Jerry Bonkowski

Tight security helps NASCAR events stay safe

Posted July 21, 2012

Friday's early-morning shooting tragedy in Aurora, Colo., where a dozen people were killed and 70 others were injured by what appears to be a crazed madman, got me thinking.

While I'm not trying to be a Monday morning quarterback, but in a state that still grieves the 1999 Columbine High School tragedy, how can someone reportedly wearing a bulletproof vest also sneak a high-capacity AR-15 type rifle, a shotgun, two pistols and a bag of ammunition into such a public place as a theater – and not be noticed or at the least draw some modicum of suspicion?

No sooner did I think that, though, when another thought popped into my mind, something that many racing fans can readily identify with.

How many times have you gone to a NASCAR race and lamented the heavy police and security presence, seemingly at every turn? How many of us have thought such a large gathering of law enforcement types at a race was, no pun intended, overkill?

How many of us have seen dozens, if not hundreds of uniformed and plainclothes police in and around places like Daytona? How about the way your car trunk or interior is either searched, or how you must endure guards with mirrors inspecting the underside of your vehicle before it's allowed to proceed into the infield of a racetrack?

Or how about the way dozens of police walk through rows of cars exiting Talladega, looking for impaired drivers?

Do you think those cops are doing those kinds of things for their health?

Of course not, they're trying to protect us, not only from criminals and even each other, but sometimes also from ourselves – especially when you or your buddy has had one or two too many. Duh!

Many of us take a large police presence at race tracks for granted at best, or as an infringement on our civil liberties at worst. But you know what? After things like Friday's shooting, I've come to realize just how glad I am that NASCAR has such a strong security and policing plan in place at all the race tracks it visits.

Let's face it, when was the last time you heard of serious crime at a NASCAR event? How is it hundreds if not thousands of fans that camp in trailers and RVs can leave them unlocked or open, go to the race and return to find everything untouched and undisturbed?

In a sense, that's like life the way it used to be 40 or 50 years ago, where it seemed everyone trusted everyone else, folks didn't lock their front doors and left their car keys in the ignition, knowing everything would be where they left it when they returned the next hour, day or even week.

The only recent incident of serious crime that I can think of that has occurred at a NASCAR track came in 2006, when a couple of former track employees tried to rob the cash room at Kansas Speedway after the fall race there. The offenders brazenly shot Kansas City, Ks., police officer Susan Brown, leaving her for dead.

But thanks to the large police presence that was still in and around the grounds in the post-race robbery, the offenders were caught less than two blocks from the track. Thankfully, the offenders are serving lengthy prison sentences, while Brown, who almost died, miraculously recovered.

I was fortunate enough to be one of the first reporters Brown agreed to talk with about the incident nearly a year later. It helped that I could somewhat relate to her, given that in addition to being a reporter, I had also been a fully-sworn, part-time police officer for 20 years.

The nearly hour-long interview I had with Brown is the kind as a reporter that you never forget. I remember her hesitancy to speak much at first, then tears and then a seemingly release of all the pent-up memories of the several post-shooting surgeries and rehabilitation that she had to undergo.

But one thing still sticks in my mind, something that Brown said to me during that interview. As almost an offhand comment, she noted, "Who'd think something like this would happen at a NASCAR track?"

Thankfully, that incident in Kansas was the rare exception rather than the rule. Going to a NASCAR race is one of the safest forms of family sport we have in this country. While you may have an occasional fistfight between drunken fans in the stands or parking lot, you can pretty much rest assured that you'll be nearly as safe as an infant in a mother's arms when you go to a NASCAR race.

And the reason is simple: for as much emphasis that NASCAR places on driver safety behind the wheel with Hans devices and SAFER barriers, it also places an equal amount of emphasis on the safety of fans.

Not just safety in the stands, so that fans won't get hurt by flying debris off a race car and things of that sort, but also that fans don't get killed, robbed, sexually assaulted and things of that nature.

Look at Major League Baseball: One fan was almost killed at a Los Angeles Dodger game last year. His crime: cheering against the team that his attackers supported, leaving him permanently injured. There have also been other less publicized instances of fans being robbed after games.

I can think of at least a couple of reporters who have been robbed after covering sporting events around the country.

One of the last places I'd want to be on earth is to leave an NFL stadium following a Monday Night Football game. You haven't experienced fear until you've tried to walk to your car two blocks away, parked in desolation all by itself. Trust me, I know, I lived through at least a couple dozen of those types of incidents over the years.

Several weeks ago, I read a report of a couple of fans that were robbed of their iPhones and cash shortly after leaving legendary Wrigley Field – and there's a police station a block away!

But at NASCAR, it's like a fallback to the 50s, where everyone seemed to know everyone else and we all got along, regardless of which driver we cheer for.

I'm sure many of you have heard the old saying, "Where's a cop when you need him?" Thankfully for NASCAR fans, if you're at a race, you can rest easy knowing help is only a minute or two away. That's why you likely will never see the kind of tragedy at a NASCAR race like we've seen far too many times at other venues such as Columbine, Virginia Tech, Northern Illinois University and now, sadly, at Aurora.

So the next time you're driving to a track and complain about how the large number of police is impeding your way to get to the track faster, or the next time a cop pulls you over for speeding away from a race track as if you're Dale Earnhardt Jr., think not about how they may be picking on you – but rather how they're actually protecting you.

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  • hotlaps Jul 23, 2012

    I have been attending races at Michigan International Speedway since the 1980's. As far as "security" goes, yes there are some uniformed officers "around", but as far as real security goes when entering the grandstand, this is left to some 15 to 18 year old checking my cooler, or my wife's purse, with a wooden stick. This is NOT security, it is a joke. I have mentioned this in a letter to the Speedway years ago. I did not even receive a response from them. I happen to believe that Nascar has been very fortunate with the issue of security, but I also believe that they have their head stuck in the sand on some of the issues. And as was already posted, it just wouldn't be a good idea to get crazy around Nascar fans anyway.

  • BattlingBishop 5 Jul 21, 2012

    The main point of the article is that, due to sound security measures, Nascar events are some of the safest events in the country. Probably wouldn't be a good idea to get too crazy around Nascar fans anyway. IMO

  • brantleybunch1 Jul 21, 2012

    The author needs to read some details as to how the Colorado incident occured. He did not simply walk in. Bought his ticket, got a near front seat and went out a fire exit, his car parked nearby. Apparently jammed or scotched the door open, then re-entered. Would be hard to stop without an officer at each exit.
    Not a simple walk in the main entrance, with all that gear and weapons.

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