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Race Car Flags: What Do the Colors Mean?

Liz grew up as a "grease monkey" to her father, who taught her to fix and work with many things. She also enjoys watching auto races.

Read on to find out what all those different racing flags mean.

Read on to find out what all those different racing flags mean.

A Guide to Racing 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 even at 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. Here's a quick guide to what they all mean!

Now let's wave the green flag and start the race!

Green means go!

Green means go!

Green Flag: Go!

This one is simple—green means go! You'll see this flag wave at the start of every race.

Yellow means uh-oh—watch out!

Yellow means uh-oh—watch out!

Yellow Flag: Caution

Almost everyone knows what the yellow flag means: There has been an accident on the track! 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 condition 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 to about freeway speed. No one is allowed to pass another car under the caution, and certainly not the pace car.

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

The black flag is never a good thing!

The black flag is never a good thing!

Black Flag: 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 right where you are!

Red means STOP right where you are!

Red Flag: Stop!

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 there are usually three main reasons:

  • 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

When the red flag is shown, at the price and rate of consumption of the specialty fuels used, a red flag will also mean the drivers shut down their engines. No sitting at idle and wasting fuel here; the quantities are carefully calculated to make it through the race.

This black-and-orange racing flag indicates a mechanical issue.

This black-and-orange racing flag indicates a mechanical issue.

Black Flag With Orange Circle: Mechanical Issue

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.

Let The Lead Car(s) Pass You!

This blue-and-orange racing flag tells drivers to let the lead car(s) pass them.

This blue-and-orange racing flag tells drivers to let the lead car(s) pass them.

Blue Flag With Orange Stripe: 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.

In racing, a white flag indicates the last lap (not surrender!).

In racing, a white flag indicates the last lap (not surrender!).

White Flag: One Lap to Go

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.

This is the flag every race car driver longs to see!

This is the flag every race car driver longs to see!

Checkered Flag: And the Winner Is....

The driver who successfully crosses the start/finish 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 was for a while, a set of rules in which a "green and white" checkered flag, was shown 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 let them win while actually racing, instead of behind the pace car under caution, but it was never as gratifying or exciting as a black and white checkered flag win, and it was equally frustrating for the spectators.

Fortunately, they've done away with this silliness, and now, if there's a crash on the white flag lap, the race counts from the start/finish line, and to win, a driver must get at least 3/4 of the way around the track without further incident. If they do not, the race is restarted from that point.

Who Controls Auto Racing Flags?

The guy waving all those 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. There, the flagman is in radio contact with spotters who are watching from a much higher vantage point with binoculars.

Race Car Driver Quiz

Unless you have been living in a cave, you've probably heard some names of race car drivers pass over the airwaves. Let's see if you can match up the correct first and last names in the mixed-up chart that follows!

Match the Drivers Quiz: Which First Name Goes With Which Last Name?

Answers below; no cheating! ;-)
Small tip: Some of the drivers are retired.

Aric

Harvick

Dale

Busch

Ricky

Patrick

Jeff

Johnson

Richard

Stewart

Jackie

Earnhardt Jr.

Danica

Almirola

Kurt

Gordon

Kevin

Petty

Jimmie

Stenhouse

Answers to "Match the Drivers" Quiz

Aric

Almirola

Dale

Earnhardt, Jr.

Ricky

Stenhouse

Jeff

Gordon

Richard

Petty

Jackie

Stewart

Danica

Patrick

Kurt

Busch

Kevin

Harvick

Jimmie

Johnson

© 2012 Liz Elias