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Mar 24, 2001

First Person/Opinion: On Red Flags, Pace Cars And Rider Safety, Part I

By Joe Facer

Lately it seems that not only is a red flag bad news because of the accident that brought it out, but also because controversial things often seem to happen around it. This seems especially to be the case vis a vis this year's Daytona 200. And now we have to add the pace car as a possible harbinger of bad things to come.

Red flags have been a source of serious controversy in AMA racing over the last two years. At the 1999 AMA Laguna Seca race, Mat Mladin lobbied everyone on the grid in a very animated fashion, during a live TV broadcast, to call the race complete after a red flag, even though by the rules that was not the proper call. Mladin took a fair amount of heat for this from the officials and the public.

At the next AMA race weekend at Road Atlanta, Mat missed the yellow and ambulance flags going into Turn 10, and got caught behind Doug Chandler and Aaron Yates who were slowing to avoid the ambulance. He found himself squeezed off of the track into the narrow space between the moving ambulance and a concrete wall. Mat came to a stop alive, but pretty well shaken up, way out in the runoff area, and he watched while his Championship lead disappeared up the track with the rest of the pack. This was an incident that very much cried out for a red flag since the ambulance that almost took Mladin out crossed the track directly in front of the entire field on the fastest part of the track, traveled down the track on the racing line while riders scattered, and then stayed parked in an impact zone for an extended period of time.

But then fate dealt an ambulance ride to Rich Oliver, who crashed on a different part of the circuit. Two ambulances parked in two different impact zones guaranteed a red flag, and with it an opportunity for Mladin to ride his way out of a hole on the restart. The race was restarted, and Mat got to start in the middle of the pack, about 30 feet behind the leaders, instead of a third of a lap behind. Mat Mladin is a wickedly fast and driven racer and apparently almost unstoppable given a mid-grid restart. He took second place on Road Atlanta's Sunday race and won the Superbike Championship later that year. But at Road Atlanta it was a red flag that should have been thrown many laps earlier than it was, and one that favored Mat Mladin, that had center stage.

A few weeks ago at the Daytona 200, we had the pace car, a feature of only the Daytona race, cause one accident and indirectly cause a second accident. A full-course yellow flag was called and the pace car entered the track directly in front of the lead pack (and it can be argued that by the time the full-course yellow and pace-car were ordered, the situation was already under control and those measures were no longer needed). At any rate, riders plastered to the tank on the banking running at 150 mph+, looked up and found themselves closing on the pace car in a pack with a 70-to-80 mph speed differential. The result was a collision involving Kurtis Roberts, Aaron Yates and Jamie Hacking that finished the day for Yates and Hacking. That crash brought out the first of three red flags in that race. The restart claimed Scott Ru$$ell and three other riders and caused the second red flag. A crash and fire in the haybales lining a chicane caused the third red flag.

It is quite likely that a red flag thrown in place of the full-course yellow and pace car deployment or staying with a local yellow flag would have prevented the three-rider crash that caused the first red flag. It is arguable whether or not the horrific crashed that claimed Scott Ru$$ell, Richie Morris, Dean Mizdal and John Pearson would or would not have subsequently occurred, but certainly the first three-rider crash could have been prevented. And if it had been, maybe that first restart would not have had to occur. It seems that it is too often a case of either unwelcome red flags or should have been thrown earlier red flags. Can we determine a better way to decide when a red flag is needed and eliminate some of the controversy, or will the controversy always be part of the red-flag situation? Can the full-course yellow flag replace the red flag, and if so, does the pace car play a useful part in motorcycle road racing?

To be continued...