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Auto Racing Flags: What do the Colors Mean?

Updated on November 5, 2013

Who Controls The Flags?

Whether or not you are a fan of auto racing, it is almost impossible to avoid seeing some of the sport, on the news or at a sports bar, or a friend's home.

Chances are, if you watch for any length of time, you'll notice a wide array of colorful flags being used during the race. The guy waving these flags around, as you might guess, is the flagman. It is he who signals both the start and the finish of the race, but he is also responsible for sending assorted signals to the drivers during the race.

At a small local track or speedway, where the course is only about a quarter or half mile around, the flagman has a good view of the entire circuit from his stand, and he must make the call on what signals to send.

At larger, nationally famous tracks such as Talladega or Indianapolis, the entire track is not easily visible from the flag stand, and the flagman is in radio contact with spotters who are watching from a much higher vantage point with binoculars.

Let's now wave the green flag, and start the race!

Caution--Watch Out! Trouble Ahead!

Almost everyone knows what the yellow flag means: there has been an accident on the track! Less dramatically, it can also mean a car is dropping broken parts or leaking liquids, either of which are serious hazards at the speeds these guys are driving. The TV crew is very good at quickly switching their camera view for the broadcast audience. Unfortunately, the drivers' views are much more restricted. All the major tracks, and some smaller ones now have a series of traffic signal lights spaced at intervals along the track wall. That way, the drivers know right away if the condidtion has changed, even if they are on the opposite side away from the flagman.

At small tracks, each driver is on his or her own in looking ahead for track conditions and accidents, while at large major raceways, each driver has a personal spotter, separate from the flagman's spotter to let them know where the trouble is. Sometimes, during such a major race, you'll be treated to an inside scoop as the TV broadcast tunes into the spotter's frequency to alert a particular driver, "Go high on 3--go high--go high!"

Under a yellow flag, the pace car returns to the track at the head of the pack, and speed is reduced. No one is allowed to pass another car under the caution.

When the problem has been resolved, the pace car leaves the track and the green flag is waved to resume racing speed.

Hey, You! Get Off the Track!

The dreaded black flag! This one is aimed at a particular driver for either a violation of rules, or for a mechanical issue, such as the aforementioned dropping of parts or fluids. It tells that driver to get off the track and into the pits.

If it has been a rules violation, he will be assigned a penalty, ranging from a "time out" in the pits, putting him down a lap or two, or he could be disqualified from the race and sent back to the garage.

If it's a mechanical issue, the pit crew will spring into action and do their best to accomplish a fix and get the driver back racing again.

Red Means Stop--On the Streets, Or At the Races

Yes, that's right. the red flag stops the race in its tracks. All cars must come to a stop right where they sit. No going past 'go' and collecting another lap.

This does not happen often, but the usual kinds of reasons are three:

  • A serious accident that takes up all available driving space across the track, so no one would be able to pass by
  • A bad spill, usually resulting from an accident, that requires the track crews to be out with absorbents and sometimes blow torches to clean up the mess so the track will not be slippery
  • Bad weather--a light drizzle usually won't stop a race--but if it starts to be a downpour, or thunder and lightning--they will stop the race

The Meatball Is Thrown

At some tracks, this flag may be shown to a driver for a mechanical problem. It is a variant of the black flag, but is less ambiguous, as the driver knows right away that having the "meatball" thrown at him means something is wrong with his car.

A driver is obviously aware if something is wrong with their steering, or if a tire goes flat, but there are things that can happen behind the driver of which he may be unaware, such as a spoiler coming loose or a tailpipe dragging. The meatball flag lets him know to get to the pits for a repair.

Move Over!

In racing rules, a driver not on the lead lap is supposed to allow lead lap cars to go by. If they are refusing to do so, they will be shown this blue flag with the diagonal orange stripe.

Failure to obey the blue flag can result in the black flag.

You're Almost Home Free!

Most folks also recognize the white flag--it means just one lap to go. This is the nail-biting part of the race, and almost anything can happen.

Cars have won races by coasting across the finish line, completely out of gas. Cars that were a sure bet to win have crashed on the white flag lap. This is annoying, and results in a very awkwardly timed yellow caution flag.

It used to be that the race would end there, under caution, and whoever was then in the front of the pack was the winner, regardless of whether another driver might have passed him on the final rush to the finish line. Too bad.

They have changed that now, and laps are added to give the cleanup crew time to clear the track, and the race goes green again, with both the white and green flags waved to re-start the race, as it is "still" the last lap. We hope the race will finish at this point without further incident, but if it does not, they are given a total of 3 tries to finish under racing conditions, with this first white/yellow counting as the first attempt.

And the Winner Is....

The driver who successfully crosses the start/finsh line in front of the flag stand first sees the famous black and white checkered flag wave for him.

Of course, that signals the end of the race, and all subsequent driver positions will still be waved the checkered flag....but the one who goes to victory lane is the guy who was first across the line.

There is in place, under the newest set of rules, a "green and white" checkered flag, reserved for finishes in which the drivers just couldn't get themselves together and finish the white flag lap after the third try without wrecking again. This still lets them win while actually racing, instead of behind the pace car under caution, but it's never as gratifying or exciting as a black and white checkered flag win.

Finished! You Won!

Flag artwork by Liz Elias


Submit a Comment

  • nadelma profile image

    nadelma 8 weeks ago from Bushkill, Pa

    Great explanation. I am a big Nascar fan and use to do volunteer work at Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania twice a year.

  • DzyMsLizzy profile image

    Liz Elias 2 months ago from Oakley, CA

    What interesting and fun times you have had! Thanks for sharing that. I've never been to a big race in person; just a couple of times to see the super-modifieds on a local dirt track.

    I rather get the feeling, however, that at the big NASCAR races, you really get a better seat in front of the TV, as the cameras have access to viewpoints the fans do not.

  • nadelma profile image

    nadelma 2 months ago from Bushkill, Pa

    Great description. My husband and I are big Nascar fans and use to do volunteer work at the Pocono Race Track, in Pennsylvania. I have lots of great memories of all the fun I had there a couple times a year. Now we live in Florida and only watch the races on television.

  • DzyMsLizzy profile image

    Liz Elias 5 years ago from Oakley, CA

    Hello, drbj,

    I'm pleased that you found the article useful and interesting. Thank you so much for your comment.

  • drbj profile image

    drbj and sherry 5 years ago from south Florida

    You made watching car races so much more interesting, Ms. Lizzy, now that I know what the different color flags stand for. Thank you.

  • DzyMsLizzy profile image

    Liz Elias 5 years ago from Oakley, CA

    Hello, Glimmer Twin Fan,

    Glad you liked the article. It's racing season--get thee to a TV set! ;-) Thanks very much for your comment.

  • Glimmer Twin Fan profile image

    Glimmer Twin Fan 5 years ago

    Interesting hub. Did not know about a few of them. I'm going to have to look for them next time I watch a car race. Thanks.