Poor Man's

Automatic Timing System

By rule, timing qualifies as automatic timing if timing is started electronically without human reaction, it is taken with a CCD camera and you photograph the athletes crossing the finish line perpendicular to the finish line. Most current home cameras use CCD's (very old cameras might not qualify--they will say things like vidicon, saticon, plumicon, which mean they are a tube camera). If you understand what conventional automatic timing does, you will be able to place your camera at the same angle (elevated, unobstructed, right on the finish line) to take the same kind of picture of the athletes crossing the finish line. This timing is based on the video frame rate, which is 29.97 frames to a second. That's what limits the accuracy to .03 or .04 of a second. I have extrapolated the rate (including the necessary rounding up factor) out on the chart at the end of this article. New, commonly available video editing programs can capture video and then allow you to analyze the video, frame by frame. Personally I use Final Cut Pro (FCP) on MacIntosh, but there are several dozen other programs on other platforms that can do this (I Movie, IMmix, Media 100, Avid, Premiere etc.). You must capture at full speed--the same speed as the camera is shooting, 29.97 fps (some programs might simplify this to 30 fps but your timing is not valid unless you can certify which rate it is counting at--15 fps or 10 fps ARE NOT ACCEPTABLE).

The procedure is to to a continuous recording starting with a picture of the starters gun as the race is started (the picture of the flash or smoke exiting qualifies for the automatic start because human reaction is removed from the timing process). After the gun, reframe the camera to the finish line shot and record the entire time the race in progress (photographing each athlete as they cross the line). You can do it the slow way and record to video tape (so you have to calculate times later), or with newer computer editing systems you can go directly into the computer. When you capture directly into the computer, still record the video tape for back up--you might also find you can't get your computer set up to record fast enough to keep up with the meet operations, so the video tape will save you from missing a race. To capture live you will probably need to disable transport control in some fashion, FCP allows that in the "Device Control" menu under "Log and Capture." For ease of operation, in your set up menu you should set the start of your time line to either 00:00:00:00 or 01:00:00:00. By the way, 1:00:00:00 is traditionally used in the video industry because many of the early computers upon which this is based, did not understand the concept of midnight and coudn't count properly past 23:59:59.29 (in other words, it couldn't go back to 0).

One more thing to understand before you can use the chart. There are two kinds of "Time Code" and you must use the chart for the system your computer is using. If you don't know which yours is doing (it probably is doing what is called "Non-Drop Time Code." If you can't find it in a menu, you can find out by going to the top of the first minute. You have to locate the counter (lower left on FCP but it could be anywhere on the different systems). As you advance through the frames, if it counts 59.29, 1:00.02 (missing 00 and 01) you are in Drop Frame mode, if it counts 59.29, 1:00.00, 1:00.01 you are in Non-Drop Frame. Non-Drop makes math easier but the conversion to real time will not. Drop Frame converts to real time easier.

Locate the video time, then use the rounded time. I have visually done the rounding, following IAAF/USATF procedures. There may be some mistakes in here, so I included the actual calculations in the column next to the rounded time. Please let me know if you see an error in the chart, so I can correct it. Because of the volume of data required, I've only got the first 3 minutes--I'll do more on other pages later.

Drop Frame Chart

Non-Drop Frame Chart

I'll describe the process using FCP: Open "Log and Capture" Your camera goes into firewire in (adaptor boxes are available if you need them to do this), device control is set to non-controlable device if you do it live (or use the machine control if you are working from a tape). From the finish line, as the starter is calling them to their marks, hit "Now" to begin recording (check to make sure it really is doing it--it may take a few seconds depending on your drive and other set ups) and shoot a close up of the starter. After the gun is fired, frame up on (where the athletes will cross) the finish line. Record all the way through the last runner. Escape to stop recording. Save it (obviously give it a unique file name you can figure out). Open the file in FCP. Scan forward to the start. Back up (reverse arrow) one frame (the flash or smoke is the first frame AFTER the gun has sounded). Hit the letter "i" (the "in" marker). Drag that file into your timeline sequence, aligned with the start of the timeline. Scan forward to the frame the athlete first touches the finish line. Read the position time in the lower left. Look up that time on the chart and you have the automatic time.

Doing this in a rush in bright daylight is a challenge. If you can't do it fast enough for the meet, I'll recommend a second computer to read and a couple of external (firewire) drives to exchange data between. All in all, this is commonly available equipment (that more and more people already have) and can be had for a few thousand dollars rather than upwards of five figures.

My qualifications: I am a USATF Certified Official, with a specialty in AccuTrak/FinishLynx timing--currently with 32 years of experience. Professionally I own a TV Production company that does nationally seen TV shows and infomercials. In other words, I understand both sides of these systems.