Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Charlotte Camera Failure Not First; Could Have Been Worse

Falling Skycam came close to hitting Iowa players
The failure of an overhead camera system during the Charlotte World 600 that injured 10 fans, sending three people to the hospital and damaging several race cars, was not the first time this type of system has failed.  In fact, it was the third major failure of an overhead camera system.  All those involved at Charlotte are fortunate the end result wasn’t worse – much worse.

Called a SkyCam when it was patented about 30 years ago, there are now several versions of the system available, still generically usually referred to simply as a Skycam.  All the systems are similar: a remote camera mounted and operated by suspension cables, all computer controlled.  The Skycam surged to popularity during 1996 Olympics and later became a fixture at major football games, races and even golf tournaments.

The first significant failure of a Skycam-type camera came during a 2007 Sunday night NFL football game between New Orleans and Seattle when the camera made a “controlled descent” to the field according to Cablecam, the camera's operator.  No one was hurt, but the game was stopped for a short  time while the cameras and cables were cleaned up.  Cablecam blamed it on “human error on the part of the operator.”

Another incident took place during the Insight Bowl between Iowa and Oklahoma on Dec. 30, 2011, the camera making anything but a controlled descent.  With a little more than two minutes to play in the game, the camera came crashing to the field, just missing Iowa’s offensive huddle and sending several players ducking for cover. 

I remember walking on the grassy tri-oval area at the Daytona before the start of the 500 a few years back and later at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, watching the Skycam whip back-and-forth while the camera operator practiced before the race.  Probably like everyone else, I wondered what would happen if something came loose.  The pictures were great, however, and I’ve enjoyed them as much as anyone over the years.

Now we know what could happen.  Again.  Give Fox credit, it aggressively covered the story during and after the race, showing repeated replays of the cables coming down, apologizing and taking full responsibility for the problem. 

We may have seen the last overhead shots for a while – possibly forever.  Use of the camera has been suspended indefinitely and an investigation is underway with Comcat into what caused the cables to fail at Charlotte.  Even if the failure is traced to “human error,” I can’t imagine the camera being used again at a race track, at least not in the manner it has been used thus far.  Like all cameras, the ones used now on Skycams are just a fraction of the size of those used 30 years ago, but the damage that could be done by a camera falling on a race car moving at more than 200 mph is unthinkable.

We’ve been warned.  Three strikes and you’re out.   


  1. You have done the leg work and at least those who read your column will have the facts. Time will tell if the lame stream media will utter a single word remains to be seen. Thanks for keeping at least a few informed.

  2. Thanks for the note. I'm a little surprised something more hasn't come of this too. Maybe everyone is waiting for the Fox/Comcat report. Let's hope so.

  3. CBS many years ago used a remote helicopter cam up and down pit road. That almost seemed just as dangerous as a cable cam over the track.

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