It happens in an instant. The usual harmony of synchronized downshifts turns to cacophony, followed by the nails-on-chalkboard screeching of metal sliding across pavement, and then the tell-tale plume of dust that a rider has careened off the racetrack.
It’s just another day in the tower for a flag marshal, and while each crash and incident on the racetrack are unique, the practiced protocol remains the same. With several years of experience waving flags at racetracks on both coasts, I get lots of questions from curious riders. What exactly does a flag marshal do? Are there qualifications to become a flag marshal? Do they get paid? How can I get started?
The answers to those questions are as diverse as the racetracks, riding disciplines, rider skill levels, and localities involved. While I can’t possibly cover all the minutiae in a single article, I can take a stab at some of the generalities of the occupation.
Communication is key
While the racetrack provides a controlled environment removed from some of the usual dangers on the street, it is still designed to challenge both rider and machine and this naturally means crashes are inevitable.
Whether working at a competitive race or a recreational track day, the flag marshal crew is responsible for identifying any possible safety hazards to the riders on track (such as debris or slippery conditions), reporting any on-track incidents for further review and action, calling in any crashes or downed riders who need assistance, and perhaps most importantly, communicating directly to riders on the track with the use of colored flags that have specific meanings.
If you have ridden at a track day, then you know during the mandatory rider’s meeting the track day organization will run through what each flag means and your responsibilities as a rider to respond to each flag. This is crucial because for riders out on a hot track, the flag marshals are their only communication as to what is happening ahead. Sometimes a waving yellow flag for an incident off track, sometimes a blue-and-yellow flag for debris on the track, and more severely a waving red telling all riders to exit the track safely because a crash needs immediate attention. Whatever the situation, the flag marshal is the one looking out for your safety and waving the flags to let you know what is ahead of you.
The flag marshal crew also communicates with each other, race control, and EMTs via long-distance radios. This network of communication across all corners of the track and to a centralized authority, like race control, allows for fast response times when a crash is reported and for coordinated responses, such as red flags at all stations or black-flag situations.
While duties and responsibilities of a flag marshal may vary from track to track and organization to organization, communication will always be a core principle for every flag marshal.
Responsibilities may vary
Communication may be the common denominator in every flag marshal role I have been in, but from there on out the responsibilities of the flag marshal can vary greatly, depending on the racetrack, the event, and the managing organization.
For instance, in some organizations there is a strict policy that flag marshals stay in their corner tower and do not leave under any circumstance. In other groups, marshals are encouraged to be more active in their corner and assist with recovering bikes, track clean up, communicating to riders off-track, etc. Some organizations will do a full crew swap during lunch break, while others will keep that same crew in their corner for the entirety of the day.
As responsibilities fluctuate, so does compensation. Certain club racing organizations I have flag marshaled for would compensate my time with credits toward free race entries, while others only relied on cash payouts. The majority of track-day organizations I have flag marshaled for rely primarily on a volunteer crew that staffs the corner towers for half the time and then are awarded free track time in exchange for their labor. Some racetracks will not allow any events or track-day organizers to use their own crews and they must hire an approved crew from the track facility itself. In some more relaxed environments, like many motocross tracks I have ridden at, riders and spectators often become impromptu marshals when an accident has occurred and oncoming riders need warning of a downed rider and dirt bike on the backside of a jump.
When it comes to professional racing events, sanctioning bodies such as the FIM (Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme) have regulations regarding track safety that include some specific standards for the safety crew. Pro racing organizations and hosting tracks need to work together to meet these standards to the satisfaction of a FIM-appointed track inspector before racing can get underway.
Oftentimes, the head safety marshal will contract with the track or a local organization to field freelance corner marshals to round out their roster. Contracted corner workers are often found from local race organizations in the area, folks who are familiar with the track and with proven experience of corner marshaling other events. Several corner workers will be in every corner of the racetrack, and a hierarchy of command is established according to experience.
Sometimes this contract crew will be paid, sometimes they are volunteer, but most of the folks I have talked to who have done this service at the World SBK or MotoGP level all agree the commitment is worth it for the perks. They regularly receive free camping, credentials that give them greater access to the paddock, and often are paid for their efforts on top of that. With races from New Jersey to California, the most opportunities to work at a professional racing event in the United States are with MotoAmerica. The organization plans to have an open Zoom meeting in the coming weeks for anyone who is interested in learning more about working as a marshal at a MotoAmerica race weekend. Watch the organization's website for details on the online meeting.
Working a professional racing event can be exciting and provide real benefits, but there is a lot to gain by flag marshaling at the local levels, too.
While the obvious perks of “free” track time or a payout is top of mind for many riders entertaining the notion of flagging, there are benefits much deeper than that, in my opinion.
At the top of my list, is the unique perspective that staffing a corner tower gives you from an educational standpoint. I learn so much from observing riders of all skill levels attack the same corner for a half day. Where do they downshift, where do they brake, where do they turn in, when do they pick up that throttle again — with my eyes and my ears I am learning valuable lessons to apply to my time on the track. If you are a club racer, watching your adversaries from the tower will also give you a leg up in identifying some of their weak points on track. For me, having this rare vantage point helps round out the rest of my rider training, alongside seat time, track walks, and schooling.
Another undervalued advantage is the ability to get really involved with your local track day or club racing series. I have seen family members of racers become dedicated timing and scoring officials or flag marshals. They either get paid or earn valuable race credits, but more importantly they become active in the racing scene, whereas before they were just bored spectators. For me as a rider, I am surrounded by a tight-knit crew of people who really focus and hone their craft and I am better just through the osmosis of sharing mind space with these fellow riders.
How to become a flag marshal
As stated before, each race track and event organizer has its own set of rules and standards for selecting their flag marshal crew.
In my experience, getting a start in corner marshaling was easiest at the local club race. There is always a need for extra help as there are many roles that need to be filled for any given race weekend. Contact your local club before a race weekend to see if they need help and learn more about their operation (do you work half days or full days, are you paid by money, check or earned racer credits, do you need to come early for a training session, etc.).
At the track-day level, most volunteer crews operate by a “who you know” network and often the wait times to join a flag marshal crew can be long. You can improve your odds by being a regular customer of that particular track day org, making inroads with the current flag marshal crew, and any proof of prior flagging experience will also get you moved up that wait list faster.
It isn’t all roses, but it certainly isn’t a yawn fest, either. Being a flag marshal means you are as close to the action as it gets, and it also means you are responsible for keeping your fellow riders safe on track. For those seeking a perspective afforded to a rare few at the racetrack, lace up your boots tight and climb up into that tower.