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Linux at NASCAR.com: It's the pits

If you're a Linux or Macintosh user wanting to take advantage of NASCAR.com's coolest features, you're out of luck

(LinuxWorld) — Joe Aramendia, my son-in-law, has made his first two starts in NASCAR Busch Series events this year: first at Rockingham, then in Las Vegas. As a result, I've been practicing saying "tar" instead of tire, pondering the meaning of phrases like "driving off the hood" and "drive it like you stole it," and hanging out on NASCAR.com to learn what's new during the week prior to the race. Susan has broken me of the habit of scuffing up my "tars" while driving into town.

NASCAR.com, as you might have guessed, is the official Web site of NASCAR. Turner Interactive, a part of AOL Time Warner, runs the site for NASCAR. It is a "must-visit" site for NASCAR fans online. They have almost everything: statistics, live Web cams from the garage area all during the week, interviews with drivers and crew chiefs, commentary, chat and streaming audio/video clips. However, not all of the streaming media is available for Linux users. Worse, the very best feature of the site is not available to Macintosh or Linux users, period. TrackPass with PitControl is a subscription feature of NASCAR.com. This bleeding-edge application brings you — among other things — real-time telemetry from Winston Cup cars so that you can get a graphical display like the one shown below. This feature gives a car's location on the track, speed, RPM, throttle and brake action — all of which are updated multiple times per second — and live audio feeds of driver-to-pit communications. It's pretty amazing stuff. If you've been watching NASCAR on TV, you've probably seen the graphic overlaid on the screen from time to time during the race. It's the best online app for browsers I've never seen.

PitCommand at NASCAR.com

This week, I'll share what I've learned about when and how the Linux and Macintosh platforms might become supported by TrackPass. I'll also reveal an under-the-hood secret I've learned about the graphic display used in TrackPass.

First off, much of the streaming audio and video is available only to subscribers. I'm down with that. No problemo. I am somewhat partial to being paid for my efforts, too. I'm certainly not going to be writing about how you can hack the application and access that content you haven't paid for. That would be a crime. However, if you are a Linux user, I will tell you how you can see some content that's currently blocked from Linux users for no apparent reason. I'll describe what I learned when I tried to find out why.

I had mixed results playing video clips from NASCAR.com with Galeon. I have the RealPlayer 8 plugin, the latest community supported version of RealPlayer available for Linux, installed on my Web-surfing desktop machine. I found some videos on the site played perfectly. Others didn't play at all. I saw nothing but an empty window opened in my Galeon browser. No error message. No caution. No starting of RealPlayer.

What Linux does see

I could see that Galeon was loading a JavaScript program when I clicked on the link, but I couldn't tell what it was doing. A quick phone call to a friend running Windows got me the source for the JavaScript. It's aptly named sniff.exclude. Its job is to determine whether you are running RealOne, the latest version of RealPlayer. If you're not, it doesn't stream the video.

Just because I am a suspicious old coot, I decided to see if having the RealOne player is a real requirement or not. I put together a URL linking directly to the video clip and loaded that. Guess what? It worked perfectly on RealPlayer 8. Lisa Amore at Real Networks explained to me that TrackPass itself requires RealOne. She also explained that even though Macintosh users now have access to RealOne in a production status, they still can't get TrackPass. Evidently, there are platform-specific portions of the application that will have to be redone as well. The good news is that Amore said they are hard at work on a RealOne player for Linux.

I also spoke to Jeff Palmeroy at Turner Broadcasting, which partnered with Real Networks and with SportVision to create and deliver TrackPass/PitControl. I wanted to learn more about the aspects of TrackPass that were platform-specific and why. I also wanted to know why some video clips were flagged as requiring RealOne when they clearly did not. Palmeroy was going to speak to his technical people to get me some answers. That was a couple of weeks ago. Not a word. I'm not surprised, because I doubt that it ever was a technical matter.

I checked the NASCAR.com site again this morning and it appears to me that they have now gathered up all the streaming content — it used to intermingle with stories and links on the front page — so that now it is all part of the TrackPass subscription service. I also checked to see if I could still play the video clips I viewed by bypassing sniff.exclude a week or so ago. No luck. They are just gone.

Where Turner had no comment, SportVision was very forthcoming. I spoke with Jay Sandhaus, the project lead for the PitControl application. SportVision, by the way, is the same firm that "paints" the virtual yellow stripe across the football field to indicate the first-down marker in television broadcasts. The company is also doing other cool things at PGA.com. What I learned in talking to Sandhaus surprised me.

I suspected that the lack of portability for some aspects of JavaScript might be the reason for platform-specific code in the application and a reason why Macintosh users still can't get TrackPass. However, when I asked Sandhaus about it, he told me that PitControl was written entirely in Java, not JavaScript. Furthermore, he added that PitControl runs perfectly on Linux.

SportVision's part of the project was more than just writing the application that displays the graphics to users browsing NASCAR.com. They also handled all the aspects of gathering the telemetry signals from the cars and making that data available. I imagine the inside of the SportVision trailer at the racetrack must look a lot like those shots you see of network television production crews at sporting events: lots of monitors and receivers and all sorts of strange gear. Sandhaus did say it was a very sophisticated operation.

SportVision has Linux inside

Then he laid the bombshell on me: the machine in that trailer, which is used to create and provide the graphic displays you see on TV broadcasts of Winston Cup races, is running Linux. I should have known. As far as where the roadblocks are that prevent Linux and Macintosh users from subscribing to TrackPass, Sandhaus didn't know. Obviously, it's not at SportVision.

There is always going to be a level of frustration in using an alternative platform. It was true with OS/2, and it is true today with Linux. It's frustrating for me, especially since my son-in-law hopes to run in the Busch Series race at Texas Motor Speedway later this month. I would really like to be able to access all that good stuff (except PitControl, which is Winston Cup only) provided by a TrackPass subscription. However, all I can do is wait for RealNetworks to finish RealOne for Linux — and for whatever the second bottleneck is to be removed as well.

As far as herding users from one release to the next, that is a generally accepted practice in the business world today. Microsoft does it. IBM does it. Red Hat does it. Some may be more or less subtle than others about it, but they all do it. While some videos on NASCAR.com seem to have been needlessly blocked a week or two ago, TrackPass/PitControl really does need RealOne to function. That's a technical thing, not marketing.

What frustrates you most about using an alternative platform like Linux or the Macintosh today? How do you deal it? Do you simply whine like me and wait for the day to come when your platform is supported, or do you dual-boot and run Windows when you need to?

More Stories By Joe Barr

Joe Barr is a freelance journalist covering Linux, open source and network security. His 'Version Control' column has been a regular feature of Linux.SYS-CON.com since its inception. As far as we know, he is the only living journalist whose works have appeared both in phrack, the legendary underground zine, and IBM Personal Systems Magazine.

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