How CBS' RaceCam has changed the look of the Daytona 500 -- and the coverage of other sports as well

Everything in television has to have an angle. Nowhere is that more true than in sports coverage, where directors are forever searching for the last undiscovered place to put a camera.

With its Race Cam, a fully rotating camera that can go inside or outside a race car, CBS Sports found some unusual angles that work. Since Race Cam’s debut in 1981, the network has won five Emmy awards for its coverage of the Daytona 500. At this year’s race — on Sunday, Feb. 18, at noon — the cam rides again as it continues to change the coverage of not only auto racing but all sports.

Before Race Cam, says Bob Fishman, CBS Sports’ director at Daytona, ”it struck people that auto racing was just cars making endless left turns.” Race Cam, according to the network’s principal Daytona commentator, Ken Squier, ”changed auto racing from a reality sport to a fantasy sport. Reality sports are the ones we all can do: play tennis, play golf. And up until then, we could all drive a car and crash it up.

”What was so special? But the Race Cam showed that the front end actually lifts off the ground on a 3,700-pound car going 190 miles per hour, and that the suction from another car passing you can actually move you over four or five feet. It showed that auto racing was indeed exceedingly dangerous, and it captured the sense of the hostile environment that these athletes compete in.”

Fishman adds: ”You could actually see the G-force on the turns. You could witness a crash from inside the car. You could see how close the cars come to each other. The Race Cam was responsible for bringing stock-car racing out of the Dark Ages of television.”

On the list of great discoveries, then, the order would go something like this: Fire. Electricity. The steam engine. Race Cam.

Fishman has been the network’s director at Daytona since its coverage began in 1979, in those Dark Ages before Race Cam. ”I was very scared of trying it,” he says of the coverage. ”We were just feeling our way. It was the first time it had been tried live.”

That year’s Daytona 500 was a classic race: Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough were running the last lap together, and one of them was clearly going to be the victor. On a turn, their cars became entwined and crashed, allowing Richard Petty to win. After the checkered flag was waved, tempers flared and CBS cameras captured a fistfight in the pits between Yarborough, Allison, and Allison’s brother, Bobby.

But the network couldn’t count on that kind of excitement every year. It had to do something to make the broadcast inherently good television. CBS had tried putting a stationary camera called Race Vision in one of the cars that year, and tried it again in 1980.

But the camera had severe limitations: It couldn’t be controlled by remote, it did not tilt or zoom, and it could show only the car ahead.

The solution came from Australia, where a TV network engineer had put an audio camera that could pan and tilt inside a car driven in an endurance race at Bathurst. That engineer and an associate helped CBS develop Race Cam.

Two of the most dramatic moments in Race Cam history occurred in the 1984 Daytona 500. The first was a crash by Petty — blood and guts, Daytona division. ”We had a camera on the driver,” Fishman says, ”and you could see the violence of his hitting the wall, the fire and sparks. You could see his shoulder break and the snapping of his head and body.” (Petty, known for his durability, recovered.)

Drama of a more pleasant sort came at the end of that race, when winner Yarborough crossed the finish line. The camera caught him raising his hand and saying, ”Thank you, Lord.”

Here’s how Race Cam works: A microwave transmitter in the car beams the signal to a helicopter, which bounces the picture back to a control truck in the center of the track. Personnel requirements: five technicians and a pool of free-lancers, including the helicopter pilot.

After its success inside cars, Race Cam was installed outside them as well. Cameras are now positioned on the front and rear bumpers, enabling a director to capture a challenger as he approaches from behind, and the anxious crew as a racer pulls into the pit stop. CBS even placed a Race Cam on the hat of a crew member, giving a ”you-are-there” view of a high-speed tire change.

It’s not a car going at 190 m.p.h., but it’s not an ordinary tire change, either. As Fishman says, ”People just crave being where the action is.”