Came for the Car Race, Stayed for the Security Theater!

Readers — Here’s what happens when we panic, whether about security or about bumbling the security:

Dear Free-Range Kids: Something that happened this weekend made me think of you.

My husband, our almost 3-year-old son and I have been going to the Indianapolis 500 since 2011, when the little one was only 9 months old. My husband loves cars (he’s an automotive engineer), and the 500 is a big day of fun. Every year (until this one) we’ve been thrilled with the sense of camaraderie we feel with the 300,000 fans at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and everyone has been nothing but kind to the crazy parents bringing a baby to the 500.

This year, we arrived earlier than usual, and still nearly missed the start of the race. That’s because for the first time ever, security was thoroughly searching bags at the gate. In previous years, they would just ask (and eyeball) to see if you had glass bottles, and be done with it. This year’s drill was clearly in response to the Boston Marathon bombing, and yet it was a ridiculous overreaction. The 500 is the largest sporting event in the world. Individually checking the bags and coolers of every. single. spectator. coming through the gates would take a ridiculous amount of time (and indeed, we were in a line that stretched nearly a half mile). Though we arrived early, we were stuck outside the Speedway during the flyover and the singing of the National Anthem. What was most offensive about this year’s additional security was the fact that an announcer kept telling the waiting fans to check out their neighbors, and to say something if we saw anything suspicious. That is not the kind of paranoia I want my child growing up with.

At about 10 minutes to start time, it dawned on security that the larger safety concern was pissing off hundreds of thousands of fans who might miss the race and thereby inciting some sort of riot, so they stopped searching bags and even stopped tearing tickets, and simply started waving race fans into the gate after asking them to hold up their tickets and proclaim that they were carrying no glass bottles. It was absolutely the right call for security to relax the search, but it simply highlighted the utter insanity of the original search.

As I was telling my husband after this holdup (when we were still seething and had not yet gotten into the excitement of what turned out to be a phenomenal race), there are things to worry about when bringing our son to the 500 each year. In descending order:

1. That his hearing will be affected by our yearly pilgrimage, especially now that he’s old enough to continually pull off his headphones despite our best efforts.

2. Sun burn.

3. That he might have a meltdown in the middle of a huge crowd when it will be extremely difficult to get him to a quiet place where he can calm down.

4. That he’ll fall in love with racing and break this Jewish mother’s heart by becoming an Indycar driver.

You’ll notice what’s not on that list? Terrorism.

If I wanted to keep my child completely safe, we’d stay home and watch the race on TV. But we want him to experience things and meet people and know the joy of live sporting events and giant turkey legs. If that infinitesimally increases his risk of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, so be it. I want him to live his life, not watch it go by on a screen.

I’m hoping that the 2014 race will return to 2012 levels of security–particularly since we will be towing along an almost 4-year-old and an 8-month-old by then.

May this year be a lesson to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on how not to handle fear.

Thanks, Emily Guy Birken (who writes the sahmnabulist blog)


I asked Common Good policy analyst Ben Miller to respond and he wrote:

It’s a fair bet that the motive for this “security” procedure had more to do with liability concerns than with safety. After all, thousands of people in a bottleneck of a security line are every bit as vulnerable as thousands of people watching a race on the other side of the gate. But if something goes wrong, the organizers can say, “we did everything we could”—even if what they did was completely counterproductive.

To which I reply: Yup.

Wait…is that guy in row 43 carrying a lumpy backpack?


46 Responses to Came for the Car Race, Stayed for the Security Theater!

  1. BL June 7, 2013 at 9:29 am #

    I usually go to spectate at least one day of the Little League World Series in August. It will be interesting to see what they’re doing.

  2. Natalie June 7, 2013 at 9:51 am #

    You need protective ear covers? I did not know it got that loud. Sounds exciting! Here’s to the first (?) Jewish Indy car racer, making another addition to the shortest book in the world “Jewish athletes”


  3. pentamom June 7, 2013 at 10:01 am #

    Natalie, ear protection should ideally be used at any kind of motor sport, from tractor pulls to Formula racing. It’s the volume plus the duration that gets you.

  4. Papilio June 7, 2013 at 10:06 am #

    Yes – what’s with the Jewish mom thing? As if non-Jewish moms don’t worry at all if their son becomes an Indycar driver?

  5. Natalie June 7, 2013 at 10:18 am #

    Woody Allen.
    He also made Jewish mother guilt mainstream.
    I’ve been told that non-Jewish mothers are fully capable of laying on a thick layer of guilt as well. :)

  6. Emily Guy Birken June 7, 2013 at 10:21 am #

    Emily here–I was just making a joke based on the stereotype of Jewish mothers. I don’t actually care if my kid grows up to be a doctor or a lawyer–he can do whatever he wants, including driving Indycars (although I get to have at least one flip out on that).

  7. Natalie June 7, 2013 at 10:22 am #

    Interesting. Similar to chemical exposure. Short term and high exposure vs long term and small amounts.

  8. Emily Guy Birken June 7, 2013 at 10:25 am #

    @Natalie, actually he would not be the first Jewish Indycar driver. Jody Scheckter is a famed Jewish Formula One driver and champion, and his son Tomas races on the Indycar circuit.

    My husband is a font of knowledge on Jewish automotive engineers and racecar drivers. :-)

  9. Natalie June 7, 2013 at 10:27 am #

    Regarding security theater, if they decide they’re going to do it, they should at least do it properly. Israel routinely checks bags to entrances to big events and public buildings. It’s so engrained in the culture you don’t notice it and it doesn’t cause back ups like this.

    People don’t have experience with it here. And that’s a good thing.

  10. Natalie June 7, 2013 at 10:28 am #


    The things you learn on this blog… :)

  11. Becky June 7, 2013 at 10:37 am #

    I’ve never been to an event as large as the Indy 500, but I’m a season ticket holder for University of Michigan football. We pack our stadium with over 100,000 every other Saturday in the fall. When I was little, you could bring basically anything in: alcohol, umbrellas (though these were frowned upon because they can block people’s view), marshmallows, inflatable women….Ever since 9/11, they’ve started cracking down on all these things. Now, it’s probably good that some things got eliminated – there’s really no reason to drink both at the pre-game tailgating and in the stadium, and the marshmallows did make a mess of the field – but now the rule is that no one can bring any bag of any size into the stadium. That means no purses for women. It means if you want to bring a decent sized camera, you neen to leave the covering bag at home. And ultimately, it doesn’t prevent anyone from bringing anything in. My husband wears a large jacket with deep pockets so that he can fit whatever is needed (ponchos, water bottles, etc.) without being searched. My parents have been sneaking in alcohol in various amusing ways for decades now. Security theatre is right.

  12. lollipoplover June 7, 2013 at 10:39 am #

    My son got a pit pass for a race at Dover Downs a few years ago and loved it. He was 9 and always facinated by how things work and run so he was enthralled by the mechanics. He enjoyed the book “Racing in the Rain” by Garth Stein (it’s the juvenile version of the “Art of Racing in the Rain”) and still loves cars (go-carts now). My husband is a car fanatic too (loves old Chevys) so I guess it’s tradition.

    What amazes me about this story and the security theater- how about all of the spectators that could be injured by car crashes at the event?! Do they get shown footage of what could happen to them before THEY enter? It seems they are more at risk.
    Am I the only one who has flashing memories of cars flipping and debris flying into crowds of spectators?

    And these things are LOUD. If you don’t bring ear protection, be prepared to have a loud talker on your hands or have everyone ask you “Why are you yelling?”

  13. Michelle June 7, 2013 at 10:44 am #

    Aw geez. I’m going to a rugby game this Saturday, and I seriously hope there’s none of this nonsense. I am *very* offended by the idea of security searching through my bag, but I doubt my husband and friends will want to put up with me throwing a fit about it. :(

    What ridiculous security theater. Let’s inconvenience and insult everybody just to look like we’re preventing an incredibly unlikely act by people who could easily circumvent our “security” if they tried.

  14. Melandra June 7, 2013 at 10:52 am #

    I work in motorsport, in event organisation, and so far we’ve had no increase in this sort of security check in Europe. I’ll let you all know after our biggest event, which is coming up in July. Security is very, very high on our list of priorities, but it’s more in terms of issues in the pit lane and around the track…

    As it says on all entry passes, very clearly, : ‘motorsport is dangerous’ …

    I began taking my daughters to the track when they were 2 and 6, and they were earning pocket money helping me as soon as they were able – preparing media accreditation, filling pigeon-holes etc. The eldest now works in motorsport, the youngest hates it but is still happy to earn some money if needed. But yes, motorsport is definitely addictive. And loud !

  15. Earth.W June 7, 2013 at 11:05 am #

    Spy on your neighbour. Sounds like East Germany.

  16. Forsythia June 7, 2013 at 11:05 am #

    Many people (rightfully) pointed out that, by creating big masses of people waiting to be searched, that any “sensible” terrorist with a bomb would just wait until they reached the middle of that mass and detonate what they had.

    That’s the epic stupidity of security theater.

    When I waited in line for a rally where both President Obama and former President Clinton were speaking, we had a single file line with a planned route that moved moved moved. That’s the effect of proper planning. They also noted up front when we printed tickets what was permitted and what wasn’t – my purse was okay, but the duffle bag full of equipment that one guy in front of us wanted to haul in was not allowed.

  17. Warren June 7, 2013 at 11:08 am #


    Speaking for the Nascar side of things………yes cars end up in the catch fence, and debris getting through to injure spectators. It is a risk you assume if you want to sit that close to the track. The only way to prevent this from happening would be to not allow live audiences. Televised only.
    The Indy 500 and Daytona 500 may be loud, but they pale in comparison to any Nascar race at Bristol. Because it is a half mile short track, completely surrounded by stands, and is basically one huge bowl, the sound is off the hook.
    To combat the sound get the head phones that have live race commentary, or ones that are hooked into race team communications. These have more incentive to keep them on.

  18. lollipoplover June 7, 2013 at 11:35 am #

    @Warren- Yes, that was my point- going into one of these races, security should be more concerned with keeping folks safe from the cars, not their purses or bag-o-bombs.
    There’s an inherent danger with being so close to the track and I worry more about being hit by an object that isn’t caught in the catch fence than Jethro sneaking in some natty light.

  19. Rich Wilson June 7, 2013 at 11:40 am #

    The reason Indy 500 claims to be the world’s largest sporting event is that they have some hope of approximating the number of spectators (400 000). It’s a lot harder to count the number of people lining Alpine climbs of the Tour de France. And no way to set up a security theater.

  20. Scott Lazarowitz June 7, 2013 at 12:37 pm #

    “there are things to worry about when bringing our son to the 500 each year. In descending order:

    1. That his hearing will be affected by our yearly pilgrimage, especially now that he’s old enough to continually pull off his headphones despite our best efforts.”

    Huh? A 3-YEAR-OLD with HEADPHONES?

  21. Emily Guy Birken June 7, 2013 at 12:55 pm #

    @Scott, I’m referring to noise cancelling headphones. which you’ll often see at car races. We have a small pair that used successfully on him when he was 9 months old. Last year, he didn’t want the headphones, but he was happy to wear foam earplugs. This year, he rejected both, after repeated attempts to make him wear either type of ear protection. I ended up holding my hands over his ears when the cars passed our section.

    Then of course, since my kid is an ornery cuss, he’s been bringing the foam ear plugs to us every day *since* the race and asking to wear them. Next year, we know to spend the week ahead of the race wearing the ear plugs ourselves and offering them to him when he doesn’t need them so he’s used to them on the day of the race.

  22. Warren June 7, 2013 at 12:57 pm #

    You can go and watch a Nascar race live, for free with no security checks at all.

    Go to the Pheonix race. There is a hill that you can set up on, and watch the race, with just as good a view as from the stands.
    One catch, they do not call it Rattlesnake Hill for nothing. People do brave the hill, and so far as I know there has been no incidents.

  23. Sara June 7, 2013 at 1:02 pm #

    Scott, those protective headphones like you’d wear on a construction site. Not iPod type headphones.

    “If I wanted to keep my child completely safe, we’d stay home and watch the race on TV.”

    You obviously haven’t considered the very real risk of a truck crashing through your living room wall or your TV exploding. Shame on you. /sarcasm

  24. Papilio June 7, 2013 at 1:07 pm #

    “the stereotype of Jewish mothers. I don’t actually care if my kid grows up to be a doctor or a lawyer”

    Right… I’m afraid my knowledge of any stereotypes about Jews is about zero.

  25. pentamom June 7, 2013 at 1:24 pm #

    “If I wanted to keep my child completely safe, we’d stay home and watch the race on TV.”

    You obviously haven’t considered the very real risk of a truck crashing through your living room wall or your TV exploding. Shame on you. /sarcasm”

    And really, most accidents happen in the home, and most child abuse is perpetrated by family members, and the kid might eat unhealthy snacks, and TVs emit radiation, so, really, your kid is safer out in the middle of the racetrack than in your living room. /double sarcasm

  26. John June 7, 2013 at 1:37 pm #

    Well first of all, many of the anti-terrorism policies we have in place are necessary just like many of the National Safety and Transportation Board policies are necessary to keep jets from falling out of the sky, which is something we take for granted doesn’t happen (Thanks to the NSTB). BUT they do go overboard with many of these security checks for terrorism which makes the danger even worse.

    El Al Airlines out of Israel has some of the best security and screening measures around and a spokesman for them once said that a terrorist can blow up just as many and even more people logjammed at a gate as he can on an airplane!

    So yes, America needs to think much of this through and start using some common sense.

  27. Rachel June 7, 2013 at 2:23 pm #

    As someone who has severe tinnitus, and wears hearing aids largely because of my attendance at concerts as an infant and small child, I’m really glad to read that you are using earmuffs, and can tell you from personal experience, and the confirmation of two audiologists, that foam earplugs are inadequate to protect a small child’s hearing. I wore foam plugs, and I have had tinnitus since I was at least 3 years old. If your children refuse the earmuffs, keep them home, it will save them from a world of frustration (losing your hearing and being unable to understand conversations can be a very isolating experience), and tens of thousands of dollars in hearing aids down the road.

    Now I work security at concerts as a side job, and have since before 9/11. We have always done bag checks, not so much for weapons (though they are prohibited, and we will make you return any to your car) but for alcohol, which jeopardizes the sites’ liquor licences. If the Indy wants to tighten up on security – even if it’s only really to keep out glass bottles and make the insurance companies happy, they need about 100 people doing bag checks if they want to get the crowd inside in under 2 hours, 200 people if they want to do pat-downs as well.

  28. gap.runner June 7, 2013 at 2:33 pm #

    There is a big difference between airport security in Germany (Munich) and the USA. I took a trip from Munich to Los Angeles with my son. The security checkpoint in Munich was very efficient.The lines were not long and moved quickly. I did not have to take off my shoes or belt and also did not have to open my laptop or take a picture with my camera. Evidently the scanner could see what was in my backpack and purse and also what was in my son’s backpack. I don’t recall being searched with the wand. There have been terrorist attacks in the past in Germany, and even one at the old Munich airport in 1970, so Germany is security conscious. But I never got the impression that security was lax in Munich. Far from it.

    Ten days later we flew out of Los Angeles. There was a very long line for security. I had to take off my shoes and belt plus open my laptop to prove that it was a real laptop. My son had to turn his phone on. In addition, both my son and I had to stand in a special machine for a full body scan. To my knowledge, there have been no terrorist attacks at the Los Angeles International airport. If a terrorist really wanted to attack that airport and inflict mass casualties, the best place would be the international security checkpoint.

    As John above said, there needs to be more common sense about security in the States.

  29. Joanne June 7, 2013 at 3:29 pm #


    That’s at any airport in the US for flights domestic or international. In DFW I stand in a machine that takes 30 seconds to do something to me, ensuring I have NOTHING in my pockets (as they will remind you 800 times). If my shirt is too lose or I’m wearing my long hair in a bun or a braid when I get out of that thing I get patted (usually in the small of my back) and sometimes my hair gets patted.

  30. Melissa June 7, 2013 at 3:33 pm #

    I was there. I didn’t hear that announcement at all but I was one of the horrible line jumping people. Feel REAL guilty about it too… uh huh… It was such a CLUSTER out there. I would say I have never seen anything like it but it was very similar to the line outside the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the 2001 Formula One race which was a mere few weeks following September 11, 2001 (I did my “patriotic duty” and stood in that line). So, it was not without precedent in my 29 years of coming to the Speedway. It’s a joke getting in there regardless of the line. Many years they barely even looked to make sure I had a ticket.

    But, yeah, to me the real security threat was in huge group of people congregating. Locals have told me that Homeland Security has been annoyed with the speedway for years because they feel that the fence is too close to the venue and want it moved three feet further away which would essentially put it out in the middle of the street. Hence, the possible plan for closing off Georgetown Road and making the whole thing an open plaza.

    Alas, they got such horrible press for this – and after one of the most awesome races in history – that they have no choice but to fix this situation should they continue to implement this type of security. I also do not plan to be one of the horrible line jumpers in the future so the possible plan for me includes 1) coming earlier; 2) not bringing in a bag or food – people with nothing on them were zooming in. Food and drink prices are surprisingly reasonable at Indy. It is not like going to an MLB game; 3) parking on the inside. (That was another joke as they weren’t even checking the cars for anything.)

    Just hoping they figure it out. I think they will. Will be interesting to hear how they work the crowd for the Nascar race in July.

  31. Warren June 7, 2013 at 3:45 pm #

    Let’s face it. If a terrorist wanted to blow a race, or football game or whatever…………are they going to bring a bomb in strapped to themselves or in a cooler? No.

    They will have found a way of getting the device into the venue days or weeks before the event, when security is at it’s peak.

    Checking all the spectators is closing the the barn door after the horses are gone.

  32. Brian June 7, 2013 at 3:59 pm #

    Ok but if I dumb kid like the one in Boston wants to bomb the event he might bring in a pressure cooker. Or if some jerk with an assault rifle.

    I agree the security does little. It is also offensively predictable. For Yankees-Red Sox games they pat you down. For Yankees-Blue Jays you walk right in.

    I have no problem with them checking bags before entering a stadium. Just leave it at home if you don’t want it. Maybe throw in some random pat downs. You profile people based on baggy clothes or suspicious behavior and you have yourself security.

  33. hineata June 7, 2013 at 4:18 pm #

    Possibly the real threat to people in this kind of situation is not bombs at all but the risk of stampedes. Hillsborough is the only sports situation I know of like that, but crushing deaths occur every year at the haj at Mecca (or so it seems from the Malay newspapers). 300,000 people in one area, though presumably lots of gates – still an awful lot of potential for damage if those at the back decide they’re missing out on the action. Me, I would want to keep the lines going as quickly as possible.

  34. Natalie June 7, 2013 at 4:44 pm #

    I’d say the real threat would be body odor.

  35. Erics June 7, 2013 at 5:42 pm #

    Looks like ‘worse case thinking’ no longer applies to just kids and parenting.

  36. hineata June 7, 2013 at 6:31 pm #

    @Natalie – lol!

    @Eric s. Simply meant that why is there an obsession with bombs? Crowds have other ‘dangers’ at their disposal. Don’t like crowds myself, no doubt a legacy of seldom being in one – a few thousand people is a fair crowd here. Three hundred thousand, that’s just, well, unimaginable…. :-)

  37. bmommyx2 June 7, 2013 at 9:28 pm #


  38. Donald June 7, 2013 at 10:19 pm #

    Security theatre is just that – THEATRE. It’s actually quite effective. It’s purpose is to defend against liability. It’s so people can say, “We did everything we could.” Whether this increases or decreases safety is not the issue. They took action. That’s all that matters.

    Although they dropped the security at the end, they can still say, “We did everything we could. We had to drop it because the bigger danger was a possible stampede and people would get trampled.”

    Security theatre will continue as long as it works. (reduce liability) Don’t upset yourself by thinking that it’s designed to increase safety. If you think it’s about safety and assess how effective it is or try to put sense behind it, you may get a migraine.

  39. Warren June 8, 2013 at 10:09 am #

    Stampedes and crushing usually only happen in places with general admission seating. That problem was solved, for the most part, after the concert in Cinn. Ohio.

    People in crowds will from time to time fall into the mob mentality and loose their morals and common sense. That is a human factor that cannot be fully predicted.

    As for security theatre, as long as people can still refer to the Boston Marathon, it will only get worse. Just like with Sandy Hook, and school security theatre. You can question, complain all you want and their response will be “Boston”, “Sandy Hook” or “9/11”, and that justifies everything in organizers minds. The only thing you can do is boycott attending these events live.

  40. nathaniel June 8, 2013 at 10:38 am #


  41. nathaniel June 8, 2013 at 10:40 am #

    There actually was a terrorist attack at LAX about a decade ago. It was someone shooting up the El-Al ticket counter outside of the secure area. For a bit people talked about screening people before they entered the airport, but luckily people realized how ridiculous that would be and that someone could still just shoot up the people waiting in line.

  42. J.T. Wenting June 8, 2013 at 2:59 pm #

    @nathaniel I think that was more like 25 years ago.
    And screening before entering the airport happens in a lot of places, in fact in most countries.
    Of course none of those airports have the sheer volume of traffic that LAX gets, but part of the reason for that is them not allowing anyone without a valid ticket to get within half a mile of the terminal building.

  43. Warren June 8, 2013 at 3:47 pm #

    What airports are you talking about, because any I have ever gone to have wide open access untill you actually head for your gate.

  44. nathaniel June 8, 2013 at 10:41 pm #

    It was actually post 9-11. July 4th 2002 to be exact

  45. Papilio June 9, 2013 at 12:56 pm #

    @Warren: Probably European airports. Schiphol (‘Amsterdam Airport’) for example does not only have an shopping mall area where both travellers and others can access, but also an area behind the douane/screening/security with taxfree shops, restaurants etc where travellers can hang out before actually going to their gate.

  46. 手機殼 June 11, 2013 at 3:39 am #

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