Racing flags

Racing flags
"Checkered flag" and "chequered flag" redirect here. For other uses, see Checkered Flag.
The flagman displaying the chequered flag with a complete set of stockcar racing flags

Racing flags[1] are traditionally used in auto racing and similar motorsports to indicate track condition and to communicate important messages to drivers. Typically, the starter, sometimes the grand marshal of a race, waves the flags atop a flag stand near the start/finish line. On road courses, track marshals are also stationed at observation posts along the course in order to communicate both local and course-wide conditions to drivers. Alternatively, some racecourses employ lights to supplement the primary flag at the start/finish line.



While there is no universal system of racing flags across all of motorsports, most series have standardized them, with some flags carrying over between series. For example, the chequered flag is commonly used across all of motorsport to signify the end of a session (practice, qualifying, or race), while the penalty flags differ from series to series. FIA-sanctioned championship flags are the most commonly-used Internationally (outside of North America) as they cover championships such as Formula 1, MotoGP and WTCC, and are adopted by many more Motorsport governing bodies across the world such as, for example, the MSA.

Uses of flags in major racing leagues
Flag FIA-sanctioned championships NASCAR IndyCar
Auto Racing Green.svg Start, end of hazard, or restart Start/restart of session
Auto Racing Yellow.svg Local caution or full-course caution (if displayed with "SC" sign) Caution Local caution (single) or full-course caution (twin)
Auto Racing Oil.svg Debris/oil/slippery course (road courses only)
Auto Racing Yellow Cross.svg not used Pit road closed
Auto Racing Red.svg Session stopped
Auto Racing White.svg Slow vehicle on track Final lap Final lap/Slow vehicle on track
Auto Racing Red Cross.svg not used except for pickup truck and SCSA oval races: Final lap not used Ambulance on course
Auto Racing Black.svg Return to pits (i.e. disqualification) Penalty of some form
Auto Racing Orange Circle.svg Car has a dangerous mechanical problem and must go to its pit not used
Auto Racing Black White.svg Unsportsmanlike conduct not used
Auto Racing White Cross.svg not used No longer scored
Auto Racing Plain Blue.svg Faster car approaching Local caution/slow vehicle on track (road courses only) Faster car approaching
Auto Racing Blue.svg not used Faster car approaching
Auto Racing Chequered.svg End of session

Status flags

Status flags are used to inform all drivers of the general status of the course during a session. In addition, the green, yellow, and red flags described below may be augmented or replaced by lights at various points around the track.

The green flag signals a clear track to race on.

The green flag

The solid green flag is usually displayed by the starter to indicate the start of a session. During a session, it is displayed at the end of a caution period or a temporary delay to indicate that the session is restarting.

If the session is not under caution or delayed, it is said to be under green-flag conditions, though the flag is not actually displayed.

A green flag at the entrance to the pits may indicate that the pits are open.

In NASCAR, a green and yellow flag waved at the same time indicates that the race is being started under caution and laps are being counted. This usually occurs when a track is drying after a start delayed by rain.

When shown at a marshalling post, a green flag may indicate the end of a local yellow-flag zone.

IndyCar has incorporated a stylized lowercase 'e' into its green flag to promote the series' use of ethanol as a motor fuel.

Before the use of starting lights in Formula One and most other FIA sanctioned or associated events, the national flag of the country in which a race is occurring, instead of a green flag, was used to signal its start, and still does on occasion in the event of equipment failure.

The yellow flag

The yellow flag means caution.

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 Formula One racing, a 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:

  • A single stationary flag denotes a hazard off the course
  • A single waved flag denotes a hazard on the racing surface itself
  • Two flags waved simultaneously denotes a hazard that wholly or partly blocks the racing surface. This informs the driver that there may be marshals on the track and to prepare to stop, if necessary.

When shown at a station, drivers are prohibited from passing until either the hazard or the next flag station displaying a green flag (signifying the end of a cautionary section) is passed. This flag is shown at the discretion of the marshals manning the station.

A yellow flag with SC (safety car) sign is shown during the 2005 United States Grand Prix.

When the safety car is on the circuit, all flag points will display a 'safety car board' (A large white board with "SC" in large black lettering). When flag points are under radio control, this will happen immediately, otherwise, the board is displayed when the safety car comes round for the first time. This is accompanied by a yellow flag (waved under international regulations, or stationary under national regulations - but waved while the main 'train' of cars is in that sector, and also waved at the point of any hazard). Standard yellow flag conditions apply to the whole circuit - notably overtaking is prohibited. When the safety car comes in and the race resumes, a green flag is displayed at the start line, and subsequently at all flag points around the circuit for one lap. Overtaking is not permitted until the cars have passed the start/finish line, or in F1, the Safety Car line at pit entry.

In NASCAR and IndyCar series, a single yellow flag waved from the starter's stand places the race under caution. At this time a pace car will enter the course and lead the field at a safe predetermined speed. On oval tracks, yellow lights are usually used to supplement the primary flag at the start/finish line. 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. When the starter shows a furled yellow flag, it indicates one lap to green.

In the case of snowmobile racing, the yellow flag is displayed at or before the point of the hazard. When a snowmobile racer crosses the yellow flag, the race will continue, however, the skis and track of the snowmobile must remain on the ground.

In snowmobile water cross, (racing on open water) the caution flag simply warns the racers that there is one or more racers have sunk and are in the water, however the race will continue as normal.

Safety concerns and the beneficiary in NASCAR

The point at which the caution period starts is a topic of controversy in oval racing. Traditionally, the cars had been 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 at times 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 motorsports series, both road racing and short oval, have implemented the beneficiary rule, which allows the highest-placed car that is a full lap or more behind the race leader to complete an extra lap during the caution period in order to make up a lap.

In some series (Indy Racing League, Champ Car, beginning in 2007, Formula One, and beginning in mid-2009, NASCAR) lapped cars between the pace car and the leader will be allowed to move to the rear of the next lap when the signal is given two laps before a restart.

In Formula One, all lapped cars between the leaders are permitted to advance one lap.

The rule, as enforced in the three open-wheel series, is designed to prevent lapped cars from blocking on ensuing restarts, as to prevent unsportsmanlike blocking when a lapped teammate or friend of one driver attempts to help that driver through impeding the progress of an opponent on the restart.

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

Red and yellow striped flag

The yellow and red striped flag is displayed stationary 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. It can also be "rocked" back and forth (but not waved) to indicate a small animal on the racing surface. Many organizations will display this flag for only two laps, after which the changed surface is considered to merely be "part of the track".

The red flag means stop.

The red flag

The solid red flag is displayed when conditions are too dangerous to continue the session. Depending on the series, the cars are directed to proceed to pit road, or to stop at a specific spot. Also depending on the series, any repair work in the pits or garage area may not be done under red flag conditions.

There are several hazards that might cause a need to delay or prematurely end a session. Many hazards, such as rain, darkness, a blocked course (due to debris, water, or safety vehicles), a car on fire, or a 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.

Some series use a red flag when a severe accident has occurred or to temporarily stop a race nearing the end of a race. This is usually done when a collision requiring cleanup would otherwise extend the caution period to take longer than the amount of race laps available to finish the race, when a fuel spill occurs on the circuit, or to maximize safety team work. During such a red-flag period, cars are directed to stop in line at a specific point on the track, usually directly opposite to the incident.

The red flag may be used to indicate a pre-determined pause in the race, such as NASCAR's Budweiser Shootout or the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race. In these cases, the cars are directed to the pit area where cars may be worked on to the extent the race rules allow.

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 both the IndyCar and NASCAR series. In NASCAR, a red flag with a black flag signals the end of a practice session.

The red and yellow flags displayed together

In the event of a bad start, the yellow and red flags may be displayed together, or a unique diagonally-divided red and yellow flag can be displayed, to indicate a restart. Drivers will go back to their starting positions and line up for another start. This is rarely used where computer scoring is involved, and can create much confusion as the drivers attempt to get back in order.

The white flag either signals that an official car is on track, or that the final lap is in progress.

The white flag

In all championships which use the FIA International Sporting Code, as well as road courses in North America, the white flag indicates the presence of an official car or a competitor moving at below normal speed in the section of track covered by the flag station.

In the IRL and NASCAR, a white flag displayed from the starter's tower indicates the start of the last lap for all the competitors.

In MotoGP, a white flag is used to warn riders of rain.

In some series, a white flag is shown from all flag stations on the first lap of a practice or qualifying session so competitors will know which stations are manned.

Instruction flags

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

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

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, but may also be used when a car is suffering a dangerous mechanical failure, such as a loose hood or dragging bumper, or even calling a driver to the pits when their radio is not working. In Formula One races, the black flag means an immediate disqualification for the driver involved. The car number of the summoned driver is displayed in a designated place near the flag stand 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, often in the case of a serious accident.

In the case of snowmobile racing, the black flag comes in three stages to disqualification, 1st flag is a warning to a racer, 2nd flag is the loss of 1 lap, and the 3rd is total disqualification. In order for a snowmobile racer to receive a black flag, the racer must make contact with intent to inconvenience another racer.

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

Black flag with orange circle

A black flag with an orange disk in its center indicates that a car is being summoned to the pits due to mechanical problems that are interfering with the race, such as an oil, water, or fuel leak. Sometimes being referred to as the "Meatball".

This flag indicates a penalty for bad conduct.

The per-bend black/white flag

A diagonally-divided black-and-white flag is displayed with a car number to indicate a penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct. This flag can be displayed if a car tries to intentionally drive another car off the course, or if a driver gets out of his/her car and initiates an altercation with another driver.

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

This flag signals a car is no longer being scored.

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 NASCAR as well as the IRL, once this flag is displayed, the car is not scored again until it answers the black flag by pitting.

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 yellow, orange, or red stripe, informs a driver that a faster car is approaching and that the driver should move aside to allow one or more faster cars to pass. During a race, this would usually only be shown to a driver getting lapped, but during practice or qualifying it could be shown to any driver. In most series, the blue flag is not mandatory - drivers obey it only as a courtesy to their fellow racers. In other series, drivers get severely penalized for not yielding or for interfering with the leaders, including getting sent to the pits for the rest of the race. In Formula One, if the driver about to be lapped ignores three waved blue flags in a row, he is required to make a drive-through penalty.

The checkered flag

The checkered flag is displayed at the start/finish line to indicate that the current session has been completed. At some circuits, the first flag point will display a repeat checkered flag (usually on the opposite side of the circuit). The flag is commonly associated with the winner of a race, as they are the first driver to 'take' (drive past) the checkered flag.

Upon seeing the chequered flag and crossing the finish line, drivers are required to slow to a safe speed, and return to their garage, parc ferme, or the paddock, depending on the applicable regulations of the series.

A typical chequered flag design.

Design of the checkered flag

There is no standard design for the checkered 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 checkered flag typically has a black rectangle at the corner of the flag closest to the top of the flagpole. There have been instances of the black and white squares being painted onto a wooden board and simply held up for drivers to observe at the finish line. In NASCAR, the checkered flag has also had the fuel sponsor’s logo (Sunoco, since 2004, and Union 76 before) emblazoned in the center of the flag. In NASCAR and F1 events, a single checkered flag is waved to signal the completion of a race. In IndyCar, two checkered flags are waved together.

NASCAR traditionally has a special version of the checkered flag sewn for Victory Lane that has the name and date of the race on it. That flag is used for the team in winner's photographs taken after the race, and is a prize awarded to the team along with the race trophy. Teams often hang such flags at race team's headquarters in a similar fashion to other sports hanging championship banners from the rafters at stadiums.

Origins of the checkered flag

The exact origins of the use of a checkered 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 origin theory claim is that the checkered flag's earliest known use was for 19th century bicycle races in France.

A more likely explanation is that a high-contrast flag would be more 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 checkered flag being used to end a race was from Long Island, New York in 1904 at the inaugural Vanderbilt Cup race. Some historians dispute the dating of this photograph, and attribute it to the Vanderbilt races of 1906 or 1908.

A 2006 publication "The Origin of the Checker Flag - A Search for Racing's Holy Grail", written by historian Fred Egloff and published by the International Motor Racing Research Center at Watkins Glen, traces the flag's origin to one Sidney Waldon, an employee of the Packard Motor Car Company, who in 1906 devised the flag to mark "checking stations" (now called "checkpoints") along the rally-style events of the Glidden Tour.

In 1980, USAC starter Duane Sweeney started a tradition at the Indianapolis 500 by waving twin checkered flags at the end of the race. Previous starters had only used a single flag. Sweeney also marked the first use of twin green flags at the start of the race.

Celebrating a win with the checkered flag

In snowmobile water cross the checkered flag a attached to the racers' life vest, and the racer is awarded with a victory lap.

Late model stock car driver celebrates with a checkered flag

In many short tracks, the flagman gives the chequered flag to the winner of the race, but a variety of other celebratory traditions, such as the burnout, the Polish Victory Lap and the Victory Lane or Victory Circle celebration, sometimes overshadows the checkered flag tradition.

Use outside auto racing

The checkered 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 checkered flag to indicate that a computer program has been installed successfully.

Checkered flags were also posted at each corner of the end zones in the original Yankee Stadium when the facility was used by the New York Giants of the National Football League from 1956 through 1973.

Flags in other motorsports

Flags in karting

The chequered, red, black, yellow, white, and green flags are used identically to how they are used in auto racing, as is the yellow and red striped flag. Other flags used include:

Auto Racing Blue With Cross.svg

A blue flag with a red saltire (diagonal cross), to indicate that a lapped driver must pull in to the pits.[citation needed]

Auto Racing Yellow Chevron.svg

A green flag with a yellow chevron, to indicate that there has been a false start.

Auto Racing Yellow Quartered.svg

A black-and-yellow quartered flag, to indicate that a caution has been declared and the first participant across the start-finish line will set the pace for all other participants during the caution period.

Auto Racing Red Circle.svg

A black flag with a red disc, to indicate a mechanical problem.

Auto Racing White Black.svg

A white over black diagonally flag, (rather than the Formula One Black over White) to denote unsportsmanlike behavior.

Flags in motorcycle racing

The chequered, red, yellow, white, and green flags are used identically to how they are used in auto racing. The yellow and red striped flag is used to indicate debris on the track. Other flags used include:

Flag indicating an emergency vehicle in motorcycle racing
  • A white flag with couped red cross, to indicate medical attention is required near the marshalling post. Can also mean an ambulance is on the course (generally a red cross is followed by the race being "red flagged")
  • A black flag with white border, indicating that a rider must leave the course.
  • A dark, rather than light blue flag, indicating that a faster motorcycle is approaching.
  • A white flag with a "V", to indicate poor visibility ahead. Used at the Isle of Man TT festival.

Practicality of racing flags

Historically, the only means for race officials to communicate to drivers was through the usage of flags. With the advent of two-way or full-duplex radios, this is not necessarily the case. Most drivers racing on paved short track oval courses do not rely on flags; rather, they are informed of track conditions by their crew chiefs and spotters or by yellow / red flashing lights found on most oval tracks. Occasionally, though, some drivers must rely on the use of flags for information when they experience radio malfunctions. Flags are still used to tell the crowd of spectators what is happening. Dirt track and lower level racers are less likely to have radios than their paved track counterparts.

In contrast to smaller circuits, road racing drivers rely heavily on the use of flags. As it is impractical to have spotters covering all segments of a winding road course, the first indication to drivers of local hazards almost always comes from marshals stationed at various flag stations around the course. Missing or disregarding a flag can have critical consequences - as Mario and Michael Andretti discovered during a 1991 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 the car the safety vehicle was trying to assist.

Modern F1 cars and other high-end formula racing cars have information displays on their steering wheels which can flash up the word FLAG to warn drivers when they are entering a sector with a local yellow. Most new circuits and older ones used for F1 will employ trackside flashing lights at regular intervals, as a clearer way to signal yellow/green/red/blue/SC flag status to drivers than relying on them to spot a marshal waving a flag, especially so on modern circuits where there are large run-off areas which put the marshals well away from the actual track.


Further reading

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

External links

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