There I was, checkered flag in hand as 6:00 came and three cars doing in excess of 220mph were headed my direction off of turn four as I stood high atop the famous yard of bricks at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The cars approached, I did some fancy stuff with the checkered, and the cars went passed and that was it, the greatest day of my life was over. It’s odd to start a story at the end but for this story to have the merit it deserves we must start at the end because to the outside observer the end product would be the only thing seen because here I was, a starter for practice for the largest race in the world much less the 100th running of it. This, really, is the stuff dreams are made of and I could easily make this blog about myself in the hard work I’ve done, or the years of dedication, or my style, part that would be a shame on the true meaning of this story because to understand this story we have to look at it going from the end to the beginning.
The day prior I had been working an event put on by Purdue and USAC in a parking lot in the infield that features electric karts. I noticed a track official whom I had met previously in 2012 when I filmed a video blog in the flagstand the day prior to that year’s Indy 500 and then the next year that event led me to be an honorary starter for a day of practice. He saw me and asked me how I was doing and how my books were going and my presentations. It was a great feeling to be remembered and he then asked, “Have you ever been in the stand while the track was hot?” In 21 years of flagging I’ve never once been atop a stand when Indycars were on the track so I nervously said, “no” in hopes that maybe, just maybe this conversation would head towards where I could only dream. Again though, that day was made possible by the event which encouraged me to do a video blog in the first place because it wasn’t simply a random, “hey, wouldn’t it be cool if I did a video blog from the flagstand at IMS?” Nope, it wasn’t that so we’ll have to continue going backwards to get to the answer.
Prior to the video blog from 2008 to the present I’ve been the chief starter for SKUSA and that led me to become a starter for USAC which has me traveling all over the country working races. The start with SKUSA was amazing because the owner and CEO saw me at a regional race and turned to the promoter and asked, “What the heck is that?” pointing in my direction as I was doing my normal thing with flags. I then was surprised at the awards ceremony when he called me out and said I was the new starter for the SKUSA Supernats which is the world’s largest karting event and it was from doing that which allowed me to get involved with USAC. Now I mentioned my usual flagging thing which for that we have to go back even further to 1995.
I was 12 and I started racing gokarts at the Saint Louis Karting Association. The club had a flagman and his age was reaching 80 and his ability to discern colors was fading and when the color of the flags means everything it became a hazard so I volunteered to hand him the right flags when I wasn’t racing. I was amazed he and the club allowed a 12 year old such a responsibility but it happened and with his retirement at the end of my first season I became the club’s chief starter at the age of 13, but why was I so eager to help Frankie, the club flagman? For that we get to the beginning of this story.
It was 1990 and I lived in Indianapolis just about two miles from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and I was enthralled with all things motorsports, specifically though the chief starters and especially Duane Sweeney whom was the chief started of the Indy 500. While many childhood heroes of the time had the last name of Unser, Foyt, Andretti, or Mears mine was Sweeney. My dad was a pastor of a church and a member of the church worked at USAC, which at the time was the sanctioning body of the race, and he asked her if she could get me an autographed picture. Duane did one better by giving me a picture AND HIS CHECKERED FLAG he was going to use in 1990. Needless to say, as a seven year old, I was hooked and my love of flags grew and grew and grew some more.
What’s the relevancy in all this? Why did I start with what could be a crowning moment in my life and stating that, if that were the only part of the story, then the story would be lost? While it may have been myself and myself alone with flags in hand it wasn’t myself alone that got me there and this is the soul of this story. I was diagnosed with Asperger’s at the age of 20 and back in 2003 the information on the internet did not paint a pretty picture for my future. The only thing that kept me going in life were the 11 club races I’d flag a year. I stayed that way for several years but then I got that regional series that Tom, the SKUSA CEO, would see me at and things started turning around.
My story, along with other success stories of those on the autism spectrum are filled with these events and if you just look at the finished product you are missing the true value of the story. It wasn’t that I simply flagged some in practice today but it’s all the people that helped out along the way. Much like how next week the winner of the 100th Indy 500 didn’t get to victory lane and didn’t get to drink the sweetest tasting milk in all the world all by himself. It took a team and a lifelong commitment from friends and family. So too, in a way, is the stories of those that are on the autism spectrum and have excelled.
It takes a team to succeed and as I climbed down from the flag stand it hit me like a sucker punch to the gut on just how rare of an achievement it was to do what I had just done. Few will ever have the view I had and as I shook the hands of all that were with me on that day I envisioned shaking every person’s hand that gave me a chance, or gave me support along the way. Every story I have in my development would not be possible if not for the event that preceded it. Some of these were major events from family members, or those that got me involved with Easter Seals Midwest, and others were seemingly minor. I thought about all the teachers I had that did amazing things, and the few friends I had that were a support, and without them this experience wouldn’t have happened. I then thought about the teachers of today, and parents of today, in that seemingly irrelevant events may have such wonderful ramifications down the road, but most of all I thought about Duane.
When I got into my car my emotions finally hit and I’m not afraid to admit I cried. I fought back tears the first time I displayed the green at Indy, but many drivers will admit that they teared up too their first time to Indy as a driver. But yes, I thought about Duane and I made a statement to the observer in the flagstand with me that worked with Duane for many years and I said, “You know, I’d give about anything to be able to tell Duane what that flag he gave me meant because without that flag what you see today and my story simply wouldn’t exist.”
History will remember the winner of the 100th and yesterday will simply be a small footnote at the end of this year’s race. Some will remember the driver that was the fastest, most won’t. Some will remember the perfect weather, but for this writer it will be a day that lives forever but I didn’t get there alone. It took a team and for every educator, parent, or simply a member of society it’s amazing what even the smallest of gestures can bring and that’s why yesterday wasn’t about me, but rather every person that fought for me, cried for me, gave me a chance, and spoke for me when I couldn’t that allowed me to stand atop the yard of bricks and experience racing at the grandest stage and have an experience I will never forget. To all that were a part of this story I will never find the words that will give justice to how much it all meant, but most of all I wish I could simply tell Duane the simplest yet most sincere, “thank you.”