering director Jeff Horton on the wiring that connects the camera to the wireless broadcast transmitter located in the car. During Newgarden’s test, a separate camera cable connected directly to the transmitter, which added a new item to disconnect in order to remove the helmet. Coming up with a new plug-in system that deleted the extra cable became a priority.
IndyCar requires each driver to use a wiring loom that runs up their firesuit and acts as a bridge between the car’s primary loom and his or her helmet. Once a driver climbs into the car, they connect their suit loom to the chassis through a plug located near their hip. And once their pull on their helmet, the suit loom is connected to a helmet plug that links their microphone and custom ear buds – containing tiny accelerometers to record G-forces in a crash – to the car’s power and communications system.
Under Horton’s direction, the HD camera’s wiring and power needs were bundled into the radio/ear bud helmet connection, and with updates to the driver’s suit loom, quick disconnections became standard with the new broadcast pieces.
“It’s like one extra wire attached to your already-used earpieces, so you already have that cabling that’s running and piping into the tub,” Newgarden said. “They found a good way to make the cabling simple.”
The final step before outfitting six drivers with the helmet cameras for Indy was safety testing done in conjunction with Bell.
“We really went to task and had the cameras that BSI developed actually go through the crash testing,” Greene said. “We got certification for its use on a Bell helmet. That’s why right now the only people that I can do it for [are] with Bell. Of course, it just takes money to fit and test them on other helmets, but it is my goal that next year I’m able to offer that if you have an in-car camera, helmet cam is going to be a part of it.”
As one of the six Indy 500 drivers sporting the HD helmet cam, Newgarden entered the race with questions over whether the housing might have a small negative impact on aerodynamics.
“Going back to Indianapolis, that was the one place where I was concerned about running it the whole race,” he said. “First off, you ask the engineers, ‘is this something that’s going to hurt our performance?’,” he said. “If it’s hurting performance, then I don’t want it on the car, and they wouldn’t want it on the car either. Then it would be about, is it going to bother me personally, is it going to be more strain on my neck? Is it going to be uncomfortable for 500 miles? The answers were ‘no’ to all of the questions.”
Graham Rahal, also one of the Indy 500 six, has become the most frequent user of the HD helmet cam. He’s seen all that was learned in May turn into upgrades for the races that followed.
“And I’m excited to see how the camera continues to evolve,” he said. “Stan and the group at BSI has already evolved quite a lot with the glass that we’re using to be more durable, to have special coatings that will somewhat toss the bugs off of it. Whereas at Indy, people saw the glass broke, bugs got stuck on it and these sorts of things. We’ve already responded to that and changed that. Every weekend, I’m kind of a test dummy with it, but I love it.”
The response to IndyCar’s HD helmet cam view has been incredible. Outside of the visual treat is has brought to the ABC and NBCSN TV broadcasts, IndyCar’s digital team is delivering amazing numbers through its live streams. More than 100,000 people spent a practice session inside Rahal’s No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda on the Toronto street course; that’s a larger audience than some live sports car racing broadcasts have delivered this year.
With the strength of the HD helmet cam’s streaming figures and the compelling imagery broadcast from Indy, Detroit, Texas Road America, Iowa, Toronto, and most recently at Mid-Ohio, Rahal’s team has been able to turn those views into sponsorship dollars.
“It’s had significant impact for our current partners, and I see it as a key element to helping us to continue to attract what I’ll call iconic brands to our team and to our driver,” said Brian Marks, RLL’s VP of corporate partnerships and marketing.
“You look at some of the things, and I’ll specifically point to the partnership that Graham has developed with Sonoco, that is successful in part because of that helmet cam. It gives us probably the most unique viewpoint, and some would argue [that is] the most valuable asset that we have from a sponsorship standpoint.
“We’ve done Sunoco-branded commercials with Graham over the last few years, but that changed this year when the helmet cam came about,” he continued. “Sunoco wanted to do something unique with Graham that hadn’t been done, and with the helmet cam, logo placement on his gloves stood out immediately.
“There aren’t a lot of guarantees you can give a sponsor in motorsports, but I guarantee you’re going to get a hell of a lot of coverage if we agree to put you in one of the spots inside the cockpit that’ll be shown from his helmet.”
Stemming from the reaction by Sunoco, Marks has been busy adorning Rahal’s IndyCar cockpit with other sponsor logo – some seen from the HD helmet cam, some from the rear-facing mirror cam, and others from the overhead camera.
“It’s a great way for us to take advantage of all of the visual touchpoints inside the car,” he said. “If you look at what we’re now doing on our car with Graham, it’s not just the gloves. It’s the windscreen, it’s two logos on either mirror post, it’s the inside passenger or driver’s left mirror. It’s the little Steak ‘n Shake bug that sits next to the mirror cam. There’s probably 10, 11 locations that I can now monetize on a regular basis.”
An extended benefit has been found in the ongoing traffic produced by the HD helmet cam clips IndyCar’s digital team posts to social media after each session and race.
“The helmet cam in of itself is cool because then it floats as an evergreen piece everywhere else,” Marks added. “Graham pushes it out there, Brian Simpson’s pushing it out there for IndyCar, sponsors are jumping on board. It’s great footage to watch at any time, and that isn’t always the case in racing.”
IndyCar team owner/driver Ed Carpenter has also used the HD helmet cam, and has found similar value on the marketing and promotions side.
“If you’ve got one, you’re going to be able to show your sponsors and partners better numbers,” he said. “Long-term, IndyCar has always been an innovator, and it’s great to see this happen for us in a way that helps bring more attention to the sport and more fans to see what we do in a way that has never been available like this. The best thing would be if [the cameras] were on everybody’s helmets, and I’m sure that’s something they’re looking into for the future. It’s bringing more eyeballs to IndyCar, for sure, and that can only help.”
IndyCar has about one month of HD helmet cam exclusivity before NASCAR copied the idea. By the end of June, the Monster Energy Series was offering its drivers-eye view during its broadcasts, and it has since become a regular promotional feature. Although IndyCar has competition in this broadcast area, Rahal says the open-wheel viewing experience will never be replicated.
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“It doesn’t surprise me that NASCAR has done it, and all around, it’s good for motor sport,” he said. “The view can’t match what an IndyCar can, because it’s open cockpit. I think that the open cockpit gives this sense of speed, the wheel-to-wheel action, the wheels exposed, the bumps, the severity of that and obviously in a place like Toronto, you can legitimately see how the drivers are using absolutely every inch of room that’s available. It’s hard to match that, but it’s a great advancement for them.”
Having seen how far the concept has come since St. Pete, Newgarden is thankful to have been a small part of something that turned into a big win for IndyCar.
“It wasn’t even [around] six months ago, when you think about it, and then with an introduction on the world’s biggest stage for motorsports at the Indy 500… everyone’s been thrilled,” he said. “It’s a great option for sponsors to get involved where they can have something more authentic to show people as far as a viewpoint on what their driver and their team goes through, whether it’s on the track or in the pits. It’s easily the biggest thing fans have been raving about with our TV product.”
Like a proud father, Greene says the HD helmet cam has transformed the way IndyCar’s story can be told.
“It’s not only fans and sponsors that have loved it, but it is every other series that I do business with where they’ve all mentioned and commented on that this is next generation, it’s amazing, and how do I get one?” he said. “When I went to Team Penske at St. Pete and asked Tim Cindric if we could try it with Newgarden, I thought they were going to say I was crazy and tell me to go away. But they didn’t.
They got behind it, instantly.
“They knew that to keep this sport moving in the right direction, we’ve got to continue to increase a fan’s interest. Mark Miles, all of the officials, and all of the teams have embraced it fully. It’s been a fun ride, and looking back, I can’t believe it took that long to get it done. My only regret, is we weren’t able to get the helmet cams going sooner.”