The Liberty Gazette
March 25, 2014
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely
Mike: The Sport Air Racing season is about to begin and to get you in the mood we thought we’d share a bit of history on flags used in racing. Although flags are generally associated with auto racing, when we hold the Indy Air Race each August we include the waving of a green flag (usually by a former Indy car driver) in honor of our host city – the one that is Linda’s hometown.
The green flag is universally understood, probably owing to traffic lights. In 1980, Chief Starter Duane Sweeney launched a tradition at the Indianapolis 500 of waving twin green flags for added visual effect at the start of the race. Linda has more on that.
Linda: Duane Sweeney. I knew him years before he was honored with the position as official flag man at Indy, back when he was flagging at dirt tracks and other smaller venues. Duane was a kick, a retiree from Milwaukee whose arms were evidence of robust flag waving at weekend races for decades. His son Mark was a little older than I and when Duane was chosen as Indy’s Chief Starter, replacing long time flag man, Pat Vidan, Mark and I were excited for the Big D.
Plenty of theories have been posited as to the origins of the checkered flag, including one about horse races during the early days of the settlement of the Midwest. The races were followed by large public meals; the signal that the meals were ready and racing was over was allegedly the waving of a checkered tablecloth. But I don’t buy that one.
Another theory is that the checkered flag was first used for 19th century bicycle races in France. Nope, I’m not giving this one to the French.
However, in 2006 "The Origin of the Checker Flag: A Search for Racing's Holy Grail", written by historian Fred Egloff, was published by the International Motor Racing Research Center at Watkins Glen, NY.
Fred’s research traces the checkered flag's origin to Sidney Waldon, who worked for Packard Motor Car Company, and in 1906 created a flag to mark checkpoints along rally races. That fact holds some interest for me because my Indy racing grandfather also worked for Packard.
A couple of months ago I received a call from a gentleman who said he was looking for Jim Ford’s daughter (that’d be me), and that he had worked for my dad in the late ‘40’s-early ‘50’s when Dad had an exotic foreign car dealership in Evanston, Illinois. My dad has been gone for over 15 years now, so the call was a delightful surprise. Turned out to be Fred Egloff, whose professional accomplishments go far beyond publishing the history of the checkered flag.
Before the availability of reliable two-way radios, flags were the only real communication from race officials to drivers. They still wave today for that same purpose. And sometimes radios malfunction, leaving flags the only way to relay messages to racers. And, radios still aren’t used at many dirt tracks and lower-level speedways. Flags also tell the fans what’s happening.
Today the checkered flag is the universal symbol for conclusion, and its use has spread beyond auto racing. The next time you finish a download and see a checkered flag, think of the early days of racing, and thank Sid Waldon for the idea, and Fred Egloff for his research.
Mike: Air race season beings March 29 in Sherman, Texas. We’ll be flying fast for the checkered flag.