Welcome to the first of three special editions of my blog. This series is the story of how I got interested in flagging and went from a flag obsessed three-year old to flagging a race that Michael Schumacher (Schumi) was in. Parts 2 and 3 will run on Sunday and Monday.
My love of flags started early. I grew up in Indianapolis in a home that was just over a mile from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. My dad was a pastor in Indy so going to the Indianapolis 500 was out of the question since Sundays were his primary work day.
My grandmother in Oklahoma City would always tape the race for me in and then send me the tape seeing that the race used to be on a long blackout in the Indy market. My first memory of the race was watching the 1987 race on tape. While most kids probably would want to watch the entire race, I kept watching the start over and over and over again. I think this could be one of the earliest signs that I remember that was a warning sign that I was on the autism spectrum.
But, why you ask, would I watch the start over and over again? It had nothing to do with the speed and danger of 33 colorful Indycars lined up in 11 rows of 3 all vying for position on the start. Nope. What I wanted to see was Duane Sweeney's twin green flags he waived to signify the start of he race.
I think it was a sensory thing and I loved it. I became obsessed with all things "flags." The colors moving about in the air was nothing short of bliss. Don't get me wrong, I loved the actual race, but I truly believe the initial hook for me was the flags.
In 1988 my dad took me to one of the many practice days at the Speedway and bought me a small souvenir checkered flag. I stood on the infield grandstand and waived that flag for the entire time I was there. I imagined what it must be like to be the actual flagman; the perfection needed and, of course, the grip (dropping a flag, I understood, was quite frowned upon!).
My dad's church was near the track, and I guess attendance was usually low on that magnificent weekend, but in 1989 I went to my first 500, and it was one of the biggest disappointments of my life. My favorite driver at the time was Al Unser Jr. and he and Emerson Fittipaldi got into a wreck that sent Jr. into the wall and Fittipaldi won the race. As mad as that made me it was not the reason I was disappointed. What made me mad was that we sat at the entry to turn two and I could not see the flagman.
Later in 89 my dad bought me my first real set of flags. They weren't big, and the sticks were fragile, but they were perfect for a six-year old. Those flags and I could not be separated on race days (or any other day for that matter) because I would flag along from home. My goal was to emulate the flagman that was actually at the race and it took some time and practice, but I became good at emulating the flagman, as well as hitting people with my flags as they walked by me. I couldn't help it, if the yellow flag needed to be waived, it had to be waived. (sorry mom!)
One of the biggest events in my life happened in 1990. Like I said, I loved the start of the Indy 500 because of the twin greens waived by Duane Sweeney. While Al Unser Jr. was my favorite driver, he wasn't my favorite part of the 500 as that title fell to Mr. Sweeney. My dad had a member of his congregation, Joan Petrie, who worked at USAC (the former sanctioning body of the Indy 500) and he asked he if she could get Duane's autograph for me.
On Thanksgiving morning she called my dad and said for him to, "Come over right away!" My dad thought it was an emergency so he rushed over and while it wasn't an emergency, it was major. She gave my dad an autographed picture of Duane (much like the photo to the right. This one wasn't the one I received, but it was the same photo. Change "John" to "Erin" and it would be the one I got) and then she said, "Wait a sec pastor, I have one more thing.
I wish I would have been there for that line of "one more thing" because I have heard my dad recount the story at least 1,001 times, but what happened next set me on a course for flagging stardom (if there is such a thing). Yes, what happened next was she turned the corner and got an item, came back into the room and gave my dad this:
This just wasn't a souvenir flag, or a set bought at the Speedway Museum. This was the real deal, his personal checkered flag. His wife made all his flags and when Duane heard about me wanting his autograph because I was a "BIG fan" he told her he was giving me this flag. She said she didn't want to make another one, but he insisted because, "He didn't have many fans." Since I received this flag I've only let winners of the race, and other key figures such as Donald Davidson, the track historian, who truly has one of the best memories on the planet!
In 1993 we moved to Saint Louis and in 1995 I started racing go-karts at the Saint Louis Karting Association. The story of my first race is recounted perfectly in my book so I won't talk about that, but what I will talk about is that I instantly hated the grease of racing. I have a minor sensory issue with dirt and grime on my hands and, sadly, engines don't change their own oil.
I suffered through half a year of oil and late in the season the club flagman at the time, Frankie, was getting old and some of the flags displayed did not match the situation. A 12 lap race once was 7, and instead of the checkered flag once the race ended on a blue (that means a faster kart is about to lap you). Seizing the chance I volunteered myself to be the assistant and keep track of the laps and hand Frankie the correct flag.
I was always older than my age so no one thought twice of me, a 12 year old, being be put into that position. By the following year the club's race director gave me the headset (we had a limited quantity) and you can see this in the picture. This is me and Frankie in one of the many breaks during the day and I must have been through with my races because my suit is no longer on. My race day was busy because when it was time for my race I would rush across the track to get my helmet and gloves on, and after my race I would rush back. I was a truly dedicated youngster!
On a scorching summer day in early August of 1996 the club told Frankie we "weren't racing due to heat" because of the troubles he had been having. They asked if I was ready to be the sole flagman. I had been ready since I first saw Duane Sweeney waive those twin flags back in 1987!
That first race was one of the biggest honors of my life. I knew that most places would not let a 13 year old flag a race. The responsibilities are great and there is no room for error. Mistakes can cause an accident, an injury and all movements must be precise. I was not yet diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, but my mind loves the art of perfection and that first race went smoothly.
The following race I went back to my role as assistant and I was a little down. Frankie, not knowing I had already flagged a race weekend, asked me if I wanted to trade off races. He would do one, then I would do the other. He thought I was ready, and I took this as a sign that he was ready to step down. I think he was 80 years old and had been flagging races pre WW2!
He didn't step down and was eventually forced into retirement in the middle of the 97 season. At that time, at the age of 14, I was named chief started of the Saint Louis Karting Association and I held that position until 2008!
I am grateful I had flagging. When I was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome in 2003 I went into a state of isolation. The only thing I really had was looking forward to the Sunday's that had a race. I had quit racing karts a couple months before I was diagnosed because it looked like I was going to make it as a professional driver. That never happened, but I had the flagging and I don't know where I would be without it.
During those years of flagging I always thought of flagging bigger races, and who wouldn't? When watching races I would comment that I could, "waive a better flag than that!" and I often shook my head is dismay at the checkered flags waived in F1. Since I have waived flags for so long I have turned it into an art form, and most F1 races have a flagger that puts no emotion into it. "What a shame" I thought, "it's the biggest series on Earth and there is no sense of how important a race win is by the flagman." I often would lie awake wondering what it would be like to flag a race that had a "real somebody" in it.
I didn't know it, but I was on track to do so (no pun intended, I tried to think of something else, but couldn't). It wasn't a sudden promotion though and the bridging events that led up to Schumi and Me will be tomorrow's story.