At the Frontline: NASCAR security chief Gerry Cavis

Later this month, the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) will begin its 2011 racing season at the famed Daytona International Speedway and its signature event, the Daytona 500.

Overseeing security at this and the sport’s other racetracks, some of which measure more than two-and-a-half miles in circumference, is the responsibility of Gerry Cavis. Cavis, who serves as managing director of security for NASCAR, is a 30-year veteran of law enforcement and retired from the U.S. Secret Service in 2004 as special agent in charge of the Orlando, Florida field division.

As a Secret Service agent, Cavis helped to create the agency’s major event planning template, which is a security planning model that is now used by the Department of Homeland Security to help secure all major national events. In this “At the Frontline,” Cavis discusses how he’s leveraging his security experience to help keep fans, drivers and other personnel safe at NASCAR events.

With the 2011 NASCAR season getting underway later this month, what are some things that you are preparing for from a security perspective?

Every year, we prepare for each season by ensuring that we’ve looked at every incident from the past, our current operating structure, our current security procedures and we reassess all of that for updates and changes. This is based on incidents, as well as the current threat level and any changes to what the marketing people have done in terms of how they’re going to structure the event and the timeline. When you bring in large stars like Keith Urban or Tim McGraw as we have done in the past, it dictates a certain level of security for different issues that you have to address and it dictates a different timeline for how early people show up. Seventeen out of 20 of the nation’s largest annual events are NASCAR races and Daytona is one of those. It’s a huge undertaking for us and we want to make sure we review everything annually to ensure that we have the latest procedures and practices and the best case scenario for our security operation plan.

In recent years, there have been instances of fans throwing beer cans on the track to show their displeasure at the outcome of a race. What kinds of risks do these instances pose and what steps has the sport taken to curtail this type of behavior?

We are certainly looking to local track security and the training that they provide on several different issues. Number one, crowd management from the grandstands and what have they taught the ushers and the security personnel that they use and how well are they trained to manage those individuals should that type of incident occur? The next issue is what’s on the track? Are we under a caution? Are we in a hold? Are we actually racing or is this after the race and (the fans) are displeased with who the winner is? The security personnel on the track and the track management people, along with communications through the (track) tower and wherever we are at in terms of the event… we ensure all of those people are coordinating through security so that we can manage the incident as quickly and efficiently as possible with the proper resource. It happens. It’s certainly a concern that we have to constantly remain cognizant about.

How do you coordinate security with individual tracks and their security staffs?

We spend a lot of time interacting with them on the proactive and preventative side. We have a minimum security requirement that each track must adhere to. In addition to that, we have what we call an emergency action plan that is a recommended template that each track submits to us prior to the event. So we coordinate with them. The emergency action plan… is a template off of the Homeland Security major event planning process. In my prior career, I was a Secret Service agent and I was involved in creating the major events division for the Secret Service. At that time, we created the process that is now in place wherein Homeland Security designates what events in the United States will be national special security events. From that process, we coordinate with the local public safety and law enforcement community for any aspect of track security both inside the venue, as well as outside. We also spend a great deal of time going track-to-track and answering their questions, working with their local track security directors or track security personnel with regards to credentials, tickets, issues such as the drunk fan, as well as counterfeit tickets or any other issue. We work with them on every element that could challenge their venue or jeopardize the integrity of the event. Along with that, every year we conduct the NASCAR Summit, which is a January event held prior to the season where we gather track safety and security personnel from all the tracks across the country and bring them to our (R&D center) in Concord, N.C., where we conduct a training and overall assessment of what we are doing through a weeklong conference.

What are some of the inherent challenges of securing venues the size of NASCAR tracks?

One of the biggest security challenges we have is the size of our event. We are talking about hundreds of thousands of people. The next challenge we have is that NASCAR is not like other major league sports. When you buy a ticket to a basketball or football game, in a six-hour window, you’ve got a seat to sit in, you’ve got a bathroom and you’ve got a couple of vendors and you are locked into that area. You cannot go in and out. It’s apples and oranges, but when you come to a NASCAR event, it’s a four or five-day event. Depending on the level of ticket or participation that you have purchased, you could bring in a coach and park on the infield and camp or you could park outside on one of the campgrounds and have campfires and all the things that go with that. It’s a four-day long tailgate and then you come to the race. The size of the venue, the response necessary for the venue and the assets required for the venue are the concerns that we have.

NASCAR has a reputation for being one of the most fan-friendly sports. How do you balance that level of fan access with security?

It’s one of our greatest challenges. First of all, giving our fans access to our drivers and to our tracks is who we are and it is what our fans appreciate. The most loyal fans in any sport are NASCAR fans and it’s because they meet the stars, they see the stars, they are reaching out and touching the stars and we are not going to change that. But with that, security has to take into account, how do we address anything from an autograph session to the race itself? Our concerns are making sure we have broken everything down, component-by-component, to cover all of those contingencies.

What kinds of security technologies do you utilize across all of your venues?

We take a layered approach, very similar to what I bring from the Secret Service. We apply many, many assets on the front side and it begins with intelligence. We are a part of the Department of Homeland Security intelligence community working with the fusion centers along with Department of Justice intelligence community working through the Joint Terrorism Task Force. We are integrated into all of the intelligence community to look at event-by-event-by-event. Everything from counterfeit ticket sales, to terroristic threats, to criminality, we are integrated on the first layer through intelligence. At the operational level, we are looking at making sure we have the network of necessary local security, track security and then law enforcement/public safety involved in the event so we can have the appropriate layers of traffic management, gate management, infield management, criminal response, and civil response.