Get Ahead Of The Technology Curve At IMS

This week, the Indiana Motorsports Commission announced approved preliminary plans by Hulman & Comnpany on how they plan to spend the $90 million provided by the bond issue authorized by the Indiana House. Rather than focus on the points that everyone else is talking about – the return of the apron for NASCAR, but not IndyCar; the new video style scoring pylon (uggh!), the improved video boards and many new amenities – I’d rather discuss something that was barely mentioned, but could be key in vastly improving the overall fan experience at the track.

This past Wednesday, Trackside had two very interesting in-studio guests. The first hour was a fascinating conversation with Paul Page, who has recently been named as the lead anchor for the IMS Radio Network. Although I could have listened to Page talk for hours, this post is not about Paul Page. It was the guest I had never heard of until he was on in the second hour that gave me something to think about. Roger Curtis, the President at Michigan International Speedway, stopped by and paid a visit with Curt Cavin and Kevin Lee.

Mr. Curtis had an interesting viewpoint when discussing track improvements as they related to his own track, as well as IMS. He said what fans want most are not the biggest and most obnoxious video boards on the planet. Instead, his contention is that the future of the fan experience involves the five-inch screen that more and more people are holding in the palm of their hands.

The biggest challenge facing tracks today is providing a strong Wi-Fi signal for all fans to access. His theory is that fans would rather watch racing content that they choose on their smart phone rather than gazing at a giant billboard-sized video board showing only what some director thinks you should see.

The idea is to have an app or fee-based Wi-Fi available so that fans can choose different camera angles or select in-car camera views for their favorite driver. The technology is there, but the cost must be affordable to make it worthwhile. Otherwise they will be laying out the infrastructure for a select few to enjoy. Most importantly – it had better work. Nothing will turn off fans more than charging a fee, regardless of how modest, and have the Wi-Fi or the entire service be sluggish or not work at all.

I am not technical at all, so I am already speaking above my head when talking about a strong Wi-Fi signal. But this much I know – whenever I am at a race, a football game or even a hockey game – cellular service is terrible. In fact, it’s almost non-existent. I can be showing five bars inside the venue – but many times, I can’t text, tweet, send an e-mail or sometimes even make a phone call. And no, I don’t have some low-cost carrier you’ve never heard of. I’ve got an iPhone 5 on AT&T with LTE coverage.

When we were at Fontana in October, the general consensus is there were less than forty thousand people on the grounds. Yet, I could not text or tweet at all. I had planned on tweeting throughout the race, but my phone was practically useless. At Indianapolis last May, I tried texting a friend of mine before the race. It never went through. Supposedly, improved Wi-Fi capability is part of the plan at IMS. My hope is that the powers-that-be understand that this is part of the future they need to focus on and not something to just give lip-service to.

Mr. Curtis was right when he said that strong and working Wi-Fi is not just important to the teens and twenty-somethings in the crowd. It also matters to those of us in our mid-fifties and beyond. Personally, I don’t think that I’m going to be trying to watch the race on my phone while the race is going on in front of me. I’m enough old-school that I prefer the video boards to my phone. But I know that an app and choosing your own camera angles will appeal to a great many people – just not me.

But I do want to have the ability to text, put out tweets and send e-mails during races to some of my low-tech friends and relatives. My oldest brother still swears by his flip-phone. My eighty-nine year-old mother does just fine with e-mail, but texting and tweeting is something she has no interest in (although she is on Facebook).

Again, I have no idea of the cost or how to go about making Wi-Fi available and actually work quickly and smoothly in an area as large as IMS. But if they are planning on spending some money on it – they need to do it right, even if that means spending a lot more money on it. If they don’t get it right, they will have a ton of angry fans on their hands and will further enhance the perception that a bunch of out-of-touch suits are running things now.

If the future truly is making all video available in the palm of your hand, this is one chance for IMS and IndyCar to get ahead of the curve and have a totally unique fan experience. There are enough in all age groups that will benefit from this. IMS needs to get this one right.

George Phillips

21 Responses to “Get Ahead Of The Technology Curve At IMS”

  1. This is just a guess; I know nothing about cellular technology but could the lack of coverage be caused by so many people in one cell area trying to use their phones at the same time. Does the system get overloaded? I know when I am at a race I want to take video of it text my friends, showing all the fun that they’re missing out on etc. I would assume that a lot of people are doing the same thing. I agree with you George I don’t think outside video displays are going to make that big of a difference . However it is easy to get lost from the action at IMS because it’s so big. I think they need to be larger video boards so you can see them from the grandstands but that should not be the emphasis of the money spent. Instead of listening to the Boston Consulting Group, I wish the management at Hulman & Co. would LISTEN to other fellow track owners like Roger Curtis instead. I mean this is free advice right?? And,it didn’t cost $1 million. And, it’s much more more useful.

  2. good point by Curtis on the small screens.

    In an attempt to curtail pedestrian accidents, I’m trying to invent an app that allows people to get a “picture-in-picture” of where they are walking right on their smartphone screen so they don’t have to actually pay attention.

  3. The cell phone issue is that too many are trying to use at once. I’ve had the issue at Indy and with patience you can get through.

    MLB has 81 games a year at their stadiums, the NLF at least 8. A race track may have only one or two big races. I wonder if the cost of this is worth it to them.

    Anyway, I think this is a lower priority of the issues Indycar needs to deal with.

  4. I can only imagine how much your life experience at Fontana was diminished by not being able to text or tweet. The horror of it all!

    If, as you suggest, “the future truly is making all video in the palm of our hands” we are truly in trouble as a society. A bunch of zombies walking around oblivious to their surroundings looking at their hands.

    I can’t wait.

    • Thank you, thank you, thank you! Finally, a voice of reason…..

    • Ron, like it or not, it is the future. Hell, it is the present. As business people Track Owners are going to have to plan for it.

      Don’t worry though. No one will make us old farts watch the race on our phones.

      • Tom, with the exception of Road America I attend oval races, paritcularly the Milwaukee Mile. That event is basically a one day experience that I look forward to all year and that goes by all too quickly. I usually get a ticket in the grandstand and a pit pass so I can absorb everything that is happening. It has not and will not occur to me to be doing something with a cell phone while all that activity is going on. As far as cell phone fixation being the future, my guess is that within a few years it will run its course as people begin to realize what they are missing in real life.

        In car streaming, however, is cool, particularly for road and street courses. Justin Wilson recently remarked regarding how he liked his car set up for road and street tracks………”I like my car more docile, then I sort of provoke it into reacting”. Watching someone like Justin wrassle those cars around the track while you seem to be in the car with them makes for a great fan experience.

  5. My attention is on the track. I have a headset that feeds a constant flow of info and I like looking at the video screens, but I can see that we will need to occomadate an Ipad/Iphone future and it makes sense. I think that the stadiums and tracks will need to provide chargers at each seat.

  6. billytheskink Says:

    You know your cellular phone is old when people talk about how old flip phones are and you still have a non-flipping Nokia…
    While I don’t think this is close to the biggest issue pressing Indycar (or rather, race promoters), it is not totally dismissible. Smartphone users expect to able to tap into free or cheap WiFi (or at least their own wireless network) in public places these days, and it behooves race tracks to make the effort to accommodate them.

    Speaking of new scoring pylons and Fontana, I’ve always liked how Fontana’s pylon tells you how many laps down a car is. IMS should look into that.

  7. I ordered one of those FanVision units for the 500 Mile Race this upcoming year. It is a small handheld unit and supposedly has a small video screen along with timing and scoring and driver audio. I think they run on a separate network that the vendor sets up at each track so theoretically I should have no trouble streaming data to it. They have been used at NASCAR races for a while so the technology should have many of the kinks worked out.

  8. The mobile technology piece just makes sense. I use the Verizon App on my phone at home when watching races on TV, even if only for the Indycar Radio network audio feed when ABC goes to a commercial break. And for street races the timing and scoring is a must if you want to know what’s going on outside of the 3 cars in the front.

    I can see how people might want to use it at the race too. I don’t think it replaces the video board though. Fans still want to look up quick and see what’s happening elsewhere on track. But for replays, or in car cameras, sure it’d be nice to take a peek from time to time.

  9. one more thing, I’d like to say thank you to the people of Indiana for spending their tax $$$ on these upgrades. As an annual visitor to the race I look forward to enjoying them. I promise I’ll spend more money around town during future visits. 🙂

  10. Recalling several moments of the last few Indy 500s (all of which I viewed from the front straight Pit Road Terrace bleachers), I was less engaged in the action directly in front of me, possibly due to the following things:

    1. I was less engaged as Tom Carnegie wasn’t calling the action around the track as I had been accustomed for so many years. (nothing against Dave Calabro, was just different and found myself less in tune with the PA).
    2. Watching more action on the video screens allowed me to see TV views of Turn 2, backstraight, and Turn 3, all the while missing the racing/pit action right in front of me.
    3. Watching scoring rundowns on the screens and missing passes.
    4. My mind has become more feeble.

    Being less engaged to the actual race events and trying to follow the TV shots and scoring data being presented, lead to less enjoyment personally.

    I made a decision after 2011 race to not have a scanner, phone, radio, camera, or any other device outside of my own 5 senses to watch the race, ignoring the video screens outside of replays of yellows, as done in the 80s and 90s.

    Getting back to watching the cars, pits, pylon, and keeping an eye the closest yellow light location made for a more ‘in tune’ raceday. As much tweeting, txting, video, etc I do prior to and after a race, I know I won’t at all be interested in any of those ‘amenities’ being proposed during a race, largely because I’m there to appreciate and absorb the events right in front of me. Nothing wrong with them for those who prefer such things, I just won’t have any use for them.

    Again perhaps in the minority, I appreciate the quirks, surprises, and wonder that come from not being able to see the whole track at IMS.

    • ditto on Billy’s idea for the laps down feature on the pylon. I do know the IMS pylon has/had a single light by the Position to ID those on the lead lap,

    • We’d all be better off if we watched races more that way. The old way. Our senses engaged on the events happening on the track. People are so distracted with things these days it’s crazy.

  11. George is totally right on with this one. I’ve noticed in the past that it’s basically pointless to try to do anything requiring a cell signal at IMS after about 10:00 AM on race day because the network is so overloaded. Likewise, I spent about 7 hours of this year’s Petit Le Mans (in 30 second chunks every 10-15 minutes, mind you) trying to refresh Twitter and/or the online timing and scoring app, with very little success (Twitter never updated on my phone from just after the start until about an hour before the end of the race).

    Can you live without these things while at the race track? Oh, lord, yes. I like to think that I am more than capable of tracking 5-6 storylines myself at the track with nothing but the scoring turnstile (if I am at IMS), my stopwatch and my own two eyes. In fact, I find that I get an even better idea of what’s going on on the track when I’m there doing this instead of at home watching the race on TV (likewise, I’ve basically abandoned tracking Twitter during races either at home or in person, because it is such a distraction…checking Twitter at Petit was my attempt at pretending to be an on-site reporter). HOWEVER, I am a supernerd, who is easily fascinated by things like gaps between cars, thwarted overtaking maneuvers that lead to other overtaking maneuvers, relative positions before and after pitstops, watching how cars handle, and on and on. And, it takes years and years of going to the track to get to the point that I’ve gotten to (excuse me while I rub my arm, because I just sprained it rather badly while patting myself on the back). New fans, especially those of the younger “smart phone generation” do not have that kind of time, patience and perspective (though that is the case of anybody you’d call a “casual fan”, regardless of age). Good, bad or indifferent, that is the case.

    It’s in IMS’s best interests to embrace whatever technology is available right now, while keeping eyes out for upcoming technologies as they come out (for instance, I remember seeing those Fanvision things at the CART races in Cleveland in 2002-2003, when they were called Kangaroo TVs…it’s nice to hear that IMS is finally taking them on board). Failure to change with the times is an invitation to being left behind when the old guard fans die off.

  12. This is somewhat in my field because I deal with IT at a very large, multi-city organization. A huge problem with wifi is that the standard is challenged in the extreme with crowds the size of a basketball game’s one (10 to 20 thousand). 100,000+ seats for a Super Bowl is stretched to the limits, and that’s a far smaller physical area covered than what you’d have to do at IMS.

    Plus, wifi suffers from a more exacerbated legacy technology problem: 3G, EDGE, and lesser cellular technologies don’t necessarily cause other connecting devices to lose bandwidth, but a number of 802.11 b/g phones and tablets can do exactly that if the network isn’t designed properly: 2.4Ghz 802.11 b/gn standard only has so many channels and so much bandwidth while 5Ghz has much more of both, so if a given access point gets dumbed down by a connecting old phone/tablet/whatever, everyone attached to it suffers. Even if they can do 5Ghz and take advantage of the larger number of channels to connect to as well as the greater bandwidth. That, in a nutshell, is how that can happen. And in fact, has happened to orgs like the one where I work.

    There are myriad other challenges. To properly cover areas, you’d need a very, VERY large number of femtocells. Which in turn requires a painful amount of cabling right into the stands. And we haven’t even began to address the pipes outward to the rest of the internet.

    It’s a big challenge. That said, those challenges are indeed only of scale and expense. And technical configuration, but that’s what the professionals at Aruba, Cisco, Juniper, and the like are for. So yes, they can’t be trivialized – seriously, it’s a HUGE undertaking – but they can be overcome with effort.

    • That all said, these challenges MUST be overcome. Some folks don’t mind being in the stands without connections, but many of us who’re used to ubiquitous connectivity like to augment the experience with what we get from Indycar’s Race Control, in-car cameras, commentary from other informed people around the ‘net, and so on. All race series suffer from the paucity of internet-delivered in-race information. Sorry, NASCAR, but picture tweets from inside the car are trivial and superficial scratches on the surface of what’s possible. I’d love to see some actual telemetry be made available to the fan, for example. And up-to-date contextualization of data i.e. by lap 100, driver has made ‘X’ pit stops, that means ‘Y’ number must be made to get to the finish. Or, driver has to cut x tenths of a second from lap time to catch leader. Or even simple datamined nuggets, like: At this track, drivers who had lap times of ‘X’ matched these drivers from the past, and out of those here are the winners. Stuff like any of that is not excessively hard to program; the actual hard part is the initial entry of data, plus writing an application flexible enough to give people what they want but simple enough to be used by people who are technology ignorant. But the point is, it’s possible.

      Ubiquitous connectivity to augument live experiences is a segment of sports spectating that has barely been touched. What we get so far are in-race tweets from designated team members. What we can get is so much more. Connectivity is the first step in delivering it. Without it, then the best designed services will do nothing but convince many to stay at home to get all that data. And that would be a deep shame.

  13. I purchased FanVision for F1 in Austin last year and loved it. It greatly added to my first road course racing experience. It was especially thrilling to be watching from inside Lewis Hamilton’s car when he passed Webber and Vettel. No one around me knew why I was so excited. Having numerous video monitors is also a plus. Fontana could use a few more strategically placed monitors.

    I just graduated to a smart phone and plan to add the IndyCar app. I am curious how it will help enhance the races both at home and live. But I agree with many of you that good connectivity at the tracks is needed

  14. So,bottom line is adding WiFi and better coverage for a race track especially the size of IMS is immensely expensive. After hearing the interview with the MIS CEO. Are tracks going to get a good ROI if they put that much money into connectivity? There are so many other places where the money could be spent. How important is it? That is a very tough question- one I sure would not want to be responsible for having to make. I did not realize how expensive it really was. It was also interesting to hear his opinion that most tracks (he used MIS as an example) are overbuilt. So we will probably see future downsizing in seating capacities at a lot of the bigger tracks around the country.

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