February 12, 2014, isn’t a noteworthy date among IndyCar’s vast history, but it does represent a fun note among experiments that went onto bigger things.
Ten years ago on February 12, during a pre-season test at Sonoma Raceway, the Arrow McLaren team — then known as Schmidt Peterson Motorsports — and lead driver Simon Pagenaud said yes to the idea of trying a visor-cam installation on his helmet during his first run after the lunch break.
It wasn’t a new concept by any means; in-car cameras had been used in racing for the better part of a century, and dating back to a brief period in Champ Car during the 2000s, micro cameras were placed inside the helmet of stars like Paul Tracy to give fans an amazing view from inside the cockpit.
But as that in-the-helmet experiment ended, a fallow period followed until GoPro took the initiative to make miniaturized, self-contained cameras that anyone could buy and readily attach to body surfaces and roll hoops to capture broadcast-level HD footage of their own. GoPro’s early cameras, which were somewhat large and heavy, were perfect for chassis installation, but were too bulky to consider for use on an exposed helmet in open-wheel racing.
That changed in 2012 with the release of its HERO3 model, a smaller, lighter, rectangular camera that, by chance, fit surprisingly well atop a helmet visor when duct-taped into position. Having tried the visor-cam installation at a few vintage racing events in 2013 with drivers of fast open-wheel cars, the thought to give it a try on an IndyCar came to mind at a time when drivers were required to use the thick Zylon safety panels as part of their visors. SPM and Pagenaud shared the curiosity to see what came from it.
Image by Marshall Pruett
What followed was a pleasant surprise that was met with great enthusiasm and sits today at 203,667 views. At the time, it set RACER’s all-time record on YouTube and energized the open-wheel visor-cam genre. It also drew the ire of IndyCar as the recording, done at a private test, was not under its control.
As so often happens, the series’ reluctant approach was reconsidered once the traffic it generated was acknowledged. YouTube, in terms of IndyCar’s social strategy, was an afterthought compared to where it lives today within the series.
At the St. Petersburg season-opener held six weeks after the Sonoma test, a second SPM/Pagenaud visor-cam filming was done at the start of the first practice session, and it’s here where the reaction exploded — as far as YouTube racing videos went in 2014 — with hundreds of thousands of views. To date, the blast through the city streets in St. Petersburg has 426,682 views, and a response this big, while normal in 2024, was far from common a decade ago.
“It was a great idea that we got going,” Pagenaud tells RACER. “I always wanted people to have a chance to experience what racing really is like and to get to feel those sensations of what a race car feels like a 200 miles an hour, or wrestling the bear around a really high speed corner. Some people will never get that chance. And the idea we tried, we thought it was awesome because the camera industry was getting so good that we were probably going to capture something special and have a chance to demonstrate that it is really hard to drive an IndyCar.
“In the past, there was always this thing that racecar drivers were not athletes, and I think the visor camera pictured perfectly the bumps, the vibration, the sound… it was incredible, and allowed people to realize the physics are insane in the car for us, and the twin-turbo engine can also be growling like crazy. And I thought it was really awesome we got a chance to show it. IndyCars are far from being easy to drive. It was cool because there was a tendency to say that cars were becoming too tamed and I think we we untamed a dragon with the videos.”
Although the filming was approved by IndyCar’s media boss, one of its operations leaders became enraged when he saw the camera affixed to Pagenaud’s helmet in the cockpit and ordered its immediate removal. One department had not spoken with the other. Thankfully, the rocketing of the official’s blood pressure came after the future IndyCar champion and Indianapolis 500 winner had finished his outing that went up on YouTube later that day.
After a modest peace accord had been established with the official, one more visor-cam shoot was done in April of 2014 at Long Beach, but by then, citing concerns over safety and regulating the practice, the series was looking to kill the experiment. Pagenaud was allowed to record two laps to open the event at Long Beach before pitting and having the external camera removed from his visor, and it’s here where the filming stopped.
More accurately, it stopped during official IndyCar events until the series decided to start doing visor-cam videos of its own, but they lacked one key element: a separate audio recording. Despite all of the advancements with miniaturization found in a GoPro and its rivals, audio has never been its strongest feature due to the tiny space afforded for a quality microphone. As a result, the noise from onrushing air at 150mph or more tended to drown out the sound of the engine and dampen the viewing experience.
Working with SPM, a perfect location was found in the sidepod to install a separate high-quality audio recorder — small as well, but larger than the camera, which was turned on in advance of the run, gathered afterwards when the team had time to remove the sidepod and cut the recorder loose, and overlaid on top of the video to give the Sonoma, St. Petersburg, and Long Beach videos a howling punch of sound to complement the driver’s view.
The screaming 2.2-liter twin-turbo V6 engine, captured with a Roland R05 — long discontinued, but still working hard today in new RACER visor- and in-car recordings — brought the jarring speeds and violence Pagenaud encountered with each lap to light, and with his immense skills in controlling the Dallara DW12 around road and street courses, a deeper appreciation for his talents were put on display.
“It’s typical in sports when somebody says no to a thing that’s new, but when it generates views, and that basically generates traffic and money, it becomes like advertising in a way and then they say yes,” Pagenaud says. “There’s always going to be an issue with that and who can control it, and it was a shame because, and I’m just talking as a fan, not talking as a driver for the series, I thought the perspective we were getting from it, the excitement we were getting from it, was spectacular.
“Honestly, I wish we would have been able to do the same thing for every driver and then get different points of view during the races, and then show it on the Mondays after. I also hope we can see this come back in some kind of way to the broadcasts.”
With the external mounting banned, an attempt to revive the visor cams a few months later at Detroit by using a pair of glasses with a tiny camera embedded in the middle of the frame above Pagenaud’s nose was tried, and while it worked, the results were less than desired. In another twist, the use of a separate audio recorder was also banned, leaving the underwhelming glasses to do all of the work.
Undeterred, another try at the Indianapolis Grand Prix using a different frame-mounted camera was tried, but Pagenaud hated it. This model had the lens and the hard drive and battery in the frame’s right stem, and with it pressed against the helmet foam, it generated and retained a lot of heat on the right side of his head. Pitting after his first run, Pagenaud’s visor went up, the glasses were removed and handed over, and once the heat problem was explained after the session, they never returned.
A limited number of visor-cam shoots by RACER would be conducted in the coming years at private IndyCar tests, and the series also asked for help – while under a new administration — to get a look at what Scott Dixon saw while sampling the first version of IndyCar’s aeroscreen during Spring Training at Phoenix in 2018.
NBC and IndyCar also got in on the game with custom helmet-mounted cameras that affixed to the top of the helmets and brought great views from the drivers’ perspective. With the mandate of the aeroscreen in 2020, IndyCar’s use of forward-looking cameras from inside the cockpit has all but disappeared during its broadcasts and only on rare occasion do we see visor-cam footage appear from teams or drivers at private tests.
For the most part, the visor-cam in IndyCar disappeared until the arrival of the Cambox camera.
Made in France, the 3D-printed device was originally intended to be placed on the small bill that extends from the helmet worn by riders in horse jumping competitions. The small camera also fits perfectly inside most racing helmets and attaches to the bottom of the foam padding just above the drivers’ eyes through the use of Velcro. IndyCar drivers Romain Grosjean and Will Power were among the early adopters of the Cambox in private tests, but it’s also not permitted for filming during official sessions.
Thanks to Colton Herta, who specifically request to have his run in his father Bryan’s 1998 CART IndyCar Reynard-Ford filmed with a Cambox, we were able to share a view — in HD as well — that wasn’t available back in the late 1990s.
Formula 1 recently ushered in the return of inside-the-helmet cameras, but only for drivers using the Bell HP7 or HP77 helmets, which it owns the rights to under the ‘The Driver’s Eye’ technology it developed through crash testing and certification. Some IndyCar drivers make use of the same helmet and model, but RACER is unaware of the camera view finding its way into its upcoming broadcasts.
And even though the visor-cam sessions met their end in IndyCar years ago, there’s some fun to be had with other series, like HMSA, which races on the same Long Beach weekends with IndyCar. In 2023, HMSA’s vintage F1 cars were on the schedule, so we filmed a session with Porsche legend Patrick Long in a ex-Keke Rosberg 1983 Williams-Cosworth, and with vintage Indy cars set to play with HMSA at Long Beach in April, we just might have more to record and share from inside the cockpit.
This story has been updated since its original publication to include quotes from Simon Pagenaud.