Race Tracking

How a city of 35,000 manages a quarter million visitors.

by / April 25, 2007

Twice a year, the small city of Dover, Del., is overrun by approximately 250,000 people. They come from all over the Eastern seaboard to spend five days in Delaware's capital, setting up temporary shelters everywhere. Parking lots become tent cities, and thousands of RVs rumble through the streets.

What sporting event transforms this small city into a weekend metropolis? Think high speed, high energy and a lot of left turns.

Every June and September, the Monster Mile at the Dover International Speedway is ground zero for the fastest growing sports spectacle in the nation - National Associate for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR). NASCAR races draw a lot of fans: The track in Dover seats 140,000 spectators. That number doesn't include the additional thousands who fill the track's infield - the area the racetrack encircles. 

For a city the size of Dover, public safety resources become severely overtaxed when NASCAR comes to town. Aside from the sheer number of people public safety personnel must handle, race attendees are more than festive. For years, first responders relied on antiquated methods for emergency management - everything from paper maps riddled with pushpins to driving an ambulance around makeshift campgrounds trying to find a reported injury. But in 2006, a few city employees took existing resources and transformed the way Dover manages race weekends.

GIS Test Drive

Dover Fire Marshal David Truax was looking for a change. He knew there was a better way to deploy his resources to protect and serve the throngs of NASCAR fans. So Truax contacted Mark Nowak, Dover's GIS coordinator, to see if they could devise a plan.

"He said he would like to see how GIS technology can help the race," Nowak recalled. "So I looked at what they had going when it came to their command post. Then I took tours of the different campgrounds. [We] drove through, and they showed me the problems and issues, and asked if GIS could help their planning. I told them it could."

Nowak explained that the core challenges faced by Dover public safety came from the campground areas. During NASCAR events, "campground" is a loose designation - it could be anything from a traditional facility with roads and spaces to a Lowe's parking lot stuffed haphazardly with racing revelers eager to display their enthusiasm. Patrolling and responding to makeshift camps is hard enough. Unfortunately there weren't many maps for most of the traditional campsites.

"There are multiple campgrounds that we have, traditional and nontraditional," Nowak said. "Traditional campgrounds are basically campgrounds out in the woods, or a field and they really had no mapping of them at all. If there was a phone call or 911 got a call from someone saying they're in campground 10 ... well, there could be 500 campers there."

As the city's GIS coordinator, Nowak told the fire marshal he had some ESRI GIS software and some GPS-enabled hardware. Without having to purchase any additional equipment, Nowak began writing a mobile GIS application to help public safety officials improve their emergency response capability. Utilizing ArcPad software, a laptop computer and a Trimble ProXT GPS receiver, the fire marshal had detailed maps available to him that could be updated in real time with mission-critical information.

During the September 2006 race, the system was immediately put to the test when a camper vehicle exploded.

"At the last race," Nowak said, "a camper blew up because of a propane leak. When the fire marshal heard that over the radio, he was able to type in the name of the camp road the phone call came from, and it highlighted the camp road on his laptop so

he knew where to go."

Additional incidents, such as an unfortunate fellow who stepped in hot grease, helped Dover public safety document and map troublesome areas. For future races, Dover police and fire will be able to better use their resources by assigning patrols to areas identified as historically more unruly or more prone to requiring emergency medical attention.


Shifting Gears

Given the adaptability of GIS, Nowak is finding he keeps coming up with new, useful ways to take advantage of the mapping technology. Using ArcReader, free ESRI software for viewing maps, Nowak built a tool for more effective deployment of ambulances.

"I published a GIS map to ArcReader, and [the fire department] was able to put it on their laptops," he explained. "One of the people in the fire department actually sat in his truck and was able to guide ambulances through the campgrounds to the problem areas. Before, they just had to drive around and listen for somebody yelling - which, late at night after they've been partying all day, is a pretty common occurrence. He was able to get faster ambulance response throughout the campgrounds."

The county E911 center is also asking Nowak for his GIS expertise. Nowak and his staff now share the county's mobile emergency command center. Using Nowak's GIS application, the 911 staff can pinpoint and map the location of GPS-equipped cell phones when the calls come in, enhancing response time.

Nowak has also been asked to start looking at nonemergency applications for his GIS system. A few of the more innovative uses he's come up with include mapping the established "scalper buffer" - a zone extending from the center of the racetrack one mile in all directions - where reselling tickets is prohibited. Now, if a report comes in that someone is selling tickets, the potential scalper's location need only be entered into the software to determine if it is a violation.

Similarly Nowak said they are working on applications to map licensed vendors and to keep campers from setting up too close to power lines.

"We want to keep expanding this and make it bigger, better and more useful for everybody," Nowak said. "With this new type of technology, people are excited to go out and use it. It's really made things a lot easier for everybody."  

Chad Vander Veen

Chad Vander Veen is the former editor of FutureStructure.


Platforms & Programs