Race Track Flags You Don't Know
Learning to identify flags on the track is about more than safety, it’s about situational awareness.
The Colors, Duke, The Colors
If you’ve ever watched racing on TV or in person you have likely seen a track marshall waving different color flags as the race progresses. The checkered flag is obviously the most recognizable, but there’s way more to these patterned clothes than most people realize. Everything from a crash to a friendly reminder to move out of the way can all be communicated with a colorful piece of cloth. So what are the flags you might be unfamiliar with? Let’s take a look.
Debris, Fluid or Animals
This is a serious flag that lets you know a hazard is coming your way—it could be coolant or it could be a caribou that has decided to come to join the race. Represented by vertical stripes that alter from red to yellow, this flag is a serious reminder that something bad may be coming your way. Pay attention to this if you see it during a race as it just might be the difference between a quick turn of the steering wheel or a race weekend that crashes and burns quite literally. You hardly ever see this one on TV, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t crucial to understand.
Moving away from the Animal Planet we get to a flag that is pretty common to see on TV, but often unexplained: the passing flag. On it is a solid dark blue background with a bright diagonal yellow line slashing through the middle of it. This one flag lets you know that a faster competitor is coming up on you. Your job is to safely get out of the way when you see it, but that is easier said than done if you are in a dog fight of your own. This is often a confusing flag to drivers if speeds among cars are relatively close and they don’t have their wits about them. It is not uncommon to see drivers completely ignore this one and not give way. Don’t be that guy on the track. If you can defend your position and give way, you are obliged too. Failing to do so might result in a penalty or ruining someone else’s chances at a victory.
In the FIA a flag, it's displayed to indicate major mechanical issues which require a driver to visit the pit immediately. This safety indicator uses a purely black flag with a large orange dot in the center. It’s pretty hard to miss and lets you know your vehicle might be smoking or have dangerous bodywork hanging off of it. Perhaps one of the rarest flags to see this one isn’t something to mess with. Pit immediately if you see this, something could have gone wrong that you are completely unaware of.
No, not the band, the reminder that you messed up and are now being asked to remove yourself from the competition. Black flags suck and there’s no getting around the fact that if you receive one of these you are either going to be pissed off or embarrassed, maybe even both. These are reserved for drivers who conduct themselves in a dangerous manner or fail to yield position after cutting part of the track to gain an advantage. In various sports, the black flag is used either absolutely or in a three-stage warning process. If you get this one, sorry, but your day is probably over.
Every series uses flags in a slightly different manner so be aware of the organization you run with and what each flag means to them. The last thing you want to do is find out you just pitted for a black flag that was a warning, not a full blown reason to stop the race. Generally speaking, these flags will not change in terms of meaning, but various sporting organizations from NASCAR to Indy Car might have minor changes in terms of which flags are displayed—and potentially how they are waved. It’s all subject to your arena of competition so in order to maximize results, you need to think on your toes. Study flags so you can stay safe and gain an advantage against the competition and be aware that some of these may even be used in tandem to give a third meaning that is independent of what each means on their own.