Race Weekend Central

Potts’s Shots: Where Did the Checkered Flag Come From?

We got the same question this week from three people, wanting to know why Matt Kenseth was only five points ahead of Dale Earnhardt Jr. after the Daytona 500.

The points system was changed before the 2011 season to a 43-42-41-etc. format. There are three bonus points for winning the race, one for leading a lap and one for leading the most laps. This format actually makes it a four-point bonus for winning, because you can’t do that without leading a lap.

Junior didn’t lead any laps, leaving him with 42 points while Kenseth has 47.

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Ralph Teagardin in Tucson, Ariz. comes up with a great question: “I have made numerous searches to find the origin of the use of a checkered flag to finish auto races. No luck. Do you have an answer?”

Well Ralph, I told you that if I couldn’t find it, I knew somebody I was sure would know. As luck would have it, I found some pretty good information on my own. The exact origin of the checkered flag’s use seems to be lost in history, but a number of theories exist.

One of the most unlikely is that horse races during the early settlement of the American Midwest were followed by large public meals. To signal that the meals were ready, a large checkered tablecloth was waved. Presumably, they waved it before they set the table, so the meal wasn’t really ready, was it?

Another explanation is that a “high contrast” flag would be more conspicuous against the background of a crowd. The earliest photograph of a checkered flag being used at the end of a race comes from the 1906 Vanderbilt Cup race held in Long Island, N.Y.

And, a 2006 publication, The Origin of the Checkered Flag – A Search for Racing’s Holy Grail, written by Fred Egloff, traces the origin to one Sidney Waldon, who was employed by the Packard Motor Car Company. He used the flag to mark “checking stations,” which we now know as “checkpoints” on the Glidden Tour, a rally-style event.

I have to take exception to an assertion I found on Wikipedia, though. They say that starter Duane Sweeney began a tradition at the Indianapolis 500 in 1980 by waving twin checkered flags at the end of the race and that he also used twin green flags for the first time to start the event.

Well, Duane Sweeney, who was taken from us in 2004 by cancer, did indeed start that tradition at Indianapolis. Duane was a good friend of mine and was a great starter/flagman.

However, I was using the twin checkereds and twin greens in ASA races in the late 1970s. Understand me right – I’m not doing this for my own gratification. The first starter I saw use double checkered flags was the late Shim Malone, who flagged USAC championship races in the ’70s and was USAC’s midget division supervisor until he and several other officials were killed in a plane crash in April 1978.

I copied Shim’s act and I was proud to do it, and continue doing it after his death. Whenever anyone asked me where I got the idea, I was proud to say I saw Shim do it first.

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We also heard from Don Eslinger, who comments on the recent death of Joy Fair, a highly-successful and highly-regarded stock car driver in the upper Midwest.

“I looked back at the pictures I have of him at Mount Clemons in his Mustang and on his trailer with Joe Ruttman. The first time I saw his name I thought he was a she and then I thought his name was Joey. He was a great driver and he will be missed by a lot of people, especially Ruttman. There seems to be more bad news than good as we get older. What do you think about Joy?”

I’ve got to admit that I only got to see him a couple of times, when he came to run with us in ASA’s early years. He was definitely a charger and he was fun to be around as well. You can’t argue with the success he had and he’s another one we’re going to miss a lot.

You’re right, Don, there’s more bad news than good as we get older, especially about the heroes we had back in those days.

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