By Steve Wright, 11/9/2011
Granite State Sets High Tech Pace
Matt Chagnon remembers when the critical tools for determining STIHL® TIMBERSPORTS® competitions would fit in a file box -- stopwatches, scoring sheets, pencils and hand-held calculators.
"That's all it took," Chagnon said. "Now we have this."
"This" is an enclosed trailer stacked with computers and monitors linked to high-definition cameras and an electronic timing system that combine to take human error out of the equation in determining the order of finish in STIHL TIMBERSPORTS competitions.
"People think it's a lumberjack competition -- it's a bunch of big burly guys chopping wood," said Roger Phelps, STIHL's promotions communications manager. "But this high-tech element is pretty cool. It's where we've taken the sport."
Chagnon, Richard Hallett and Don Quigley, the co-owners of Granite State Lumberjack Shows, Inc., have facilitated the journey from pencils to computers. Granite State began as a hobby for the trio, who met while competing in lumberjack shows in the northeastern U.S.
Granite State was originally formed to help produce local lumberjack competitions. Soon after the STIHL TIMBERSPORTS Series' inception in 1985, STIHL contracted with Granite State to manage its events.
"They came to a contest we were running for somebody else," Chagnon recalled. "They liked our work, and they asked us to bid on the whole thing."
That partnership has now stretched over two decades. It has taken the Granite State crew on travels across the U.S. and included several European stops.
Hallett is the face of Granite State. He's the person you see on stage with the competitors in the STIHL TIMBERSPORTS Series, which has been televised by ESPN for the past 26 years. Hallett serves as the official starter for each event. Back in the days of paper and pencils, it was Hallett who had to make the disqualification call if he judged that one of the competitors jumped the starting gun. No one appreciates the high-tech direction of the sport more than Hallett.
"I was haunted by a jumped-gun call I made once," Hallett said. "It turned out to be critical to who won the championship that year. I went back and looked at the TV replay. I just wasn't ever really sure, and it was so important."
In the stock saw event, for instance, each man's hands must remain atop the log until a starter's gun is fired. It typically takes just over 10 seconds to complete the required two cuts in a 16-inch pine log; just like in track and field's 100-meter dash, a quick start is critical.
In those days, Hallett practically needed two sets of eyes -- one on each competitor -- to judge a fair start. Now a high-definition camera is focused on each competitor's hands. It records 30 video frames per second.
"We can see if people have dirty fingernails or not," laughed Chagnon.
Computer software displays an audio image of the starter's gun firing alongside the video images.
"It does make my job easier," Hallett said. "But really it's not about me. It's about the competitors and keeping the competition fair."
That same audio/video system is employed for the split-second finishes that are common in events like the stock saw.
"I can go frame-by-frame and see the exact moment a piece of wood drops," said Chagnon as he replayed a close finish on one of the computer monitors. "You see one piece of wood drop here, and (the other competitor's) doesn't drop until the next frame. So this guy beat that guy by a couple hundredths of a second."
It's this type of precise timing technology that was used, for example, in determining the world record in the stock saw of 9.445 seconds, set by Martin Komarek of the Czech Republic in 2010.
To achieve that degree of precision, Granite State replaced hand-held stopwatches with a Sprint 8 Timing System, like that used in high-level track & field meets. There's still a human element: Three people observe each STIHL TIMBERSPORTS competitor and press a hand-held "plunger" accordingly. Those electronic signals are fed into a computer database. If all three are within .05 seconds of one another, the computer averages them to produce an official time. If one time falls outside that range, the computer disregards it and averages the other two.
"We'll have instances where (all three) are identical," Chagnon said. "We've had the same timers for years, and they are really good at it."
An Apple iPod may best exemplify how far STIHL® and Granite State have moved toward the goals of fairness and accuracy in the STIHL TIMBERSPORTS Series. If you've ever watched one of these events, you may have noticed that Hallett's lips don't seem to be moving at all times while the competitors are listening to his starting cadence prior to four events -- springboard, underhand chop, single buck and standing block.
That's because his lips aren't moving at all times. Granite State uses a recording of Hallett's voice, which is played from an iPod through the public address system. After Hallett says, "Timers ready," Chagnon plays the iPod, which follows seamlessly with, "Contestants ready ... three, two, one, go."
(A starter's gun is used only in the two chain saw events.)
"Richard is out in the sun for five or six hours," Chagnon said. "His cadence may slow down or speed up as he starts to get tired. These guys are gauging their start on his cadence. If his cadence changes, it messes up their start."
In the effort to shave fractions of a second off their times, some STIHL TIMBERSPORTS athletes use a recording of Hallett's starting cadence in their training.
Modern technology has its limits, of course. There's no substitute for manpower in the operation of a STIHL TIMBERSPORTS event. From setting up and tearing down the stage to placing and removing the logs before and after each event, it takes the coordinated movement of many people to optimize the pace of competition. That has remained unchanged since the beginning of Granite State Lumberjack Shows.
As in any business, you're only as good as the people working for you. Granite State employs 18 people when running a STIHL TIMBERSPORTS event.
Hallett had no way of foreseeing this combination of technology and personnel management when he became interested in lumberjack sports. It began when he signed up for a high school log-rolling class over 30 years ago in Madison, Wis.
"I never dreamed it would eventually turn into involvement in the sport at an international level," Hallett said.
Hallett's "real job" is with the U.S. Forest Service as a research ecologist. Chagnon and Quigley are forestry professors at the University of New Hampshire.
"We all have professions that we love," Hallett said. "This is really a hobby for us."
It's one that has grown into a high-tech, high-intensity endeavor.