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...
Small video cameras can be mounted on various places around your race car to provide your crew, friends, family—and even sponsors—views that will blow their minds. This shot was captured with a Contour GPS mounted on the rear bumper at a 45-degree angle toward the inside guardrail.
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...
For our test we mounted the three best small video cameras currently available on the rear bumper of driver Chris Hargett’s Crate Dirt Late Model for a race at Friendship Speedway in Elkin, North Carolina. From left to right are the Contour GPS, the GoPro HD Hero, and the Drift Innovation HD170 Stealth.
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 S...
Drift Innovations HD170 Stealth
The second camera we tested is the Contour GPS, which packs an unbelievable amount of features into such a small camera. As the name suggests, the Contour actually includes a GPS receiver inside the camera. If you use the included software, the camera downloads the GPS information to provide you a map and speed in miles per hour.
Although it doesn't have a case like the GoPro, the contour is constructed from aluminum and replacement lenses are also available, so it also should be able to stand up to quite a bit of abuse. There is a rear door to access the battery, memory card, and micro USB port. The door seals well but still did allow some dust from the racetrack in. If you want one that is waterproof and should keep out the dust completely, Contour offers a version that is water resistant up to a meter but lacks GPS functionality.
The GoPro HD Hero keeps the...
The GoPro HD Hero keeps the camera protected from the elements in a very tough plastic case. This is the camera we were comfortable putting anywhere. For example, after it was covered in mud after hot laps, we simply poured water over it until the mud was gone and then gently dried the protective lens cover. The GoPro’s rollbar mount system is the only one that can be installed without tools, which allowed us to quickly and easily move the camera around to test different shots.
We loved using GoPro’s LCD...
We loved using GoPro’s LCD video screen BacPac system which allows you to check the viewing angle and replay videos right off the camera. The BacPac system clips right on to the camera and includes several backs to the case so you can leave the BacPac in place all the time. But we found we preferred clipping the BacPac on to check the camera position (as you can see here), then removing it and running the camera in its simplest configuration with the video BacPac safely tucked away while the race was going on.
The GoPro rollbar mounting...
The GoPro rollbar mounting system is jointed to allow adjustments in multiple angles. Here, we have two GoPros running simultaneously so that we can capture the driver’s view and out the passenger-side window. Later, we can splice the action together into one seamless edit.
One feature that wasn't obvious at first but really became important the more we used the camera is that the Contour's body is quite small, especially when viewed head-on. It's also flat black which helps makes it less obtrusive. When mounting a camera anywhere in the driver's line of vision, we think the Contour is the best choice because it's the least likely to be a distraction.
Besides the GPS, another innovative feature packed into the Contour's tiny frame is Bluetooth communications. If you own a smart phone, you can use it to link to the camera and use your phone's screen to see what the camera is seeing. This function only works within about a dozen feet, so you can't use it to monitor your driver while he is on the racetrack, but it's really helpful to align the camera for the perfect shot. The contour phone app also allows you to make quick and easy changes to the camera's settings such as the recording resolution and exposure settings.
If you don't have a smart phone, you can still make changes to the camera's settings by connecting it to a computer. The lens also rotates to help you level the view even if the camera is mounted at an odd angle. A really neat trick that the contour uses is two lasers--one mounted on either side of the lens--that are very helpful for aligning your shot correctly. A big switch on top of the camera turns the recording on and off. It's large and easy to manipulate, even with gloved hands.
Here’s a view from the GoPro...
Here’s a view from the GoPro looking out the window. The camera did an excellent job of finding the correct exposure for the action on the track even when the track lighting cast harsh shadows inside the car.
Contour also has a rollbar mounting kit available. It utilizes a large hose clamp wrapped in rubber to securely mount the device to practically any size bar on your race car without scratching it up. The kit also mounts the camera on a ball joint so that it's easy to orient the camera in practically any angle. On the dirt track this helped us get one of our favorite shots. We mounted the camera to the rear bumper bar and then pointed the camera so that it looked behind the car on a 45-degree angle. This way, when the backend of the car swung out through the turn, we got an excellent shot of any cars trying to take the inside line. However, using a hose clamp means that hand tools are required to mount and remove the system. Although the mount is secure and steady, the time required to pull it off and move it around meant that we basically installed the camera and left it in that position for the night.
The video that the Contour GPS produced was also uniformly excellent. Even in low light, the shots were clear and grain-free. The camera's microphone also did a good job of picking up track and engine sounds without a lot of annoying wind noise.
Drift's HD170 Stealth is the only camera of the three we tested that comes with a video screen built in. It makes it easy to see what type of shots you're going to get and review your shots between heats. With the display it also makes changing the camera's settings a breeze.
The camera is also unique because it's the only one that offers a remote control for starting and stopping the recording function. With the other cameras we often had to begin the recording when they left the pits. That often meant we'd end up with 10 minutes of the card's memory used up while the car sat in the staging area. The remote control means you can wait until the last minute and start the recording just by walking within 10 feet of the car. Drift Innovation also includes a wrist strap for the remote. This is mostly for the snowboarders but we can see using the strap to attach the remote to a nearby bar and letting the driver control the camera.
We also took the cameras to...
We also took the cameras to a test session at The Dirt Track at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Here, we were able to use multiple linkages to extend the GoPro’s rollbar mounting system so that the camera had a cool look down the side of the car. Your imagination is the limit with a system like this.
One very cool feature of the...
One very cool feature of the Contour GPS is that it has built-in Bluetooth. By downloading a free app, your smart phone can become a wireless viewing screen to help you frame your shot perfectly and adjust camera settings. You can check the exposure and make changes as necessary.
Here’s the result from that...
Here’s the result from that camera placement. This is a unique angle showing Scott Bloomquist in his office that should result in some great race action shots.
The camera is also covered in a rubber skin that protects the internals and has a rear door that seals adequately well against dust. And like the Contour, the lens swivels so that you can keep the view level even when the camera is mounted on an angle.
The HD170 is, however, the biggest camera of all and there is no option for replacing the lens if it gets scratched. Also, the sound recording quality wasn't the best in our tests. Wind noise was obtrusive. Drift does offer an external microphone that should help, but you will have to locate the microphone in an area that's more protected from the moving air and zip-tie the cord back to the camera so that it won't flop around. Drift is, however, producing a new model known simply as the Drift HD that is supposed to be 25 percent smaller with a replaceable lens element. If you're looking into one of the Drift cameras for racing, we definitely recommend the smaller version.
Finally, Drift Innovation doesn't offer a rollbar mount for its cameras. All three cameras can use a suction-cup mount, a smaller handlebar mount (for bicycles but too small for rollbar tubing) and various adhesive mounts. But most racing rulebooks require everything on the car to be securely fastened or strapped down. And while the adhesive or suction-cup mounts might work fine for testing, we don't trust them for racing conditions. As a result, we wound up using zip ties to secure the Drift camera to the rear bumper of the Dirt Late Model we used for testing. Obviously, mounting options are limited with this method, so once we had it securely in place we didn't bother moving it again.
Even when the lighting was...
Even when the lighting was poor, the Contour still delivered excellent video quality.
The Drift HD170 Stealth doesn’t...
The Drift HD170 Stealth doesn’t have an option for a rollbar mounting system, so we simply zip-tied it into place. The camera features a tough rubber cover and we were quite comfortable that it could handle the abuse.
The Contour is very slim when...
The Contour is very slim when looking at it head-on. Because of this we were most comfortable placing this camera in locations where it can be in the driver’s line of sight. Its small size and flat black exterior kept it from being a distraction.
Which One is the Best?
Without trying to sound too wishy-washy, the truthful answer is, "It depends." The most important factor is the video quality, and all three are excellent in that regard. A video snob may be able to tell the difference, but we couldn't without playing them side-by-side. To get a look for yourself, we've put up a video with comparison shots from all three cameras on www.circletrack.com
. Just go to the video section and check it out.
Otherwise, the best camera for you depends on the features you are looking for. The GoPro offers excellent flexibility, value, and toughness. You can get into the system and add a video screen later if you like. The Contour packs in a lot of cool features and the ball-joint pivot on the mount is the easiest to adjust--once it's on the race car. We also like the camera's slim form factor. The Drift HD170 comes with a video screen built right in and has a handy remote control, but it also seems like the camera least intended for motorsports.
In conclusion, all three were a pleasure to use and provided outstanding results. We think any of these options serves you much better than Robby Gordon was that day back in 2001.
Modern technology is making video cameras small enough, durable enough, and--best of all--cheap enough to mount on your race car. We take a look at some of the best.
These small, unobtrusive cameras can be mounted practically anywhere on a race car and the video quality is quite exceptional
To get a look for yourself, we've put up a video with comparison shots from all three cameras on www.circletrack.com
Here’s a view from the Drift...
Here’s a view from the Drift once the sun went down. Although the results are still good, this camera seemed to have the most difficulty finding the best exposure under the harsh track lighting.
The Drift has two unique features...
The Drift has two unique features that the other cameras can’t match. First, the HD170 Stealth features a video review screen built right in. It also has a remote that easily lets you turn the record function on and off even when the camera isn’t easily reachable. In this photo the camera is still dirty from a hard night of racing. Later, we’ll just wipe it off with a damp cloth and it will be just like new.
These cameras can also be...
These cameras can also be useful to learn what the car is actually doing on the racetrack. We mounted a GoPro next to the upper shock mount to watch how much the right-front wheel moves as the car rolls through the turn. These cameras have an option to record at 60 frames per second. By using this option you can slow the action down by a factor of two and still get a smooth picture.