NASCAR: Securing America’s Mobile City

“Sweet Bejesus! Where do they come from?” Every year, the locals in a place called Kent County, Del., are astonished when the population literally doubles within a week in June. Every year, it’s the same insane scene. This is the week that NASCAR Nation arrives in full force, in pickups, campers, hot rods and RVs—often an entire seven days before the race is scheduled to start. (“What exactly do they DO for a livin’?”)

Then comes what you could call some majorproduction eye-poppin’ candy, and the locals can see what all thecommotion is about, whythe passion rides so high: Drivers and theircrews start coming into town, in tractor-trailer transporters that ripalong the highway in the beloved colors of major sponsors, likeBudweiser, Interstate Batteries, Home Depot, Goodwrench and DuPont(“that’s a local company, y’know, here in Delaware …”) Then, on Sunday,it’s race time—and if you’ve ever been there, you know that there’snothing on the blessed earth like it. Ordinary men wrestle with 3,500pounds of rubber-burnin’, fume-belchin’ car for more than three hours.Temperatures inside go well into triple-digits, with no AC, no timeouts and no half-time. Engines roar like C-130s, going from zero to 160mph within the time it takes to shotgun-chug a can of beer.

This particular day is Sept. 23, 2001. Thenation is getting back on its feet after the attacks of Sept. 11.Sports events had been universally postponed, but are now starting toreturn. NASCAR cancelled a big race in New Hampshire the week before,but today’s race is on at what is now called Dover InternationalSpeedway. Given the delay, the sport’s insatiable core fans are readyto show their colors; and the nation’s colors as well. Red, white andblue is everywhere. Cal Ripken Jr.—an iconic American sports hero, thevery personification of the nation’s rock-solid work ethic—is wavingthe green flag to start the race. A sea of white doves is released tocelebrate the moment. “We gave out about 100,000 small American flags,”recalls Jerry Dunning, general manager of the track. “And when everyonestarted waving them during the national anthem, you couldn’t help butget a big lump in your throat. You thought about everything that hadhappened, all that we had been through.”

On this day, however, there is much tensionunderneath the pride. The track is near Dover Air Force Base, which isserving as a temporary morgue for victims of the Sept. 11 attacks. AirForce officials are on alert for any and all suspicious planes thatcould possibly zero in on the racetrack as a target; it is the largestgathering of people at a sporting event since Sept. 11, after all.Bomb-sniffing dogs are everywhere. Coolers, once a tradition of fans inthe bleachers, are now banned.

Fortunately, the day’s events go off withoutan incident. In the end, Dale Earnhardt Jr.—the sport’s most populardriver—wins the race. He grabs a huge American flag and waves it fromhis car, as a stadium packed with euphoric

fans cheers wildly before him. “I feelhonored that I was the one to win on a day like today,” he says later.“I mean, it didn’t matter who won. It was healing to be here.”

Since that day, NASCAR officials and localhomeland security representatives have continued to work together toensure a safe, secure environment at what is surely the mostlogistically complex, yet wildly popular, professional sport inAmerica. This season, there will be 39 major events held as part of theNextel Cup, NASCAR’s premier racing series, which started on Feb. 7 inDaytona, Fla., and will end in Homestead, Fla., on Nov. 21. In between,NASCAR will take its traveling show to places like Sonoma, Calif.;Martinsville, Va.; Brooklyn, Mich.; and Talladega, Ala., as well astracks near larger, metro areas like Atlanta, Los Angeles, Kansas City,Phoenix, Charlotte and Las Vegas.

At every stop, the same scenario is playedout: Hundreds of thousands of fans stay for as long as a week. BeforeSept. 11, it was already a year-round planning task for domesticsecurity and public safety people. After all, a pro football game won’tget a crowd half that size, and an NFL tailgater sets up the morning ofa game, watches the contest and then goes home.

“You have to understand, a NASCAR event isvery unique with its traditions,” says Rick White, a director atHamilton, Bermuda-based Ingersoll-Rand, which provides security-systemsproducts to tracks in Bristol, Tenn.; Indianapolis, Ind.; and greaterCharlotte, NC. “These people are used to bringing in huge coolers tothe grandstands, while football and baseball fans arrive virtuallyempty handed. The drivers, relative to other sports, are often soup-close to the fans. They get to visit the drivers and their crews inthe garage areas. If you tighten up the security too much and do awaywith everything, you’ll take away from the sport. So you have to becareful.”

Since Sept. 11, those with both track andhomeland security responsibilities have taken, and are continuing totake, more and more pro-active steps to monitor the threat of terrorismand react if the fans emerge as a target. For certain, there are littlesteps that NASCAR has taken that fans have already seen since Sept. 11,like restricting air space, coolers and even traffic under thegrandstands. Ingersoll-Rand is even coming up with an e-ticket systemthat would use biometric recognition to give fans access to the stands.

But much of what’s being done is behind the scenes.

This past January, for example, the NASCARinsider business community—represented by more than 200 people fromtrack owners to team owners to the folks from NASCAR’s headquarters inDaytona—heads to a Hilton by Hartsfield International Airport inAtlanta for two days of workshops put on by federal homeland securityofficials. There are presentations from the FBI, Secret Service,Transportation Security Administration and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobaccoand Firearms. They talk about crowd processing and search techniques(for both pedestrians and vehicles), counter-terrorism and threatassessment. The ultimate message delivered is sobering: al-Qaeda needsto keep making a name for itself to keep its funding going. And beingthat “hard” targets like the White House are well covered, they couldvery well shift their tactics and go after the most visible “soft”targets available—and there aren’t too many soft targets out there thatcould make as big a splash as NASCAR, measured by sheer attendancenumbers alone.

 “Of the top 20 sports or entertainmentvenues in the world in terms of attendance, 17 of them are NASCARNextel Cup events,” says Tim Christine, NASCAR’s director of security.

A sobering thought. One not wasted.

Pro-Active Steps

The Atlanta seminars are one of a series ofpro-active steps that NASCAR has taken to respond to homeland securityconcerns in the post-Sept. 11 era. Since the attacks, it has created anew security department, and Christine now oversees the review andevaluation of all venue security programs. All NASCAR facilities nowhave their own security managers, who coordinate speedway efforts withfederal, state and local public safety representatives. These and othersteps were put to the test in February of this year, as President Bushattended the Daytona 500, often described as the “Super Bowl of NASCARraces.” The last president to attend a NASCAR event was the seniorPresident Bush in 1992.

“The visit of the president to the Daytona500 requires even more attention,” Christine says. “Not only to focuson the security of the president, but the overall safety of all fansattending. Our security and the Secret Service integrated theircombined resources with all agencies with public safety jurisdictionaloversight. NASCAR is committed to the highest standards possible toensure that our events are the safest anywhere.”

The annual arrival of NASCAR’s top event atChicagoland Speedway means thinking ahead about some simple math, saysJoe Drick, chief of the Joliet, Ill. Fire Department and aco-leader ofthe homeland security effort there. Math, that is, in translating thenumbers: One person getting violently ill at a race could just mean toomuch beer. A couple of people in the same section could mean some badfood going around. But a wave of people would bring out the high-alertstatus. “Ordinarily, the city of Joliet wouldn’t be on anybody’sterrorism radar,” he says. “But with more than 100,000 coming in forthe race—not to mention tens of thousands of food people, team people,NASCAR people, media people and other support personnel—we look like agood target all of a sudden. So we prepare for everything. Everymorning before one guest is allowed into the raceway, we have a meetingwith track security, federal agencies who are present, the sheriff’sdepartment, the police departments and the state police. There will beas many as 20 people at those meetings, all of them representing manydifferent security layers.”

The track is visually divided into a zonedmap, and an ambulance crew is stationed at each of four corners on themap to spot scenarios where the math of one plus one starts adding upto a crisis. Since Sept. 11, Joliet’s homeland security crews now havemilitary-grade detection equipment to monitor for the presence ofbioterrorism hazards. As for dirty bombs, the city is well versed onthe dangers of such a threat, given that there is a nuclear power plantnearby in Morris, Ill. “We’ve been training for that for 25 years now,”Drick says. “We actually consider ourselves lucky now, after Sept. 11,to have this plant, when, before, we sure didn’t perceive it as astroke of luck. But it’s forced us to prepare and train for aradioactive emergency, and we have the equipment to handle that too, todetect it and deal with it if it ever happens.”

In Sonoma, Calif., bomb-sniffing dogs are newto the scene at Infineon Raceway since Sept. 11. Jersey barriers arenow up to keep, for example, a dirty bomb-loaded truck from flooring itpast security and heading right for the grandstands. If you’re sellingsouvenirs or food on the site, security crews will take a mirror likethose on the side of an 18-wheeler, propped by a long arm extension,and look underneath your truck to make sure it doesn’t have anythingresembling a WMD.

“Before our awareness was raised, we didn’teven think of this stuff,” says Jere Starks, vice president offacilities at Infineon. “But one Sunday morning on a race day, Ispotted a suitcase in the bushes. Years ago, I would have brushed itoff. This time, however, we brought in the bomb squad and checked itout.”

Small planes carrying banners advertisinglocal businesses used to be as much a part of the tradition as therace’s winner spinning doughnuts in the infield after a victory. But nomore: Because of air-restriction concerns, the banner companies have toget a waiver from the track as part of the clearance procedures. “Andwe aren’t giving any waivers either,” says Starks.

Next up for Infineon: A disaster simulationat the track in May with anyone and everyone involved in homelandsecurity. Whether the simulated event involves anthrax, sarin gas or adirty bomb is yet to be determined, but the event will test howHomeland Security and track personnel react. As during race day therewill be a decontamination unit on hand—another new wrinkle in thepost-Sept. 11 era—to wash off affected victims. There will bemedia-relations drills. There will be a simulated M.A.S.H.-styletriage, being that in Sonoma, all hospitals are at least 10 miles awayand it’s impossible to get anywhere on race day anyway. A helicoptercould be flown in, but if the threat is coming from biohazardousparticles floating in the air, bringing a chopper in doesn’t look likesuch a good idea. “So we’ll be having these M.A.S.H. units,” Starkssays, “and we’ll have to say ‘This person can’t make it, but thisperson can so let’s get them what they need.’ This sort of thing canget pretty wild when you think about it.”

New thinking

If you were at the Infineon race last year,you may have looked up to see people walking on the various rooftops atthe facility. They were Israeli intelligence agents who arrived for theoccasion via San Francisco. They contacted the track because theywanted to see how homeland security measures were put in place there.“We said ‘Sure, bring ‘em up,’” Starks says. “There’s a whole lot goingon here now that didn’t used to happen. We have plainclothes peoplewatching in the garage area, where the drivers and crews are, and someof the fans get to hang out. If it’s 80 degrees and sunny, and some guyis walking around there in a parka, then we’re going to think ‘What thehell is going on with that?’ We didn’t think this way before.”

At Dover, a similar, year-round cooperativeeffort has taken hold. Throughout the year, security officials scoutfor major local events that are scheduled to take place on the Junerace weekend, such as rock concerts and graduations, and try toconvince organizers to reschedule them. Better to free up roads tohospitals in case they’re needed. A decontamination unit is housed atan undisclosed location near the track, as well as a special operationstrailer that can be quickly deployed to the scene to respond to abiomedical emergency.

Communications is key, given the myriadstate, local and federal agencies that are involved. “We’re all on800-megahertz radios now,” says Colin Faulkner, Kent County’s chief ofpublic safety and coordinator for homeland security. “If we were all onindividual frequencies, we’d need a different radio to talk toeveryone. This way, the paramedics don’t need to do that if somethinghappens and they need to contact police. We can also use ourcommunications system at the track to free up our 911 people to handlenon-track related routine calls. If we had our old system still, itwould be difficult to manage all of this.”

The RV and camper communities that sprout upat all NASCAR venues are another logistical challenge. They’reessentially mini-cities, only without street addresses. “Because ofthis, we try to stay visible there,” Faulkner says. “We have a hugeproblem with getting in and out of these areas, so we keep paramedicson bicycles available to go in there for emergencies. We also have whatwe call ‘gator carts,’ which are essentially golf carts, that can go inthere with medical apparatus instead of an ambulance, which would havea harder time getting in and out. We can get a patient on them alongwith a paramedic and move them on to an ambulance. Clearly, ifsomething happens there that’s out of the ordinary, this kind of accessin and out will help in the initial moments of response.”

Lowe’s Motor Speedway, in Concord, NC, nearCharlotte, faces a unique challenge in that it hosts two major races,the Nextel All-Star Challenge and the Coca-Cola 600, on two consecutiveweekends in May. Like other venues, homeland security officials thereare equipped with the very best in communications and surveillancetechnologies, from track cameras to wireless communications to theincreasingly prevalent 800-megahertz radios.

But Concord Police Chief Merl Hamilton,co-coordinator of the local homeland security effort with EmergencyManagement Coordinator Jim Sells, says that getting too focused on thetechnologies is akin to missing the forest for the trees. A lot ofold-fashioned conversation is needed to ensure a safe event.

“Since Sept. 11, we’ve coordinated so muchwith the federal government, the FBI mainly, in ways we never didbefore,” Hamilton says. “We used to think mainly about people’s carsgetting broken into and people getting hurt. We still do that. But it’smeshed with everything else now. Beyond the technology, you need tobuild relationships with these outside agencies over time. You have toknow exactly who to call and where to call in a certain situation toget the response that’s needed. I can’t tell you how many conversationswe’ve had in recent years to get this exactly right.”

And Lowe’s has seen its big events intersectwith homeland security-themed moments. It held a race in October 2001when the US was just invading Afghanistan. In May 2003, a Code Orangealert was in progress as the checkered flag waved. As with other NASCARevents throughout the country since Sept. 11, nothing untowardhappened—but that doesn’t mean track officials and homeland securityleaders are letting up anytime soon.

Says Sells: “If nothing happens, then it just means we had a good dry run to better prepare.” HST

Dennis McCafferty is a Washington-based writer who has previously covered homeland security subjects. His writing has appeared in Washington Technology and the government section of VARBusiness magazine.

Tips from NASCAR

When it comes to securing an event as largeand mobile as a NASCAR race, there are plenty of lessons learned thatcan make any major event safer:

  • Know your event. Get real estimates of expected crowds, as well as spillover crowds that may gather outside the prime venue area. Get a concrete sense of the infrastructure that comes with the event—the media, the tech support, the equipment people, the talent. Everything.
  • Know the surrounding area. How long does it take to get to a hospital under normal circumstances? Take that time and multiply it considerably, given the crowds. That will help you evaluate the level of mobile health-care resources to have on hand.
  • Having the best tech-tools is only part of the effort. Much of success comes down to old-fashioned conversation and shoe leather. Have discussions early and often with your federal, state and local counterparts and plot out every ‘what if’ scenario you can imagine. If the worst happens, everyonewill know exactly where everyone is supposed to be and, hopefully, exactly what is supposed to happen.
  • Mathematics 101. One person hurling his nachos in the bathroom? That’s probably a guy who had too many of those 22-ounce cups of suds. Three people doing the same? Could be some bad food going around. A dozen? That’s when you should consider the possibility of something more threatening.
  • Consider a zone defense. Divide the venue into a zone map and place your available support staff accordingly.
  • Invite educated outsiders to observe what you do. At NASCAR events, even Israeli intelligence agents have checked out the security deployment. It’s a good way to exchange ideas with another outlet with a fresh perspective.
  • Practice, practice, practice. Disaster simulations are emerging as a vogue at NASCAR tracks. There is nothing like a day of play-acting to get homeland security people out of the meeting room and into a representation of the real thing.<
  • Take a cue from the event—get mobile. NASCAR realized that it’s difficult to get an ambulance in and out of the crowded RV camping areas. So it essentially equipped golf carts with emergency medical apparatus and trained medical crews, for easy-in/easy-out execution. You can’t respond if you can’t be on the scene.
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