As sophisticated as auto racing has become with spotters, computer links and radio communications, the key to understanding what is happening on the track is the flags used by race officials and corner marshals (corner workers).
Drivers rely on the flags to tell them what is happening during practice, qualifying and racing. As a spectator, either at the track or via television, you can tell what's happening as soon as you see a flag. It only takes a few minutes to learn what the different flags mean.
While many of the flags have similar meanings, there are variations between racing series and, sometimes, from track to track. Meaning also can differ depending on how the flag is held. A stationary flag can have one meaning while the waving flag can have another. It's up to the race officials and corner workers to make sure the proper flag is used and held or waved appropriately.
The following guide to auto racing flags includes the most commonly used meanings. Racers and team members should always check their individual series rule book and ask at the track for any variations. NOTE: The NWARC does not use all of the flags described below during track events.
The green flag is waved by the starter to indicate the beginning of a race, qualifying or practice session. It is waved after a caution to tell the drivers that the race has been restarted. The green flag also is an indication that the course is clear of any obstacles or debris.
The yellow flag is the signal for caution. When it is held stationary it is an indication that there is a problem ahead. Drivers must slow and refrain from passing. A waving yellow flag indicates immediate danger ahead. Drivers must be prepared to stop and cannot pass, although they can close the distance to the car immediately in front. Yellow flags can indicate problems in one area of a track when waved by only one or two corner workers. A "full course caution" (or yellow) is when all flags around the track are being waved. This is initiated by the starter. Passing under the yellow is a serious infraction and drivers may be severely punished. When a driver is penalized for passing under yellow it is often a controversial call and may be appealed.
When a race is "red flagged" it is stopped due to some condition that has made the track un-raceable. These conditions can range from weather problems to accidents to surface problems such as oil on the track. A red flag often means the track has been completely blocked by an accident or debris and there is no safe route through the problem. The red flag generally is preceded by waving yellow flags. As soon as a red flag is shown, drivers must come to a stop as quickly and safely as possible. Unless it is specifically authorized by the Race Director and announced to all competitors, no service of any kind may be performed on any cars from the time the red flag is shown until the race is restarted. This includes cars which may already be in the pits. Each series has different rules on what drivers and teams can do during a red flag stop and how the restart is handled.
When waved by the starter the white flag indicates that a driver is entering the last lap of practice, qualifying or a race. It is waved continuously to all cars following the leader until the leader approaches the finish line. In some areas the white flag is used by corner workers to indicate an ambulance or slow moving vehicle on the track. To avoid confusion, some tracks use a white flag with red cross to indicate an ambulance is on the track or needed.
One of the most familiar symbols worldwide, the checkered flag says "racing!" It is waved by the starter to indicate the finish of the race or practice session. The checkered flag is waved for all finishers. The race winner usually collects a checkered flag for a victory lap around the track. In many race series the checkered flag has the race logo embroidered on the flag and it is given to the winner as a memento.
Drivers hate being "black flagged" because it always means bad news. While the use of the black flag and the black/orange flag can vary between series, the all-black flag generally means that there has been an infraction. The driver must bring the car to the pits on the next lap. The flag is displayed along with a pit board listing the driver's car number. Drivers sometimes ignore a black flag. Doing so can result in severe penalties, including disqualification and loss of points. If a competitor should fail to obey the black flag after it has been displayed to him/her on four consecutive laps, the Race Director will instruct the Timekeeper to stop timing and scoring the car.
The black flag with orange circle means the driver must bring the car to the pits on the next lap. This flag indicates there is a serious mechanical problem with the car that can endanger the driver or others. Ignoring this black flag can bring severe penalties as it represents a dangerous situation.
Passing and Overtaking
The blue or passing flag has different meanings depending on how it is held and whether it is used during practice, qualifying or racing. Generally when it is held motionless it is an indication to a driver that there is a faster car following closely behind, but not yet close enough for a pass. A waving flag generally indicates that the driver is about to be overtaken and should take care to permit the following vehicle a safe pass. Some drivers resist moving over for an over-taking car when they feel they are racing for position. Controversy can follow the use of the passing flag. Some series use a blue flag with a diagonal yellow stripe.
Often called an "oil flag", this indicates there is a problem with, or change in, the surface ahead. This commonly means there is oil on the track. It also can mean water or another substance causing a change in the racing surface. The number of stripes on this flag varies (some are yellow with two red stripes) but the meaning remains the same.