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The flagman waves the green flag at the start of the Aaron's 499 at Talladega Superspeedway on April 6, 2003.

Flags are traditionally used in auto racing and similar sports to communicate important messages to drivers. Typically, the primary flagman, sometimes the grand marshal of a race, waves the flags atop a flagstand near the start/finish line. On a long racecourse, several officials might also be stationed at strategically chosen positions along the course in order to communicate to drivers who cannot see the flagstand. This is especially common at road courses, which usually feature several sharp turns and relatively steep hills. Alternatively, some racecourses employ flashing lights to supplement the primary flag at the start/finish line.

Flags in auto racing

There is no universal system of racing flags; prior to the race, each race administrator must determine which flags are to be used and what they are to represent. However, some types of flags, such as the chequered flag, are very common because of their deep historical significance in auto racing. For a description of racing flags in relation to Formula One rules, see Formula One Regulations.

Status flags

Status flags are used to inform all drivers of the general status of a race.

The green flag signals a clear track to race on.

The green flag

The solid green flag is usually displayed to indicate the start of a race. It is often also shown at the end of a caution period or a temporary delay to indicate that the race is restarting. Sometimes it is displayed by default when no other flags are appropriate. Therefore, if the race is not under caution or delayed, it is said to be under green-flag conditions. Also, a green flag at the entrance to the pits can indicate that the pits are open.

Before the use of starting lights in Formula One, the national flag of the country in which a race is occurring, instead of a green flag, was used to signal its start.

The yellow flag means caution.

The yellow flag

The solid yellow flag, or caution flag, universally requires drivers to slow down due to a hazard on the track. However, the procedures for displaying the yellow flag vary for different racing styles and sanctioning bodies.

In road racing, a single yellow flag displayed at the starter's stand or a marshal station indicates that there is a hazard downstream of the station. The manner of display depends on the location of the hazard - if it is on the racing surface itself, the flag is waved; if it is off the course, the flag is held stationary. When shown at a station, drivers are prohibited from passing until either the hazard or the next flag station displaying a green flag is passed. This flag is shown at the discretion of the marshals manning the station.

Should the race stewards determine, for any number of reasons, that it has become unsafe to continue racing, they may call for a "full-course yellow" - signaled to the drivers by two yellow flags held together in a stationary manner. This indicates that all racing on the circuit must cease and drivers must slow down, hold position and follow any safety cars that have been dispatched. Passing other cars is strictly prohibited, unless not passing would create a safety hazard.

In oval racing, a single yellow flag waved from the starter's stand places the race under caution. Usually, a pace car will enter the course and lead the field at a safe predetermined speed. The field is locked into place at the beginning of a caution period and no one is allowed to pass another car without mutual consent (excluding crashed and immobile cars). In some races, though, cars may pass one another on the pit road during a caution period.

Safety concerns and the "Lucky Dog" rule in NASCAR

The point at which the caution period starts is a topic of controversy in oval racing. Traditionally, the cars are locked into their positions when they cross the start/finish line, but technological advancements have made it possible to lock them in at the instant that the caution is declared. This has effectively put an end to the "race back to the caution," in which drivers sped up during yellow flag periods to beat the leader to the flag. This practice, while giving lapped drivers a better chance to make their lap back, was highly dangerous in that it encouraged drivers to engage in pitched battles with major safety hazards on track. Safety workers were not able to respond to accidents until the cars were under control of the pace car, which markedly slowed their response times to potentially injured drivers. To compensate for the elimination of the race back to the caution, NASCAR and some other lower level NASCAR series have implemented the "Lucky Dog" rule, which allows the highest-placed racecar that is a full lap behind the race leader to complete an extra lap during the caution period in order to make up a lap.

The red-striped yellow flag, also known as the "surface flag", indicates a potential traction hazard.

The surface flag

The yellow and red striped flag is displayed at local flag stations to indicate that there is something on the track which could reduce grip or cause a car to lose control - generally oil, coolant, small pieces of debris or sand. The flag can also be displayed to notify the drivers of rainy conditions - which, again, constitute a surface adhesion hazard.

The red flag means stop.

The red flag

The solid red flag is displayed when conditions are too unsafe to continue the race. The cars are then directed to stop either on pit road, on another section of the track, or right where they are, and depending on the series, repairs may need to be stopped on pit road and in the garage area. There are several hazards that might cause a need to delay or prematurely end a race. Many hazards, such as rain, darkness, a blocked course (due to debris, water or safety vehicles), a car on fire, or a devastating multi-car crash (especially one that results in serious injuries or one that results in damage to walls, fences or the surface itself which require repairs) might prompt series officials to call for the red flag.

In oval racing, some series use a red flag instead of a caution flag when a caution is needed near the end of a race. This controversial technique is intended to prevent the race from ending during a caution period.

Also, a red flag or board, sometimes with a yellow saltire, at the entrance to the pits can indicate that the pits are closed. Such a flag is used in the IndyCar series.

The white flag signals that the leader has started his/her final lap.

The white flag

A white flag displayed from the starter's tower indicates that the race leader is running his/her final lap. At any other place, it informs a driver that a slower vehicle is ahead. If the white flag is charged with a red cross (or a red diagonal stripe in Champ Car), it can indicate an ambulance or other safety vehicle on the track.

The black flag orders a particular driver into the pit area.

Instruction flags

Instruction flags are usually used to communicate with one driver at a time.

The black flag

The solid black flag is used to summon a driver to the pits. It is usually used to punish a driver or team for disobeying the rules. The car number of the summoned driver is displayed in a designated place near the flagstand or occasionally on the flag itself. Black flags can be waved at all observation posts simultaneously to order all drivers to clear the track after the starter waves the red flag.

This flag indicates an internal hazard in a participant's vehicle.

The "meatball flag"

Sometimes, a black flag with an orange disk in its center will be displayed, indicating that a car is being pulled off the course due to mechanical problems that are interfering with the race, such as an oil, water, or gasoline leak.

This flag indicates a penalty for bad conduct.

The half-black/white flag

A diagonally divided black and white flag is sometimes displayed with a car number to indicate a penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct. This flag can be displayed if a car tries to intentionally bully another car off the course, or if a driver gets out of his/her car and initiates an altercation with another driver, for example. This flag is known to be used in Formula 1 racing.

Other administrators do not distinguish mechanical problems or unsportsmanlike behaviour from rules violations.

This flag signals a disqualification.

The white cross flag

Some leagues use a black flag with a white saltire. It is displayed with a car number if a driver ignores the other black flags for an extended period of time, and indicates that that car is no longer being scored. In IndyCar, an orthogonal cross is used instead of a saltire.

This flag encourages a driver to move aside to allow faster traffic to pass.

The blue flag

A light blue flag, sometimes with a diagonal orange or yellow stripe, informs a driver that he is about to be lapped and should move aside to allow one or more faster cars to pass. In most series, the blue flag is not mandatory; that is, drivers obey it only as a courtesy to their fellow racers. However, in Champ Car, this can be upgraded. A pair of waving blue flags displayed from the starter's stand, known as the Chief Steward's blue flag, order a driver to give way to faster traffic or be black-flagged.

The chequered flag

The chequered flag is the most famous flag in auto racing, and it invariably indicates that the leader has completed the race.

A typical chequered flag design.

Design of the chequered flag

There is no standard design for the chequered flag. Although it nearly always consists of alternating black and white squares or rectangles arranged in a chequerboard pattern, the number, size, and length-width proportions of the rectangles vary from one flag to another. Also, the chequered flag typically has a black rectangle at the corner of the flag closest to the top of the flagpole.

Origins of the chequered flag

The exact origins of the use of a chequered flag to end races are lost in history, although there are many theories. A possible though unlikely theory is that horse races during the early days of the settlement of the American Midwest were followed by large public meals and that to signal that the meals were ready and racing should come to an end, a chequered tablecloth was waved.

Another suggestion is that the chequered flag's earliest known use was for 19th century bicycle races in France.

A more likely explanation is that a single-coloured flag would be less conspicuous against the background of a crowd, especially when early races were run on dirt tracks (and therefore dust reduced the driver's visibility).

The earliest known photographic record of a chequered flag being used to end a race was from Long Island, New York in 1904.

Celebrating a win with the chequered flag

Justin Labonte celebrates with a victory lap after his win at the Tropicana Twister 300 at Chicagoland Speedway on July 10, 2004.

Traditionally, the flagman gives the chequered flag to the winner of the race, but a variety of other celebratory traditions, such as the burnout and the Victory Lane or Victory Circle celebration, sometimes overshadows the chequered-flag tradition.

The chequered flag's symbolism in popular culture

The chequered flag has become so well recognized that it is often used to indicate the conclusion of many things unrelated to auto racing. For example, some software installation programs display a chequered flag to indicate that a computer program has been installed successfully.

Flags in karting

The chequered, red, black, yellow, white, and green flags are used identically to how they are used in car racing, as is the yellow and red striped flag. The mechanical problem flag is black with a red, rather than orange, disc, and the unsportsmanlike behaviour report flag is white over black diagonally, rather than black over white. Other flags used include:

  • A blue flag with a red saltire (diagonal cross), to indicate that a lapped driver must pull in to the pits
  • A green flag with a yellow chevron, to indicate that there has been a false start.

Flags in motorcycle racing

The chequered, red, and yellow flags are used identically to how they are used in car racing. The yellow and red striped flag is used to indicate debris on the track, and the overtaking flag is dark, rather than light, blue. Other flags include:

  • A green flag, to indicate the start of the race
  • A white flag with couped red cross, to indicate an emergency vehicle is either required or is on the course.
  • A plain white flag, to indicate one lap remaining
  • A black flag with white border, indicating that a rider must leave the course.

Practicality of racing flags

In practice, most drivers in professional oval racing series do not bother to look at the flag as they pass the flagstand because their crew chiefs and spotters keep them informed of the race conditions via two-way or full-duplex radios. Ocassionally, though, some drivers must rely on the flagman for information when they experience radio malfunctions.

However, road racing drivers rely heavily on the marshals stationed at the various local flagstations around the course to pass along critical information about course conditions. As it is impractical to have spotters covering a winding road course, the first indication to drivers of local hazards almost always comes from the flags being displayed on course. Missing or disregarding a flag can have critical consequences - as Mario and Michael Andretti discovered during a 1991 Champ Car (then known as CART) race in Detroit, Michigan. Michael came around a blind corner at high speed, without heeding the yellow flag being displayed - and plowed into the back of a CART safety truck tending to another disabled car. Fifteen seconds later, his father Mario disregarded the same madly waving yellows and crashed into Michael.

Other uses of the term "chequered flag"

Some of the traditional flags of Croatia are colloquially known as "chequered flags", due to the presence on them of the national arms (which consist of a red and white chequered pattern).


  • Martin, Mark & Tuschak, Beth (2005). NASCAR For Dummies (2nd ed.). Hoboken: Wiley Publishing. ISBN 0-7645-7681-X.

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