The other side of the starting line
A few years ago, when I first started writing on this site, a commenter and I got in a bit of a debate about the value of volunteering at track events. I’m man enough to admit when I am wrong, and I now realize my position was completely absurd. So here we go:
It is totally worth going to a track event just to volunteer.
I, like most motorsports enthusiasts, have spent years watching racing from here wishing I was there. When I could not be the one doing the thing, I refused to be tangentially part of the action: How could being a flagger or track worker for a weekend get me any closer to being on track? Staffing an event seemed like a consolation prize, and one I was paying for at that. I saw no point in going to the race track, spending not only money but a precious weekend away from home, and not even trying to be a part of the action.
Thing is, I misunderstood a big part of flagging: You are a part of the action. You are not a spectator with a radio and some vague responsibility. Flagging is a quick and intense relationship with the racers on track. Only after being a racer did I understand the amount of trust placed in the flaggers, often volunteers, who alert racers to what is happening on the track ahead. Flaggers enable racers to truly focus on the art of driving or riding. A flag stands is more than a reference point for triangulating turn-in or braking; it is a pop-up information stand telling you what is around the next corner—literally.
The experience that brought this into focus was this year’s trip to Barber Vintage Festival, in early October. After six straight years, the trip is starting to feel like a pilgrimage. I know six years is only the start, due to how many people I meet each year that have stories from attending the race 15 years in a row, or more.
I tried to take up racing and only made it about a year before I raced myself out of money and sold my bike. It was the right decision, but having to scale back left me wanting. When I reached out to a friend—who happens to be the dirt-track director for the American Historic Racing Motorcycle Association (AHRMA), the sanctioning body for Vintage Fest—and told him about my plans to travel to Barber without my race bikes, he understood, and suggested that I help him out. What about volunteering as the starter for the dirt-track event?
I was both excited and nervous. For starters, and I mean every part of that pun, I have relatively little time at a racetrack compared to most of the people with whom I have surrounded myself. I am humble about my skills and experience. In addition, section 3.7 of the AHRMA handbook makes it clear that the starter holds a mountain of power: “Flag signals shall be obeyed without question,” emphasis theirs.
From the riders’ perspective, a starter is just a person standing out front, the final thing holding you back from a wide-open blast to turn one. This person also brings the sad news of the last lap and makes calls regarding what is happening on the track and how best to handle the situation. I thought I had understood the power of a starter while I was on track, but once I was standing on the asphalt, green flag in hand, while a dozen riders and bikes sat with the revs up and clutches slipping, I realized that I had severely underestimated how hard this job would be.
Before I reported for duty at the flat-track event, I watched Ed Bargy, the starter for the road-course events at Vintage Fest, who could turn out fast, safe starts like clockwork. I began to realize how much racers value consistency. Then, while Ed was clicking off starts like the machine he is, I walked to the upper parking lot.
Of all the facilities Barber Motorsports Park has, a dirt track is not one of them. Therefore, after the riders meeting for the flat-track events, we set up some hay bales on the test track and they began to lap a short-track oval on pavement.
These practice sessions were the easy part. I held the green flag out for a few minutes, followed by a checker, to send each group around the oval and off. Each got a handful of laps, entering and exiting in a self-policed manner. Then came the race heats. Even with small grids, the tasks quickly piled up: Make sure that everyone was lined up properly, that timing and scoring was ready, that the track was clear, and finally that the fire and medical teams were alert, just in case. Look down the line, walk to my starter’s box, lift the green flag, and hold. That three-second hold, before I dropped the green to release the riders, might as well have been three days. My heart rate doubled. I tried not to twitch or jump.
Honestly, standing in the starting box was far more intense than sitting atop a machine in my leathers. It was not just my start, but everyone’s, and the race would be botched if I miffed my job. Mishandle the start as a racer, and you’ll get a penalty or a talking-to by the referee. As the starter? You will get an earful from just about everyone within earshot. I very much did, because I did screw up. Multiple times.
Between managing lap count, keeping track of which flag was in my hand, and which rider was on the lead lap, the job was mentally exhausting like nothing else. Each visor or pair of goggles that met my eyes as a rider throttled out of turn four reminded me that the riders were trusting me, some guy in a goofy hat holding 75 cents worth of fabric on a stick, to ensure that they were getting what they signed up for. Nothing more, nothing less.
I likely miscalled a jump start and set back one racer’s day. I’m not proud of that, but only hindsight is 20/20. In the heat of the moment, I was confident, and there is nothing I can say except thank you to that rider who talked with me about the mistake after the fact. He was unhappy, and rightfully so, but we talked as adults rather than yelling like children. We both recognized that while it sucks that I mishandled the start, this race was not going to make or break his racing career. If that were the case, I certainly would not be volunteering as starter.
So many jobs at a racetrack are thankless, but the insight I received after working on the other side of the starting line for just a single race will ensure that there is one less, at least when I am around. If and when I return to the track, I will happily recognize the hard work of all the seemingly silent corner workers and grid marshals who work so hard to allow us racers to have our fun in a fair and safe manner. Even if it is slightly embarrassing that I didn’t see the full value of track-day volunteers until now.