​Life As A Corner Worker: Behind The Bales, Or, Who Are These People, And What Do They Do?

​Life As A Corner Worker: Behind The Bales, Or, Who Are These People, And What Do They Do?

© 2018, Roadracing World Publishing, Inc.

FIRST PERSON/OPINION:

By James Hesketh

It doesn’t matter who is at the track or how they got there. It could be the MotoAmerica series with a paddock full of semi-trucks, or MotoGP or World Superbike with a stack of containers flown in on a fleet of jumbo jets, or a bunch of locals with single-axle trailers and pickups parked on the grass alongside EZ-Ups and generators: No one is getting out onto the track until a group of people, usually dressed in white, perform a ritual almost as old as organized racing itself.

I only had a peripheral understanding of what those guys in white did out there during the few seasons I raced. But a decade ago, mostly out of curiosity, I signed on to work corners at Daytona during Bike Week and learned just how intense the job of corner working is—I liked doing it, and have been at it ever since. What follows is some of what I’ve learned and experienced as a corner worker (a.k.a. corner marshal) during that time.

Often before the teams are even fully set up in the paddock, the corner crew has held its morning meeting to review safety procedures, discuss particulars of the day’s event and get station assignments—and then everyone hauls a collection of flags, fire extinguishers, radios and personal gear out to their assigned stations.

Racer Nate Kern (center) stops by to say thanks to the corner worker crew at Daytona International Speedway. – Photo by www.etechphoto.com.

And while riders are still prepping for the first on-track session of the day, some variation of the following will take place: Race Control, the nucleus of the network, will call out through the radio: “We go hot in a few minutes, let’s do a course check beginning with Turn One.” The call is answered and replies come in from all around the entire course until control is confident there isn’t a spot on the track without eyes on it and that every tricky corner has a pick-up crew ready to respond to whatever incident may occur, whether it be a “self-cleaner”—a simple low-side crash where the rider picks up his own bike and continues on—or a multi-bike crash with a rider (or riders) possibly needing medical attention, or a fire extinguished, or an oil cleanup, or debris to collect, or dirt on the track to sweep off.

Dealing with crashes may be the most adrenalin-pumping aspect of a corner worker’s responsibilities, but it’s only a small percentage of the worker’s duties. The primary job of a corner-working crew is to use the flags to warn riders of issues ahead of them, and to help keep everyone safe when it does go wrong—starting with the corner workers first, followed by the riders who are still racing, the downed rider, the track surface, and, finally, the crashed bike. It takes training, experience and discipline to keep from acting hastily when a bad crash happens right in front of a corner worker.

Seeing the rider is up and walking after his crash, this corner worker directs his attention to the downed motorcycle and removing it from the impact area. (As an aside, note the inflated aftermarket air vest on the rider.) – Photo by Rick Hentz/RicksPics.

Most of us have seen the photos from last March at Daytona when—during the first lap of the Daytona 200—rider Dustin Apgar went down in Turn Six and got trapped underneath his burning bike. Any corner worker’s immediate reaction would be to want to get to the bike with a fire extinguisher and save the rider. But this crash happened in the lead group of a large pack and there were another 50 or so bikes still on track behind the incident.

Even though all necessary flags were displayed in that corner, it would not have been safe for a corner worker to go onto the hot track until all the bikes had passed. If a worker had run out and gotten hit, it would have made things worse for everyone, including Apgar. And that sort of thing has happened, albeit not often, but even once is too many times for that.

I was working a different corner, but could hear the urgency in the radio communications and I’ve since seen video with workers standing on the track’s edge waiting for the “all clear” notification. I’m glad that wasn’t me standing there fighting the urge to run out through traffic while watching the bike—and potentially the rider—burn.

Fortunately, rider Jody Barry, who’d also crashed, was right there, ran over and got Apgar free from his burning bike. Then Barry remounted his bike, rode back to the grid, made the restart and finished 14 th. He’s a true hero to riders, fans, and corner workers everywhere. (And he was later honored with a Racing Hero Award, presented by Roadracing World and ASRA/CCS, and more recently, was again honored by the AMA during its annual awards banquet.)

Meanwhile, Apgar’s bike had burned so badly that the bodywork had melted into the track surface. Workers came from corners all around the track to help track services workers clean up the mess, and racing resumed without the cloud of tragedy hanging over all of us.

Cleaning the racing surface after a crash or mechanical problem is one of the many jobs performed by corner workers. – Photo by Lisa Theobald.

Flags, fire bottles, radios and white clothing may be the most noticeable thing about us, but there is a lot that goes unseen. An experienced worker uses his or her eyes, nose, ears, and instincts to watch for any potential problems out on the track.

Maybe a worker smells hot oil when a pack of bikes goes through his or her corner. If it’s strong, the worker may call it in to Race Control immediately and all corners will be asked to pay attention and try to identify which bike it’s coming from. It might be that some fluid was spilled on the exhaust before going out and it quickly burns off so everyone forgets about it. Or it may strengthen and we all watch to see if it’s a possible issue: Are any riders acting like they notice it also? Is anyone starting to slide unexpectedly? Is a bike beginning to smoke? Some of the sharper-eyed workers may notice the telltale signs of an oil leak—a sheen on the swingarm or a misting in front of the rear tire in the vortex beneath the subframe.

A corner worker (left) inspects a motorcycle trackside for mechanical problems and fluid leaks, before the rider continues on the track. If it’s leaking, the rider will have to wait for the crash truck to haul the bike in to the pits. – Photo by Rick Hentz/RicksPics.

Once we think we know which bike it is and what the situation is, Race Control will decide what to do about it. If it’s the last lap of a race and hasn’t gotten worse, we’ll probably let it go. If it’s the beginning of a practice session we might show a black flag and get the bike back to the pits or pull it off at a flag station to inspect it ourselves. If there is fluid in the belly pan or on the rear tire we may ask Race Control to stop the session so we can inspect the track; if not, we’ll probably let the rider re-enter and continue to monitor the bike and situation.

That scenario is an extreme example—more often potential problems are much more obvious: Loose fairings, an unbuckled helmet, something falling off the bike, or sudden heavy smoke indicating an imminent engine failure. (It’s always a bit amusing and sometimes irritating when a two-stroke goes out when we have someone new on the crew. They’ll get all excited and start calling, “Smoker! Smoker!” until a more experienced worker gets a chance to educate them.) We also watch riders and will report any unsafe behavior, or sometimes will be asked to keep an eye on a particular rider who has been known to cause problems. If something looks wrong, we will call it in and let Race Control know about it. And there is also the track surface or adjacent area to keep an eye on: Small pieces of debris, fluids, dirt thrown onto the track where bikes cut the curbing, a mechanical issue where a rider quietly rolls his disabled bike up to a wall in a hard-to-see location—all these may require a flag or a call to stop and do a thorough cleanup or a retrieval. Also, during races, workers must watch for specific violations involving a rider gaining an advantage when running off course, passing under a waving yellow flag, or purposely bumping or pushing other riders off line. All these incidents need to be noted and reported so they can be addressed in the event of a post-race protest. We monitor the condition of Airfence or Alpina-brand soft barriers and other safety barriers, along with cones, too.

Although it’s not part of our official duties, we keep an eye out for spectators getting into restricted areas and make sure photographers have proper credentials. Sometimes we’ll have to ask enthusiastic fans to stop waving colored T-shirts or banners in support of their favorite rider if it might be seen from the track and interpreted as a warning flag. Occasionally, we may even tighten a shift-lever pinch bolt with a tool on our belt or secure a loose piece of fairing with duct tape out of our personal equipment bags so a rider can return to the track. A recent addition to all this is to report drones flying over the racetrack–generally, they aren’t allowed.

My path to corner-working grew out of a late-blooming passion for motorcycle racing. I’d been riding motorcycles most of my life and going to Daytona Bike Week for years, but hadn’t seen a race until watching the Daytona 200 one year just for something different to do. I got hooked on motorcycle racing and began attending local races. Then I took a class, got a CCS license and began racing Formula 40 on a yellow-plated, mostly-stock Suzuki SV650 while making friends in the racing community. I crewed in the pits for a Buell team during the MotoST series and helped friends for a few Daytona 200s and other races on the AMA Pro calendar. Eventually I saw a notice in Roadracing World looking for volunteers to join the safety crew during Bike Week that read something like: “Come work with the Best of the Best . . .” I made a call and got invited to join. I was fortunate to get introduced to corner-working with these guys.

Daytona Bike Week was a really big event then, with 11 consecutive days of track activity starting with the Team Hammer Advanced Riding School, followed by AHRMA, CCS and finally AMA Pro races and the Daytona 200. I got exposed to different levels of racing and was trained by people who had been working together for decades.

One corner worker waves a red flag while another communicates with Race Control via her headset radio. – Photo by Rick Hentz/RicksPics.

I met workers who had driven down from Canada and from all along the American East Coast. They really were the best of the best, and a few had come from the Midwest. Their home tracks included Mosport, Mid-Ohio, Road America, Loudon, Summit Point, V.I.R, Road Atlanta, Roebling Road Raceway, and, of course, Daytona. Most had traveled out to work big races on the West Coast at one time or another. Luckily for me, Flag Chief Andy Curro–now better known for his work repairing and deploying Airfence and Alpina soft barriers and called “Airfence Andy”–stationed me at a different corner each day, alongside different workers.

Each of these crews taught me something new: Firstly, because every corner has its own particularities that require a special way of watching the bikes, and secondly, because all corner workers have a different set of stories that illustrate how to do the job well.

I learned how to assess a racer at speed. First, check out the rider: Is his or her helmet fastened? Gloves on? Leathers zipped? Does he or she look comfortable on the bike? Then study the bike: Look at the numbers; does he or she belong in the group currently on track? Any loose or missing fairing parts? Look for fluid leaks; are tires properly inflated; does the chain tension look right? Is it smoking? If there is smoke, where is it coming from–exhaust on acceleration or deceleration, from the engine, or is a tire rubbing somewhere? If something doesn’t look right, call it in and let Race Control decide how to handle it.

A corner worker displays a red flag warning approaching riders that the session or race is being stopped; the rider is extending a leg to warn that they are slowing down and preparing to return to the pit area. – Photo by Rick Hentz/RicksPics.

Dave Ehrhart, whom I worked with on my first day at Turn Six at Daytona where the bikes come out of the infield and head up onto the West Banking, told me a story about spotting a worn tire during a MotoST endurance race in that corner. I’ve since worked with Dave many times and realize he has exceptional eyes and will spot things on a bike at speed most others would miss.

In this instance, he first noticed chunking on the rear tire of a bike as it accelerated past his station; the next time around the tire looked worse, so he called it into the tower. Race Control contacted the rider’s team (all riders had radio communication with the pits in that series) who were then able to get the bike in on the following lap, which was a few laps before the team’s planned stop. By that time—maybe three laps—steel cords were exposed around the center of the tire. After the race the spec-tire rep for that series tracked Dave down and thanked him for noticing and calling it in. The rep speculated the tire would not have lasted another lap around Daytona’s banking. It’s frightening to contemplate what could have happened if that tire had blown at speed. I believe that team won its class that race instead of driving home with a trailer full of junk and an injured rider, thanks to an exceptional corner worker.

That was a real example of how we sometimes get proactive and can prevent mishaps. But often working a corner can get pretty predictable and sometimes downright boring, which presents its own set of challenges.

It can be difficult to give full attention to the racetrack when there is nothing exciting happening. (When recruiting new workers I always explain one of the most important qualities for a worker today is to be able to manage 20 minutes at a time without checking their smart phones.) It can get brutal on the corners, too. Summers can get dangerously hot at some tracks, and cold, rain, mosquitos, wind, and sketchy access to restrooms are all part of the job. If the race promoter is running a tight schedule, there may not be a lunch break. If it’s been a bad day with lots of red flags and lengthy clean-ups, the races may run an hour or two longer than scheduled. But if even one bike is on the racetrack, workers must remain on station, alert with flags in hand ready for whatever may come up.

Author, corner worker and former racer James Hesketh manning a corner station at a racetrack. – Photo by Lisa Theobald.

From what I’ve heard from old timers at various tracks, “back in the day” a lot more people were interested in working corners, usually as members of a local club mostly made up of the families and friends of racers alongside hardcore fans who all worked together to help keep things safe, and knew what to expect from each other. But, with some notable exceptions, those days seem to be over. Daytona is one of the exceptions. As I mentioned, workers come from all along the East Coast and Midwest to work inside the high-banks. And experienced workers are usually willing to travel to major races. But drafting help for smaller events such as club races and track days can be a challenge nowadays.

Ideally every corner will have at least two people at the flag station: One standing with their back to traffic, looking downstream, flag in hand, ready to immediately display whatever is appropriate if/when necessary. A co-worker stands behind them, facing traffic, ready to get them both out of harm’s way if an errant bike is threatening their safety—he or she will also be able to notice numbers and any issues on approaching bikes. A pickup crew may be stationed with the flaggers or at one or more tricky places around the turn. And one person will be the designated “Corner Captain” and handle all radio communication with Race Control. Having a group of workers at a corner allows everyone to change positions throughout the day, which helps them stay sharp. When I work Daytona we always have full crews. MotoGP, World Superbike and MotoAmerica all attract enough workers for that, too—in fact, any FIM-sanctioned race will require a set number of workers at each station, and FIM officials drive around the track counting workers in the morning before allowing the track to go hot.

A corner worker signals Robertino Pietri (311) at Daytona International Speedway, gesturing that Pietri should stay to his right to avoid an on-track problem ahead. – Photo by Rick Hentz/RicksPics.

But smaller events may manage with minimal crews, often with only a single flagger per corner. This can be done without compromising safety but it takes well-trained, experienced workers to do that. It also means more red flags because with only one person on station no one can respond to a downed rider or even get out onto the track to remove debris until all bikes have returned to pit lane. Sometimes working with a short crew is necessary because there just isn’t a big enough pool of qualified workers to draw from, and other times the promoter simply needs to minimize costs to keep the event affordable for the participants. Track rental is expensive and staffing falls into that delicate balancing act between revenue and expense.

A corner worker uses a yellow flag to warn approaching riders that there is a hazard ahead on or near the track. In this case, the hazard is a rider and a crashed motorcycle just off the track surface. – Photo by Lisa Theobald.

Different clubs, promoters and tracks attract and train corner workers in various ways. Some clubs require new racers to spend time on corners as part of the licensing process, and then work corners between their races, maintaining that family/club/fellowship atmosphere of the old days. For many events the promoter is responsible for supplying his own workers and relies on a regular, but often fluid, crew. Sometimes someone has a business providing workers for multiple tracks in a geographic region and hires workers from the local communities. And, increasingly, sometimes corner workers are employees of the track itself.

This latest trend is often the result of legal concerns on the track’s side and the need for workers to be insured. One of my local tracks adopted this policy after a friend, Bob Hoffstetter, was killed while working a track day a couple years ago. It was one of those situations where a number of improbable factors came together with tragic results. A rider on a streetbike was coming down a long quarter-mile straight at speed and his throttle stuck open when he got to the brake markers. His split-second reaction was to aim the bike towards a wall–expecting it to crash–and bailing off onto the grass at the edge of the track. But instead of crashing, the bike glanced off the wall and ghost-rode back onto the track—witnesses said the bike was actually accelerating when it re-entered. My friend, a worker with multiple decades of experience, was stationed at the end of the straight. He called the previous corner to put out a waving yellow flag and stepped partially out from behind a tire barrier to (we’re guessing) get a better look at the tumbling rider, diverting his attention from the speeding bike. It was a micro-second and six-inch mistake. He got hit and died after being airlifted to the hospital.

After an O.S.H.A. investigation, the track made some changes on how workers are stationed in that corner and began requiring safety crew members to become employees so they all have Workers Comp insurance and other medical benefits. Supplemental insurance is something I could have used at that same track a few years before my friend Bob was killed. I was working a busy corner on race day and had been picking up bikes alone all morning. When I lifted the first downed bike in the afternoon a tendon in my arm snapped, which required surgery within a few days or it would have been irreparable. I had good personal insurance at the time, but co-pays, lost work during recovery time and incidentals still meant that I lost several thousand dollars out of my pocket—for a day’s work that paid me $85 before taxes. It sure would have been nice to have been insured through the track or promoter for that one! Now I try not to lift a bike without assistance and sometimes even ask the rider, if he of she is able, to help me get it back onto its wheels. If no one can help me get a downed bike out of an impact zone I should (but don’t always) request a stop so track crews can come out to clean it up.

We don’t do this job for the money. Often what pay we do receive for corner working may just barely cover a weekend’s expenses. Gas and tolls getting to the track, motels or camping fees, food and water for the day, white clothing, gloves and raingear, a good whistle, binoculars, a headset for the radio, and other special gear to do our jobs all comes out of a minimal (if any) stipend.

Corner workers have a passion for the sport and are proud of the role they play. We are happily willing to spend the money for equipment and to stand out in all weather to be part of the action—it really is the best seat in the house. And we all do the best we can, but, just as a rider may misjudge a corner sometimes, a worker may not always respond as quickly or perfectly to an incident as everyone would like. It takes years of training to get it down right, and even the most dedicated worker can get flustered when it suddenly gets busy.

I had an incident a couple years ago where I forgot all radio protocol while responding to a crash involving a friend who had high-sided directly in front of me. One of the first rules we learn is to never give a rider’s condition over the radio—we don’t know if his family, his crew, a spectator or a news organization might be listening to us—but he was hurt bad and I was emotionally involved with the situation. The bike had tumbled and landed on his chest and he was out cold. I called to stop the race. It was the last lap and Race Control asked if it was OK to let the race continue to the checkered flag, which was a reasonable question. But I lost it and started describing my friend’s injuries in a near panic. Two things wrong there: First, I shouldn’t have broadcast his condition, and secondly, the time I spent talking on the radio delayed Race Control from calling for the red flag and getting the ambulance dispatched. All I should have said was “No, we need to stop now. I need medical.” As usual, everything turned out OK. My friend had a couple broken ribs and a bruised lung. He has since healed and is still racing. And I learned a lesson and will never repeat that same mistake again—all part of my continuous learning curve. And I pray that any other mistakes I may make in the future are as equally inconsequential in the long run.

The basics of working a corner are simple: Wave a flag when needed, tend to injured riders as quickly as possible, pick up crashed bikes when you can do it safely, and tell Race Control what’s happening.

It takes years to get good at this.

The nuances are endless because there are so many variables, possibilities and priorities in almost every incident. Workers must depend on their own experience and judgment rather than a checklist to respond effectively. All workers have different skills and strengths where they excel. Some, like my friend Dave, have quick eyes and can see and analyze things on a speeding bike in a millisecond. Others can’t but might be better at communicating over the radio. A few have the ability to anticipate a crash and will be ready to get a flag waving before the rider hits the ground. Quick, strong, fast-thinking workers can get an incident cleaned up rapidly while a calmer, quieter worker may do better dealing with an injured rider. A good flag chief understands each worker’s abilities and strengths and knows how to station them where they can be most effective.

Corner workers are the eyes and ears of Race Control, but not the decision makers. When we have an incident in our corner we report it, then wait for instructions from the tower before responding.

In the tower, Race Control manages the big picture and must prioritize calls based on the information coming in from the corner stations. If a bike is down, is the rider up? Is the rider OK and out of danger? Is the bike on the track, and if so, is on or off the line? Are there workers that can get it out of the way before the pack comes around again? Is there fluid or debris on the track that will present a danger? If there are two incidents at different locations at the same time, which is most critical? Does medical or a fire crew need to be dispatched? When the Race Control person fully understands the situation, they can direct the workers in the corner to respond or call for a red flag. Safety for all is the guiding priority. And it’s not just emergencies that the Race Control person is concerned with. If there is a problem with a moving bike or rider, Race Control might need to call the corners to get it flagged off, or if it isn’t an immediate danger, Race Control may need to notify a pit-in worker to talk to the rider when he or she comes in.

Along with dealing with on-track issues, Race Control must also coordinate with track representatives—fire, medical and clean-up. And if it is a big race, the promoter will probably have someone in the tower giving input also. It’s a lot to keep in balance and it is very intimidating—every time. And each call from the corners gets logged—time of incident, bike number, which corner, what kind of damage, did the rider re-enter the session or race? Or did the rider take the bike back to the pits? Or was a crash truck sent to retrieve it? Was medical dispatched? Race Control also works with the starter and before each individual race must make sure all safety workers are in position and the track is clear before handing the track over to the starter. During the race, Race Control keeps the starter updated on the leader’s position and must communicate with timing and scoring if a worker tells him a rider cut a corner or somehow gained an unfair advantage.

Medical personnel attend to a rider after a crash at Daytona International Speedway. – Photo by Rick Hentz/RicksPics.

Keeping the corner crews safe and comfortable is also a concern. If it’s a hot day Race Control may have to send someone to deliver water to the corners or if bad weather is threatening to make sure that workers have a safe place to wait out lightning threats. (And occasionally toilet paper may have to be delivered to a port-a-potty.)

All of these decisions and duties must be made while remaining calm and avoiding getting flustered. It’s a lot to manage. There is an awful lot of behind-the-scenes work going on during a race, and if it all goes well no one knows about it. The bottom line is, we are a big coordinated team that cares for the riders and the racing, and we work hard to keep it all as safe as possible.

There is nothing worse than having to call for medical, then seeing a helicopter fly in to pick that rider up during the next race. We need to detach a bit, and often don’t get updates about injured riders after getting the incident cleaned up. We always assume “No news is good news,” after a bad crash. But occasionally a rider will make it a point to let us know they appreciated our work during their bad moment.

A crash truck takes a rider and his motorcycle back to the paddock at Daytona International Speedway. – Photo by Rick Hentz/RicksPics.

A couple years ago at my home track we had a young rider get flown out after a hard knock to the head during a crash in a Saturday practice session. The next day he came back to the track along with his parents. He wasn’t able to ride, was still sore, was walking with a limp, and had a slight concussion, but he tracked me down to ask that I thank the workers who tended to his crash for him. I was happy to do so. We appreciate that kind of thing from riders.

And in the fall a little less than 18 months ago at Daytona we had a late-afternoon crash in the West Horseshoe on the last day of racing—one of those exciting ones where the bike tumbles multiple times and goes airborne once or twice, destroying itself in the process. The rider was OK but it was a real busy few minutes for the workers in that corner getting everything cleaned off the track and getting the rider to a safe location without stopping the race. That rider came by our compound at the end of the day to thank us. We had a new worker that weekend, a young boy whose parents had worked with us for years and that was the first time he was old enough to join in. He shyly asked for an autograph from the rider who then went back to his garage and returned with the smashed instrument cluster from the bike and signed it for him. That was a wonderful gesture that made our new guy so happy I wouldn’t be surprised if that doesn’t make him a lifelong corner worker!

Working corners can be grueling, and occasionally dangerous. It can be a lot of hard work and hard hours. But it can also very satisfying, fun, sometimes rewarding, and at times as exciting as racing itself—but a lot more affordable. Every worker I know is thrilled and proud to be part of the action.

Racers and track day riders—give us a wave on your cool-down lap. We appreciate that bit of recognition.

A corner worker directs riders to exit the Daytona International Speedway infield road course at the International Horseshoe. – Photo by Rick Hentz/RicksPics.

Race fans—talk to a corner worker next time you get a chance, and ask how to get involved in your local area. We’d love to have you join us. Your sport–and all the safety crew members, racers, family and other fans—need you!

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