Archive for Thursday, October 26, 2000

Flag power

Drivers stop, go when flagmen say so

October 26, 2000


Each week during the Winston Cup season, Jimmy Howell has what easily can be described as the best view in racing.

Whether it be the tense, fender-banging action at the half-mile track at Martinsville, Va., or a pack of 43 cars in a draft powering by at nearly 200 mph on the high banks of Talladega, Howell gets an up-close view of the action.

But he also has the power to bring it to a screeching halt.

His power comes in the form of eight different colored flags, each with its own meaning under NASCAR rules. As one of the two flagmen the series uses each week to maintain control of races, Howell's view of the series is unlike that of any other fan, driver or media member.

"I have such great respect for these drivers and what they do. You see them make some moves and you just shake your head," said Howell, 45, who has flagged Winston Cup races since 1997. "You just can't believe some of the things they do. They're all such great drivers.

"Their safety is what we are most concerned about. I think they're all winners. You certainly get a unique view of their talent from the flag stand."

The flag stand, always at the start/finish line of racetracks, is off limits to virtually anyone but Howell and his partner, Rodney Wise.

Occasionally, a celebrity may be offered the chance to wave the green flag to start a race or a photographer allowed in the stand for a photo, but the rest of the time for each practice, qualifying session and race the stand is where Howell and Wise work.

"It is a great place to see the race and it's a great job, but what a lot of people don't realize is when I'm flagging the race, I never see what is going on in (Turns) 1 and 2. All I see is what happens in (Turns) 3 and 4," Howell says. "I'm always facing toward Turn 4, while Rodney will look toward Turn 1.

"We tap each other or let each other know what's going on through hand signals. We have scanners locked on a specific channel, so if our radios were to go out we could be reached by another means of communication. That's important, because you have got to notify the drivers as soon as there's a caution."

But Howell, who lives in Winston-Salem, N.C., and Wise, who lives in Dover, Del., do more than notify drivers of cautions. In fact, there are eight different flags they can use during the course of a race.

They are: a green flag to start a race and restart a race after a caution; a yellow flag to signal a caution; a red flag to tell drivers to stop the race; a black flag to notify a driver he must report to pit road; and a white flag to signify one lap remaining in a race.

There is also a checkered flag that means the race is completed; a blue flag with a diagonal yellow stripe that notifies drivers they are being passed by faster traffic; and the least-used flag, black with a white cross, that notifies a driver his car no longer will be scored in the race.

"People probably have a misconception that a big track is much more difficult to flag than a short track, but that's not the case," Howell said. "The short tracks are much busier because of the use of the passing flag and moving the lapped traffic.

"It's always our call in the flag stand."

Howell and Wise receive most of their calls from David Hoots, NASCAR's event director, or Gary Nelson, Winston Cup series director.

There is no "flagging school" to learn the trade, so how does one become a flagman in NASCAR's biggest series?

Experience and hard work, Howell said.

"When I started flagging, I started watching different people. Carl Simmons, who used to flag the (Grand National) cars probably helped me more than anybody else," he said.

"He answered a lot of questions. You want to do the best job you can no matter what series you're doing it in."

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