Got an interesting question from Willie in Minnesota this week…
*As you were a flagman for so many years, I’d like your take on the last lap situations at the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600. At Indy, did they turn the yellow light on before Dan Wheldon passed J.R. Hildebrand? It looked to me like the flagman actually threw the checkered flag a second after Wheldon went over the start-finish line, showing to Hildebrand first. At Charlotte, should they have gone yellow when the accident occurred in the first turn?*
First, Willie, those are both big tracks, and the decision is rarely made by the flagman. At Indianapolis, I think there are only a few places where you can see the track all the way around, and as for Charlotte, we know NASCAR makes their decisions in the tower.
Both of these situations did occur in view of the flagman, and I think I can explain some of it.
In regards to Indianapolis, they did not turn the yellow light on until after Wheldon had made the pass. The accompanying photo shows the green light on the main straightway still on as Wheldon comes by. My recording of the race shows that light going to flashing yellow just a second later. On a track like that, even as high as the flagstand is, you’re pretty much at the mercy of your observers when it comes to getting the white and checkered flag out. I experienced this with ASA at Milwaukee, where the flagstand is lower.
When it comes time for the white flag, the observers would try to alert me as to where the leader was. I usually knew, and at Milwaukee I could see the backstretch, but it was great to have this kind of help, just in case. The tower would take over when the leader came onto the front straightaway, usually telling me something like, “He’s the blue car just coming out of Turn 4,” and if he was in traffic, adding, “The third car in line coming at you.”
Naturally you looked for the same car the next time around, but sometimes they would tell you anyway. A lot of those IndyCars look alike, and I’m sure this kind of message had been passed to the flagstand before the white flag lap. Hildebrand went by without any problems that time, and of course the flagman was looking for the same car.
That accident happened coming off Turn 4, and the flagman probably didn’t have time to look over at the scoring pylon to see who was second, and the tower probably didn’t have time to tell him.
That straightway is 5/8-mile long, and the start-finish line is closer to Turn 1. That means the flagman had, at most, about 1,800 feet to pick up the new leader. With cars traveling over 300 feet per second, that’s cutting it close when it comes to picking that new leader up.
At Charlotte, we had a completely different situation.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is leading on the first of what can be three green-white-checkered finishes when there is an accident in Turn 1. Did they stay green because they knew Junior wouldn’t make it through another GWC finish? I’d like to think not, but you’re going to hear conspiracy theories regardless.
On the last lap – and I dealt with this at short tracks for years – you hesitate to go yellow unless it’s a matter of safety. All of those cars involved in the Turn 1 accident were clear of the track before Junior ever got to Turn 3. Someone asked me about the fact that there may have been debris on the track. There were a few cars behind them that went through there and apparently didn’t pick up or hit anything.
Even Jeff Burton, who was one of those involved, said he felt NASCAR made the right decision. At any rate, it was not a good day for drivers with JR in their names who were sponsored by the National Guard. But for the sponsor themselves, it’s a different story; while losing two races, they got A LOT of TV time, and that’s one of the reasons they’re sponsoring cars.
NASCAR can make the conspiracy theories sound wrong simply by doing the same thing the next time this happens, no matter who the driver is. They’ve followed precedent before, even when it hurt one of their favorites. Remember a few years back when a driver (can’t remember who) used a four-letter word in a post-race interview and was fined and had points taken away? Later the same year, Junior used the same word after a win at Talladega, and they had no choice but to assess the same penalty.
Thanks for asking … and keep those questions coming.
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