NASCAR officials plan to introduce a new facet to the COVID-19 screening process this weekend, using trained dogs to detect coronavirus among essential personnel for Sunday’s Cup Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
The procedure will be deployed on a trial basis before Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 (3 p.m. ET on FOX, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) as a potential first line of at-track defense intended to limit the disease’s spread. Teams were notified Tuesday. It’s the latest development in an evolving process and one that could present an efficient, highly accurate and cost-effective supplement to the existing procedures.
“We think that these dogs and this capability is going to allow us to rapidly confirm that all of those people entering the essential footprint on Sunday — that’s race teams, that’s NASCAR officials, that’s the vendors that work inside the garage — all those folks are COVID-free or not,” said Tom Bryant, NASCAR managing director of racing operations. “The ability to do that has kind of been the math problem that we have continuously tried to solve since March of last year.”
NASCAR will work with 360 K9 Group, which has training facilities in Anniston, Alabama, and New Smyrna Beach, Florida. Two teams of dogs will screen essential personnel, assessing in less than 30 seconds per person whether COVID-19 is present and then alerting their handlers if the disease is detected.
After an alert, those individuals will be isolated and subject to comprehensive secondary screening by the American Medical Response (AMR) Safety Team’s lead physicians to determine their status for Sunday’s race. The K9 unit will not be used to screen Cup Series drivers, who remain apart from the garage footprint on race day, or the limited number of fans in the grandstands during Sunday’s trial run.
Bryant has seen the benefits of trained K9 units in other environments close to him. As a 20-year U.S. Army veteran, he has witnessed dogs’ efforts to sniff out explosives and firearms in military operations. Dogs have also been involved in isolating the scent of citrus canker, a bacterial disease harmful to crops near his Florida home.
Those efforts have been made with the support of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The 360 K9 Group adds that clinical studies have shown that the same bio-detection technology can locate the presence of COVID-19 in humans at an accuracy rate of 98%.
“They are amazing,” Bryant said. “This gives us essentially an ability to test that essential population on race day and know right away that those folks who have cleared this enhanced screening process with a very high degree of confidence are COVID-free. We’ll learn from what we do Sunday, and we’ll figure the ways to best employ this capability moving forward to ensure that we’re keeping the population as safe as we can, keeping the least amount of risk in the environment.”
This screening technique arrives near the one-year mark of the COVID-19 outbreak, deployed at the same track where the sport’s racing calendar was abruptly halted last March. NASCAR returned in mid-May at Darlington Raceway and rallied to complete the 36-race circuit on its scheduled finishing date last November. To help control the disease’s impact, officials streamlined race weekends and reduced the number of at-track attendees.
Bryant acknowledged the hurdles officials have faced in conducting large-scale screening, crediting AMR medical staff, epidemiologists and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines in helping to “navigate the forest” of testing. He said NASCAR officials are tracking the vaccination status of the industry’s essential personnel and immunization numbers are on a positive trend.
Bryant noted, however, even with the finish line seemingly in sight, the industry remains on high alert for the virus and its mutations and variants, aiming to keep the health of the essential bubble intact.
“As much as things are getting better, it’s still very much a challenge,” Bryant said. “So this tool is going to help us as the virus evolves, we’re evolving with our approach to how we minimize exposure and create the safest possible environment to race.
“You’ve heard the drivers and everybody in the industry talk about the energy and the sense you get and the feeling you get when you’ve got all the fans right there, enjoying the action. That’s what we’re going to get back to, and I’m a big optimist that we’re much closer to getting back to that than we were. I’m really excited for the day when that comes, and this is a tool that can help us get closer to that.”