Just a few years ago mobile video technology was still developing slowly. Putting a video camera in a race car was cumbersome, expensive, and often unreliable. As such, the only people doing it were the big networks when they broadcast the NASCAR Cup races.
In 2001, the emerging mobile video technology actually had an effect on the outcome of a race when the battery pack a network was using to power the telemetry and video equipment in Robby Gordon's Chevrolet caught fire on Gordon's final pit stop at Watkins Glen. The fire knocked Gordon out of a race that he was likely to win.
Small video cameras can be mounted on various places around your race car to provide your
Oh, what a long way we've come since then. Today, there are a handful of manufacturers producing cameras recording in high definition, with excellent low-light capabilities, batteries that last for hours (and don't catch on fire), can easily handle the abuse that's just part of the territory in racing, and are barely bigger than a deck of cards. Plus, instead of costing several thousands of dollars, like the old-school network setups, the new cameras mostly ring in at $300 and less.
These small, unobtrusive cameras can be mounted practically anywhere on a race car and the video quality is quite exceptional. Racers can use one to show their friends and family what it's like to actually be behind the wheel of the race car, or it can be used to put together a promotional video to help draw sponsorship interest. But maybe best of all, we have seen racers mounting cameras on the chassis to help them get an idea of what is going on with the suspension as the car rolls through a turn. Most record video directly onto Compact Flash cards, which feature no moving parts and don't wear out, unlike old-school videotape. The files can be opened and viewed on almost any computer, but if you wish to put together something with a little higher production value, they will work with the video editing software available at your local electronics store.
Although they all work basically the same way, each camera system has its own nuances that give each its own strengths and weaknesses. To find out what might work best for you, we gathered three of the most popular options and put them to the toughest test we could think of--a night of dirt track racing. The track we chose is the 4/10-mile Friendship Speedway in Elkin, North Carolina. Friendship is an excellent track that almost always features good, close racing, but the track can get rough and, like practically every other dirt track, it gets pretty dusty by the end of the night. We figured this would be a great test of the cameras' durability, weather sealing, and low-light sensitivity.
To begin, we chose three cameras that stood out as the best options for circle track racers. Our test subjects are the GoPro HD Hero, the Contour GPS, and the Drift Innovation HD170 Stealth. We mounted them to multiple race cars in as many different configurations as we could think of so that we can tell you where they struggle and where they shine. Included in this article are several stills produced directly from the video captures. They appear as they came directly out of their respective cameras with no digital retouching.
Sort of like Kleenex, the GoPro brand has started to become synonymous with shoot-anywhere portable video cameras. They are easily the most popular small cameras of this type and can even be purchased at Best Buy stores across the country. Although they all look the same at first glance, GoPro offers several versions of its camera to fit different budgets. At the lower end of the spectrum, the GoPro Hero 960 sells for just $150 but has a maximum resolution of 1280x960 pixels--which is still high definition. We tested the GoPro HD Hero, which shoots in video resolutions up to 1920x1080 and is compatible with a number of GoPro's "BacPac" units which expand the functionality of the camera. And as this story went to press, GoPro announced the second generation Hero, called simply the HD Hero2, which promises sharper images thanks to a glass lens and better low light sensitivity.
For our test we mounted the three best small video cameras currently available on the rear
The most unique, and possibly best, feature of the GoPro design is that the camera body itself is completely encased in a clear plastic housing. The housing is completely waterproof as well as quite tough, so it protects the camera from the elements like dust, grit, and moisture as well as mishaps such as your race car getting into a wreck. The housing also features a replaceable lens cover element. After several sessions of dirt track racing, we noticed that the camera's output was getting a little blurry because the lens cover element had essentially been sandblasted from all the grit you kick up off the track. So we replaced the element (two for $20, including new O-ring seals) and the camera performed just like new. If you are racing on dirt, a feature like this is a must-have. If you race on dirt, watch out for any cameras with an exposed glass lens element that can't be easily replaced. They will only get scratched after a few races and render your camera practically worthless.
The GoPro has a variety of settings that are all controlled with just two buttons. There is an LCD readout which helps you work your way through the settings, but it sometimes can get a little confusing. Once the camera is set up to your liking, it's really as simple as turning it on with one button and starting the video recording with the other. The video that the camera records is sharp and high quality. Finding the proper exposure can be difficult at night on a racetrack where the lights create sharp contrast, but the GoPro handled this challenge very well. There are two exposure metering modes, the center weighted mode works best in almost all conditions, but if you're mounting the camera inside the cockpit and want to expose for the brightly lit exterior, switching to the center point metering mode will help ensure a great shot.
The camera is also expandable in terms of its features thanks to the unique "BacPac" system. The BacPacs are pieces of hardware that clip onto the back of the camera to provide either a view screen or additional battery capacity. The BacPacs added to the thickness of the camera by about half an inch, so a new back is also included for the case. The LCD Video Backpack costs $79 and is very useful for helping frame your shots and reviewing video at the racetrack. The Battery BacPac essentially doubles your battery capacity which can come in handy for endurance races and sells for $49.
GoPro also sells a rollbar mounting kit as an accessory that works very well. It can be installed without hand tools and is easy to remove and move around to help you get a variety of camera angles. When we wanted to experiment with different shots between heats, it turned out to be the GoPro that we reached for most often because the rollbar mounting kit was the easiest to work with, and we worry less about damaging the camera if we mounted it in exposed areas thanks to the protective case.
GoPro HD Hero
Drift Innovations HD170 Stealth