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Drivers, teams discovering on-track benefits of video study

April 20, 2011, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Drivers and their teams are discovering on-track benefits of video study

When times get tough, Denny Hamlin turns to the video. The struggling Joe Gibbs Racing driver spent his flight to Southern California earlier this season studying previous races and qualifying attempts, looking for trends or secrets that might translate into a better effort out on the race track. He did the same thing prior to the event this month in Texas, a speedway where he had swept both races in 2010. He watched lap after lap, and noticed that he was too shallow entering Turn 1-- a position that prevented him from carrying all the speed he could through the corner.

"It's not just one lap that I'm looking at, it's multiple laps," said Hamlin, last year's championship runner-up, who is currently 17th in Sprint Cup points. "I see that, and I see in practice I have to work on whatever I have to do to make my car do that. It's just something I feel like I have to do to make speed. Had I not seen and studied that stuff, I probably would race the track the same way that I always have. ... To get better, because everyone else I know is better, you have to study that stuff."

"If you're struggling in an area, it's easy to watch the video and watch whoever is the fastest car or whoever you ask to have your car overlayed with."

--JIMMIE JOHNSON

He's not alone. The study of video, long an established practice in stick-and-ball sports, has secured a firm foothold in NASCAR, thanks in part to a new generation of technically savvy drivers and a company that's designed integrated video software applicable to racing. In an era of very limited testing, preparing for a race weekend can now mean examining video images of your car overlaid with others, to try and discover exactly where your competitors are beating you -- or, where you have an edge on the competition.

"It can help," said five-time Cup series champion Jimmie Johnson. "If you're struggling in an area, it's easy to watch the video and watch whoever is the fastest car or whoever you ask to have your car overlayed with. To watch their line, to watch their braking points, to watch their acceleration points -- it really helps. It's our version of going to tape to review."

Teams will use overlays to judge how they stack up against others in practice or qualifying, or use video to search for those small areas where fractions of a second can be shaved off a pit stop. Nationwide Series championship contender Justin Allgaier -- who said it's a fairly even split in the garage area between drivers who lean on video and those who use simulation programs like iRacing -- also likes to study the on-board cameras of his competition.

"I actually do it a lot," Allgaier said. "Video has been something for me that over the last couple of years I've been very fortunate to have, not only on-board, but tapes of the race. I think you can always learn from the guys that you're around. It's funny, I thought that I was really working hard inside the race car until I watched some of the other guys' on-boards. Definitely right now you're having to push yourself, not only the car, but you're pushing yourself to your limits to be able to run these things fast. I think it is important to watch video."

Feeding that need is a 13-year-old company with the unusual name of Dartfish, which designs the video software that most NASCAR teams use. Founded in Switzerland and with its U.S. headquarters in suburban Atlanta, Dartfish pioneered the practice of overlaying video clips for direct comparison. The technology, now known as SimulCam, found an immediate client base in racing -- ski racing, that is. Even so, the potential applications in auto racing were obvious. In 2001 Dartfish opened its U.S. branch, and current chief executive officer Victor Bergonzoli met a NASCAR team owner for the first time. It was Richard Petty.

"I didn't know who he was," Bergonzoli said, "because I had just come from Switzerland."

That would soon change. The same year Dartfish secured its first NASCAR client in team owner Jack Roush, never one to be behind the curve in terms of technology, who saw SimulCam during Olympic skiing telecasts and immediately connected the dots. NASCAR being the follow-the-leader sport that it is, use of the company's video platform in race preparation spread from there. Powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports and its affiliated teams began using it in 2006. When Toyota entered NASCAR's premier level, the manufacturer provided each of its member teams with the software, holding a group training session in 2008.

"It was word of mouth," Bergonzoli said. "It was one guy working with a team, and then going to the next team."

Teams quickly grasped the benefit of this new tool. They learned they could film 15-lap runs using different setups, and then go to the video to compare the first, 10th, and 15th lap of each effort, as well as the first against the last to see how the car progressed. The technology gained popularity because of its applications in qualifying, where drivers could lay their lap over that of the pole sitter to see where they gained or lost time. The actual filming is left up to teams or third-party companies, and the video is then fed into Dartfish software which teams have been taught how to use.

"For me, it's been important to see where we're at compared to the guys that are running well."

--JUSTIN ALLGAIER

"That's the kind of thing when you're testing, you could overlay data and look at lap times. Now it's become so confined to the race track, you're trying to figure out where you can gain and where you're maybe pushing too hard," Allgaier said. "For me, it's been important to see where we're at compared to the guys that are running well. I think that is important. For me, one of the biggest things I do, I typically will drive into the corner too hard. The new style car doesn't like that as much sometimes. So you've really got to watch where you're at compared to everybody else. I feel like that watching that video and seeing how they're doing things, maybe it's a line characteristic, acceleration, something, will definitely help you in the long run."

SimulCam technology is also used in Fox television broadcasts, as the basis of the "ghost car" feature that shows how two vehicles are running in relation to one another. But video study has become most important among drivers, who don't have telemetry to lean on and can't test at most major NASCAR tracks. "There's very limited information for the drivers to look at," Johnson said. "I think we're all trying to find out how we can use video to our advantage."

Toward that end, Dartfish has rolled out secure channels so team members in various geographic locations can study the same video feeds via the Internet. The company's involvement in motocross has it studying a potential NASCAR application in which real-time vehicle data can be overlaid on the screen. Although Dartfish is a huge presence in Olympic sports and is involved in everything from dog agility to fly fishing, the concept remains constant regardless of the pursuit. "It has applications that are very similar in any sport," Bergonzoli said. "You have people performing, and you use video to analyze the performance."

So don't be surprised if Hamlin once again turns to the video before the next Sprint Cup race, at his home track in Richmond on April 30. If anything, be more surprised if he doesn't. Drivers are beginning to learn what football and basketball coaches have long known -- that studying the video tape can have its benefits.

"It's weird," Hamlin said. "It's definitely not something I thought we'd have as a tool. Earlier in my career, I never thought I'd have to be studying film from races to kind of get better. I never thought it would be part of racing."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.