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Fox Sports’ Overhead Camera Accident at NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway

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I’m not trying to be tardy to the party with this one, I was actually waiting on Fox Sports to announce what exactly happened at the Coca-Cola 600 on May 26, 2013.  However, as of the weekend it seems like no answer has gone public.

On May 26 during the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Fox Sports’ “overhead flying camera” lost a drive rope or cable, causing that drive rope or cable to come whipping through the stands.  There were reports of around 10 people being treated for wounds and cuts from the cable, as well as a few burns from that drive rope or cable being retracted suddenly.  Something to keep in mind, and it looks as though most news agencies got it wrong — but the rig that fell DID NOT ORIGINATE FROM THE COMPANY SKYCAM. It came from a company called CAMCAT from Austria.

From Yahoo News:

Fox Sports said on Monday it still had not determined why an overhead TV camera cable snapped during the Coca-Cola 600.

The network says a full investigation is under way and use of the camera is suspended indefinitely. Earlier, NASCAR said it would wait for Fox Sports to conclude its review before deciding if such technology would be used in the future.

Charlotte Motor Speedway said 10 people were injured when part of the drive rope landed in the grandstand; three were taken to hospitals. All were checked out and released soon after.

In a statement, Fox said it was “relieved and thankful to know that the injuries to fans caused then CAMCAT malfunctioned at Charlotte Motor Speedway were minor.”

The network again apologized for the disruption.  Several drivers, including then-leader Kyle Busch, reported damage to their cars from the rope.

NASCAR spokesman Kerry Tharp told The Associated Press on Monday that there were no plans to use the system at upcoming races “so we’ll have ample time to review.”

The network said the system was provided by Austrian company CAMCAT. The rope that failed was certified for a breaking strength of 9,300 pounds and was only bearing less than 900 pounds of force during the race, according to Fox Sports.

This isn’t the first time that this has happened, but it’s not an everyday thing – once back in 2011 at the Insight College Bowl Game, an overhead camera system fell onto the field as well, missing everyone this time but still interrupting gameplay (obviously).  Watch:

Looks like in the place it fell, it barely missed some players and officials on the field. I’m really grateful for that! In Charlotte, however, a bunch of people were treated for minor to medium severity injuries due to the camera system.

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In Charlotte, it looks as though the system was manufactured by CAMCAT out of Austria.  CAMCAT has some amazing systems, one of which sports an 80 mile per hour camera head!  From the CAMCAT website:

Developed in the Nineties and continuously improved the CAMCAT® System provides unique and stunning images from otherwise unobtainable perspectives, indoors and outdoors. Over the years its reliability and high quality have been proved on many occasions in sports, entertainment and documentary as one can learn from our references.  The CAMCAT® System is a fully remote controlled cable camera system which achieves precise camera motion over distances up to 1000m at any conceivable angle and at speeds up to 130km/h with maximum stability and smoothness. Since the CAMCAT® System is based on a modular construction it can be adapted to a wide range of shooting situations.

The camera buggy runs on two independent guide ropes made of heavy duty synthetic material and can accept a range of payloads from open platform stabilised mounts fitted with film cameras, to HD stabilised mounts with integrated camera and lens.

The latest RF technology is utilised for picture transmission, camera and head control data to and from the camera buggy with an onboard battery providing seamless operation.  The computerised remote controlled system is backed by an especially developed software that enables the two operating CAMCAT® technicians to pilot the CAMCAT® System either manually or in a preprogrammed automatic control mode.

As safety is a top priority the CAMCAT® System complies with highest standards and is certified by German based TUV Health and Safety Group, one of the strictest industrial safety authorities in the world.

It certainly could be theorized that perhaps poor maintenance played a part in the failure; I’m not making a claim that there was any kind of malfeasance, but with the schedules that these races are under, like anything else in entertainment, equipment does take its wear and tear.  Something that was posted on the Associated Press caught my eye though:

The network said it’s reviewing with CAMCAT equipment maintenance records, history and installation information and plans to share its findings with NASCAR and Charlotte Motor Speedway.

The network said the system was used successfully at the Daytona 500 and was set up and working at last week’s Sprint All-Star race in Charlotte. Fox’s final NASCAR telecast this year comes Sunday at Dover International Speedway.

Tharp said NASCAR would let the network determine what went wrong.

“We’ll sync up with them on what they have learned this week and go from there,” he said.

The network explained how the drive rope moves the camera back and forth and failed near its turn one connection. The camera, it said in a statement, did not come down “because the guide ropes acted as designed.”

The rope, Fox said, was made of Dyneema, which it described as “an ultra-strong synthetic that has the same approximate strength of a steel wire with the same diameter.” It said the rope was less than a year old, had been factory-tested by its manufacturer and its breaking strength was certified before shipment. The rope was also inspected by CAMCAT when it was received last June.

According to OnlineRopes.com, Dyneema has the “highest strength-to-weight ratio of any manmade material in the world. On weight-to-weight base, it is up to 15 times stronger than steel.”

The pictures such cameras provide can be extraordinary. But in this case, the failure brought confusion and chaos to the racers and the fans.

You know what, it’s all fine and good that a year ago the rope was inspected.  It’s even better that the rope they use, Dyneema, is the same strength as steel in the same diameter.  But still — why did this thing fall?

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One of the SkyCam gantry configurations — typically there would be four of these on a SkyCam rig

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One of the reels that Skycam uses in their system — doesn’t it remind you of a huge fishing reel?

As far as our industry goes, CAMCAT’s rig isn’t terribly complex as far as rigging goes — it’s an XYZ position camera that is fed by an X-axis winch, a Y-axis winch, and a Z-axis winch, all of which feed through the camera to stabilization points around the arena.  Check out the diagram below, even though this particular rig shows a CineFlex camera.  After Skycam‘s patents ran out, exactly what you thought would happen happened — everyone else came out with their own rigs!  Does that sound familiar with the history of automated lighting?

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Not thinking about the fans who were hurt just for a second — can you imagine the hell that this must have caused the drivers of those cars just below the camera’s guy-wires?!  From the AP:

Coca-Cola 600 winner Kevin Harvick thought he was imagining things when he noticed the black rope on the track. He was among the lucky ones who escaped without damage. Busch said he heard a “thunk” when he ran over it and knew he’d have problems.

Busch used a cellphone to take a picture of the mangled metal around his front, right-side wheel so his team could figure out how to repair the damage.

Marcos Ambrose dragged a piece of the rope that got caught up in his car behind him on the track. Mark Martin also reported problems after driving over the rope.

I can only imagine that the rope falling caused less damage than it had the potential to cause, and I’m pretty grateful for that.  All of this aside, this camera system is pretty darned cool.  Check this out — a quick video on how an stabilized overhead camera system like this works:

Well, one thing is for sure — Fox News won’t be using their rig on the next gig.

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Thanks to Fox Sports, ESPN, Yahoo! News, That’s Racin!, SB Nation, F-StoppersThe Daily Apple, Wikipedia, and a HUGE thanks to Digital Producer for the SkyCam parts photos!