Words by Daphne Figueroa.
3. Introduction to Flagging – Day 1
I soon learned that the group of volunteer flag and track marshals quickly become like one great big family. We have each other’s backs and we all have the same goals – keeping ourselves and the riders safe, at all times!
After meeting “Flag Marshal Dave”, our chief flag marshal, and going through his very clear and concise training regimen, we grabbed our boxed lunches and Dave took Kirsten, me, and two other newbies ‘under his wing’ and drove us out to the track to observe the MotoAmerica practice session. Dave is from the United Kingdom (UK) and had previously been a chief marshal for British Superbike (BSB). He has that “keep calm and carry on” demeanor, making him just the right person for the job. With a dry sense of humor and the safety of his marshals and the riders as his top priority, we were in good hands and it was a privilege to be able to learn so much from him during the weekend. He also let us know that, in his opinion, flagging is more of an “art than a science”. If in doubt, always err on the side of being safe.
It didn’t take long before we were put to work. A call came in on Dave’s radio from race control to investigate a turn where there were no marshals. It was Dave and his crew to the rescue! We hopped back on the golf cart and the other two “newbs” took a turn at flagging while Kirsten and I took a few photos of riders coming around the track at the Turn 1 hairpin. It was incredibly cool to see the riders up close — a stone’s throw away, with nothing but an Armco barrier in between! This was a spot where you could see down the front straight to the start-finish line plus see the riders exiting pit lane and merging onto the track.
Within 15 minutes, Dave got another call that two flaggers were needed at the next flag station up the track. He moved the guys up there and Kirsten and I became the flaggers at Station Delta — just like that! I faced toward traffic with the green flag in hand while Kirsten faced away from traffic holding the yellow. Not long after, a rider went off the track at the guys’ post at the apex of the hairpin and Dave radioed the incident to race control, after which the marshals were called into action for a “standing yellow” flag, meaning the incident was off the track, not on. Fortunately, Dave had trained us well on the key differences in the rules for MotoAmerica vs. MotoGP. (For MotoGP they would have shown a “waving yellow” for an off-track event.) Being the next nearest post to the incident, we were also displaying the yellow flag.
Less than five minutes went by and a rider went off further down the track and race control called for a red flag at all posts, which Kirsten quickly grabbed and waved enthusiastically. That ended the session, as the bike and rider had to be cleared off track. We were relieved later to see the rider go by on the back of a scooter, with scuffed leathers, but looking ok. The bike came by on a flatbed later, not looking quite so good!
We had about a ten-minute break to have some water and stretch and then the 600’s came out on track. I got to do the honors of waving the green flag for two laps to indicate that the course was all clear for the session. Two laps take awhile for the 600 machines and I had to switch hands after the first lap. Note — flagging is not for the weak-wristed!
The rest of the session was without incident and we kept alert by trying to identify riders by their numbers, which are sometimes difficult to read, especially on the front of the machines.
The red flag came out at the end of pit lane to indicate that the session had ended but we had a “runner”, a rider who chose to come around for an additional lap after the checkered flag was waved. That instigated a red flag all around the circuit at every marshal’s post, so Kirsten got to wave the red once again.
Sweaty and tired, but full of pride, we gathered our belongings and Dave drove the four of us initiates back to the tent where we relaxed, had some water, and were then served a very nice dinner of BBQ beef brisket, red beans, a dinner roll, coleslaw and potato salad. How much more Texan can you get?! Yee haw!
4. Practice, Practice, and More Practice – Days 2 & 3
It seemed as if no time had passed before we were boarding the shuttle at 5 am on Friday!!! After a quick breakfast and track meeting we received our “tabards” (marshal’s bibs) and all marshals proceeded to the track in either a car or bus. I rode with my lead marshal, Mike. It was still dark on circuit when we dropped off the two flaggers at 11G, and headed to our station, Flag Post 11F (that’s Flag 11 Foxtrot, when you are contacting race control). Before the bikes were out on track, we had some wildlife pay us a visit in the early morning, near dawn. A beautiful red fox came under the fence about 10 feet away! We tried to keep it from going onto the track, but it ran across into the infield grassy area, where some other corner workers saw it but finally lost sight of it and thought it might have gone into a den nearby. With bikes on track that could have posed a real danger to both the riders and the fox! Later, not to be outdone by the clever fox, just before the green flag was waved, a mother cat and her litter of kittens emerged at Turn 20 and almost disrupted the session. Fortunately, they were steered clear of the track and FP1 began!
Our post was on the back straight where the bikes begin braking for Turn 12, a very tight lefthander. It’s a high-speed section of the track and it was spectacular to watch the bikes come down the straight and then find their braking points and break hard into the turn. This was where I was stationed for the rest of the race weekend, although when we had an extra marshal at our post on Saturday, I did pay a visit to 11G during one of the Moto3 sessions, just in time to see the incident involving the two RBA racing bikes! Yikes!
As a marshal, you begin to get a feel for the many sights and sounds, including noise from the infield, the stands, the parking area, the loudspeaker, and, of course, the motorcycles. Every type of motorcycle has a little bit different sound and you get used to listening for any anomalies that might indicate that something on the bike is malfunctioning. Of course, one indication that something major has gone wrong is smoke, which could mean an oil leak. This happened on the very first lap of MotoGP FP2 when the #42 Suzuki of Alex Rins came down the straight and his bike began to smoke heavily as he braked for Turn 12. That brought out what we call the “surface flag”, indicating that there might be hazardous material on the track surface. Many refer to this as the “oil flag”, but it indicates any type of surface hazard (such as debris), not only oil. Also, if it is raining and water is actually pooling or collecting in places on the track, then both the “rain flag” (white with a red cross) and the “surface flag” (red and yellow striped) are shown together. Fortunately, there were only a few spots of rain on Saturday morning, so almost the entire weekend was in completely dry conditions, although the air and track temperatures varied widely from day to day, with Friday being the warmest and Saturday the coolest, and also very windy.
As the riders moved through practices to qualifying, to race day, so did the flag marshals. As riders honed their skills on track, the marshals did so alongside. Day 3 (Saturday) involved Qualifying sessions for Moto 3, Moto GP and Moto 2 (in that order) as well as the first MotoAmerica Superbike race and the MotoAmerica 600 Supersport race. The flag marshal’s experience was completely different from that of a spectator’s. There were a few opportunities to be a “fan” during the pit walk on Friday and when MotoAmerica rider Danny Eslick paid a visit to the marshals’ dinner on Saturday to autograph posters. However, being a volunteer flag marshal is about service. You are there to do your job to the best of your ability, work as part of a team, and make safety the number one priority. There isn’t time to be star struck when you are needed to indicate to the riders that there is a hazard on track, or if you are a track marshal or medic who must quickly remove a fallen bike and/or rider from off the racing line. But you also build an amazing camaraderie with your fellow marshals. Mike and Greg, my “mates” at Station 11F were terrific. We got along well and Mike, our team leader, was very patient with me and Greg, which helped us feel comfortable to ask questions and learn quickly. Ken, the Assistant Chief Flag Marshal, was outstanding as our section captain and was always available to assist in any way possible.
So, if you come to the track with the understanding that you will need to work hard, follow instructions, be willing to be flexible, and participate as part of a team, then you will be prepared for a weekend that will be exhilarating, (a bit exhausting) and very rewarding. The most rewarding moment of my weekend, bar none, came on Friday morning when we were asked to display a specific number on our board and wave certain flags as the safety car passed by during track inspection. We received a nice smile and a “thumbs up” from Loris Capirossi who was riding “shotgun” in the safety car. Need I say more?
5. Putting Our Skills to the Test – Race Day!
It was finally here! We were ready. Fortunately, Ken had decided to give Greg and me some “comm” training on Saturday, just in case there was any reason that Mike couldn’t perform those duties. Sure enough, that reason came during morning warm-up when it was determined by race direction that only two flag marshals were needed per station and one person was going to be reassigned as a track marshal. Mike received his blue jumpsuit and was driven over to Turn 12 and I suddenly became the lead flag marshal at Flag Station 11F. I felt a slight twinge of nerves but I knew that Greg had my back and that Ken would be there to help if we needed him. We flagged for all the warm-ups and four races that day, Moto3, Moto2, MotoGP, and the second MotoAmerica Superbike race. Greg was helpful and competent and we ended up trading off wearing the headset and doing “comm” duties every other race.
Our section of track didn’t have the propensity for too many incidents but we were alert and ready for the unexpected. During the Moto3 race there was a red flag situation, so all stations were called upon to wave the red flag at that time. During the MotoGP race, Pol Espargaro’s #44 KTM began to emit smoke on the back straight and we briefly waved the surface flag until it was determined that there was no debris, oil or liquids of any kind on the track surface.
One of the highlights of the weekend was to give the “International Flag Salute” to the riders during their cool down laps. This was the only time that flaggers were allowed to be on the inside of the barrier at the edge of the track waving any or all flags to celebrate as the riders passed. My husband was watching the race at home with our friends and racing buddies Mary & Eli. They thought that they had spotted me on camera at the end of the MotoGP race. Sure enough, it’s a bit blurry, but the screen shot below shows Dani Pedrosa, 3rd place finisher, on his #26 Repsol Honda waving to us as he rode by.
I’ll never watch a race and look at the flag or track marshals in the same way. These four days are now imprinted as one of my most memorable motorsport experiences. I hope to be able to provide support at another MotoAmerica event sometime this season and to return to COTA next year. Do you care to join me?
A friendly reminder from Chief Flag Marshal Dave — marshals are not allowed to take photographs when on duty! All photos in this post were taken while on breaks and when the track was “cold”. The safety of the marshals and riders is paramount, so when the track is “hot”, don’t take that shot!