It's funny how things in life evolve, especially when you don't really notice the evolution, and particularly when someone new to your scenario has to point it out. Case in point would be my little slice of heaven here in the Modified world, where, as of the last couple of years, I've been driving some of the coolest modded cars around my local Phoenix community and then offering my opinions on those machines. For those of you who have been reading this column long enough and to those detail-oriented folks who have noticed the title of my column and recently written in wondering how things relate, we are going to start adding a fewer more tips to the content of the prose under the "driving tips" label. Don't fret, though, we will still continue to offer more driver evaluations in the months to come.
Since much of our last content on actual driving tips had started to center around racing and what is involved in the sport, this month we'll take it a step further and look at some of the elements of on-track activity, specifically flags and what they mean to event organizer, dedicated corner worker and of course those valiant drivers. Basically, flags are used to give critical information to drivers, and depending on those flags, that information can be directed at the entire group on track, a small group of drivers or even a single driver. Most flags are typically displayed at the discretion of the chief steward of the event or their equivalent, although many of the corner workers can display flags based on their own information on that section of the circuit. Also, there is some ambiguity to the meaning of flags, and it's typically noticed when a driver moves from one sanctioning body to another-or even from one region in the country to another-but there are some common themes.
There are several flags that can potentially be thrown during a race, so we will cover a few of them in this installment and then carry over to next month with the remaining info. In the interests of simplicity-and to keep some consistency in our discussion-we're going to look at what the flags mean in terms of sanctioned road racing (not to be confused with that inane act of peckerwood measuring that is Friday night street racing).
Because it often represents the beginning of things to come-and is arguably everyone's favorite flag-let's start with the green flag, what it means and some of the driver strategy involved with it. It should be pretty obvious that green means "go," and the green flag dropped at a racetrack offers no exception to that rule. It is used to indicate that the track is open for drivers to run their cars at speed, that there are no apparent obstacles on circuit and that a driving session has officially started. Of course, the green flag is also thrown to signify the start of a race or the resumption of a race already in progress-commonly referred to as a restart.
How you react to the green flag is dependent on the sanctioning body rules regarding that flag and your particular situation. Let's take the start of a race as an example. Since in most race series the race is started in what we call a parade lap, with cars closely packed together in two rows, it can actually be pretty hard to tell that the flag has been thrown at all; it can be that hard to see through traffic. However, once you are aware that the green is out to indicate the start of a race, then obviously it is a free for all at that point, right? Well, not exactly.
Back in the day, when the green flag flew at the start of a race, many times the field would fan out with everyone trying to gain some type of advantage under acceleration. I remember old footage of the Firehawk series where two neat lines of cars would turn into mass mayhem at the drop of the green and there would be eight cars abreast going into a corner with enough room for one line of cars! The resulting chaos would end up destroying some perfectly good race cars, cost team owners a ton of cash and generally ignite a firestorm of "who done it" accusations up and down pit lane. On top of that, the race would have to be restarted, and the whole thing would be a waste of everyone's time.
To make things a bit easier on owner's wallets and to help give the fans an actual race to watch, race starts are now much more closely scrutinized. For example, when the green flag is thrown at the start of a race, most series mandate that the cars must stay in two lines and drivers can't pull out of line to pass until they cross the start/finish line. Since the green flag, which is only thrown from the starter stand, is dropped somewhat before the actual start/finish line, there are some drivers who are going to get a better start than others. As such, they will be closing in on the cars in front of them before they get to the line. "Too bad how sad," say the rules. You can't make a move to go around that driver in front until you go by start/finish. It can be immensely frustrating if you catch the driver in front sleeping, but it can also save your behind if you balk the start. Once by start/finish cars can fan out, but by that point, pretty much everyone is going the same speed.
There should always be that thought of risk versus reward once the green flag drops. Just because you really, really want to get by somebody doesn't mean that it is possible, and many times trying to force the issue can give other drivers behind you the advantage. In no time, you can go from a well-earned qualifying position to several places down the ladder or even take yourself and others out of the race with an ill-advised maneuver. Like so many chief stewards have said multiple times, "you can't win the race in the first corner."
Having said all that, it is true, especially as you get to the higher levels of the sport, that winning the race into turn 1 becomes more and more important. And there is the fact that some drivers are better than others at "reading" the flag marshal and sensing the timing of the green flag, or just plain get lucky. I remember qualifying on the second row in the Koni Challenge at Mid Ohio in 2007 in a 40-car field and feeling pretty darn good about myself. It was short-lived, though, because as we headed into turn 3 after the start (the start of the race at Mid Ohio is always performed on the back straight just before turn 3), one of the Compass360 Honda RSXs came blowing by all of us. Whoever the hell it was, they had timed the flag to total perfection, and went from seventh to the front of the field before the first turn. Two things to remember on this: 1) such results while spectacular are certainly not typical, and 2) racing is the kingdom of hero to zero, as I spent the rest of the race wondering how in the wide world of sports he had caught me and the rest of us snoozing like that.
Another reason that a green flag can be thrown is for the restart of a race that has already begun and has been "paused," so to speak. If something happens on track where the circuit is partially blocked or where emergency vehicles are dispatched (car upside-down, driver walking back to pit lane with just the steering wheel in their hand), the race is slowed and the cars are regrouped. Commonly referred to as a full course caution, which we will discuss in depth at another time, the subsequent slowing of the cars allows a safer environment for emergency crews to work on the vehicle(s) and driver(s).
Prior to the restart of the race the cars are typically arranged in a single-file line with respect to the position they held just prior to the full course caution inducing incident. Once the green flag is dropped, the race is back on. Some sanctioning bodies allow passing immediately, meaning that cars must pull out of line in order to complete the pass, while other organizations stipulate that the competitors must be past start/finish before they can pull out to pass. Either way, restarts for me are one of the most challenging periods in the sport. In shorter full-course caution periods, the car is still at or near proper temperatures in terms of tires, brakes and gearbox, and when the green flies the intensity is high.
A good driver who is on his game can use restarts as an advantage, especially if at some point during the race the driver fell back due to unforeseen issues. The restart allows all of the cars that were at one time potentially spread out on track to gather back up, and in many cases makes the racing more interesting. Of course, the scenario isn't good for everyone. If you happened to be out front leading the event and having a comfortable cushion to the rest of the field, the last thing you want is to be bunched up again, where you now are under the risk of being passed, but that's just part of the sport, and if you earned the right to be up front in the first place, you'll most likely end up there again once the racing action resumes.
Who would have thought there was so much to a single flag. Next month we'll talk about yellow flags and what the various versions of the yellow mean. You might be surprised how much strategy is involved in going slow!