Race day: How NASCAR culture impacts security

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Monday, May 9, 2011

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.—On Feb. 20 more than 200,000 fans packed the grandstands and infield to watch NASCAR’s most prestigious race, the Daytona 500. However, unlike many major sporting events, NASCAR fans don’t just show up for "The Great American Race" and leave after the last lap. Instead, RVs pack the Daytona International Speedway’s designated camping areas from late January until the end of February, said John Power, director of security at Daytona International Speedway, during a media preview event for ASIS International Seminar & Exhibits in Orlando on Sept. 19-22.

Power has been with the raceway since 1996, but has worked every single Daytona 500 since 1972 as an officer with the Daytona Police Department. He said the culture of NASCAR events is markedly different than other large spectator sports, which can make it challenging for security. For one, the raceway has an open access policy that allows ticketed fans to come in and out of the raceway as often as they want, unlike many stadium events with no re-admittance policies.

The raceway also allows fans to bring in alcohol, provided it’s in a certain size soft-shelled cooler and not in glass bottles. Despite this policy, Power said alcohol-related incidents are minimal. “During speed week, we don’t arrest more than 10 to 15 people for the entire January to February period,” he said.

The raceway also doesn’t screen fans entering the raceway. “Because of the culture of the sport, we have not been successful using magnetometers,” he said. “The reason is, unlike a football game, our days are longer so people have to go in and out.” The only time magnetometers are used, is if the threat level is raised or the President is in attendance, he said. He recounted a humorous story of President George W. Bush’s 2004 visit, where his advisors wanted to choose a location where he could be seen “among the people.” However, that meant he was in a grandstand of 20,000 people so the Secret Service had to screen everyone—each time they entered the area. “I think they ended up scanning 60,000 people,” Power said. “It got so bad, I’m not sure we’ve gotten the last of the hate mail.”

The raceway employs hundreds of proprietary security officers in addition to local police officers also patrolling the 480 acres of property. Power said it’s important to have a significant visual presence of uniformed officers to keep fans under control. Local police also use canine units to screen RVs for illegal substances and glass.

The raceway adopted a text message program two years ago that allows fans to directly alert security of incidents. “We’ve expanded the program so they tell us not just about broken seats or emergencies, but also ask us where the closest ATM is located,” he said. The raceway plans to expand its texting stations and capabilities to make this program more customer-service oriented.

But one of the technologies that the raceway has not adopted is the use of video surveillance. The raceway does not currently have any video cameras deployed in or around the property. However, Power said that is about to change. The raceway currently has a $319,000 outstanding grant that will be used to invest in an IP-based, mostly hard-wired video surveillance system on a fiber backbone. The system will allow Power and other officials to access camera footage from any location. He also hopes to have a small mesh network set up that will allow the raceway to relocate some cameras depending on the event being held. The video will be monitored live in a command center during events.

This technology will assist Power in keeping track of all the events happening at the raceway since his security responsibilities go far beyond the Daytona 500. The raceway continually hosts events ranging from smaller races to proms and other social events, keeping the raceway busy 340 days of the year. Powers said his experience working with the raceway as a police officer was beneficial, however, the job itself remains a constant challenge. “I work harder than I did with my law enforcement job,” Powers said. “The days here are longer and I’m dealing with constant changes and the fact that there’s so many unknowns to prepare for.”

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