Auto racing is truly demanding, and if you are a fan, then you most certainly know this. But how does one set their dominance as a bigger fan than others? How about being the best-informed spectator in the stands. You can do that by learning what all the flags mean, and depending on what race series you’re watching there are far more flags than just green, yellow, and checkered.
To help us make sense of it all, we deferred to the folks at Skip Barber Racing. They put a serious emphasis on racing safety, and want their graduates to be as educated in what to do in an incident as how to take a proper line. Here are the flags that they teach in the open-wheel racing school. Flags may vary depending on the race series, so check with the sanctioning body:
There is a reason we have this listed before any other flag. It is, by far, the most important flag. When held up in the air WITHOUT waving, it means “Danger, slow down.” There is an incident ahead. You are not allowed to pass until after the incident, but you are also not to slow down so much that it becomes a danger for cars coming up behind you.
When the yellow is waved, it means “Extreme Danger.” And you are to slow down more than you would for a stationary yellow. Be prepared to change your course for a larger incident, and full speed and passing are allowed after the incident.
It’s not just the band that brought us “Nervous Breakdown.” Black flags almost always mean you’ve done something wrong. If waved, you must report to the pits to be educated on whatever infraction or unsportsmanlike behavior caught the attention of race officials.
If the flag is rolled up and pointed at you, then you likely know what you’ve done, and are being reminded of your behavior. IF it persists, then you will be given an open black flag, and forced to report to the pits.
If all flag operators have an open black flag out, then the session or race is being halted and all cars must report to the pits.
Black Flag With Orange Disc
There is something wrong with your car, and you don’t know about it. This is usually more common in grassroots racing, where you don’t have radio communication with the pits. You could be leaking fluid, so check all your gauges. If leaking fluid, don’t take the normal line on the track, as it will leak all over the highest traffic areas.
The race is being completely stopped. Used for different reasons depending on race series. It important to know the particulars based on the sanctioning body. In most cases, you are to come to a complete stop as far off the track as you can, and do so safely, putting your hand in the air to warn cars being you.
This usually means there is a serious incident or that the track is blocked.
The race/session is over. Complete one cool-off lap at a slower speed then pull into the pits. You want to avoid going TOO slow in blind turns, so as not to be rear-ended by cars coming up behind you.
The race or session has started, mostly used only at the start/finish line. Typically, there is a moment between the pace car pulling into the pits and the green flag being waved, so don’t jump the gun!
Blue Flag w/ Diagonal Stripe
As it has been described by veteran instructor Bruce MacInnes, “There is a race going on, and you’re not in it.” In essence, a faster car is about to lap you. If it is held open, the car is approaching- but if it is being waved, the faster car is right on you and you are not to make any erratic movements, but just let the faster car pass.
In FIA racing, it means that slow moving vehicles (such as safety vehicles) are ahead on the track. In some racing series (not just NASCAR and Indy Car), it means the last lap is about to begin.
Yellow Flag w/ Red Stripes
Debris or fluids on the track have created slippery conditions. May only be held up for a few laps so that drivers are aware, but taken down even if the debris is not cleared. The idea is that after several laps, you are just used to its location. In Formula 1, debris is not cleared from the track, so this is an important flag.
Image Credits: Wikipedia, IndyCar.com