That's right! I'm back, to bother you guys with more posts! This time, I thought I'd share with you guys the wonderful life of a corner worker for our local NASA chapter.
(I wanted to bother you guys so bad, that I took some crappy photos while working this weekend.)
I'll answer a few of the questions that nobody has actually asked me. Careful, this is going to be a long one!
What is a corner worker?
A corner worker (or corner flagger) is a worker on a racetrack. Their job has two primary functions: To communicate with drivers (via flags and hand signals), and to communicate with race control (via radio).
Ok, so why is it important?
Corner workers are key to course safety. Let's say some dumbass spun his Miata around the next corner. Drivers hauling up on him might not see him. A corner worker will use appropriate signals to tell the drivers to use caution, warning them ahead of time to an incident. If the dumbass in the spun Miata needs assistance (tow, medical, fire, etc), the corner worker will communicate it to the race controllers, who will dispatch services needed. As well, some races / events have penalties for leaving track, spinning, crashing, catching fire, etc. Race controllers can't see and hear everything, so corner workers are the "eyes and ears" around the race track.
So, what exactly do you do?
Mostly, I waive flags and stand for about 9 hours a day, hating myself for (once again) forgetting to pack a folding chair and some form of shade.
Why yes! Flags! Eight of them, in my case.
From left to right, we have:
- Yellow (x2)
- Blue with a yellow (sometimes orange) diagonal stripe
- Black with a red dot ("meatball")
- White with a red cross
- Yellow and red striped
So, what do they all mean?
It depends on the combination, and whether or not you're frantically waving the flag, or just simply holding it up! Let's review:
- Standing, single yellow: "Watch out, someone fucked up ahead." When used, it tells the drivers that someone has most likely spun out or gone off-roading somewhere ahead. When displayed, drivers must use caution, and passing is forbidden. The yellow condition exists from the corner station to either the incident or the next corner station NOT showing yellow. Whichever comes first.
- Waving single yellow: "WATCH OUT. Someone has fucked up ahead." Someone may be stalled out, in the middle of the track, at the exit of a blind corner. Otherwise, it's the same as above.
- Double yellow: "The whole course needs to calm the fuck down." Typically, this is used for pace laps. No passing is allowed, and drivers must use caution.
- Standing blue with a yellow stripe: "Hey fucker, someone is riding your ass. How about letting them by?" This flag isn't a command, but is more like a suggestion. Drivers aren't required to follow it, but it's generally a friendly thing to do.
- Waving blue with a yellow stripe: "Seriously, asshole? You're making a traffic jam!" Like the above, it's not a command, just a suggestion. You typically wave it if the driver didn't pay you much attention the last time by. Drivers are supposed to at least acknowledge the corner station (thumbs up, head nod, whatever) — with no acknowledgement, we have to assume the driver isn't paying attention (tunnel vision). This will usually get called in, and the driver will get chewed out afterwards.
- Furled (rolled up) black: "You're driving like a god damn asshole." This flag is given to an individual vehicle.
- Standing black: "You're driving like a god damn asshole, and they want to talk to you about it. Exit the track next time by." If they're still driving like an asshole after getting a furled black flag, they'll usually get booted from the course.
- Waving black: TWO meanings! (1) "GET THE FUCK OFF MY TRACK, ASSHOLE!", and (2) "Get the fuck off my track, the race is over!" This flag can be used as a more angry version of the above. It's also used in place of a checkered flag (typically only found at the start / finish, at least with our local chapter), to tell drivers that the event is over, and to exit the track.
- Standing black with a red dot: "Your shit is broken, get it the fuck off my track!" Used when someone is dumping fluids on track, something is hanging off the car, or they're pouring smoke.
- Standing / waving red: "Somebody has SERIOUSLY fucked up. Stop your shit immediately." A red flag brings the course to a full halt. Drivers are to pull to the side of the track (typically to the opposite side of the driving line, or wherever is safe to pull off) until told to resume. This is usually called when there's a serious wreck or a fire.
- Standing white with a red cross: "Watch the fuck out, there's an ambulance / tow truck / fire truck on the track." This is used when emergency vehicles are on course. Like the yellow flags above, the condition is in effect from the corner station until either the incident or the next station not displaying the emergency flag. If just the emergency flag is displayed on its own, vehicles can still race (full speed, passing), they just have to keep their eyes open. (Note: this flag is usually held with a standing or waving yellow, which would signify caution / no passing).
- Standing yellow and red striped: "Someone fucked up the course ahead." This is the debris flag. It could mean anything from 'someone clipped the apex and dumped gravel in the corner' to 'someone lost their god damn bumper mid-track'. Drivers should keep an eye out for debris, fluids, obstacles, etc. It is typically displayed for a few laps, as the obstacle either clears (fluids dried, gravel blew off), or the drivers are just expected to remember where it is.
But what if you need more than one flag?
You have more than one hand, don't you? Like the double yellow, or even the emergency + yellow, sometimes you're expected to show multiple flags at once. To give you an idea, I once had an emergency worker in my corner, hooking up a vehicle for a tow on track, during the last lap. The vehicle in question had spun out off track, showering my corner in gravel. Thus, I had to display a standing emergency flag, black flag (final lap, exit track), surface flag (gravel in my corner), as well as a waving yellow (emergency personnel working on the track, in the driving line, at the exit of my corner). You figure out creative ways to hold three flags with one hand (separated so that the drivers can see all three) while waving a flag in the other. Another combination is a standing yellow with a standing red — this is used only during the first lap of a race event, to signify that the race start was botched, and cars need to regroup and restart. Passing is only allowed to regain starting position.
So how do you know when to wave what flag?
Some of the flags are at the discretion of the corner worker. This includes a single yellow flag, the passing flag (during driving experience events, not during race events), and the debris flag. All other flags require a command on the radio from race control (except for the black flag, when it goes out during the checkered lap — it's "automatic", not requiring a command, but is not at the discretion of the corner worker).
So what do you say to race control, and what do they say to you?
Radio communications with race control are kept short and to the point. Corner workers are also expected to speak clearly, and without an overly excited tone. Track safety is listening in, and if you're freaking out on the radio, they're already moving out. Contact is typically initiated by the corner worker (unless race control needs to relay information to the workers, such as telling corner workers to display red flags, or black flagging a specific car). Corner workers are identified by their corner number. A conversation will usually start with "Control, turn __." Control will usually respond with something along the lines of "Go for control," or "Turn __, go for control." From here, you announce the basics. Namely: Who, what and (usually) where.
"Who" is the vehicle in question. To make things clear, all vehicles are identified by color and number (this is why it's important that vehicle numbers are large and clear). "What" is what happened (more on this later). "Where" is what corner it happened in (this is additional information, and often left out, unless necessary to dispatch emergency personnel).
A few words are not good to say on the radio. For example, if a car spins off track, takes a moment, then goes on their marry way, you don't say they're "rolling". That would mean they're literally rolling. Instead, you use words like "continuing". "Fire" is another word that is only used when completely serious. When the word "fire" comes over the radio, fire personnel are already heading your way.
So, a sample command would be something like: "One-Two-Three Silver, spin and continue, turn two." Short, sweet, and to the point.
It's important to note that radio communication always takes a back seat to driver communication. It doesn't matter if someone is upside down and on fire — you get flags waving before you get on the radio. The number one duty of a corner worker is to ensure driver safety, not to talk to race control.
Do you get paid?
Every track / group / employer is most likely different, but my regional NASA chapter gives us two options: a cash payout, or track time. The cash option is alright (though I won't disclose specific amounts online). The track time option is better, however, if you compare dollars to dollars. The basic idea is "work a day, race a day". Every day you work, you get credit for a day of track time. Anybody who has raced in sanctioned events knows how expensive weekends can be.
What's a typical day like?
It really depends on where the event is. Some tracks, we camp out on. Last weekend, we were at a local track in Phoenix. I stayed over with a friend who was driving all weekend. Woke up at around 0530, at the track at 0630. Got all my shit together, worker meeting was held at 0700. Radio check on station around 0745, with the track going hot at 0800. Events are overlapping (one group going out as the other goes in) until lunch, typically around 1230. The track goes cold for 30 minutes for lunch — but the break is also used for time correction. So lets say an incident took up 5 minutes during one of the events — all the following events get pushed back 5 minutes, and lunch is shortened by 5 minutes to correct. On Sunday, we had a 13 minute lunch.
During lunch, corner workers are expected to make their way to the paddock from the track, get food, eat, and get back out in time for radio check, which is held 5 minutes before the track goes hot again. So your lunch is automatically 5 minutes shorter. The track goes hot, and stays that way until around 1700. After that, we clean up our stations and head in.
During events where we camp on track, the party starts as soon as the track goes cold. Last time we were at Chuckwalla Valley Raceway (one of the tracks we camp at), I forgot my phone charger — so I (drunkenly) decided to curl up and sleep in the tech lane, so I would be awake in time. Sure enough, at 0600, the first few cars rolled in to tech. Nothing quite like being woken up by racecars.
So, do you like it?
I love it. I basically get paid to spectate, get a front row seat to all the action, and get to know a lot of great people. At events where we camp on the track, there's always great parties and great memories. It can definitely be stressful and dangerous, but it's a great way to spend a weekend.
Well, obviously. We've had corner stations get destroyed, and then catch on fire by an out of control racecar (luckily everyone was alright). Loose parts, out of control cars, heat / sun exposure... There's several hazards. I've had cars spin out and end up inside my corner station, I've been showered with gravel as someone goes sideways a few feet away from me, I've had car parts hit me, and I've been dehydrated through just about all of it (they provide us with a cooler full of waters, but I forget to drink them). It's all part of the fun!
Wait, you're still reading?
Corner working is a fun, rewarding job. You're part of the action, and a key element in creating a safe track environment. If anybody is looking to get into track experience, I highly suggest starting with corner working. You'll get in-depth knowledge of how the track operates, what signals mean, and how the whole system works before you get behind the wheel of a car at 100 miles an hour.
If you've made it this far, and you SOMEHOW have follow-up questions, feel free to post in the comments!