In racing, action cameras have gone from rare, to regular, to required. General track days may not require cameras, but more and more people are using them. For an outright beginner, a camera can be an unneeded distraction, but they can certainly be useful tool for advanced drivers, and catch some fun clips too.
Prices are all over the place for cameras: From $900(!) to $400, and down to $75, name brand action cameras (Smarty Cam, Gopro, Mobius) may not destroy your season’s budget, but are they really a place where you need to spend?
I have been using my cell phone to record track and racing video for years now. The entire process has been pretty easy with a only a few minor hiccups. Keep reading to see what I’ve learned.
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Because of the requirement to record video (and penalties for noncompliance), I have been running redundant video. If I have a good view (or are involved in) an on-track incident, I’ll still be able to provide that video even if one of my cameras fails to record for whatever reason. I’ve been using this for my phone alongside an older GoPro.
Low budget knockoff action cameras are around $60, with some even dipping down into the $20’s. You typically don’t get the same features, quality, or reliability of the significantly more expensive, name brand cameras… But they’re soooo cheap, so they’re tempting. I own three of these, one takes somewhat good video. One is woefully unreliable (IT decides if it wants to record on a given day, not me), and the third corrupts about 75% of the video files. If you’re considering this route, I have to suggest you look elsewhere. I prefer my ANCIENT original GoPro hero because it has remained reliable. If I had to buy another camera, I’d buy a Hero 3 black.
*Also expect to add a Micro SD card to pretty much any camera you buy. The good news is prices have been plummeting and even class 10 high capacity cards are available under $10.
So… what about phones to record video?
If you were born after 1980 it is likely you have a couple retired smartphones lying around. Smart phones work great for a year, maybe even two. As they age their screens get cracked, they struggle to run normal apps, and/or their batteries won’t hold a charge long enough to be practical. These phones can get a second lease on life as track cameras.
Benefits of using a phone for video:
4) Quick review – big touchscreen makes reviewing video easy.
3) You already have one, or two (3?) – C’mon you know you, or your parents, or somebody has a few old phones lying around.
2) Great quality video – Cell phones have had great cameras for years now, you may miss out on the newest features but will still be able to take high quality videos even if a phone is a few years old.
1) Easy Uploads – Jump on wifi and upload, done.
Possible issues with using a phone, and how to overcome them.
Depending where you mount your phone, it may be getting direct sunlight in the fishbowl of your hot car. On a race weekend with temperatures nearing 100 and blazing sun, my phone went into overheat mode and shut down before my car left the paddock for qualifying. In a pinch, I borrowed a bunch of white stickers. The color change from heat absorbing black to reflecting white seemed to be enough that the phone recorded without issue through the entire race (Even though it was a few degrees hotter outside by then!)
You may need to ditch your dark-colored phone case, or even just sticker it up to be a light color.
4) Video Stabilization
This issue is a rather new one. Phones from the last couple years have digital video stabilization so your caffeine shakes don’t interrupt recording your next TikTok video. The issue in a racecar, is EVERYTHING shakes, so there is going to be some level of vibration. Also, the nature of our videos (in a car, recording out, moving very quickly) throws the software for a loop. You can test to see how your specific phone records video, but when I tried my Pixel 2 the stabilized video looked like it was filmed through a fishbowl, at a drunken party. This was an issue I hadn’t had on any older phones, expect to turn the stabilization setting off and hope it does so completely.
3) Max recording length
This may be the biggest issue, but thank fully: It is the easiest fix. (On an Android Phone, at least)
Due to some obscure European Union rule regarding taxation and device recording length, most cell phones will only record videos up until ~30 minutes. This may work fine for 15-25 minute HPDE sessions, but for racing you are often waiting in grid recording video for several extra minutes (waiting in race grid is stressful enough, you don’t want to be fumbling with starting video as cars begin rolling). My first attempt using a phone for race video got me 15 minutes of grid/yellow and only the first 17 minutes of the 35 minute green flag race.
The built-in android app would hit it’s time limit and stop recording. However, the “Open Camera” app can not only record longer before stopping, but it also has an option to automatically begin a second video as the first stops. Problem solved. There are other options, but I’m very happy with Open Camera’s simple, straightforward interface. I love the option to lock the screen when recording begins so you can’t accidentally start-stop the video when mounting it in the car.
Obviously the cupholder or magnet mount you use in your daily driver will not work. It may seem great on the street, but one run on the rumble strips and your phone can go flying out the window. A more robust mount is required. I use a gopro rollbar mount, and a “gopro smartphone mount”. (Note: The exact model I use isn’t sold anymore but this actually seems like an improvement) It mounts the phone securely in a spot where it gets great video and doesn’t vibrate, droop, or fall. After 5 or so seasons I have not had any issues.
1) Standard Lens (Vs wide-angle lenses on action cameras)
Action cameras come with a fisheye (or wide-angle) lens to record a much greater field of vision than a typical cell phone camera. A GoPro mounted on a rollhoop or harness bar will record out the windshield, but also catch a significant amount of the view out the side windows. A standard camera lens will have a much narrower field of view mostly just catching what’s out the windshield before getting cut off.
You can live with a cell phone camera’s slightly smaller view, or look into purchasing a clip-on wide angle or fisheye attachment for a cell phone. I have experimented with a $2 lens from eBay, it does an okay job but isn’t perfect. It crops a bit of the view and I’m not sure it would last through an entire race. Here is a similar, somewhat well reviewed Lens kit on Amazon if you’d like to check it out, or roll the dice on eBay.
After using my phone for the last couple years, I don’t mind the skinnier view of the standard cell phone lens and these haven’t even left the bag for a thorough test. The concept has merit.
Why did you retire your phone in the first place?:
The reason(s) you retired your old cell phone may not affect its functionality as a track camera at all.
3) Cracked screens:
Annoying or even dangerous for an everyday phone, but much less of an issue for a phone if it’s only used to record video.
2) Bad Battery:
Phone won’t last 6 hours normal use without dying? That may be infuriating for your primary phone, but a phone in Airplane mode with minimal apps will last much longer. Set up a specific charging port in the car so it’s easy to charge while you’re recording video and battery is no longer any concern.
1) Old, and slow:
As older phones age they get slower and slower. New apps get more demanding, more are running in the background, and the phone is chock full of data/information/spying/etc.
A track camera can always be in airplane mode, the phone doesn’t try to look for service or worry about a sim card, it’s doing less.
Delete all the apps you don’t use, disable any others that you may not able to delete. My track camera phones have “Open Camera” for recording, “YouTube” for uploading, “Google Drive” also for uploading, and a lap timer app… that’s about it.
After two full years of use, my old HTC was unbearably slow as a regular cell phone. I deleted most my apps and it still functions perfectly as a track camera, despite being 8 years old.
-Want to go to the next level of running lean? Look into “Rooting” your android or “Jailbraking” your Iphone…. I haven’t needed to, so I haven’t bothered.
What if you don’t have a spare/retired smartphone?
2) Brave? Use your current phone:
Using your current phone can work just fine. Personally, I don’t like the risk. You’re obviously securing the phone, but if something drastic happened I would be much less angry if I broke a 6 year old phone than if my current everyday cell phone.
There is one BIG benefit of using a current, active phone: Youtube, Facebook, Instagram (And probably 10 other sites by now) offer live-streaming video options. More and more racers are live-streaming their races from sprint races to endurance. If you have a generous data plan and don’t mind your unfiltered driving being beamed straight out to the public internet, live streaming may be for you. A gametime decision to livestream my race in October went great, and I plan on continuing it in the future (As well as writing a post about it.)
1) Don’t have an old phone and don’t want to use your current one?: Ask around… friends, parents, kids, may have old phones also collecting dust that they would give or loan to you.
I hope these tips may help you use a phone to record. Let me know how it goes for you and share some of your own videos!
This post contains some affiliate links from Amazon.com – No Money Motorsports earns on qualifying purchases. Help support NMM and cover the costs of this website.