Race Weekend Central

Potts’s Shots: Safety Questions for a Former Flagman

From Roger Clarkson, “We see the NASCAR officials on pit lane wearing helmets and fire suits. What about those in the flagstand, particularly on short tracks? You were a flagman, primarily on short tracks, for more than 20 years. How do you feel about this?”

Don’t think I haven’t given this a lot of thought lately, Roger. Actually, I was giving a similar subject a lot of thought many years back. I agree that it should probably be a concern on the short tracks, but you probably won’t get many flagmen (or flagladies – and I think those gals with the Camping World Truck Series are good), who would be willing to wear a helmet.

I’ve worn goggles on occasion when I had a problem with rocks or tire marbles on pavement and a lot of times on dirt. Once when I wasn’t wearing goggles I got one lens in my glasses broken at Winchester by some debris. Two weeks later I was wearing goggles at Nashville. The worst incident I can recall which involved an injury was the time at Milwaukee when I had a wheel weight stuck in my leg, courtesy of a hot shot from Tennessee using chrome wheels.

There was another time at Louisville when, over the sound of the cars, I heard a “clank” up over my head during a late model feature. After the race I was back at the beer stand and saw somebody out on the track with a flashlight. I checked and it was a driver who said he was looking for pieces of his clutch. I told him about the sound and we found a deep gash in the piping that held up the wheel fence just above the level of my head. Pieces of the clutch were scattered around and not only was I thankful I didn’t get hit, but we were all thankful that none of it got into the grandstands.

I think that one scared me more than anything that ever happened, including almost getting hit a few times when working from the track, but I kept on flagging because I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it for the same reason drivers enjoy driving. There’s a certain thrill involved. Let’s face it, one of the things we like about this sport is seeing the participants face danger in every race, conquer their misgivings about it and keep going. I felt a little bit of kinship with them and I felt it was my job to look after their safety and be their stationary eyes.

However, I always thought that if OSHA ever paid attention to the flagmen on those short tracks, we’d all end up wearing full-face helmets and flak jackets. All that said, any of you who have listened to NASCAR’s command channel probably know that the flagpersons don’t really make any decisions nowadays. They’re told when to throw the green, throw the yellow, etc.

Maybe I couldn’t work that way. Nobody who has enjoyed being in charge of a race from the flagstand wants to be a robot.

I’ve also received a couple of emails asking if the flag person is really necessary nowadays. Well, he or she certainly is on the short tracks, where the decision has to be made in seconds.

Some of those questioners wanted to know if anybody had ever considered automatic or remote control flags. The answer to that is a definite “yes.”

The first one I saw was an experimental model on the road course at Indianapolis Raceway Park back in the early ’60s for a USAC Stock Car race. A yellow flag was installed in a box inside of turn 1 with a pop-open cover. The operator was back near the infield crowd fence. It was explained at the drivers’ meeting that the operator could activate the flag, which would literally pop up out of the ground and could wave it remotely.

That flag lasted about 15 seconds, as I recall.

The driver on the pole lost it going into the right-hand turn 1 and when the flag popped up, his car decapitated it. He went on and finished the race, and after it was over I asked if he was OK.

“Yeah, but I think I ended that flag’s career.”

In the ’80s and ’90s, I did see an SCCA crew who had a neat idea and made it work. These guys had their yellow, white and red flags (incidentally, on a road course the white means there’s a slow vehicle out there) out near the track mounted on springs driven into the ground.

They attached long ropes to the tops of the flags, and then pulled them down flat while from a position about 30 feet back. When they needed a flag, they simply released the rope and used it to wave it back and forth.

Simple? Yes, but it worked.

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