As has become an ongoing tradition, my wife, Sheila, my daughter and son-in-law, Beth and John Burkhard and I journeyed to St. Petersburg, Florida at the end of February for the SCCA Trans-Am event on the 21st-23rd. We flew down a couple of days early so Beth would have a chance to visit with friends at the University of South Florida in St. Pete where she received her Master's Degree in Marine Science in 1994. For the race weekend, Sheila worked Timing and Scoring and the rest of us worked Flag and Comm. It gave us a chance to escape the cold weather in the Washington, DC area and enjoy the warm Florida sunshine, as well as get primed for the race season about to start in NEDIV.
For those of you who haven't seen the track at St. Pete, in its current incarnation the layout is basically flat and rectangular on the city streets surrounding the Thunderdome (now known as Tropicana Field). It consists of mostly 90 degree right hand turns, one 90 degree left hand turn, 3, and a quick left right section at turns 5 and 6. The track is slightly downhill between turns 4 and 5 and uphill from 6 to 7. There is a large culvert under the road just past turn 5 which put a big enough bump in the pavement last year to cause the Trans-Am cars to become airborne. That section of the street had been shaved and repaved this year so that it was much smoother. Also, last year's pits were between turns 7 and 8, but due to construction around the Thunderdome, they were moved so that pit-in was half way between turns 3 and 4 and pit-out was half way between 4 and 5. Like most temporary street courses, the track is lined on both sides with "jersey wall" and catch fencing, making it very difficult for workers and drivers to see around turns.
Last year, we worked turn 6/6a for the weekend with my friend Bill Salmon who now lives in FL. This year, we worked turn 5 and since Bill was again Station Captain for 6/6a, we worked out a big rotation through turns 5 and 6/6a for the race days. My Co-Captain at turn 5 was Jeff Radkins from FL and we split the duty so that we each had a chance to work for half of each day. As a result, I got to blue flag the Saturday afternoon Trans-Am practice session at turn 5. The flag position is a cutout in the catch fence several hundred feet past pit-out on driver's right. It was critical to blue flag cars coming out of the pits since the fast line exiting turn 4 put the cars on driver's right at the flag position so they could set up for the left apex at turn 5. This meant that cars exiting the pits were at risk of getting their noses shortened. Talk about a rush! It felt like the fastest cars were using the blue flag position as a marker for their turn 5 turn in point! Tommy Kendall, the eventual Trans-Am race winner, and several others would exit turn 4 and pass my flag position less than two feet from the wall at well over 100 mph. I could put the blue flag right in the face of cars exiting the pits. As you can imagine, it took a little getting used to and it's something you can never be totally comfortable with. Ski goggles are a must to protect your eyes from the amazing amount of crud that gets thrown up by the race cars since you have to stick your head through the hole cut in the fence in order to see. Trying to see anything at an oblique angle through a chain link fence when standing next to it is like trying to look through a solid steel plate.
For the races, the safety car was staged from a slot in the wall on driver's right at turn 5. In addition to the Trans-Am, there were races for Pro Spec Racer Ford, World Challenge Touring, Barber Dodge Pro Series and US FF2000. Sunday morning during the US FF2000 race, the safety car was dispatched from turn 5 to collect the field while 2 cars involved in an incident at turn 1 were removed from the track. Double Yellows were displayed all around and the safety car picked up the leaders before turn six and headed for turn 7. Unfortunately, the back of the pack was attempting to catch up with the rest of the field and even though workers were frantically waving for them to slow down, one of the cars near the back spun and tagged the wall driver's right just past turn 6. Before it was over we had 8 or 9 cars in a heap with 100% track blockage. The session was red flagged while the trashed race cars were removed and when resumed, there were 11 less competitors. Fortunately, no drivers or workers were injured but the potential was certainly there. Perhaps if the safety car had paced the cars more quickly, fewer competitors would have become involved in the incident.
A similar incident occurred last year during one of the World Challenge races when the safety car was pacing the field and a car exited the pits (then at turn 8) and was driving at race speed when he encountered the back of the field between turns 6 and 7. The driver attempted to slow down, but tagged the wall on both sides of the track before taking out the last 2 cars in the pack. Impacts with the wall will move the large concrete blocks anywhere from a couple of inches to a foot or more depending on the angle of impact and the mass of the impacting race car. You definitely don't want to be near one of those concrete blocks if it gets hit. The other point here is that even though the course is under Double Yellow and most of the cars are under control of the safety car, there may be cars out there attempting to catch up with the pack. It's not safe to go trackside until ALL the competitors are under control of the safety car. This is particularly true on a street course where there's no place to go except up onto the catch fencing.
On another note, regarding last season's Toronto CART tragedy, where a driver, Jeff Krosnoff, and a Flag and Communications worker, Gary Avrin were killed, I understand from Autoweek (3/3/97) Late Racing News pg. 43: "After a five-month investigation, the regional coroner found no criminal liability in the accident, but he did recommend minor changes to catch fencing, and to the operation of the medical response team." Anyone who has seen the coverage of that incident realizes that it happened so fast that the workers had almost no time to react. As Paul Anderson aptly noted in a recent Wheel-to-wheel posting "If you want to be a flagger, you must understand that there is risk in doing so. And if you are dedicated to doing your best to provide a reasonably safe and well run event for the drivers (whether its an F1, Cart, or SCCA club event) then sometimes you will be in a position that makes your life insurance agent wonder why he didn't jack up your premiums while he had the chance. Your best chance for survival is not catch fence, Jersey barriers, etc. It's paying attention to what you are doing and using your head!"
In the Washington DC Region, our season gets underway on March 15th with a Race Emergency "Crash and Burn" School followed on March 22-23 by our Spring Driver's School at Summit Point Raceway. Remember, there's no "safe" place on a race track, always be aware of where traffic is coming from and listen to everything you can't see. As Flaggers, we do this because it's what we enjoy and because of the camaraderie of the many people we meet and associate with. As always, be careful out there.