Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Best Experience Ever

In days past I have stated that I was going to start training with USAC. Thursday night I was at the Tony Hulman Classic in Terre Haute, Indiana and was assigned the position of assistant starter.

I liked the sound of the position, but the flagstand there is only big enough for one person so I watched the event from the infield.

After 15 years of flagging karts it was like starting over. People in karting know who I am, but here I am an unknown and need to build up that level of respect. Because of this, and my inability to really know what to do when given an open area, I am sure I looked like a lost puppy while watching the race from the infield.

My mind was able to focus just fine, but I was unsure how to hold myself in space. This may be hard to understand unless you have just been in an awkward situation that you know what you are watching, but unsure how to stand, how to place your hands, where to walk, should I walk, and what emotions to express via my face.

Once the racing started I had one of the best views I've ever had as standing on the inside of turn one. Television gives no justice as to how sideways sprint cars are. In fact, standing in the grandstands doesn't give it justice.

The night was long and at the end it was a long drive back to my sister's house. On the drive back I was envisioning what it must be like to be the flagman. I wasn't prepared and it came sudden, but I would experience it the next night.

Last night I was at the Hoosier Hundred, a USAC Silver Crown race. Again I was the assistant flagman and was told to hand around the USAC trailer. During practice, as I had the previous night, I watched Tom Hansing, the USAC Chief Starter and one of three flagman for the IZOD Indy Car Series, man his post with authority.

As qualifying ended Tom came back over to the infield and as he walked past me he asked if I was the assistant. I replied with a one word answer, I think, as I was rather nervous. I didn't know what to say and was having the same issues as the previous night. I knew that given a position and given a post I can do it well, but developing a role like that (or as I call it, "Alias") takes time.

Time is something a majority of people don't have and certainly don't give. The hardest part, and perhaps the saddest part of being on the spectrum is developing relationships. I can't simply talk to a person as I'm dealing with the positional battle I had at Terre Haute and I'm just over calculating everything.

Tom though continued to talk with me and he told me of a race he had to flag from the inside last year and the photo someone took of Dave Darland driving out of the final corner in an amazing drift that makes it look like Dave is looking directly at Tom.

The conversation ended with Tom getting some much needed water and again I was lost. He was with a group of people then and I know that over time I will be able to do that, but being the unknown from Missouri was the only role I was able to play.

As the modifides took the track I heard a voice call from the race director who was standing right beside me. He didn't have his radio on so I let him know that he was being called. I didn't know who was calling, but right away I heard a voice say, "Is it okay if the new assistant comes over to the flag stand" Say what?

I was in shock. Pure shock. I didn't hear the director's answer because someone else started talking over the radio, but I didn't know what to do. I looked over to Tom who simply used his index finger and pointed for me to come over there.

Without that alias developed I didn't really know what to do. Even though I have so many years of experience, I was still timid. Modifides were starting to roll and I looked down the main straight and back to Tom who again motioned for me to get over there. After some intense thought I decided to take him up on his offer.

I had to use some climbing skills to get there, but once there all was right with the world. There was racing, and there were flags. I stood behind Tom and just watched as the cars came by at a thundering speed.

I quickly learned that I need to invest in some sunglasses because, as the photo shows, I was having a hard time seeing.

During the couple caution periods Tom and I chatted and I could feel my confidence level going up. I don't know how apparent it was of how nervous I was as no one wants to mess up on their first day, but as time went on I began to feel no sense of nerves. It takes time, and time is what I had.

As the 20 lap modified race was on its final lap, and Ken Schrader was lapping the field, Tom looked at me and handed me the white and simply said, "finish it!" as he reached for his two checkered flags. I knew what to do and started waiving the white flag.

I think it is hard to re-experience a first like this, but this was just like the first time I flagged a kart race. The pure elation and pride in me was something that can't be rivaled. If anything, this was bigger than the feeling I had in my first kart race I flagged because this was a big event and I had thousands of people looking on behind me. Also, I grew up watching these cars in person and on ESPN.

As fast as it all happened it ended when I saw Schrader come off of four. As the remaining two cars in front of Schrader took my white I whipped back and Tom gave the twin checkereds.

After the modified race it was time for the big event, the Hoosier Hundred. I started feeling quite comfortable behind Tom and began handing him the green on the restarts and then taking the green back and putting it in the flag holder. This may not sound like much, but it is hard for me to do ANYTHING unless I am 100% sure my action won't cause any problems. This simple act of handing flags is something that was unspoken. I didn't ask if he wanted or needed this, but I just did it.

As the race proceeded on I realized why Tom had so much water. The dirt that is almost sandblasting us is very dehydrating. At the end of the night I had a couple layers of dirt on me, and I was elated about this. I hate being dirty and feeling that grit that it brings, but this dirt was racing dirt, dirt from the ultimate Kansas and it was almost holy in nature.

The race reached it's end point and I displayed ten fingers to show the field that there was 10 laps to go, and again I got the chance to "finish it" on the white flag. Again, I felt that same feeling, only larger, than the first time I flagged.

The end was sad for me. That race was amazing and I will always be wanting to tell Tom "thank you" a million times, but I'm sure he'd get tired of it after a while. I know I got in that position because of my experience and the size of the events I have ran and flagged, but he got me in that stand that night. I'm sure I had an expression of flagstand envy and, well, whatever the case may be he got me over there and it was the most amazing experience I have ever had. And, do you want to know the best thing about this all? I get to do it all again tonight at the Night Before the 500 Midget Race tonight at O'reilly Raceway Park!

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