When you go to a race track, you probably don’t put a lot of thought into what you would do if hazardous weather was approaching the track. Thankfully, there are many people at the track who have given a lot of thought about how to protect fans as much as possible from weather threats. Tracks have safety plans that outline what actions need to be taken for various hazards.
But a simple fact that cannot be changed is that fans at race tracks are highly vulnerable to hazardous weather. Thousands of people are exposed to the weather in open areas with very few places to find adequate indoor shelter. There is only so much planning and preparedness that tracks can do to keep fans safe. Safety can never be guaranteed, but with advance preparation, proper situational awareness, and clear communication, the chances of weather-related injuries can be greatly diminished.
I wanted to get a behind-the-scenes look at how race tracks prepare for hazardous weather, and what resources they have to assist in making weather-related decisions. My hope is that by better understanding the challenges that tracks face from hazardous weather, fans will be more weather-aware at the track, and be better prepared to take steps for their own safety.
I contacted tracks across North America that host spectator events. Three tracks kindly answered my questions - Virginia International Raceway, Road America, and Sonoma Raceway. With these three tracks located in very different geographical areas, we get a good sampling of the unique challenges they face from the weather. Because some of their answers are part of internal safety procedures that are not typically shared with the public, their answers are kept anonymous and are listed randomly.
If hazardous weather is approaching your track during an event, who is responsible for making the call for people to seek shelter?
- That is a team call made by myself (track safety director), the head of security, and our director of operations.
- Track officials, in collaboration with the major event sanctioning body, would make the call for people to seek shelter.
- It greatly depends on the scenario or the event. In a racing situation usually Race Control from the sanctioning body will make a call based on corner workers exposure. If that call is made, then announcements would go out on the PA system which is also tied into an FM radio station channel for people to please take cover or shelter. If the track is feeling the fans are at risk, we can make a call anytime to seek shelter if racing action continues. If it is a run of the mill day as a basic track rental driver education day with no fans the call is made to suspend any track activity anytime corner workers or participants may be exposed to threatening weather. I usually do not have to make this call since the renter or club is usually very proactive with our controller on pit lane.
Does this person have access to a meteorologist who can be called on to provide assistance with weather-related decisions?
- Yes. Both the track and the sanctioning body have access to their respective meteorologists.
- Unfortunately, we do not. We utilize some services such as Weather Underground on the internet, the National Weather Service, and so forth, with the exception of during our NASCAR race, when we have an EOC (Emergency Operations Center) with the local emergency management, who can directly access the National Weather Service.
Does your track have access to a service that provides real-time radar, lightning, warnings, and other weather information?
- We would use Accuweather.
- Yes. We have a common weather station alert system that is monitored at the guard house and as you can imagine there are all of us out there on multiple weather apps on our iPhones. If there is great concern we have from time to time called the local airport that is very close to the track for any information they may be able to provide.
Does your track have indoor facilities where people can seek shelter in the event of hazardous weather? If so, approximately how many people can these facilities hold? If not, or if facilities are not large enough, where are people directed to stay safe from hazardous weather?
- We have limited shelter areas, and our primary concern if we have to seek shelter will be our emergency responders. And it depends what the hazard is - with lightning, we can shelter our emergency responders in vehicles. But if there is a tornado warning, then we have limited shelter areas for the public. We utilize the limited shelter areas that we have for emergency responders and medical staff so that they will be available to assist others in the event that is needed. We can hold 200-300 people in the indoor facilities, and that would be very crowded. We have some tunnels that we will utilize begrudgingly because they aren’t the greatest, but they are better than standing out in an open field, and we can get a few hundred more in there. But our facility can hold over 100,000 people. So our shelter capability compared to what we have for attendance is nowhere near able to match.
For a lightning situation, we will direct people to shelter themselves in their vehicles. We are a 649 acre facility, and people are allowed to park their personal vehicles near where they are watching the race. We direct campers, in closed campers, to seek shelter in their units. For lightning, that is pretty good protection, but not excellent. My biggest fear is a tornado, because the best thing we can do is watch those early and start making announcements on it, looking at the possibility of evacuating the facility, and trying to give suggestions to people of how to leave and move away from the hazard area to avoid it rather than trying to shelter in place. It’s a moving scale for us, because if it’s a large event, we’re going to have too many people to shelter in place. When our smaller events are going, we have sufficient shelter to shelter in place, because you’re talking only hundreds of people, not thousands.
- In the event of hazardous weather, we would not move people indoors, as there aren’t spaces to facilitate that. We would shelter in place in lieu of moving indoors or inundating the adjacent roadways.
- Yes, we have labeled storm shelters in the paddock. We could maybe get 250 people in this area? Thankfully we have not had to do a load capacity test, but we might even discover that we could take more than my conservative guess.
- If people comply, we can get our staff to safety in under 4 minutes. That includes all the staff around the racetrack - the observers and everything. When you talk about the public, in about 15 to 20 minutes, we’ll get 80% of the people sheltered. Of the remaining 20%, another 10% will take 15 more minutes. But you will never get everybody to shelter. More than once when we’ve had tornado warning, I’ve had people look me right in the face and say “I’ve never been hit by a tornado yet, I’m not going to shelter”.
- A lot more than you would think. We had a situation with just staff on property and trying to get office people and others to move and move quickly can sometimes be a struggle. You will always have those who wait until the last minute.
- Since we would shelter in place, this would take place instantaneously.
How are people at the track informed of the need to seek shelter?
- We work with fire/safety, the highway patrol and all emergency services as well as track PA announcement, using digital and social media, etc. to inform our guests of any information as it relations to inclement weather.
- We have multiple social media sources that we could use at the push of a button but for our internal staff it is an all staff call on the VHF radio network. External to participants or fans is our facility PA system/FM channel and a push notifications through our app.
- Our PA system, which is also broadcast on a FM radio channel. For employees, we utilize our own radio communications to notify all the staff.
Thank you to VIR, Road America, and Sonoma Raceway for taking the time to answer my questions. Some of my thoughts in closing:
- While these tracks do their best, there is really very little they can do to ensure the safety of fans from hazardous weather. Notifying fans of an approaching threat is probably the most important step. Once the notification is made, the responsibility of getting to a safe place falls on each individual.
- The decision to notify fans to seek shelter is not made lightly. At each of these tracks, we see that the decision is made by a group of people with access to weather information. When the notification to seek shelter is made, it should be taken seriously.
- There isn’t much lead time in advance of threatening weather to move everyone to a safe place, which makes it extremely important that fans take immediate action once the announcement to seek shelter is made. The quicker you take action, the better your chances of staying safe. Don’t wait until the threat is on top of you, because it may be too late.
- Be prepared well in advance - stay aware of what is happening with the weather, and think about where you would go when hazardous weather approaches.