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Monday, November 15, 2010

Schumi and Me (Part 3 of 3)

I felt like a rockstar as I boarded the plane to head to Las Vegas. Five months had passed since the news broke suddenly that I would be flagging the SKUSA Super Nationals held in the Rio Hotel parking lot in Las Vegas.

To say I was happy would be the biggest understatement ever. Racing and flagging have been a part of me for as long as I can remember, and now I was at the pinnacle of karting events. If you ever had a goal in life that you finally reached, perhaps maybe then you could relate to the elation I felt as I got off the plane and grabbed a taxi to head to the Rio.

I didn't know what to expect as the chief starter of the SuperNats. I had been to two prior, but only as a photographer so I didn't know what to expect on the radio, or how busy the track would be. The most karts I ever had on track at one point in time was 20, but one class had 48 on track at the same time. Needless to say it was very demanding to pay attention to all that was going on.

The 2008 edition had some famous drivers, 2004 Indy 500 winner Buddy Rice and 2005 Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon as well as NASCAR star and future Daytona 500 winner Jamie McMurray in the field. To be honest though, I had no idea which karts belonged to who because there were about 400 karts in just 9 classes. Names were never mentioned on the radio so I had no idea if Wheldon or McMurray were on track or not. In other words, I had more important issues at hand than to be in awe of drivers I have seen on television.

What I will remember most of the 2008 edition was chaos. The event had many accidents and I think I waived the red flag over 20 times. The days were long with Friday running from 7 in the morning to just a tick before midnight without a break. It may have been hectic, but I wasn't phased by it. It was all part of the job, my muscles may have ached, and my attention span was being put to its absolute limits, but this was the SuperNats, this was the biggest race on American soil so I had to stay sharp.

I must have done a decent job because I was invited back for the 2009 race. Early in 2009 I heard a rumor. A BIG rumor. The rumor was that Michael Schumacher was thinking about running in the SKUSA SuperNats. This, was nothing short of astonishing.

The name Michael Schumacher may not be a household name in America, even perhaps in some homes that say they are race fans as Schumacher, or "Schumi" to some, was and is a Formual 1 driver. F1 isn't as big as NASCAR in America, but worldwide Schumi is known as, perhaps, the greatest F1 driver ever. He retired from his seat with the Ferrari team in 2006 with a record of 7 World Drivers Championships and 91 race wins in just 249 starts! He has since come out of retirement for the 2010 season with Mercedes GP.

I grew up watching Schumi on television on Sunday mornings on ESPN, then Speed before my races. For those that watched F1 in those days he almost was a spolier because when he won, he would win easily. From his skill he was the highest paid sports star in the world for many years until Tiger Woods took that spot from him.

The months went by and I was already counting down the days until the SuperNats before this rumor broke. Honestly, leaving Vegas in 2008 was one of the saddest events of my life because I had to wait one entire year until the 2009 race. This rumor made the days trickle by slower.

Then, the rumor became a reality. Michael Schumacher would be racing at the kart race I would be flagging. I could not believe it! The biggest racing star of all time would be on the race track I was flagging at. This would be like being a basketball ref at a semi-pro game and having LeBron James show up to play.

August, September, October, went by painfully slow, but finally it was November and as I boarded the plane I didn't feel like a rockstar because I was nervous. The level of perfection that I knew was required went up by an unmearsuable margin. It may be a kart race, but the world would be watching, or at least following it on the internet. On Ekartingnews.com, the leading website for news about karting, the forum thread that followed the race had over 150,000 views!

The class Schumi was in didn't participate in day one of on track activites so I had to wait a day to say that I was on the same track as a legend. What was different though about 2009, immediately, was the lack of chaos. The red flag only flew two times for the weekend, but none for injuries. From the on-track staff to those in the grid and tech, to scoring, the entire event ran like I would envision one of those F1 races would that I grew up watching.

Then, Thursday came and the Super Pro class took to the track. Schumi was on track and the crowds that engulfed the surronding viewing area were at their max. Unlike the previous year where Rice, Wheldon, and McMurray remained hidden, there was no mistaking Schumi's white suit and stunningly bright orange helmet.

The second time he approached me I started to think of just how big an honor I had, but this thought was only for a second as the kart that had just passed me blew a motor and spun, my instincts kicked in and I waived my yellow passion with a vigor that implored danger. The kart was in the middle of the track and the speeds on the straight were just under 100mph.

All the drivers slowed and the karter was cleared and I never once thought of Schumi as Schumi for some time. There was a time he proved he was just, "another karter" when he lifted his own kart onto the flatbed. There were two very willing hands to pick up his kart, but he insisted on doing it himself.

Practice continued on and the next time Schumi was on track he did an extra lap when I gave the checkered. The protocol is that when I waive the checkered in practice the drivers are to pit that lap. The next time out he did this again so as he came down the main straight with no other karts on track I pointed my roller up yellow at him and pointed to the checkered and he game me a hand gesture as to say, "oops". I smiled and laughed.


The media Schumi brought to the event was large. At least three different languages were
spoken by photgraphers that tried to ask me where they could stand. One German journalist told me that, "If I were to flag like that in Germany they would surely make a statue out of me!" I think that was a compliment.

Just because Schumi was there didn't mean all the other classes were forgotten about. On the first rolling start of the finals on Sunday I did a very symbolic thing as I emulated Duane Sweeney's twin green flags at the start of a race. Duane's kind act by giving me his checkered flag did nothing but motivate me and while this may not have been the Brickyard, and this wasn't the Indy 500, this was the pinnacle of karting. While you can see by this photo, I am rather close to the karts (my mom called me "CRAZY!" by this photo), but the first time I did the double I was choked up and almost had a tear in my eye when I thought about the man who made his wife make another flag.

As the finals day rolled on it was time for the Super Pro class. All the drivers in this class are introduced and shake hands, or do a fist pump, with the SKUSA staff. While other notable drivers such as Nelson Piquet Jr. and Sebastien Buemi were in the race, the chill that went up my spine was nothing compared to shaking hands with the legend himself, Michael Schumacher.

With each lap that went by I got sadder and sadder as this was it. When this race was over the anticipation of flagging a race that Schumi was in would be replaced by the memory of the event.

As I waived the white flag to show the drivers that there was just one lap to go the 5th place kart blew a motor and spun right right by me. I instantly got the yellow out as Schumacher passed me (see this happen in the 2nd video below at the 7 minute mark).

I was sure Schumi was going to slam into the kart, but you don't become a 7 time world champion without having some extradoniary avoidence skills.

Then, as the winner came by I did my standard double checkered. The following karts finished and then Schumi came by and flashed by my flags. I didn't speak to Schumi verbally at all over the course of the weekend, but I did my talking with my flags. I hope to flag at Indy someday and other big races that have a flagstand, but in karting, most the time, I am on the track and can look the drivers in the eyes. From the "oops" gesture he gave me to me saluting him with the double checkered, it was an experience few people have had.

I would have never thought that, as the 6 year old at the 1989 Indy 500, or even being an assistant for an aging flagger at a small kart club, I would have had the opprtunity to flag such a big event. This thought was even more profund once I got my diagnosis of being on the autism spectrum, but you know what, that day, in Vegas, I was still on the spectrum but the only label I had was chief starter of the largest go-kart race ever.




Below is video from the finals of the class Michael Schumacher was in. Part one is the video on top, the 2nd half of the race is the video on the bottom.


Part 1


Part 2

4 comments:

  1. Great story!

    I've grown to dislike calling people on the spectrum "autistic" but rather prefer to say they "have" autism. It seems that being "autistic" defines a person more than having autism does. Does this make sense to you? Do you think it matters? Hope I am not stressing you out with my questions and comments. gail

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  2. Ok I should stop watching the last part of the second video over and over again now...

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  3. Where you wave the double checkered flag :) I can't help it, even though I've never been interested in racing, I think your flagging looks awesome.

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