How NASCAR Is Heightening the Fan Experience and Working Remotely During the COVID-19 Pandemic
There's no sport quite like NASCAR. Stock car racing is fast, furious, and an incredible blend of skill and technology. Instead of rooting for one of two sides, fans can root for one of the 40 teams that take to the oval.
Winning races requires engineers, mechanics, pit crews, and drivers to work together to outrun and outsmart the competition, and there's plenty of action both on and off the track. Fans in the stands are more connected with their favorite drivers than ever. They can view race stats and car performance data in real time on their mobile phones, and can even listen in on radio chatter as pit crews communicate with vehicles.
Growing Up with NASCAR
Today's NASCAR races look nothing like they did a generation ago. I should know—I'm a native here in beautiful Daytona Beach, Florida. My father is an electrician and worked every event at Daytona International Speedway when I was growing up. I was always tagging along when I could to try and get an autograph of my favorite driver. I started here at our gift shop 21 years ago, moved over to our help desk, and worked my way up from there. In that time, I've watched motorsports and technology evolve hand in hand, but nothing prepared me for the last few months.
In October of 2019, the International Speedway Corporation (ISC)—the organization that runs Daytona, Talladega Superspeedway, and 14 other tracks—merged with NASCAR. It was a smart business decision. The two companies have been working together for decades, so it made sense to consolidate our activities and build our future as one, stronger brand under the NASCAR umbrella.
IT Makes Everything Better
IT is critical to NASCAR's success. It drives our business operations and helps power the fan experience. As the senior director of enterprise technology engineering and architecture, it is my job to ensure that our infrastructure is healthy and that we are proactive in meeting expectations. I oversee everything from our data center and our back-of-house production environment, to the fan-facing Wi-Fi at our stadiums. But my work is not just about keeping the lights on. NASCAR uses IT to make the whole experience better.
When it comes to technology, we look for flexible, scalable solutions that help us manage our business operations while providing a premium sports-entertainment experience to our visitors. Our data center is located two miles from the track. Most days, it serves 1,500 full-time employees who connect to our production environment. On race days, that number swells to the size of a small city. We're talking 100,000 fans in the stands, hundreds of vendors, television crews, journalists, photographers, NASCAR officials, pit crews, and drivers.
Connecting the Past and the Future
To accommodate this type of surge, and to ensure reliable connectivity during normal operations, we have built a dual-fiber loop that connects our entire campus. It is resilient, scalable, and highly available with dynamic failover capacity that takes over in the event of a system failure. The core of our network is Cisco VXLAN technology running on Nexus-series switches.
Cisco technology allows NASCAR to link the past and the future. We use VXLAN to provide any network, anywhere in our Daytona campus (on the fly), connect to cloud-based infrastructure and applications, and run legacy apps requiring Layer 2 connectivity. When we need to offer a new IT service or make a change on the fly, I don't have to scramble to dual-connect anything or add new hardware. Everything is software based, and all I need to do is change a few parameters.
Preparing for the Daytona 500
Our first season of our consolidated operations was in 2020, and it got off to an incredible start. The Daytona 500 is one of the premier sporting events on the planet and also the inaugural race of the year. There's a flurry of preparations that go into organizing an event of this size, and this year was no exception. But there was an added twist. A couple of weeks before the race, I was told that the president of the United States was this year's Grand Marshal and that I had to speak to a communications person at the White House about IT security.
It was fairly standard stuff at our end. The White House needed five public IP addresses, traditional phone lines, and enough bandwidth to ensure that everything worked. But they weren't sure where they'd be setting up. The stadium is enormous, and we have miles of infrastructure here. White House staff came in, did a walkthrough, and chose several potential locations where they could connect to our network.
The day before the race, the president's team put their gear online and routed everything through our network, data center, and our ISP. I was busy running tests until a few minutes before the president arrived. I had to make sure the White House had enough bandwidth to ensure their operations and the safety of our nation's leader during the event.
Race Day: The Moment of Truth
When the president addressed the fans as Grand Marshal, I was in Victory Lane, which is the VIP area at the Speedway. I was the main contact point between NASCAR IT and the White House. I had my phone with me and was on standby in case something went wrong with our infrastructure, but everything turned out fine.
After the race, the White House folks said this was the smoothest event they'd ever done from an IT standpoint, and I was especially proud that NASCAR’s Enterprise Engineering team and our Cisco infrastructure had risen to this unprecedented occasion.
Meeting the COVID Crisis Head On
Everything changed a month later. In March, NASCAR joined the rest of the world in facing the COVID-19 pandemic. From an IT perspective, we had to ask whether we were prepared to help the business transition to remote work. There was one minor hurdle. NASCAR and ISC still had separate legacy IT departments, but we decided to work together to weather the crisis.
We’d relicensed with Cisco in 2019 and had purchased Webex as part of our package. We started by setting up VPN connectivity and creating accounts for our employees. Then we had to educate our people. With some minor training, everyone was soon on board. We explained the different technologies available to them. Email is one way to communicate, but it's a poor substitute for sight and sound. You need to see and hear people's reactions to carry on a proper conversation or to hold an effective meeting, and Webex was the best way to do it.
Webex also incorporates virtual whiteboard and screen-sharing features that extend collaboration beyond conversations. These tools allow our employees to work together as if they were all in the same room instead of sending files back and forth via email. We typically have 1,500 people working for NASCAR during the season. Right now, we have about 1,000 active employees who have maintained our racing calendar.
Our Pandemic Pivot
The pandemic forced us to reconsider the way we do business. Our drivers could still race, but they had to do it in empty stadiums while fans watched from home. In late June, we brought back limited seating at a live event. For now, our employees are working virtually, but we'll bring them back to our offices when we can.
These new approaches to our fans and our employees will certainly carry forward after the crisis is over. The ISC/NASCAR merger required us to rethink our operations, but COVID has proven to be a baptism of fire that has inspired our creativity. I’m not sure what the future of work will look like at NASCAR, but I know that Cisco will play an important role.
An IT-Driven Future
NASCAR is becoming more immersive. Fans may soon be able to zoom in on what's happening in their favorite team's garage. Perhaps we'll even add a Virtual Reality experience from a driver's perspective. All of this will require massive bandwidth and rock-solid connectivity, and that's where Cisco shines.
If there's one thing that COVID has shown me, it is that people crave entertainment and that they love motorsports. Cisco has helped us continue to deliver a quality product to our fans amid the pandemic. When NASCAR comes roaring back after it is over, IT will play a vital role in giving fans exciting new ways to enjoy the speed and the thrills of stock car racing.