SEBRING — With a recent mass shooting at a bank in Sebring, one would expect increased law enforcement presence at the Sebring International Raceway.
Not necessarily, said Nell Hays, public information officer for the Highlands County Sheriff’s Office, although law enforcement will have that concern on their minds along with all of the usual race week activities, and related mischief.
“We will have a similar presence at that track as in the past,” Hays said, not naming numbers of deputies on site. “We will focus on the feeder roads as the traffic increases.”
When asked about any increased presence or alert status given how five were killed by a lone gunman on Jan. 23 at SunTrust bank, she said it’s become part of the standard procedure now.
“All law enforcement (nationally) is attuned to that, because we’ve had mass shootings,” Hays said. She didn’t know of any specific special precautions, “but we are more aware of that than we have been in the past.”
For now, the Sheriff’s Office has officers working with it from Sebring Police Department as well as Glades, Hardee and Okeechobee county sheriff’s offices.
Lake Placid Police Chief James Fansler said the Sheriff’s Office had asked him to send an officer, but unfortunately he has a few officers on vacation at that time and can’t spare anyone.
“Woes of a small agency,” Fansler said Tuesday.
Hays was not aware of anyone from Polk County Sheriff’s Office participating at the race this year, but that doesn’t mean people might not see their personnel at the track.
Other agencies may be there handling other functions for the Raceway, Hays said, but they aren’t working in the same areas of Highlands County Sheriff’s Office.
The Sheriff’s Office will have its command headquarters just off the Midway, she said, as well as its mobile command center and “Eye in the Sky” mobile observations tower in Green Park, as always.
When asked if she expects a “calm, cool and collected” event, Hays said it has been in recent years.
“We are expecting a family-friendly crowd and looking forward to a fun event,” Hays said.
As the 67th Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Presented by Advance Auto Parts gears up, activities surrounding the race have been relatively calm over the last few years compared to what it had been in decades past: More akin to a mix of Mardi Gras and spring break.
This year, the crowd of 150,000 is expected to swell by 40-60 percent, according to Wayne Estes, president and general manager of the Sebring International Raceway, a prediction he attributes to the addition of the eight hours or 1,000 miles of endurance World Endurance Championship on Friday, followed by the 12 hours on Saturday.
“People are used to having a certain amount of room here,” he said, but this year, they will feel a bit more crowded in their allotted campsite boundaries.
Crowd and traffic control should be enhanced with the addition of a new vehicle bridge into Green Park and a pedestrian tunnel under the track. Estes hopes traffic will flow better and that pedestrians will be safer walking through the tunnel — which will also accommodate emergency vehicles.
The Spring Break Party Zone has moved from the Midway to Green Park, where there is more room, Estes said.
In recent years, law enforcement presence and willingness of Raceway staff to eject fans have kept unruly visitors in check. It’s hoped that will be true this year.
Upon her election in 2004, former sheriff Susan Benton pledged to help create a Raceway atmosphere as attractive to parents as to partiers.
Within five years, 2009, the race was touted as a “family affair” versus the “free for all” it had been. On just the Friday night before that race, deputies arrested 14 people, far fewer than in previous years, and not very high considering the number of people camped at the track.
Deputies made drug arrests and cut down on indecent exposure, and prevented injuries or deaths from people falling out of truck beds or open-top vehicles.
One did fall from a truck that year and was airlifted with a head injury. In years prior to that, a man had fallen out of the back of a vehicle and died. A new rule in 2009 banned people from sitting on the closed tailgate of a pick-up truck, with their backs to the road, after a young man died after falling from the back of a truck.
In 2011, with a record crowd of 125,000, deputies arrested only 24.
In 2012, with a projected crowd of 170,000, deputies arrested 25.
2015 saw 10 people arrested on 15 charges, and one sprinter caught and ejected — Richard Dunmire, 22, ran across the Ullman Straight during the race. He wasn’t hurt. Raceway officials confiscated his ticket and kicked him out.
Deputies didn’t catch the squirrel, who reportedly made a successful dash across the back stretch. The Porsche North America team also spotted a four-legged daredevil: A raccoon running down pit road, but it escaped and was not seen again. A chicken was also seen near the circuit, but reports said he did not cross the track.
2016, Benton’s last year in office, had 10 arrests over the four-day event, nine of them during the big race. It was one of the lowest numbers of total arrests made at the annual event, according to the Sheriff’s Office at that time.
Immediately prior to the 2017 race week, sheriff’s deputies did a sweep of local stores to ensure all were complying with age restrictions on alcohol sales.
Out of 26 stores checked countywide, only one clerk sold alcohol to the undercover teenager.