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Ski Timing Equipment - On the cheap (build your own) ???

post #1 of 19
Thread Starter 

We could use some timing equipment for race training, but have no club budget available. So I would like to build something simple from parts. All we need is a start beam or wand, a count up clock that is triggered by the beam and a finish beam. A time system on a beer budget. Anyone know where I can find some plans and/or a parts list. Any leads on used equipment.


post #2 of 19
Timing systems, so far as I know (which isn't that far), typically work by having a single clock, and recording the time of day of each start and the time of day of each finish, then matching the finishes with the starts and determining the elapsed time by subtracting. Among other things, keeping the complete record of all events by time of day allows you to time with multiple racers on course, and to go back and fix obvious problems (like a false finish trigger caused by snowfall or a spectator or something).

For the actual timer -- just thinking off the top of my head -- you could use a PC and write your own simple software if you have a way to hook up the start and finish hardware so that when the computer receives a trigger signal it records the then-current time from its internal clock.

If you can figure out the hardware communication protocol business, a physical start wand wouldn't be tremendously hard to build, using a piece of fiberglass fishing pole (or something like that) and a momentary switch.

The finish is slightly trickier, in that you need a photocell that'll be triggered by interrupting the beam focussed on it, and will do so reliably in daylight.
post #3 of 19
Can you see the start and finish from one point?

If so, a plain old stop watch can be fairly accurate. Certainly accurate enough for training.
post #4 of 19
If you can't see the start and finish from one point, and can stand manual stopwatch accuracy (ie, probably, about 300 msec at the very best), have the top and bottom timekeepers periodically (by radio) simultaneously reset and start the lap timers on their official $9 Timex wristwatches. As soon as each racer leaves the start, the starter radios his/her lap time to the timkeeper at the finish, and that person records it (eg, enters it in a spreadsheet). When that racer crosses the finish line, the bottom timekeeper enters the lap time on his/her watch. The subtraction can either be done manually or by letting a spreadsheet subtract the two times.

A higher tech / more accurate (maybe 50-100 msec) solution would be to use two laptops to replace the wristwatches. Since lots of people have laptops these days, the cost could probably be kept to around $100 for this level of accuracy and still has the benefit of not having to run wires between the start and finish lines.

Before the race, synch the clocks on the two laptops using a website such as this: http://www.timeticker.com/ (...click: "set computer time"). Install clock/timer software like SnapTimePro ( http://www.tucows.com/preview/335835 ) on both computers. One laptop goes up the hill, the other stays at the finish.

Connect an (expendible) external mouse to each laptop, and fish out the two wires connected to the left mouse button. Wire up some simple circuitry (a $1 opto-isolator / switch) to those leads. Connect a long-range photosensor (plus small battery + resistor) to the other side of the opto-isolator. Using just these few components, the start and finish timers can be triggered optically.

Have the cursor positioned over the on-screen button in the timer program. When the racer goes through each beam, it will be equivalent to someone clicking that mouse button. The rest of the process is equivalent to the manual two wristwatch approach described above.

Here's one example of a suitable long-range photosensor: http://web5.automationdirect.com/adc...CX-z-FE_Series)
Each pair costs $39 and has a detection range (ie, across the finish line) of up to 12 meters.

If you're getting serious about using this method, check how fast the clocks in the two laptops get out of synch, and if necessary, resynch their clocks every few hours.

If you can run wires between the start and finish, pick up one of these classics on Ebay,

( ... and you'll still be limited to a resolution of about 0.3 sec...)

Tom / PM
post #5 of 19
Originally Posted by PhysicsMan View Post
Before the race, synch the clocks on the two laptops using a website such as this: http://www.timeticker.com/ (...click: "set computer time")... One laptop goes up the hill, the other stays at the finish.
Sounds like the beginning of a relativity problem on a physics problem set! I doubt the laptops will be separated at relativistic speeds though so you should be okay .
post #6 of 19

This takes me back...

A few years ago, I wanted the same thing you do- race timing on the cheap. What I found is that if any real accuracy is desired, you need to spend a little money and get the real stuff. If people paid to race, they expect accuracy in timing. That's what this sport boils down to. In my intramural league (NASTAR-esque), it's not uncommon to have racers with identical times down to the 1/100 of a second. Can you eyeball a finish that accurately? Spend a little money.

I started out with an old Reliable Racing 2s timer, Reliable Racing start gate, and a TAG Heuer 2-9 photosensor. This was great if you wanted to manually record times and didn't mind fixing the photosensor every year (it required timer power), but it did the job.

There are more than a few of the 2s timers floating around that race teams are probably willing to part with cheaply, and they're fairly bulletproof and easy to fix (I have the schematics). They don't interface with any existing computer software, so you will be recording times manually. I used an Excel spreadsheet, which added the times automatically and did all of the sorting functions. The timer will also power external sensors, which is nice if you're using dinosaur equipment.

From there, you might be able to find an old, non-homologated (approved by FIS) timer, like the TAG Heuer CP501 or CP502. I picked up a couple 502s off of eBay last spring for $250 (for the pair) for a mighty mite program, but I haven't seen many auctions like that. Be careful, as support for these timers is often not available and if they break you either fix them yourself or you're out of luck. The ones I got needed several components replaced before they'd work, and TAG wouldn't provide me with schematics or any other info. Alge is a little better with support, but don't count on any timer manufacturer for help- they want you to buy the new stuff.

A step up from that is an Alge Comet, which will interface with several timing programs and might still be homologated. I think Alge still actively supports this handheld (but still pretty powerful) timer, and it works well in somewhat nasty conditions (battery powered and well-sealed). I expect suport to drop off in a couple years, but they are a good unit for the money (around $500-ish).

A step laterally from that are the Summit Systems SRT500s that reliable racing sells for around $500. http://www.reliableracing.com/detail...&category=6501 I haven't worked with them specifically, and software support is somewhat limited, but some people have reported good results. I usually only deal with TAG Heuer and Alge, since there have been more than a few companies go under that sold timing equipment and left their customers high and dry with expensive door stops. But I would imagine Reliable Racing will give some sort of support in the long term if something did happen.

I have an Alge Timy, which goes for about $1400 (and up). While by no means top of the line for race timers, it's the most versatile I could find and does everything I could possibly need a race timer to do. Amazing how I got from "I don't want to spend any money" to this point.

After the timer, you need a good start gate. I looked at building them, but it got expensive pretty darn quick. The switch alone was about $150 for the accuarcy and reliability/durability you need. You might find a race team with an automatically returning gate that they will let go cheap. I still use my Reliable Racing gate as a backup, and it works perfectly- it's just not homolgated. Expect to pay about $600 if you can't find one on the used market.

For finish sensors, you can get an old Alge RLS1 (refurbished) for under $400 from Phoenix Sports Technology http://www.phoenix-sports.com/ which would be pretty durable and suit your purposes. Used TAG and Alge sensors show up once in a great while on eBay, but usually in the late spring and not always at the best prices. Used stuff sometimes shows up on the Phoenix Sports Technology bulletin board, and I would consider that a better source for equipment. As for using photosensors designed for other applications, you may have issues with fogging or other failures related to the conditions usually found at ski resorts. I never had much luck with them, but your results may vary.

For the rest of it, you can go pretty cheap. PC Timing software is available for free for several common timers (I use Skunkware's Fiddleware program). Wiring from the start gate can be normal CAT 5 cable, or something else in the 24 gauge or larger size. You really only need a single pair for starts, but more pairs is better for reliability. Don't expect to be able to remove the wiring once it's on the ground unless you used wire specifically designed for cold weather (much more expensive)- it will break. For the finish sensor, you should use a better grade of cable, especially if you're running power through it to the sensor. Fortunately, in a standard configuration you will only need a short run from the finish to the timer.

Wireless systems are another option (like the ones from Brower), but reliability can be an issue and they can get kinda spendy. I tried to modify their handheld wireless track timer for ski racing (another eBay find), but results were less than ideal. Radio interference was the biggest issue once I sorted out the other problems, and I ended up selling the thing a year later. I just couldn't rely on it.

For a person who wanted to do timing on the cheap, I have spent over $5,000 on my current system. I like Alge's stuff because it's the most durable I've found, has good support, and it's easy to work on. I ended up with a Timy, RLS1-n photosensor, D-Line display, TED wireless transmitter/receiver, and an old TAG start gate. When you add in the gates and other equipment required to run a race program, it's well over $10,000 (and climbing).

I could have done it cheaper, but reliability on race night is of paramount importance to me. There's nothing worse than spending hours setting up a course and timing, having racers at the start, and having to postpone the race because of equipment failure. I know, it's happened to me in the past.

But, I don't see why you couldn't put a system together for much cheaper. Start with a used Reliable Racing 2s timer ($50?). Add a refurbished Alge RLS1 ($350?) for the finish sensor. Finding a start wand might be difficult, but let's say $150. That would give you a basic system for around $650 that can handle multiple racers on course at one time and will be accurate to 1/100 of a second.

If you have any questions, let me know. I should be able to point you in the right direction for what you're trying to accomplish.
post #7 of 19
The idea, above, of creating a simple hardware interface by cutting off a mouse cable is pretty clever and easy, I think.

Even if you don't have wires run from the start to the finish, you can always use two computers or two watches, and have a person read the times over an FRS radio or something. Another interesting possibility would be see if you could get two computers to network with WiFi.

Notes on Hand Timing

Having one person trying to time the whole course by visually looking at both the start and finish is going to be way off, I think. I don't think I'd consider the results accurate to less than second or so. That's likely unacceptable, particularly on a course that's so short you can see the start and finish.

Side note: USSA and FIS rules provide for hand timing at all races, as a backup. There's always supposed to be one (or two) sets of hand timers. Hand times can be, and sometimes are, used in official results.

This may not be highly relevant, but the way hand times are supposed to be done:

- Use stopwatches that show time of day, with a button that freezes the time so you can read it.

- Sync the start and finish watches (supposed to do this shortly before every run).

- Record all start times and finish times.

- If you need to use a hand time, you're supposed to calculate an EET (Electronic Equivalent Time) by looking at the five times on either side of the time you're determining and calculating the average difference between the hand and electronic times. This actually elminates the need for the watches to be synced perfectly, at least if you have good electronic times.

A few notes on a plan for using hand times alone, at least for training:

- The start time can be fairly accurate, I think, so long as the timer has a consistent viewpoint and a good reference. If you want, you can actually use a wand that's not connected to anything, and have him trigger when the wand moves. Or whatever.

- The finish time is, I think, a tad tricker, as the racers are usually moving pretty fast. With concentration, I think you can be reasonably accurate.

- Have the start timer radio the start time to the finish with a FRS radio or something. If the finish timer, or an assistant, has a PC with a spreadsheet, he can immediately calculate the elapsed time when the finish timer gives him the finish time.

- Perfect initial sync still isn't essential, so long as the watches don't drift significantly farther out of sync over the period you're using them. Sure, if the watches are a little out of sync, all the times will be off by a litte, but they'll all be off by the same amount and in the same direction. Racers will still be able to compare their times to each other, and to compare times from one training run to another.

- The finish timer could use a laptop as his clock. You could set this up so that it automatically inserts the time in an Excel Spreadsheet with the Now() function. I'm not sure how accurate that is, since it may involve some lag in the operating system, but here's an incredibly easy way to set it up:
- Three column spreadsheet, with lots of rows. Set it to recalculate manually.
- Column C is Column B-A = elapsed time.
- In Column A, each time a racer starts, insert the start time read to you over the FRS from the start timer.
- Column B is full of "=NOW()." Each time a racer finishes, hit F9 to recalculate. Then, before the next racer finishes, "Copy - Special" the newly recorded time to the same cell, value only.
- You could actually forego the start watch altogether, by recording start times the same way as finish times every time a start observer says "Mark" over the FRS. I think this introduces a good deal more inaccuracy, though.
- Using this system, you can deal with as many racers on the course at once as you want (so long as the finish timer's pretty alert). The only limit is the time it takes the finish timer between racers to enter and copy figures. Even if the finish timer mismatches starts and finishes, you can fix it after the fact (though you might lose a time).

- If you can network the computers with WiFi, you can forego the FRS radio. You might also have at least the start computer be triggered automatically with a wand connected with a mouse cable to the computer at the start.
post #8 of 19
I guess it all falls into what one would consider reasonably accurate. Using a computer is a timebase can be tricky, and pretty inaccurate in ski racing terms (I've heard by as much as +/- .1 second). Of course, if you're using pushbuttons to record timing impulses, the inaccuarcy of the timing official(s) will make that figure seem insignificant.

From the original post, we're talking about timed training, which means a limited number of personnel available to watch the system. The best option for training I've seen is the Brower Bib ID XS Training System, which works anywhere on the hill in all kinds of conditions, without need of wiring or wall power (everything is battery powered). The displays are large enough you don't need a giant display (although one is available). However, at almost $3000, it isn't exactly beer-budget. I would think it would be better than exposing multiple laptops to the elements.

My question would be- do you currently run races on this hill, and what do you use to time them? Why do you want to time the practices and what do you expect to gain from it? In other words, what's it worth to you?
post #9 of 19
My impression is that once you start in to trying to "do it right," you're unlikely to get away with spending less than several thousand dollars.

If you don't have that much to spend, it all turns into a somewhat messy and semi-jury-rigged compromise among accuracy, reliability, personnel needed, easy of use, cost, etc.
post #10 of 19
Agreed. I spent a lot of money trying to get around doing it well (not perfect, not professionally, just well) with pieces and parts I tried to modify or adapt for use as a timing system.

However, the $600-$1000 I mentioned for a basic system isn't all that out of line for a sport that already costs so much- especially when spread out among several people (the club).

Again, it all boils down to what you want it to do.
post #11 of 19
AXWare is intended for car events, but I suspect it could easily be adapted for ski timing. It's about $1000 for two emitter/sensor pairs, a timing box, the software and cables. You provide the power source (generator or 12V battery if a regular outlet isn't available) and laptop. Resolution is 0.001 seconds, and the software is rather powerful. The operator can manage false trips, people not finishing, and multiple people on course at one time.

Possible issues - start gate is optical rather than a wand, and batteries don't work well in the cold.
post #12 of 19
The use of transponders in ski racing has been debated for years. Holmenkohl used to have a personal training system that used them, but it required you to pass over a buried plate to trigger. Not a problem for starts, but could be problematic for finishes, as the plate was only so wide and so sensitive. However, transponders are used in a variety of mass-start events and with good results.

Transponders require each athlete to have his own transmitter, which increases the cost somewhat. Placement on the athlete is critical to achieve uniform results. The upside is that there is less mechanical error introduced from the start gate and they can be less prone to false-triggers from falling snow than photosensors. I expect we'll see them in use eventually in ski racing as a possible backup timing method. If they can install Recco systems in boots, why not race transponders?

I use alkaline batteries in all of my timing gear, and get a season out of them if I take care of them. It's certainly more reliable than hill power, which is notorious for noise and electronics-killing spikes.

I'm not sure the AXWare system will adapt for ski racing, but it is interesting. I don't think I'm willing to pony up the $1000+ to find out (as I already have a proven system), but if someone is willing to sponsor (fully fund) my study I will certainly read your proposals.
post #13 of 19
Thread Starter 

The Equipment is for Training (only)


Thanks for all your great ideas. Most appreciated.

FYI, our club has good equipment, at two different race run/timing hut locations. However, the equipment is generally in use for races; removal for training purposes is frowned upon, for good reasons. Any new club money would likely be spent on enhancements to existing race hill equipment. What I am trying to do (independantly) is provide some equipment to the coaches (and our coach in particular) to use on the fly, on a short hill section, at a location of their choice, for training purposes. Given that this would be financed by yours truly, or atbest through a collection from those parents willing to contribute, I need to find an inexpensive solution.

I don't think that stop watches will do the trick, especially on short training sections. The accuracy would not be sufficient. Similarly, bringing laptops out into the snow and cold is not something I'd prefer to do, atleast not with mine. So I may either have to buy a pieced of used equipment and wire it to a car batter with AC converter, or build something from scratch, from components. For the later, I was hoping to find some plans and specs. I have and can build electronic systems, but I am a yeti and need a plan to follow.

Anyone seen any "build it yourself" plans out there?

I welcome any further ideas, now that I've given you abit of further background.


post #14 of 19
This isn't what you're looking for either, but I think it's kind of interesting. And, I suppose, it could be "cheap" depending on what you mean by "cheap."


It's a flexible non-permanently-installed system that's designed specifically for training, not racing. The somewhat nifty part of the business plan ("nifty," I suppose, depending on whose point of view you're looking at it from) is that it seems to contemplate selling a set of central components to the club (~$1000 and up), and then selling multiple personal timing units on a racer-by-racer basis at $225-250 each.

It fills what seems to me to be a key requirement of a training system: once you set it up, it requires no operators (other than the racers themselves). Even a (expensive) homologated race system typically needs some personnel to operate it, and the more jury-rigged you get, the more attention during operation is likely.
post #15 of 19
Brower used to make a ski racing version of their track system, which was closer to the $1000 range new. It had the problems I mentioned before (i.e. interference) and didn't have the option for a large display for the kids to see. I was trying to cobble together the same effect when I tried to modify the track system, but the end result was less than spectacular.

You could try to apply for grant money from sponsors to pay for new equipment. Your club may have certain individuals/corporations they hit up for money when they need something for the athletes. Other coaches might be interested in using this equipment occasionally, so spreading the cost (and impact) out a bit will make it more valuable. No decent coach is going to want to time every practice and every drill course, so multiple groups can use it at various times. Worth a try...

To me, what you are trying to do is what the Brower Bib ID XS Training System was designed for. Wireless systems are great for moving around the hill and quick setup, and this particular one fits in a small pack for easy transportation. The Alyeska Ski Club uses one for training, and although the original version had some serious bugs, the newer version seems to work really well. It's pretty much set it and forget it, so the coach can focus on something other than running timing gear.

When you run a wired system, you're tied to a particular place on the hill. That is, unless you want to string wire for 1000+ feet every time you set up and then tear it down again. Wire is a hidden cost- the stuff designed for cold temperatures isn't cheap. 1000' of wire also weighs a lot, which makes it kinda cumbersome for the coach on the go.

My own system is more modular and while I can move it around the hill, it's considerably larger and less idiot-proof than the Brower system. TAG Heuer's system is similar in that regard. They're both more expensive than the Brower system, although the tradeoff is that you can use them to time races and the parts are interchangeable. The Brower pieces only work with a Brower system, so it is less flexible and from what I recall, not homologated.

Most race timing equipment is designed to work off of batteries or a 12VDC adapter, making use with a car battery easy. I use a battery jump starter unit (basically a small battery in a plastic case) with the jumper cables removed. I use the cigarette lighter jack to power my equipment that doesn't use internal batteries (mostly my display). The Brower system uses all internal alkaline batteries, so it's not an issue.
post #16 of 19

Hey Mike,


I am a member of the USCSA Ski Team at the University of Colorado at Boulder and as a team we were trying to get a timing system as a gift to our coach. Unfortunately, our budget is very limited, around $600, but in your post I read that it would be possible to get the parts and put one together for that amount of money. I have tried to look for those parts online and I haven't been able to find any. Would it be possible for you to give me some advice on where to look for those parts?


I know your post dated back to 2011, but I would really appreciate if you could help me.



post #17 of 19
Originally Posted by riccardo balin View Post

Hey Mike,


I am a member of the USCSA Ski Team at the University of Colorado at Boulder and as a team we were trying to get a timing system as a gift to our coach. Unfortunately, our budget is very limited, around $600, but in your post I read that it would be possible to get the parts and put one together for that amount of money. I have tried to look for those parts online and I haven't been able to find any. Would it be possible for you to give me some advice on where to look for those parts?


I know your post dated back to 2011, but I would really appreciate if you could help me.



Buy some garage door sensors (photo eyes) and a wire into a stop watch the start and end point.


Instant timer with manual rest....less than $150 plus the cost of the wire for the length of the course for the upper eye.


Talk to your electrical engineering department for help.

post #18 of 19

As a person who has been involved with ski racing for over 30 years -  including a ton of timing - Alaska Mike has the best advice.  Ski racing is a timed event - not judged - and the accuracy of the event and results depends on the accuracy of your timing system. It's all good until somebody gets upset and thinks their time isn't 'fair' and that they're 'always faster than so-and-so' and therefore how could they ever have lost to racer X.  Unless you have some accurate data to present you won't really be able to 'prove' that racer X really did have a faster time.   


If you build a guitar with a cereal box and rubber bands, it will sound like a guitar made from a cereal box and rubber bands.  No matter what type of high-dollar cereal boxes and rubber bands you build it with, it will never sound like a Fender Stratocaster.  


It's similar to buying a helmet -  people try to decide whether to get a $20 helmet or a $120 helmet - what is your head worth?  What is the accuracy of your race worth?   


With all due respect, bite whatever sized bullet you need to and do it right - it's well worth it.  It doesn't mean you have to spend 10k but it is worth doing it right.  Alaska Mike obviously knows what he's talking about.  He did a great job of offering examples without advertising for a supplier or brand - that's way cool.  There are so many timing systems and vendors available - new or used there's at least one to fit nearly every budget. 


Computers are not clocks and they never will be; they will not give you truly accurate results.  A computer uses a program to calculate time but it's not an accurate measurement of time - it's a program to tell the computer how to be a clock which isn't the same as actually being a clock.  The computer is there to deal with registration, results, etc. and its race software is designed to accept impulses from an actual timer, not to perform the actual timekeeping.  


Get the good gear and you will be much happier and will be able to produce a better event.  You will also have a lot more credibility when it comes to producing an event because you can factually backup your times and race results and that is priceless.  Nothing settles disputes/arguments like solid timing data.  

post #19 of 19
Or for training go with the freelap system.....
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