Skip to Content

Animating Airflow

A new computer model will allow television viewers to see the airflow behind cars during this weekend’s NASCAR race in Indianapolis.

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.

Keep Reading

Most Popular

A Roomba recorded a woman on the toilet. How did screenshots end up on Facebook?

Robot vacuum companies say your images are safe, but a sprawling global supply chain for data from our devices creates risk.

A startup says it’s begun releasing particles into the atmosphere, in an effort to tweak the climate

Make Sunsets is already attempting to earn revenue for geoengineering, a move likely to provoke widespread criticism.

10 Breakthrough Technologies 2023

Every year, we pick the 10 technologies that matter the most right now. We look for advances that will have a big impact on our lives and break down why they matter.

These exclusive satellite images show that Saudi Arabia’s sci-fi megacity is well underway

Weirdly, any recent work on The Line doesn’t show up on Google Maps. But we got the images anyway.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.