Wednesday, June 7, 2023

The Greatest Wave Ever

“Standby starter” were the words I heard over the headset I was wearing. The crowd’s frantic cheers were crescendoing into a constant roar that rivaled the angriest of waves crashing onto a shore. This moment was everything a storybook was written about, this was a one-lap shootout for the 107th Indianapolis 500. And then, I heard the words, “Green, green, green!” and I unleashed the flags.

There are moments in life that transcend everything experienced up to that point and when they’re done, they’re hard to remember if it actually happened at all. This, for me, was what this year’s Indy 500 was like. 

When I was young, I loved practicing waving two flags. The natural choice was two checkereds, but I didn’t have two checkered flags of the same size, so my go to double flag wave was a green and white. There had been some NASCAR races I watched that had the green and white flags together which meant the race was restarting and it was the last lap… how exciting! I’d practice this combination of flags, and got rather good as a child, and each time I’d wave those two flags I’d try and imagine what it would feel like to do this at a real track. 

At the 500 this year, as the field rolled out of the pits coming to green, and I held a rolled up green flag indicating green at the line, NBC announcer Townsend Bell made the comment, “I don’t know if the flagger has ever waved green and white together.” Maybe he meant at the 500, but working the lower ranks of racing saw many green and whites together. Working the USAC.25 series, as exciting as a green and white was, it was something that I feared. That series is for kids 5-16 and give them a one-lap shootout and 9 times out of 10, there will be multiple one-lap shootouts because yellow flag laps don’t count in that series, so while Townsend wondered if I ever had waved a single green and white, there had been times that there would’ve been maybe five attempts to get that single lap in cleanly. 

The pace picked up and my green flag was flying over my head. The cheers from the crowd somehow got louder and louder to the point I was glad I had a headset on not for the cars but for the crowd. I still couldn’t see the cars, and my white flag remained pointed towards turn four. The 500 had never seen anything like this, and to play the small part I was playing in the scene unfolding was an honor that I had worked for my entire life, and the only thing I can describe as pure joy extended to every finger and toe in my body.

One of the hallmarks of autism is difficulty communicating. Words often fail me when speaking, and if I’m trying to start a conversation, I’m often left silent as I try to find a way to begin. It’s aggravating, it’s annoying, and many times I’m left extremely sad. From a young child though, to now, I always have loved the ability to communicate through flags. It can be excitement, it can be to warn, or at times it can be to chide, but at this moment, as Marcus Ericsson led Josef Newgarden on to the straight, I was communicating the most exciting moment I could remember at the 500 as well as showing mMy lifelong passion for the sport I love.

As the leaders got to the start of the pit attenuator, my pointed white slowly got displayed, and seamlessly I went from a single wave to a double wave. In all my years of practice, I had never done a wave like this, who could’ve imagined such an event, but as the single flag morphed into a flurry of two flags (video HERE), I experienced an elation that I cannot describe outside of saying that everything in life ceased except those flags, and the cars coming at me.

So often, when speaking about the autism spectrum, we look at the difficulties. Yes, there can be a lot, but what is often overlooked are the joys that can exist within the spectrum. My decades of working at race tracks have been joy filled. I found a voice through flags and that voice has brought me a sense of worth that’s flowed outward to other facets of my life. I doubt I’d be a public speaker without my work with flags. However, the joy, elation, and sense of euphoric ecstasy experienced as the field flashed by to start the final lap was a moment that will live with me for as long as I live. It was my greatest wave of flags in my life, and the excitement I always imagined waving those two flags as child was much more than I ever could’ve imagined.

Photo by Walter Kuhn, IMS

1 comment:

  1. We had DVR'd the race, Aaron, and played your flagging over and over. Your performance brought tears at each new twist and turn. The green and white was fabulous!!