For keeping races safe, flaggers deserve a salute

For most people, standing and staring through a chain-link fence for three days in sometimes uncomfortable weather would not seem the best way to spend a weekend.

But to members of the Sports Car Club of America's flagging program — who are working the Baltimore Grand Prix — the elements are window dressing and the engine noise is music to their ears.


"I don't know if it's the love of the sport that brings them here or stupidity," said Glen Burnie's Dale Ferril, the assistant flag marshal for the Grand Prix. "But they are coming at their own expense from Hawaii, New Zealand, Texas and quite a few places in Canada. They don't get paid anything. They're all volunteers."

Street races — like the IZOD IndyCar race and the four companion races — couldn't run without them.


Someone has to be in communication around the track to tell drivers when there is a problem ahead — when a car has wrecked or the track is blocked with debris — or when a driver in a slow car has to be aware of a faster one closing from behind.

And all of it is done with flags.

The flaggers hold various colored flags through the fence around the course. Each flag has a special meaning, and it's up to the flaggers to get the message to each car before it swooshes past on the course.

"It isn't easy seeing through a chain-linked fence," said Ferril, who notes that the procedure is complicated by having to stick your arm through a hole cut out in the fence and be sure to have the right flag out of seven at hand. "The hardest job is probably being the person doing the blue flagging, that's our passing flag. Everything happens so fast, and that person has to know who is slowest and who is fastest and see it all through that fence."

It's a challenge that has being anticipated with excitement by SCCA flaggers, who have varying degrees of experience flagging pro races.

Toree Holmes, of Landover, grew up dreaming of being a firefighter and being involved in auto racing. In 2002, the member of the Baltimore-Washington D.C. region of the SCCA, missed an opportunity to flag a major pro race when, as a firenfighter and rookie flagger, he chose to work with his father on the fire truck at the D.C. American Le Mans race.

"The firemen were shorthanded, and I thought I had a lot of time to do the flagging because that race was supposed to have a [long-term] contract," Holmes said. "But it ran only that one time. The race in Baltimore is suppose to be for 10 years, but I'm not taking any chances with this one. I've signed up and I'm like a kid in the candy store. I'm just so excited to have a pro race near where I live and to have another chance to be part of it."

Ellicott City's Paul Anderson, the senior manager of downstream venders for the online school Connections Education, has flagged more than 100 pro races. During the Championship Auto Racing Teams' era in the 1980s, Anderson was part of the CART Observer Core that traveled with the series. His specialty is blue flagging.

"You start studying the cars the first time they come on the race track," said Anderson, 67. "You need to know and recognize the cars. And during the race, you need to know where they are on the race track. You have to know who is fast. Who is leading. Every flagging station around the track will have communication with race control, and every 10 laps or so they'll give a top 5 or 10 update. But that's all the help you get. You have to know who they are when you see them — by the color or their car or their nose-cone or their helmet. You can't wait to see a number. You learn all that through practice sessions and qualifying."

At each of 13 stations around the 2.03 mile course there's a flag captain, a communicator, a yellow flagger, a blue flagger and sometimes one other person getting messages out. All together, the SCCA will provide between 100 and 110 flaggers and have another 15 people in support positions, providing food, water and transportation to those out on the course and two others keeping records and .

"We are recognized as having some of the premier course marshals and flaggers in the country," said Lin Toland, who is on the SCCA Board of Directors for the Baltimore/D.C. Region. "The sanctioning bodies for professional races are always looking for SCCA folks."

Anderson said flaggers not only have a job that requires great concentration, but one that requires them to be alert for their own personal safety.


"It can be dangerous," he said. "When two cars hit each other or slam into the concrete barriers, they don't always stop. The barriers can move a little bit and things can come through the fence — hot water, hot oil, small parts. You learn to duck real fast, and you have to be prepared, because the corner worker is already in an awkward position, with his arm reaching through a hole in the fence with a flag."

Odd as it sounds, the flaggers who make a street race possible are not hired for the job. Instead, they sign up for the opportunity to have their dreams come true. Someone who wants what flagger Bob Hasychak, of Northern Virginia, calls "the best seat in the house" can sign up for a training course and be ready to flag the event next year.

So why do they do it?

"You see such neat machines and good drivers," said Michael Levin, 57, a lawyer from Ellicott City who has been flagging for 12 years. "You feel the ground vibrating and feel the whoosh of air as they go by. It's a constant state of adrenaline. And when something happens on the track, the adrenaline rush is even higher. Half of the thrill is physical, and half is that you're excited. A loose hat can go flying off. Manhole covers have to be bolted down so they don't get lifted off. Those cars push a lot of air. Like a train, they create turbulence behind them."

And, at the end of the day, there's nothing better for a flagger than being given a sign of appreciation by a driver taking a cool down lap and knowing they played a part in the running of a succesful race.

"The mirrors on those cars are pretty small," Anderson said. "They can't see much and on a street course. When they come around a corner they can't see anything where they've just been because of the concrete barriers. You have to be their eyes. … At the end of the day, I didn't do much, but I might have prevented three cars from crashing out of the race on my corner."

A flagger's arsenal

Flaggers are positioned around a course to "be the eyes" of drivers and keep races safe. Following is a list of the flags and their meanings.

Yellow – caution, slow down

Blue – passing, a faster car is approaching, check your mirrors and move over


White – slow car on track or emergency vehicle on course


Red – emergency, come to a complete stop

Red and Yellow stripe – something is on the track that can be a hazard (sand, oil, water, gravel, etc.)

Black with a big orange circle (otherwise known as "Meatball") – shown to driver of car that is having an issue (known or unknown, like parts flying off, trailing oil, etc.)

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