Road America: Surging Ahead
Jul 1, 2002 12:00 PM,
By Phil Lach
The Road America racetrack in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, is one of the oldest racetracks in the United States. From April to November each year, the venerable outdoor track hosts top national and international races, including the CART FedEx Championship Series featuring the Motorola 220; the American Motorcyclist Association races; the Merrill Lynch/Brian Redman International Challenge (the largest vintage race in the United States); and racing events for Porsche, BMW and other auto clubs.
What further distinguishes the racetrack among world-class racing facilities is its 4-mile-long racing surface, the longest in North America. The racecourse, as it turns through Road America’s 575-acre campus, achieves an elevation change of 160 feet. The track’s length, rolling hills and natural susceptibility to the elements present a challenge not only for television coverage of the venue’s high-profile events, but also for sound and video communications.
Built in 1955, the venue until recently used mismatched sound, video and data systems that had been implemented on an as-needed basis over the years. The bulk of the network consisted of separate copper-based systems, each independently designed to enhance the track’s capabilities in a distinct function. Although the systems were useful in their time, they could not accommodate recent, more advanced technologies now required to meet Road America’s need for fast, reliable transfer of voice, video and data. To find a comprehensive, networked solution that would provide a firm, future-oriented foundation for the track, Road America turned to ComNet Midwest Inc., a provider of network solutions since 1986, based in Waukesha, Wisconsin.
STRIPPING DOWN AND STARTING OVER
comnet approached the Road America project in April 2000 with the main, preliminary question: What will be the best way to move information, given the overall size of the facility? The answer was clear: Fiber optic cable was the only solution that would provide for a stable and dependable means of information transport. Fiber can handle long-distance transmission without compromising signal quality. It provides network flexibility and also becomes increasingly useful as high definition broadcasting becomes the norm.
“We went through an extensive search and evaluation process to find an integrator that could put together a comprehensive plan and then demonstrate to us why it would prove valuable for Road America,” said George Bruggenthies, president and general manager of Road America. “We wanted to make a commitment to our future. Rather than spend our resources to maintain an out-of-date system, we wanted to build a highly functional and scalable network, and that was the plan that ComNet put before us.”
ComNet set out to design an end-to-end fiber-based network for the racetrack. The company soon realized that to address each of Road America’s needs within a single plan, it would have to tear down the existing hard-line system and create an entirely new network. In order to make the project successful, the facility was viewed as new construction. In effect, building the network was like building a house. ComNet first created a foundation and structural outline, then went to work on the details.
Road America’s new technical systems may seem like a straightforward series of solutions, but assembled in a single installation, they represent something rather groundbreaking. The sheer size, permanence and comprehensive scope of the system are unique within the sports industry. No other sporting venue has a permanently installed system that can handle so many subsystems.
Of the systems addressed in the Road America installation, the most important were the hard-line communications linking race control to the track’s corner workers, the closed-circuit television camera system used to monitor the entire track, audio and data transmission for the track’s P.A. systems and the fiber connections used for broadcast television camera equipment at any point along the track. The building infrastructure, as well as the outside fiber plant, was designed so that the signals for each system could travel over the same network, perform different functions and be accessible only to authorized users. The facility’s need for a reliable and flexible system also mandated that this multifunction network be able to carry each signal without interference or degradation of quality, while also anticipating future growth.
PHASE I: VIP AND MEDIA CENTER
among other things, the Road America VIP building houses race control, a media center, hospitality suites and a communications hub. ComNet gutted the building’s existing cable plant and installed a new state-of-the-art gigabit Ethernet infrastructure comprised of Cat-5 cable, along with hardware from The Siemon Company. The Cat-5 cable, designed for the support of voice and data information, is interconnected with HP 4000 intelligent switches with gigabit backbone to 10/100 Ethernet port capability.
Road America’s race control operations are divided between an upstairs room that uses the CCTV system — and will eventually control a track light system — and a second area downstairs in the communications hub that monitors and manages the hard-line intercom system. The signals are routed accordingly through Telecast Fiber Systems’ Viper II TX/RX5122 modular platform for digital and analog production. ComNet purchased all of Road America’s audio and video linking systems from Telecast because it specializes in products for the transport of broadcast-quality video, audio and data over fiber optic cable. Standards-based hardware from Siemon (wall plates, fiber terminations and connectors) was used throughout the network infrastructure. Both Simeon and Telecast offer a variety of products designed to resist the type of environmental stress present at Road America: moisture, dust, extreme temperatures, EMI/RFI and vibration.
PHASE II: OUTDOOR FIBER PLANT
the main challenge ComNet faced was enabling all of the track’s systems to function independently while operating simultaneously on one fiber transport system. Each system — audio and video for broadcast production, hard-line intercom for track monitoring, CCTV signals, and signals for the track’s P.A. systems — required its own fiber path. To maintain the integrity of all signal transmissions, each set of signals is routed through a different cell within a single fiber tube. The resulting network is a hybrid system with 4.1 miles of conventional fiber and more than 11 miles of Sumitomo Electric Lightwave’s FutureFLEX air-blown fiber, the only UL-approved field fiber optic cable assembly in the world.
ComNet incorporated FutureFLEX fiber into the Road America network for its reliability and flexibility. Using the FutureFLEX fiber optic cable assembly, the ComNet technicians used a directional airflow of compressed dry nitrogen gas to blow single-mode fiber strands in 2-, 6- and 18-strand fiber bundles into the appropriate cells in 7- and 19-cell tubes. With air-blown fiber, any additions or changes to the installed network can be made without significant disruption to the overall system. Old fiber bundles are blown out of the existing tube to make room for the new. There is no splicing or patching, so transmission quality remains at peak levels. This low-impact method of modifying fiber systems is particularly important in Road America’s rugged outdoor environment, where the integrity of waterproof and oil-proof gear is vital to trouble-free communication systems.
- Distribution/Termination. More than two dozen tube distribution units (TDU) are located along the length of the track, some more than 1000 feet apart over longer, straighter stretches of the course (which can be covered with fewer cameras and workers). Tube cables are assigned within each TDU. The TDUs also house fiber connecting points, Viper units and connections, and all CCTV power, data and track audio. A video, audio or data link can be created from any one of the TDU or fiber termination units (FTU). Each TDU/FTU provides the capability to establish corner worker positions, CCTV and broadcast TV locations and a link to the P.A. system.The TDUs are housed in National Electrical Manufacturers Association type-13 enclosures that are impervious to water and oil. The units were necessary because of the harsh winters and demanding weather throughout the year at the facility. The outdoor network is made up of approximately 60 segments of 6-strand and 18-strand fiber; four segments of conventional 24-strand fiber in 1000-, 4576-, 4840- and 5098-foot lengths; and approximately 10 short segments of copper wire. In some of the denser areas of signal transport, as between the media center and the broadcast compound, as many as 90 strands of fiber are in place for data transmission. As a result, intercoms have been established at 26 locations. P.A. amplifier connections have been established in 14 positions, and 16 cameras may be positioned in nine locations along the track.Although the fiber network at Road America is more than ample for its current communications needs, new fiber paths may be created at any time from splice points located at intervals between TDUs. This functionality enables the network to expand when needed.
- Hard-Line Intercom Link. ComNet faced three main challenges in engineering the outside fiber network. The first of these was creating a hard-line communications link between race control — located in the VIP building — and the corner workers, who are stationed before turns around the track to provide assistance, to communicate with the drivers through flags and to relay track reports back to the steward. The hard-line communications are one of the most important functions of the fiber system. Race control must be able to communicate with anyone, anywhere in the facility at any time. This capability is a requirement of Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) and other sanctioning bodies. In some circumstances, hard-line communications can mean the difference between life and death, so the system must be available at all times, with no exceptions.Although they are highly trained, race control officials still need a clear, controlled connection to danger spots. They can’t monitor the whole course visually all of the time, so to cope with everything from oil on the track to a horrendous crash, they must be in constant and immediate contact with workers on the track. Before using the new fiber system as a hard-line link, corner workers had to use radios to communicate with race control. Even with repeaters, the radios functioned poorly on the far side of the course. Distance and the course’s natural hills degraded the quality of transmission, and because the radios were in use all day long, they required constant battery changes. The new hard-line system doesn’t require a power source on the track, so the radios serve only as a back up.To answer the demand for unconditional pathways for track communications, Telecast’s Viper II systems are deployed within the 26 TDU boxes located directly along the racing surface. The Viper systems allow the fiber network to act as a high-speed intercom system operated and monitored by race control. At each of the 14 turns on the track, and at additional points between turns 3 and 4, 6 and 7 and 11 and 12, one or more corner workers are connected to the intercom system through an FTU and/or TDU. At turns requiring corner workers on both sides of the track, or on the opposite sides of the track from the TDU/FTU, corner workers are connected to the hard-line system through a shielded twisted-pair cable extension.Anything that happens on the racetrack is relayed from a corner worker in that area to race control, which monitors each situation. Each participant can talk and listen at the same time, so racetrack workers can avoid potentially dangerous glitches in communication. Everything that’s said over the connection can be recorded, reducing liability issues, and also can be distributed via radio to safety teams that are ready to be dispatched at a moment’s notice.
- CCTV System. The second challenge the Road America network design addressed was the track’s need for a closed-circuit television camera system that could be used for visually monitoring each part of the course during an event. Sixteen cameras were positioned around the track, allowing race control to tape the whole race digitally. Officials have pan, zoom and tilt control over 12 of those cameras, which also are controlled by Viper II units from Telecast. Through the CCTV support, officials are now able to review rule infractions easily.Telecast’s Viper II TX/RX5122 modules are capable of handling NTSC/PAL video, as well as digitally multiplexed stereo audio and data. An upcoming feature of the Viper II system will allow race control to manipulate lights on the track, alerting drivers of existing track conditions while the race is underway. The lights, to be operated from race control, function much like standard traffic lights with red, yellow and green lights indicating track conditions.Road America’s CCTV system provides a valuable visual link to the entire course, and like the corner worker communication system, allows track officials to document events throughout each race.
- Public Address System. ComNet added an additional piece to the communications network to support all of the track’s public address functions. Powerful amplifiers have been deployed at 18 locations to drive the P.A. speakers. On race days, that also becomes a critical system. ComNet selected the Adder 161 audio multiplexer from Telecast to allow audio to move over the fiber network to the amplifier. Each Adder unit in the field — enclosed with amplifiers in concession stands and other weatherproof buildings — is connected through fiber to both the amplifiers and a host Adder unit in the VIP building’s communications center. The host unit is, in turn, connected to a soundboard that produces the P.A. system signals.What makes this system unique is its ability to act as a large P.A. system for the track as a whole or as several smaller, independent P.A. systems that serve smaller portions of the track. When multiple events are taking place at the track at once, Telecast’s Adder allows the P.A. system to be tuned to as many as 16 channels to support each event simultaneously. The new system capabilities give Road America greater flexibility while hosting multiple activities, such as the Skip Barber racing school and racing kart events at the Briggs & Stratton Motorplex.
- Broadcast Television. The final challenge that ComNet faced in the design of the outside fiber plant was to enable the use of broadcast television camera equipment at any point along the track. Sports broadcasting is an important revenue source for networks, race tracks and sanctioning bodies, and the ability to provide reliable broadcast support is key to increasing the number of televised racing events at the Wisconsin track. Road America’s relationship with sponsors includes signage captured on video during the televised event, which requires 100 percent uptime during broadcasts.
Before the fiber system was installed, broadcasting from sites along certain portions of the track was difficult. When a camera was stationed two miles from the production truck, coaxial cable didn’t work well and caused a lot of headaches. The fiber optic network makes transmission instantaneous. With Road America’s new fiber infrastructure, the setup time required for quality TV production has been reduced dramatically. In the past, network crews brought or rented in excess of 100,000 feet of cable to support event coverage. Positioning a camera two miles from the production truck used to take two days. Now a remote camera at that distance can be ready to go in 40 minutes.
Equipment from Telecast Fiber Systems was again implemented to support the broadcast requirements of the television crews. Telecast’s Cobra fiber optic camera extender establishes a high-performance fiber link that interconnects triax-equipped cameras to their base stations for the transmission of broadcast-quality video, camera control data and audio communications conducted between the operator and production truck. Production crews can work with preinstalled fiber optic cable, rather than laying their own, a process that previously required two to three days of setup time. The Cobra units can connect news crews and broadcast production trucks to 14 fixed fiber terminations alongside the track in minutes.
At Turn 5 and Alpha Station, two particularly important locations, accommodations for a wireless remote mic have been implemented to provide announcement functionality from both places. Announcers previously had been using phone lines, which didn’t provide a reliable or stable audio link. With a Viper system handling multiple audio channels, crews can now plug the mike receiver in to the Viper for a clear wireless range of more than 500 feet. Once again, because the system is made of fiber, distance becomes irrelevant. The fiber optic network will ultimately save production companies time and money, enabling Road America to attract more media coverage for its events.
SUCCESS NOW AND TO COME
comnet felt it was critical to offer broadcasters the support they need for successful sports production. The fiber network provides many more options, allowing broadcast producers to create the right feel for event coverage. Producers can use any camera angle and can move announcers to different positions for live interviews or commentary. They just position the camera and look for the closest hook up.
In all, the installation took about 5000 technician hours over the course of four months. Both phases of construction were completed in August 2001, prior to the yearly CART FedEx Championship Series race. Road America’s new fiber systems took the stage for this event and performed without any major problems.
“The difference between our old system and the new one is like night and day,” said Bruggenthies. “Our track is often compared to Europe’s classic road racing tracks, and we’re known as one of America’s premier facilities, so it’s very satisfying now to have the advanced technological capabilities the fiber network has brought.”
- Plans for the Future. Additions to Road America’s network are already being considered, and with the fiber infrastructure in place, the track can enhance video and data communications in many ways. Tentative plans include incorporating Telecast Fiber Systems’ Diamond-Back 8-channel audio and video multiplexer to move CCTV to broadcast trucks so that producers share race control’s ability to monitor the entire track. The video quality is high enough that it can be used for television broadcast.
A new headquarters building may be built to relieve the pressures of the rapidly growing facility as it changes to meet the needs of today’s racing events. The refurbished farmhouse that serves as Road America’s corporate headquarters is now cramped, so a new building may be constructed at the bottom of Turn 14. A TDU currently installed at that site will directly connect any communications systems built into the new headquarters to the existing network.
“We’re taking important first steps in creating an fiber optics environment that will support the media, the fans and the workers,” said Cheryl Barnes, Road America’s communications director. “It’s a real compliment to have other race track managers visiting Road America so they, too, can implement a system like the one designed and built here.”
Phil Lach is president of ComNet Midwest Inc. Lach and his wife of 25 years run the company together, specializing in providing complete communications solutions.
MOMMY, WHAT’S IN THAT BOX?
More than two dozen tube distribution units (TDU) are located along the length of the track. Each unit provides the capability to establish corner worker positions, CCTV and broadcast TV locations and a link to the P.A. system.
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