NASCAR team nearly shut down due to cyber attack

Not many knew it publicly at the time but Circle Sport-Levine Family Racing and driver Michael McDowell almost didn’t race at the NASCAR Sprint Cup event at Texas Motor Speedway in April. It was revealed Friday as the team prepared for Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway, that the team was forced to pay a ransom prior to the Texas race due to a cyber hacker who had locked up the team’s computer files.

It all started April 5, when team crew chief Dave Winston got a phone call from the team’s engineer asking what was going on with Winston’s computer. According to the engineer, Winston’s computer was communicating with the team’s cloud server. Since Winston wasn’t in the shop or using his computer, he was puzzled. The engineer told Winston to get his computer offline fast. Winston rushed to the stop and complied but the damage was done. As Winston took his computer off the network, a warning message popped up on his screen. Circle Sport-Levine Family Racing had been hit by a ransomware attack.

A ransomeware attack is a growing plague that hits computer users with a virus that encrypts all the users files. The hackers then demand a ransom in order to get the key needed to unlock those files. In the case of Circle Sport-Levine Family Racing, the encrypted files were critical to the team’s performance on the track. They included wind tunnel data and setup information for the car and were worth millions of dollars. Those files were needed for the upcoming race at Texas less than two days away.

The team decided they had no choice but to pay the ransom which was in the form of Bitcoins, a currency used on the Internet. After getting the information back, the team looked for ways to prevent such an attack in the future. They hired California-based Malwarebytes which provides prevention and remediation services.

“Just knowing that we could lose everything that we had worked so hard to achieve was terrifying," said Winston. “The data that they were threatening to take from us was priceless, we couldn’t go one day without it greatly impacting the team’s future success. This was a completely foreign experience for all of us, and we had no idea what to do. What we did know was that if we didn't get the files back, we would lose years worth of work valued at millions of dollars."

The rise of ransomware attacks accounted for 32 percent of all cyber attacks last year compared to only 7 percent the year before, according to Kaspersky Lab. The number of users hit by ransomware during the period studied grew 5.5 times to reach more than 700,000, while the number of corporate users in particular who encountered such threats rose from 27,000 to 159,000 — an almost six-fold increase.

Malwarebytes will be the associate sponsor on Michael McDowell's No. 95 Chevrolet for Sunday's Toyota/Save Mart 350. According to NASCAR.com's Kenny Bruce they will be the team's primary sponsor next month at New Hampshire Motor Speedway as well as several other yet to be announced events this season. Greg Engle/The Examiner

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