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High-tech tools transform track scoring

May 24, 2011 12:00AM

High-tech tools transform track scoring
Mike Leiker uses high tech cameras to time track competitions

This weekend, Mike Leiker will be responsible for keeping track of about 3,700 teenagers. What might sound like every parent's worst nightmare is something Leiker says he's looking forward to.

Leiker, an assistant professor in Pittsburg State University's Department of Health, Human Performance and Recreation (HHPR), operates Ticker Timing, a private company that specializes in timing and scoring track and field events. For several years, Leiker and his crews have been in charge of timing and scoring for the Kansas high school track and field championships, which take place this year on May 27-28 at Cessna Stadium in Wichita.

Events such as the Kansas state championships can be complex. The two-day competition encompasses 11 running events and 7 field events, which are then multiplied by two for men's and women's categories and multiplied again by six to include each school classification. Numbers attached to competitor's hips become critical pieces of information when dealing with such large numbers of entrants, Leiker said.

To be ready for a competition like the state championships, Leiker begins laying cables and preparing equipment a day or two before the event. The state championships will require a crew of about 16, he said.

Timing and scoring track and field events in 2011 is vastly different from the days when stop watches and tape measures were the high-tech tools of the trade, Leiker said. Today, the equipment includes specially designed high-speed cameras, computers and sophisticated software that ensure accuracy to thousandths of a second.

"These aren't like normal cameras," Leiker said. "They run at very high speeds and are used at horse and dog tracks and by NASCAR."

Leiker said the cameras in use today record from 1,800 frames a second to many times that amount. Some of the cameras in use at NASCAR races, he said, can determine a quarter inch at 200 miles per hour.

Specially designed software and robust communication systems are combined with the high-speed cameras to make modern timing and scoring so effective, Leiker said.

The result is both a high degree of accuracy and rapid communication of results.

At a typical race, for example, the sound of the starter's pistol starts the timer. Equipment can detect movement even a tenth of a second before the pistol fires. At the finish line, the camera records the finishers. Because so many frames per second are recorded, it is relatively easy to determine even the slightest of differences in the finish.

That information is transmitted to a computer where the software produces a photo showing the finishers in order, eliminating large gaps in between. The operator then posts the information to the scoreboard.

"At the state meet, they bring in a video board," Leiker said, which competitors watch for their results. Watching for the results to pop up on a video board creates a sense of drama and excitement at track and field events, Leiker said.

It can also create some tense moments for the people responsible for timing and scoring. Leiker recalled working the U.S. Indoor Championships in Boston in 2004.

"It was the first television meet I had ever worked," Leiker said.

After one extremely close finish, Leiker waited for the image from the finish-line camera to pop up on his computer screen, but nothing appeared. He posted and then removed incorrect information from a backup camera before the correct photo from his camera finally came through. Throughout those tense moments, officials were screaming in his headphones.

"The pressure can be big," Leiker said.

©2011 Pittsburg State University