Rusty Writes: Musco, Lighting Up The World of Sports

For those of you who did not recently watch the Daytona 500 here in The States, you missed your best opportunity to see the handiwork of Musco Lighting prior to the GP of Qatar. Musco has been the premier outdoor lighting specialists in The States for 32 years. I first heard of them 23 (or more) years ago while I was marching in drum & bugles corps on American and Canadian football fields. For three years in the mid '80s, the annual Finals competitions were held in Madison, WI. Musco is from nearby (relatively speaking) Iowa, and there was quite a discussion about their amazing ability to use temporary lighting stands to illuminate the somewhat large Camp Randall Stadium that played host for the Finals. At the time, that stadium did not have permanent lighting. Musco was beginning to be known for showing up at a football stadium with their large trucks and providing enough light for a live television broadcast where such a thing had not been previously possible at night.

A few years later they pioneered a plan to light large oval racetracks known here as "superspeedways". NASCAR superspeedways are generally more than 1 mile around and often feature turns sufficiently banked so as to resemble a velodrome or the inside of a bowl. Because of this, the power of their engines, and their aerodynamic designs, the top-tier cars could average over 200 mph every lap on the largest and most-banked tracks - if the sanctioning body would allow it. Oval tracks are all around the American map, and smaller tracks have been lit with more conventional overhead lighting for decades. But these smaller tracks do not feature race cars approaching the speeds of the larger tracks, and they do not need to look good for a national television audience.

The event that changed the course of motor sports history was held at the Charlotte Motor Speedway in May of 1992. I happened to have visited there about a month before the race and got a little inside information on what to expect. The event was the NASCAR "all-star" sprint race, then called The Winston. It was such a success (and looked spectacular on television), that over the next few years, more speedways purchased similar lighting arrangements. Eventually a plan was developed to envelope the 2.5 miles that are Daytona (Charlotte is 1.5 miles around), and the first night race there was scheduled for the Summer of 1998.

It took much less time to realize the advertising potential of special "night race" liveries. The cars that already featured the more exotic colors looked especially brilliant under the lights, so new, more eye-catching paint schemes were quickly imagined for subsequent night races.

The key to their innovation was at the ground level. Naturally, overhead lights had been around a long time, but to eliminate shadows and dark gaps, a method of lighting the track from the infield without blinding the drivers was also necessary. The invention is ingenious and must be seen to be fully appreciated, but essentially, the lights (in the original design) are on the ground and shine up into mirrored boxes that are carefully arrayed to light the track without putting a glare in the drivers' eyes. The result is a beautiful, brightly lit track with no shadows, where a driver would have to go the wrong direction to be blinded by these infield lights. These devices came to be known by their product name "Mirtran", once Musco developed an enclosure that housed the mirrors, blinders, and light fixture all in one box. These are now what you will see making long-throw, tight beams of light that seem to emanate from relatively short posts (reportedly as "short" as 3 metres at Losail).

As ingenious as the original design is, it is admittedly less difficult to light a bowl-shaped track where the racing surface is banked toward the infield. American Stock cars, like Touring series cars in the rest of the world, have roofs the keep overhead lights out of the drivers' eyes. In addition, a race car driver's head is kept at a relatively constant height. For a road course that is - literally - desert flat and features right and left turns that double back on themselves, Musco has a much more complex array of variables to manage. The ever-changing altitude of the riders' heads from as high as 1.5 meters to probably less than .5 meter (in Toni Elias' case) must be factored into the design of the arrays. They will have to calculate every conceivable line of sight on or near the track and ensure that there is no reasonable way that a rider could end up looking into one of the light boxes while still on his motorcycle.

In staring at a map of the Losail Circuit, it was not obvious to me how they're going to do it. But I certainly trust Musco's engineering ability to make this new challenge stunningly beautiful. I had hoped to establish a connection with a company spokesman or engineer to inquire about some of the specific challenges involved in this project, but alas, I do not appear to have large enough credentials to warrant having my phone calls returned.

Now that the test sessions have completed and photos are available, I must say that I am slightly surprised by what I see. Considering what I have gotten used to here in The States, some of these pictures strike me as a little dark, which concurs with the reports from the riders. In some shots, one can see just how far these beams of light are traveling to reach their intended section of tarmac. Naturally, camera placements are critical to what we see, and artificial lighting can wreak havoc on previously ideal locations. Hopefully the various camera crews are hard at work this week finding the best new perches and are not just resting on their laurels. As an American, spoiled by the NASCAR experience, I have high expectations for what we all will see on television this weekend and in the ensuing photos. I imagine, if things appear as they should, most of the bikes will have special liveries for future night racing. And that just might be a bigger story than the actual race.

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