Indy 500 Former Marine has toughest job at IMS database field types

During his 24 years in the Marines, Dooley planned massive troop deployments and missions with life-or-death consequences, so to say the 500 is the most difficult challenge he’s ever faced would be incorrect. But it’s not insignificant either.

“It’s fun to say that when I left deployment, I was the second in command of (a) special operations task force … that was responsible for all special operations in western and southwestern Afghanistan, including the Helmand River Valley,” Dooley said. “That was a big fight. So to come out here and to say this is significant, I think is saying something.”

Fortunately, Dooley has help. For the past month, he has been grooming his army of yellow-clad personnel on how to execute the plans and contingencies he and his team have spent the past year dceveloping.But these troops are much different from those he’s used to working with, those highly trained Marines.

The best of the best. At IMS, his troops are mostly retirees and college kids making minimum wage. A lot are volunteers and seasonal workers.

“At some level, Kirk’s job is the toughest one we have,” track president Doug Boles said. “He does all the budgeting and scheduling to figure out where to put all those people. And he’s only got a handful of full-time folks and others who are part-time. But most of them are seasonal workers who maybe work 20 days a year for the speedway. And he’s having to figure out how to take someone’s talent, put them in the right spot, keep the customers safe and informed and make sure those boots on the ground are helping our customers have a great experience.”

With his particular military background, Dooley is uniquely qualified to plan a deployment of the magnitude of the 500 and the rest of May for that matter, which requires something like 9,000 security patrol shifts to be scheduled and assigned throughout the month.

While these days, run-ins with IMS security patrol are few and far between, the horror stories are still out there. And you better believe Miles and Boles hear them. They’ve been told dozens of times about being barked at, pointed at, whistled at by an overzealous gentleman in a yellow polo and a baseball cap.

Encounters like that have been taking place at the speedway for decades, where the predominant characteristic of the security force was “antagonistic” said Steve Somermeyer, a 48-year veteran of the security patrol and now co-coordinator for the garage and pit areas and co-coordinator of pagoda command.

But Miles and Boles want those horror stories to become relics of a bygone era. The security patrol is a track institution that dates back 70 years. Often they are the only IMS representatives the public encounters during a day at the track, so IMS leadership expects them to be as friendly and helpful as possible.

“My goal is for the longtime, long ago, ‘Hey, it isn’t a good day at the speedway if you don’t get yelled at to (disappear) and for it to change to, ‘Oh my gosh, the yellow shirts are so valuable, so helpful and the most unique (security team) in all of sports,’” Boles said.

“When you start thinking that way, it will all start to break down,” Dooley said. “I want them to be firm but fair. Help make the place operate. Be a problem-solver. And if you find yourself where someone might need to be yelled at, ask yourself, ‘Can we get there in a different way?’ ”

First, he doesn’t have the numbers he needs to make this fair fight, and the swarms of people can be overwhelming for his unit. Participation in the yellow shirt program has dwindled in recent years, he said, and while he’s trying to remedy that with a number of initiatives, including expanding a college outreach program and incentivizing referrals, he’s still short the manpower he needs. Instead, he’s forced to ask many of yellow shirts to work long hours in challenging conditions, and that can be stressful.

Second, sometimes drunken and disorderly fans can make a calm and composed conversation difficult to have. And sometimes it’s difficult for a yellow shirt who’s been standing in the elements for eight, 10, 12 hours to show the proper patience when a confused fan is trying to get into an area his credentials don’t allow him to enter.

The other major challenge Dooley faces is that the yellow shirts are a community of different genders, colors, ages creeds and codes, and there’s no one way to communicate with all of them. Some of them are retired millionaires. Others are working between semesters at school.

“People join the military for a range of motivations, but I think most valuable and predominant one is pride of belonging to something bigger than themselves,” Dooley said. “I think for many of the event staff out here, the same can be said of them. They want to be out here because they love the speedway, and they have pride of belonging and the sense of camaraderie. Knowing that the guys to my left and right are enduring those elements and fighting that same fatigue and doing it for a month straight in some cases. That can be unifying.

Changing the culture is all about fostering a healthy organizational climate, Dooley said, and that begins with making sure his team feels as if it has had the proper training. Along with on-site education for the part- and full-time staff, Dooley has increased the amount of information safety patrol people have access to online. IMS offers a database of information and training materials that yellow shirts can access to make sure they feel prepared.

“One thing we hadn’t always done a good job of was training those people to do their jobs and … even giving them the freedom to say, ‘I don’t know, but can I get you someone who can help?’” Boles said. “So there was a lot of prop training and a process developed that maybe we didn’t have fully developed. I will tell you today that it’s not fully developed. It still has a long way to go, but that’s the way Kirk thought.”

The second thing Dooley does is make sure his workforce is armed with the materials needed to survive the elements. In some cases, that means a chair to sit in for a little bit after being on their feet for hours. That could also mean a poncho or sunscreen or a bottle of water.

The third — and perhaps most important aspect of Dooley’s leadership, said one of them men who works for him — is that he listens. Many of the yellow shirts under his command have been at this for decades. They have loads of institutional knowledge about parking, seating, staffing, everything. They know if one of Dooley’s new ideas has been tried before, if it failed and why.

Dooley puts a high value on team-building programs and rewarding his people for hard work. Sometimes it’s a Pacers tickets in the nose bleed seats or a beer or a night of bowling. Nothing massive. Just something to let them know they’re appreciated.

At the end of day, Dooley wants his people to know they’re all in this together. They have one mission, and they can only accomplish it together. They won’t make it through the 500 successfully unless they see themselves not as a group of a workers, but as family unit, a community.

"To use loosely the idea of commanding the event staff, I think it’s appropriate, but it’s not about being in charge," Dooley said. "It’s about being responsible. It’s being responsible for accomplishing a rather daunting mission, but also for troop welfare. And those have to be balanced, because if you focus on one, the other one will defeat you."