Security at NHMS: 'Safety of fans is absolute top priority'
In the wake of last Monday's terror attacks near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, officials at New England's largest sports venue are taking a second look at security policies and asking the question, "What if it happened here?"
What if a bomber with a backpack loaded with explosives decided to hit a major racing event in New Hampshire? Are the protocols and procedures in place adequate to handle such an event? And if not, would more aggressive security procedures relieve - or ratchet up - any safety concerns the public may have?
"We are working with various local, county, state and federal agencies along with NASCAR security in evaluating and refining our security measures," said Jerry Gappens, executive vice president and general manager of New Hampshire Motor Speedway. "Events such as the tragedy in Boston on Monday create heightened awareness and a thorough review of procedures for everyone hosting events nationwide."
New Hampshire Motor Speedway is the largest sports facility in New England. Located on approximately 1,200 acres in Loudon, the venue boasts a capacity of 105,491 spectators and a 1.6-mile road course.
NHMS hosts the only NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, NASCAR Nationwide Series and Global RallyCross Championship events held in the six-state New England region.
Both NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races regularly sell out, and exceed the NFL Super Bowl in attendance.
Gappens said security procedures at the track have been reviewed in advance of this summer's NASCAR races. Gappens said ushers and security personnel regularly inspect coolers, bags and backpacks of race attendees.
"The safety of fans is the absolute top priority of New Hampshire Motor Speedway," said Gappens. "We already have a strict screening process in place.
"Every year as we approach the racing season, our security directors, who are former high-ranking state police officers, work with local, state and federal agencies along with NASCAR officials to review, analyze and update our security procedures to ensure the greatest level of safety possible for our fans.
"This tragedy weighs very heavy on all of our hearts. Our thoughts and prayers are with all of those who were injured and affected."
Gappens said because a NASCAR race and a marathon are two completely different kinds of events, held in different types of venues - an enclosed facility versus city streets - it's not fair to compare them in terms of vulnerability to threats like bombs in backpacks.
"Unlike 'open' events, such as last Monday's marathon, we have screeners at each gate that examine backpacks, coolers and any suspicious clothing," said Gappens. "Each guest is screened every time they enter the grandstand area. No one is just waved through.
"Ticket takers are also monitoring each entering guest. Uniformed officers are assigned to each entry point along with the screeners and ticket takers."
Gappens said the speedway has a command center onsite to utilize if an event does occur there.
"NHMS has a command center in which speedway officials, law enforcement, fire and EMT personnel and a number of other agencies work together to ensure guest safety," said Gappens. "The command center coordinates and monitors all calls for service. We instruct all NHMS employees to be vigilant for any suspicious, unattended packages or people acting out of the norm. Messages appear on the scoreboard asking guests to report any suspicious activities.
"We provide phone numbers and a texting number for reporting issues of concern. The NHMS security department stands ready to respond to any complaints and patrols the property 24 hours per day."
Gappens said there are surveillance cameras that monitor all areas of the speedway, that could provide important footage for investigators to analyze should an attack ever occur there, but would not say how many.
Longtime NASCAR fans contacted last week for this story said they have no intentions of skipping the New Hampshire 300 race this summer, in the wake of the Boston attacks.
"We love it," said Betty Gadomski of Kingston, Ontario, who has been coming to the races for over a decade. "It's the whole weekend, a great time. We wouldn't miss it, and I'm not worried about anything happening."
"You think about what happened, but you have to get out and live," said Don Shepard of Pelham, Mass. "We come every year, and we'll be there again."