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NASCAR Nextel Cup racing is returning to ESPN on Sunday, for the first time since 2000, with an innovative technology that will give fans a reason to watch the race from home. The technology, called Draft Track, is a computer animation developed by ESPN and SportsVision that lets viewers see the air flowing behind and over race cars.

The swirling air animation, which looks like green flames, enables television viewers to better understand drafting, or slipstreaming, an important technique in sports racing in which competitors align in a close group in order to reduce the overall effect of drag. Two cars cutting through the air together are able to run faster than a single car.

“As a driver, you can feel [the draft], you can feel what it does when you’re side by side, you can feel what it does when you’re behind each other, and you can feel what it’s supposed to do,” said Rusty Wallace, an ESPN race analyst and the 1989 NASCAR Cup champion, at a press conference on July 24. “The story is letting the viewers see it.”

What viewers will see with the new technology is a visualization of the turbulent air based on real-time information–a car’s location and speed–derived from GPS. This data will be loaded into a computer model that uses computational fluid dynamics to turn the information into a graphic of green waves that will represent the airflow or slipstream. Viewers will be able to see when a car enters it and when the car comes out of it. (Click here to see the animation during a race.)

Jed Drake, ESPN’s senior vice president, developed the idea in 1998, but when ESPN lost rights to the sport in 2000, it went dormant. Now that the idea has been revived, Drake believes that the technology will be a “real strong item” for ESPN, and he plans to add it to the network’s coverage of many different things.

The new technology goes on the list of innovations that ESPN has created to enhance the television viewer’s experience and show those watching at home the unseen elements of sports. The line of scrimmage in football and the strike zone in baseball are two other well-known visualization technologies that ESPN developed in collaboration with SportsVision.

Draft Track will debut this weekend during ESPN’s coverage of the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard in Indianapolis, and initially it will only be used during replays.

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Tagged: Computing, computer modeling, sports technology, fluid dynamics

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