Kansas Speedway will be one of the safest venues in the U.S. this weekend, and it won’t be just because of the tragic Boston Marathon bombings on Monday.
While there may be a slight upgrade because of what happened in Boston, a large law enforcement presence involving a number of local, state and federal agencies and a high level of safety has been paramount at Kansas since Oct. 1, 2006.
It was on that day, about two hours after Tony Stewart won the Banquet 400, that several unthinkable events came together to shake NASCAR, the larger sports world and Kansas and Missouri law enforcement to their core.
Kansas City (Ks.) police officer Susan Brown was working a special security detail, just trying to make a few extra bucks to help support her family, deep within the bowels of the race track. She was guarding roughly $1 million in cash in the track’s vault room, proceeds taken in from the day from concession stand and souvenir stand sales.
What should have been a routine day turned into life-changing day for Brown, a well-respected veteran detective of the KCKPD.
As the door to the vault room was closing after yet another dropoff of the days receipts, two masked men burst in and shot Brown several times—at point-blank range, leaving her for dead.
Brown was able to shepherd several track workers into the vault while exchanging fire with the robbers. Even as several bullets tore through her frame, Brown was more concerned at making sure the employees were safe than worrying about her own safety and well being.
The men, who it would later be learned once worked as volunteers at the track, tried to get to the cash but Brown’s return fire caused them to make a quick exit and leave the vault empty-handed.
But not before they had shot Brown six times in her face, chest, arm and leg, leaving her to die.
"There were many, many shots fired," KCK police captain James Brown said at the time. "It's pretty bold for anyone to walk up to an officer in any community and shoot 'em down in cold blood like that."
Fortunately, Brown was able to get a distress call out to her fellow officers. She keyed her police radio and barely got out the words—“10-60,” law enforcement code for “officer shot, send help immediately”—before collapsing and losing consciousness.
After a brief car chase that ended within the shadows of the track, both perpetrators were arrested. While the suspects, career criminals Nolden Garner and Frederick Douglas, were being read their rights, rescue workers were feverishly working on Brown, trying to save her life.
Garner and Douglas would eventually be convicted of the shooting and robbery and sentenced to long prison terms.
"They were truly bad guys," said Jeff Boerger, Kansas Speedway track president at the time.
Ironically, Brown wasn’t originally even supposed to be at the track on what would be her life-changing day. Her husband Kelly wanted her to go on a Cub Scouts camping trip with the couple’s son.
"I tried to get her to come along with us, but she said, no," Kelly said at the time. "She wanted to be where all the excitement was—and she got all the excitement."
After being shot, Brown was airlifted to nearby Kansas University Medical Center. Initial news reports had Brown dead, but she miraculously survived.
"When we first heard that Susan had been shot, it was like, 'Susan? Why Susan?" Captain James Brown (no relation), public information officer for the Kansas City, Ks., police, said at the time. "She's the most friendliest, nicest police officer on the department. Why her? It was a shock."
Brown was in critical condition. A call went out for blood and dozens of officers—some from several hundred miles away—and regular citizens stepped forward to help. And for those who couldn’t donate blood, they helped raise money for Brown’s family.
Several NASCAR drivers, most notably Elliott Sadler, sent Brown several messages of support during her long recovery from what would eventually wind up being six major surgeries for bullet wounds to her chest, mouth, arm, leg and wrist. Sadler’s mother sent Brown flowers, a note and prayers for her recovery. Others in the NASCAR community also reached out, as well.
"It was an outpour of love," Brown said a year after the shooting. "You don't know how many friends you really have until something like this happens."
She later added, “This doesn't normally happen in NASCAR.”
Indeed, something like that doesn’t normally happen in NASCAR.
To its credit, Kansas Speedway has long been one of the most proactive racetracks when it comes to security and keeping fans, drivers and everyone else who comes through the gate safe, something that was in place even before Brown’s shooting, and subsequently ratcheted up even more afterward.
While some may grumble that bag inspection and entrance lines at Kansas Speedway may be long, or that vehicles entering the infield go through a rigorous search and scrutiny, but it’s all done to make fans as safe as possible.
You may wonder how I know so much about the hell Brown went through that fateful Sunday, as well as the ensuing months of agonizing physical, mental and emotional recovery she went through.
At the time, I was National NASCAR Columnist for Yahoo! Sports. It would have been easy for Brown to decline yet another in a countless number of interview requests in the year following the day she nearly died.
But after a year of pain and suffering that no human should ever have to go through, Brown graciously agreed to let me be the first reporter locally or nationally that she told her story to because we shared a connection of sorts: In addition to being a full-time sports writer and broadcaster, I was also a fully-sworn, part-time police officer for 20 years.
Brown and I were members of the so-called blue line brotherhood, where every other cop—no matter full-time or part-time—is a brother or sister in arms, an individual that can both be trusted and who understands the other, even if they don’t know them personally. It’s a bond that non-cops—particularly regular reporters—will never understand.
In the roughly one-hour interview we had in a police command post just outside the frontstretch of the speedway, Brown relived everything she went through that fateful day one year earlier.
We cried together, laughed together and even shared long stretches of silence as we both tried to compose ourselves from what was a cathartic discussion.
It was an interview I’ll never forget, but more importantly, Susan Brown was someone I’ll never forget. She went through what no one should ever have to go through.
While I will never be able to fully thank Brown—who recently retired from the force in January after nearly 34 years of service to the Kansas City, Kansas community—for opening up the way she did or relate to all that she went through, she was without question one of the strongest and most gracious individuals I’ve ever interviewed.
To this day, I still think of Susan Brown and what she went through quite often, particularly around every NASCAR race weekend at Kansas Speedway. She endured more than any one human being—cop or not—should ever have to go through.
So for those of you heading to the track this weekend, if you’re worried about your safety because of what happened in Boston, you can thank Susan Brown and the KCK PD for you, your family and friends being able to rest a little bit easier.
Make that a lot easier.
"I did what my training taught me to do," Brown said at the conclusion of our interview 6 1/2 years ago. "I protected lives. That's what we do. I was here to protect lives and property—and I think I did a pretty good job."
(Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained directly by the writer.)
Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski
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