Switching to the Other Side of the Track

May 30th, 2017 by James Chartres

by Tim Sullivan

Having completed driving school in 2015, and racing in SSM and ITX since then, I suppose it was about time to see what the other side of the track sees. Specifically the flagging staff.  With the Majors being run, and since I was not running in them, I was convinced by a fellow driver that we should volunteer to help at the Majors.  It only made sense, as drivers, we all benefit from the all volunteer staff, and helping out in a weekend I had free and wasn’t racing sounded like fun.

Showing up on a Saturday morning without a fire suit on was a bit different.  All the volunteers start a little earlier than the drivers. Meeting at 7 am at the outside dining area at ThunderHill, before most drivers are up yet. Yes, some were getting registered, but they weren’t quite ready for the track yet.  We, on the other hand, were being briefed and assigned our corners. Normally at this time, I would be looking out the window of the motorhome, getting a cup of coffee and double checking my starting time. Not the volunteers. They are up way ahead of us drivers.  Remember, we usually awake to the trucks sweeping the track. These folks get up early and stay late.

By 7:40, we are on our way to our towers.  I had the pleasure of being assigned to turn 11, with Ian Cook as my mentor. Now I must admit I thought this was great, as my introduction to racing came via Ed Railton, as well as Ian. But this was no walk in the park. Ian intended to make me learn the ropes, and fast. Rhea Dods, Communications, and Heather Streets, Flagging, were great and really made me and two other drivers welcome. There is no us versus them here. The entire crew was genuinely helpful in making us feel welcome and wanting us to learn.

In driving school we all learn the flags, the colors, and what to do when they come out. Black flags, standing yellow, double yellow, waving yellow. Debris on the track, service vehicles on track, boots on the ground. All things we know and take for granted.  We know we will always be warned.  It is a little more than that, though.

Day One started off making sure I did know the flags.  We were issued a bag of flags as well as headsets. The headsets are key. Every turn communicates with Rhea in the tower. Heather was in her turn six tower. All corners communicate that the track is clear. All the way around the track: “Turn Clear, Turn Clear”.  Clear meaning it’s safe to race…  “Emergency Clear”. They are ready as well.

Now in qualifying, the first lap gets the white flag. All corners white.  Do you know why?  Well, I always knew they did it, but never asked why, but now I know.  It is to let all drivers know there is a manned corner. Now you know why.  Remember, sometimes, as we know, all stations are not manned. Not enough volunteers. It happens. The white flag let’s all drivers know we are there. After one lap, they go down. Qualifying laps go easy. Everyone is trying to get a good lap. Not a lot of bunched up cars. But there are issues.

Now turn 11 gets a great view.  Crest of turn 9, turn 10, 11-12, down to the bridge. As a driver, this is a great stretch of course, and a decent passing area. Turn 11 also has the infamous “delineators”. No, these are not a Harry Potter prop, they are the 4 tall “cones” outside of the candy stripes on the exit of 11. In Group 7, these get wiped out in the first two laps in most cases. As a driver I know this. As a flagger, I see this.

Each hit gets reported. Everything is recorded. We see a car go off and on, we report it. Contact, we report it, racing incident or not. It is recorded. We are constantly reporting. And Rhea will put it all in an official report.  Not to get drivers in hot water, but to record the race as each corner sees it. It’s all to make sure the flaggers get the race right. Questionable maneuvers, they get reported.  As they happen.  It may be important in the next turn.

“Delineators in center of track”. Out comes yellow. Car in weeds, possible hazard, waving yellow. Two cars wreck at top of Turn 9. Double yellows. All in real time and announced at all corner radios. Black flags! Important. As drivers, we hate these. But they are for our safety. Turn 11 is the last real spot to see it before the pits. Important to get them out ASAP when you hear it! The drivers need to know!  If they don’t see it, they may go around track again!

Meatball flags. At start/finish and turn 7. Mainly for sound. Got to make sure they acknowledge (drivers…oops, did I say “they”). Important as well. And they do make sure they have the right car. Bunched up cars may not identify the right car.  They wait until they can identify the correct car. Can’t get this wrong!

After each group, out come the Course Marshals. They clean up the track. Yes, they replace the delineators!  They clean up debris. Then we all call the track “clear” again. For the drivers safety…

At around 11:30 we break for lunch…4.5 hours since we started the day. At Turn 11 we walk back to the clubhouse. Grab a sandwich and soda…  Lunch goes quickly..  The. We have to be back. Got to be back in tower by 12:20. Have to “Clear” track and ensure all is well and safe for drivers.

The races start now! So now it’s a bit different. Got to make sure all is set for the races. Track needs to be clear and also timed with the grid. Grid control on radio as well. Making sure when Pace Car starts we are ready. No white flag this time. Double yellow all around. And it’s pretty darn windy! Try holding two flags and making sure they don’t curl up..It’s an art! As the Pace car goes towards the bridge by 14, I need to radio in when they cut the lights. Turn 14 and 15 call the Pace car in the Pits..  Race on!

Now this is different..Not qualifying…No sticker tires here..They want to win. Now I have to say, it sure seems slower watching these turns than being in the car, but I can sure get a good look at the lines the guys are taking (hint). Lots of two offs at 10. This darn turn 11. Bye, bye delineators. Probably gives a second to the drivers and a straighter line..  (Well, maybe ½ sec)

More flags, car off the track..  In the weeds…  double yellows..  Course Marshall fixes the delineators. (Sorry drivers).  All good, and you have to be quick….

Passing flags..  We have to remember top 5 cars and bottom 5. Got to flag the slow cars when leaders are ready to pass…(Don’t be that guy!) So you have to know the running order..  It is important..  Blue passing only goes out for leaders, not the slower guys.  It’s for the drivers safety.

It was all faster in the afternoon…And fun. And hotter! As drivers, we can kind of relax for a few.  If only in one class, you may have lots of down time. I race in two classes, so I have less, but the volunteer workers don’t. They keep going! About 5 pm we do our final clear and head in, but we aren’t done. One last recap, then we are done and on to Social. We have been on track, working, for about 9 hours…  And all the time having fun..  A whole different experience from driving. And I must say I got a bit of a tan! Bonus!

Sunday was more of the same…But now I’m doing it all. Qualifying is easier…  Throw the flags..  Remember the cars..  But the races were great. As someone told me: They will be more aggressive as they don’t race tomorrow. Boy were they right. Much more aggressive. Spins on 10. People off on 10. In the weeds. Deep weeds! Double yellows…Spin outs. Delineators gone.  We keep the flags going. Warning drivers..  It’s all about safety…  A spin at turn 11 on the inside..  Smoke from a car. Driver jumps out.  Yelling at him to go to infield. He does (thank God!). Long day.. Yes, this was a 10 hour day, as the races are longer…But the last race is the clincher…

End of day Sunday. Last race. We are all tired..  Race starts..  2 delineators gone..  Turn 15 chimes in..  4 delineators gone.  Another delineator gone at turn 11. Lap 10…Mustang careens and takes out all delineators at turn 14/15. Only delineators on track left at turn 11. Ian and I were rooting for the last delineator standing…  Lap 12. GONE…  ll delineators gone. High fives! What a race!

All in all a great weekend! I learned a lot. I have to say all racers should do this.  It’s all fun to race, but the setup and crew make the races. Without the volunteers, we are doomed. Thanks to members of my other club, Northern CA Corvettes for being here! Specifically Don Landers, and John Lane.  And Doug Alves, who convinced me to volunteer.

We all like the events.  After this weekend, I have to say we all love it. Racers and volunteers!  As a fairly new racer, I always know Ginny will come and say hi at the grid! Cecil always comes by and says Hi in the paddock. RJ is always around (you know his Vette). Mike King is back as announcer!

It’s a good group! If you are a driver, try volunteering!  It’s a hoot, and will teach you a few things..Even the lines! It’s all fun!

Tim Sullivan

President, Northern California Corvette Assn.

1991 Miata #56

Want to get involved yourself? Find out more at: http://www.sfrscca.org/volunteers/

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