That's History! NASCAR's Checkered (Flag) Past, One Story at a Time · Amy Henderson · Monday July 17, 2006
Author's note: A version of this particular column first appeared in January 2005. I love these stories and thought they were worth revisiting, with a few more details added, for some of our new readers and for those who just love a good story.
If you are a new race fan headed to the track, one piece of advice you're sure to hear is: "Rent a Scanner." If you're a veteran race-goer, you probably know the joys of listening in on the radio chatter of your favorite team, their biggest rival, and, quite possibly, the whole field.
Yes, you are sure to hear something enlightening. Or at least something colorful. I've heard some good ones myself, including NASCAR Nextel Cup driver Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus pondering the number of normal people in California under the green flag in a Chase race, as well as my all-time favorite, a gem between NASCAR Busch Series driver Kenny Wallace and a crew member a few years back during a practice session. Wallace, a driver well known for being willing to talk, wheeled the car, chatting happily with his team on the radio the whole time. During a pause while his driver came up for air, the crew member took the opportunity to relay a bit of information about the car over the airwaves.
"Why didn't you tell me before?" asked Wallace about the needed information.
"I was waiting for you to stop talking," said the crew member matter-of-factly.
Talking, however, is a luxury that has not always been afforded to racers. Once upon a time, in a world without radios, teams had to be more creative to communicate with their wheelmen, and a heck of a lot braver. These days, driver and crew can discuss at length the car's handling and decide exactly what they're going to do about it and when. Such a conversation might go something like this:
Driver: “It's still a bit off getting into turn one.”
Crew Chief: “10-4. We're going to pit on lap 126. Put four tires on it and make sure you get it full of gas. We'll take half a pound of air out of the left rear tire.”
Driver: “When should I come in?”
Crew Chief: “Next time by. 4600 (RPM), second gear.”
And so on.
That's the easy way. In the old days, drivers would communicate to their crews using hand signals as they flashed by their pit area on the track. A hand on the roof might mean an ill-handling car, while a hand on the doorpost could indicate a flat tire. The crew had better have been on their toes, too, because, well, blink and you might miss your guy, going by at 150 MPH. There was also one other driver signal…a hand out the window, one finger raised in salute to another driver – well, let’s just say that meant the same thing it does today.
Now, these hand signals served as the easy part of the equation. If the crew wanted a driver to pit, they had to resort to rather drastic measures. Ever see those photographs of the guy leaning gingerly out over the spot where infield meets racetrack, holding the chalkboard that read something like, "#6 – Pit Now" and separated from the roiling on-track melee by only a thigh-high New Jersey Barrier? I always wonder why that guy got chosen. Was the crew chief mad at him? Was he extraordinarily brave? Extraordinarily expendable? Did he have the best life insurance policy?
And then there was the pit stall board itself. THAT guy did not have the nice long pole with which to dangle the sign safely in front of the car that crews have these days. Oh no. He stood there in front of the oncoming car, no doubt thinking about all the things he hasn't done yet and praying that the brakes were working. At the last minute, he made his escape to safety, and possibly a clean uniform if the brake tuner hadn't worked his usual magic.
Nowadays, even NASCAR officials have radios, so each observation or infraction can be reported immediately. The officials were also recently instructed in hand signals, though, to use in conjunction with radios in case of radio failure. There are arm and hand signals for all kinds of infractions, like speeding on pit road, leaving with a wedge wrench in the car, or pitting outside the designated box. I'd kind of like to see an official try to communicate to race control that some rebellious racecar-driving soul sped down pit road, left with a wedge wrench in the car, and pitted outside the box.
Still, it’s good to be prepared. Even these days, a radio may roll over and give up the ghost at an inopportune moment. Drivers still resort to hand signals like “top of the window for loose, bottom for tight” until they can install a new radio or until the race ends. Luckily for the crew, though, they can now ask NASCAR to black flag the car to order their driver to the pits, and the flagman, from his safe position atop the race track, does the job of that old chalk board. Bet the guy who left the wedge wrench in the car last week is thanking his lucky stars those days are long gone.
Let's talk about that flagman for a minute. Since practically the first race (allegedly held on the day they built the second car), race officials have used flags to signal important things like the start and finish of the race. The one a driver wants to see, of course, is the black-and-white checkered number that only shows up when victory has been reached. "How come that flag is checkered, anyway?" they ask wonderingly as they do a celebratory burnout. OK, maybe they don't.
But, once upon a time, when racers raced their horseless carriages on roads and trails all over the world, most were racing for the glory of their country. Because many of them did not understand the languages of the countries in which they competed, it was eventually decided to make a universal code, using colored flags, that they could all understand, no matter what their native tongue. The race-ending flag, the one that meant victory, was still the one drivers wanted to see most. What they did NOT want to see was the colors of the national flag of a rival. Black and white were neutral colors, and were not the predominant colors in any country's flag, nor a national symbol for any nation. Hence, the symbol of a driver's dominance or bravery the world over became the checkered flag. And that's history.
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