The Evolution of Race Timing Technology

10 years ago Mike Hummel was competing in a 5K timed by a large clock at the finish line and a race volunteer with a clipboard was recording the times and places. Hummel was gunning for first place, neck and neck with a competitor, when he almost ran right into a truck parked parallel to the finish line that was still trying to get the timing clock hung. Hummel is only 35, but through a quarter century of running in various events, he's seen every type of timing system imaginable. From tear-off tags on running bibs to the disposable timing chips used commonly today, Hummel – and the runners he coaches in the Dallas, Texas, area – have seen race timing undergo an evolution. But like most runners, he said he doesn’t pay much attention to the particulars of a timing system unless something goes wrong. Despite a recent movement away from timed races to untimed ‘events’ like color runs and mud runs, most runners still value precision. When they invest time into training they expect to be rewarded with an accurate time and place. And the RFID technology that has become ubiquitous in the running world – and was once found solely on shoes – has taken on new disposable forms featuring innovation that becomes more runner-friendly every year. For a number of years, the history of race timing technology included just one major highlight – the introduction of a shoe-mounted timing chip by a Netherlands-based company called ChampionChip in 1993. Marathon The original ChampionChip systems, transponders based on a Texas Instruments microcontroller, changed very little over two decades, and because ChampionChip had a monopoly on the market it strictly controlled the distribution of its technology. That landscape changed about 10 years ago, when companies like ChronoTrack, Innovative Timing Systems and Lynx developed tags and readers of their own and created a highly competitive environment for race directors. As the market opened up, the equipment became more affordable, resulting in chip-timed races in everything from small-town 5Ks with 100 runners to urban for-profit races with tens of thousands of participants. The shoe chips produced accurate results, but because they were re-usable they presented a hassle for race directors, especially when runners inevitably forgot to return them at the end of a race. The obvious solution was disposable chips, and retailers like Wal-Mart and Target were already using a version of the technology to track their shipments. Kurt Hansen, who started developing his own disposable racing chip about seven years ago, realized that the principal adjustments to the retail design concerned issues like moisture and the wear-and-tear associated with running. “These tags were not really meant to be used in rain or snow,” said Hansen, now the CEO of Innovative Timing Systems. “They were meant to be used in boxes or pallets in a very controlled environment. I spent about two years working on the design.” The city hosts all sorts of events, including road races like this marathon. Hansen’s disposable chips, which adhered to the back of the runner’s racing bib, were inaugurated at a 2007 race, and when all of the participants had crossed the line the results showed a 98.5 percent accuracy rate despite rainy conditions throughout the event. In the past six years, disposable chips – either models that stay on the bibs or those runners peel off and stick on their shoes -- have become the standard in the race industry in most areas, although some smaller cities are still operating events with re-usable chips. Scott Bassett with On the Mark Sports in Greensboro, N.C., said the runners he meets have become accustomed to disposable chips and consider the old model of shoe chips to be inconvenient. “Once racers use disposable, they really don’t go back,” Bassett said. After Hansen’s initial success with chips for runners, he founded ITS and went back to the drawing board to develop new and better chips to time different types of races. By late 2013, he had 65 patents either issued or pending – all variations on the disposable race timing chip. “The realization I had very quickly was that where timing systems didn’t work very well was in these radical settings,” he said. “Seven years ago, if you did a mud run, you were lucky if you got your chip timed. In cycling races, they made you slow down and drive over the mat on the shoulder. The challenge was to build a system that would span all of those types of athletic events.” To grasp how far the race timing industry has come, consider an ITS client in Paducah, Ky., a race manager who purchased Hansen’s Jaguar timing system. When ChampionChip had a stranglehold on the market 15 years ago, a city the size of Paducah was unlikely to have access to a system. Today that client can buy one timing system and use it with any of Jaguar’s 15 distinct chips. “Where he used to time only about eight running events a year, we have created a chip for triathlons, water events, dog racing, races down a track,” Hansen said. “Now when this guy buys a system, he can say, ‘I can do auto racing, I can do downhill skateboard races, I can do kayak races.’”   (AP Photo/Sang Tan)