Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Need to Know (No Matter How Irrelevant the Fact May Be)

Something has been bothering me for quite some time now, decades to be precise. I don't know if anyone else has ever been troubled with this, but I know I have spent much time dwelling on it and researching it. Despite the many hours of research I still have no answer. I haven't talked to too many people about this because each time I state this thing, this enigma I want to know but nobody has the answer to, I get called a, "flag dork".

Auto racing and flagging have been in my blood since, well, as long as I can remember. I flagged my first race when I was 12, but even before then I wanted to know where the flags came from. Why is it that green means go? Who said that the white flag means one lap to go (unless you are in Europe then it means there is a slow moving vehicle ahead). Why is there that difference between the two continents?

One of my first things I did when the internet came about was to research the origins of the flags, but there was no answer. The most famous flag of all, the checkered, doesn't even have a clear past. Was it from horse racing in the late 1800's when women would cook a meal for all in attendance and to show the meal was ready they would wave a checkered tablecloth? Or was it from France and bicycle racing in the 1800's? Or was it from checkpoints? The answer may never be known.

I did read once that the green, yellow, and red flags, as well as their usage in stop lights, came from the docks of Dover, England and the way they would flag ships in. I haven't seen this on the internet in years and may have been wrong, but again, this just shows the mystery surrounding the flags.

I wouldn't be me unless I wanted to know the most obscure fact, and I have been puzzled by this forever. I just haven't been puzzled, I have spent countless hours trying to come up with the logic behind this, and anytime there is something that can't possibly be known I will spend more time trying to figure it out. What is this obscure thing? I have always wondered about the blue flag.

The blue flag is used in races to signify that a faster driver is coming up behind. Normally used when the leader is about to catch a car that is almost one lap behind, the flag lets the driver know that a faster driver is almost there. Depending on the series the flag may mean to not impede the leader's progress, or in other's it simply means you can be nice if you want to be, or you can make it hard on the leader.

The flag's meaning itself isn't that hard to understand, but it is the way

it is presented. In Europe the flag is usually a lighter blue than the blue we use in America. There is one major difference, and this is what has troubled me for years, here in America we do have a blue flag, but our blue flag has a stripe on it. Not only that, but depending on the series and flagman the stripe may either be orange or yellow.

Proving that I am, indeed, a flag dork I have a blue flag with the yellow and orange stripe, but where on Earth did that stripe come from? I know it is an insignificant fact and most people that watch racing have never even wondered why, but I have and have spent many hours on it.

What my experience here shows is that when something falls into that area of interest, what may seem to be the most silly of thoughts or questions, are the most important questions in the world. Racing has always been my supreme interest and I would ask my dad, when I was really young, questions that may have seemed "off-center" much like this 20 year struggle wondering where the stripe came from. It may seem odd to you, but to me it is the only thing that matters. To laugh off the question, or to say it is irrelevant is minimizing my thoughts and ideas. I can't really help what my mind will and won't become fixated on.

I remember in 4th grade we were given a fun worksheet that had some concepts that were odd, such as, "Why do we drive on a parkway but park on a driveway?" For a person like me these things gave me a headache because I look at them logically and there's no logic in the reasoning behind that. I believe I asked the teacher for the next week to tell me why the parkways and driveways were the way they were, and each time she said she didn't know, but a couple hours later with my mind still trying to comprehend this, I would ask again hoping that the magical answer would be given. None was ever given and I hadn't thought of that until now so do you have that answer?

The mystery of the strip may never be known. Somebody, somewhere, at some point in time made a flag that looked like that. Did that person know of the solid blue in Europe, oh, wait, which came first, our stripe of their solid blue? I never thought that before, I just assumed the blue started in Europe.

Oh boy, here I go, today is going to be really productive.


  1. Hehe, I can so relate XD Remember I asked you 'so what did the banana boat thingy mean in the end? 'cause I'm dieing to know now!'

    Yea I actually had a whole day of discussing this question with my mother, because I just had to know, before I realised I could just go and ask...

  2. Aaron, there are some entertainers that have made embarassing amounts of money pointing out these very things to us on stage and the big and little screens, the most prominent is probably Jerry Sienfeld.
    I'm in no way trying to minimize what you experience, because I know from my grandson it is very frustrating to not receive an answer he needs or expects.
    What I am trying to illustrate is that what you are questioning, everyone finds a bizarre twist of the American language from time to time.
    And just as it frustrates someone for which English isn't a first language I'm sure it is difficult to wrestle with such inconsistencies. I would reccommend looking at the humor in the situation as the entertainers point out and moving on. Laughter really is often the best medicine.

  3. Well from what I know about the flags is that in the early years at Indianapolis 500, the red flag meant "go," green meant "one lap to go," and checkered was the same as it always has been. There was nothing like a caution flag in the earl...y days.

    I believe the yellow flag came along around the 1930's and also caution lights were installed around the speedway. At that time, green meant go, red meant stop, white meant consultation (like the black flag does now), royal blue meant one lap to go and then there was the checkered. By the 1930's traffic lights were becoming more common place and standardized, so that could be one influence on the evolution of the racing flags.

    By around WWII, the black flag was now the consultation flag, white was the one to go and the moveover flag I don't really know a history on it but looking through old pictures of Bill Vandewater and Seth Klein from the 40's and 50's, they had one. I think Seth's stripe was orange and I've seen pictures of Bill with both kinds, orange stripe and yellow and sometimes with the stripe going from bottom to top or top to bottom. Pat Vidan had a orange striped moveover flag.

    The Disqualification flag from what I've heard has its origins in NASCAR, but there's no telling for sure. I have seen old footage of a 1950's NASCAR race and a disqualification flag spotted in the flag stand.