The following article originally appeared in the October, 1997 edition of SportsCar Magazine, as written by Grayson E. Brumfield.
It All Started with a Guy Named Neal Wilder—Boredom left When He Arrived.
It was sure good to crawl out of the MG TC and stretch my legs after the long trip from Northern New Jersey to Thompson, Conn. It didn’t take long to tape the headlights, fold the windshield, apply numbers to the doors and adjust the tire pressure. Bob Brown’s MG was now ready for the first practice session of the day. Bob changed into sneakers, put on his helmet and he was ready, too.
Now came the boring part for me. All I had to do was watch while Bob made his way onto the track and began to have fun. Bob didn’t need any pit signals about lap time yet. He really didn’t need help during qualifying or the race later, as he usually ran with the top three and could readily see where he stood in the competition.
So I stood there, killing time, watching Bob’s progress on the track. Then, a very neatly dressed, distinguished-looking gentlemen walked up to me.
“You look bored,” he said. “How would you like to help me for a while? I need someone to take this yellow flag up to the top of the hill by the track and display it if a car spins out or stalls on the track over the brow of the hill.”
I hadn’t realized my boredom was so apparent, but this sounded like fun, so I agreed. I had just met Neal Wilder. At the next break in practice, I crossed the track and positioned myself at the top of the hill where I could watch the track and approaching drivers could see me as well.
Hey, this was great! I was just a couple of feet off and slightly above the track and I could see everything—the driver’s hands on the wheel as he corrected the path of the car, even the expression on his face. I soon found that I could anticipate when the driver was slightly out of control and I might need to display the yellow flag.
By the end of the day, I had used the yellow flag several times to protect over-enthusiastic drivers who spun their cars in the blind spot beyond the crest of the hill. When I gave the flag back to Neal Wilder, he asked me if I would do the same the next day and I jumped at the chance.
The following day, Neal was convinced that not only was having a warning flag at the crest of the hill a useful thing, but was also valuable at the other corners. So he recruited a few additional workers and by the end of the say, all the corners had displayed their flag at some point, and much of the contact between cars had been avoided. At the conclusion of the weekend’s racing, Neal invited all of us to work the corners at the next race we attended. For the first time, I was actually participating in a race and I loved it.
As near as I can recall, this first use of flags in an SCCA event was in the spring of 1955 or 1956. At each race after that, Wilder began to give quick training sessions on when to use the flag before he sent the volunteers to the corners. After a few races, Wilder decided to adopt the flag system used by the FIA in Europe, so we began to learn when and how to use a variety of different signal flags.
It now became apparent to Wilder that some means of communication between the person in charge of the race and the people on the corners would be very useful. He arranged to have the owners of the track provide a phone system, thereby providing a method of reporting incidents around the track. These additions, greatly improving our methods of safely operating the race, were the foundations of the specialty that has since become known as Flagging and Communications or F&C.
Wilder spent the next few years polishing the Flagging and Communications specialty to become more like it is known today. First, he set training standards and issued licenses to those who qualified. As the SCCA continued to grow in size and popularity, he decided to organize it at a Regional and Divisional level. To do this, Wilder appointed a New England Region and a New York Region Chief of F&C, while he continued to act as the Northeastern Division coordinator. These were the only two Regions which hosted races at the time.
Spending time working the corners encouraged me to try my hand in driving. In 1957, I attended the first Drivers School of the year, later at a second school at the newly configured Thompson Raceway, earned my license. I put down my flags and got behind the wheel, but I had one problem. My MG TG1500 was my only car, so if I broke it, I had no way to get to work. Then in 1958, rollbars were required in all race cars for the first time. I didn’t want to add a rollbar to my daily driver, as it would attract unwanted attention by the police and hurt the value of the car when I sold it. These facts—along with my miserable showing in races—suggested I concentrate on my real talent: flagging.
After working several races in 1958, I arrived at Montgomery, N.Y., to flag a National held at an abandoned airport. Myself and another person were assigned to Turn One which was marked by a single bale of hay sitting at the junction of the wide min runway and an access runway. Corner-protection devices were not used anywhere at this time, and corner workers were expected to act like Mexican bullfighters, side-stepping out-of-control cars. The idea was quite unnerving, seeing that this lonely expanse of concrete exposed me to the cars approaching at top speeds while attempting to negotiate a 90-degree turn. Everything went well until an Austin-Healey Sebring approached my corner. Its brakes locked, throwing it sideways toward us. We ran to get out of the way, but I found out that a Healey, even sideways, can go a lot faster than I can run.
The Healey barely missed my fellow flagger, but got me about the middle of the car. They tell me I put quite a dent in the side of the aluminum-bodied car, and the fact it was aluminum probably saved me. Fortunately, the doctor at the scene was an orthopedic specialist. He recognized a possible back injury and advised caution as they placed me on a stretcher. As a result, two fractured vertebrae were not displaced, so there was no paralysis. It took a while for them to heal—along with the five cracked ribs and banged up shoulders—but I was out of the hospital in five weeks with a back brace.
There was quite a bit of boredom while recovering during the winter months, but it quickly disappeared when the first race at Lime Rock in 1959 found me stationed at Turn 11. However, I will admit that the sound of tires squealing behind me was quite disconcerting for some time.
In 1962, the Northern New Jersey Region decided to put on its own races, since many of our members were regular participants in Northeastern Division races. As we began to organize our race, we decided that the Flagging and Communications function needed to be spelled out in detail. Jack Griffin, Sky Pardee and I were licensed NEDiv flaggers, and we were asked to prepare a formal set of F&C specifications. We met at board member Boris Kwaloff’s house and began to discuss how we thought F&C should function. After several meetings, we decided upon specifications defining the operation of the Flagging and Communications specialty. The proposed F&C specialty regulations and the design for the patch were presented to the SCCA National Office, then located in Westport, Conn., for approval. To our delight, National not only approved our package, but also proposed adopting them as the national standard, since there was no standard at the time. Since that time, the F&C standards have been revised as the need arose, but the patch has only been revised to eliminate the need for the “eyebrow.”
In the summer of 1969, after my job relocated to Denver, Colo., I tried to find out how to transfer my SCCA membership to the Colorado Region. There was no listing in the telephone directory, National was still in Connecticut and I couldn’t find anyone in Denver area who had ever heard of the SCCA. The following spring, I saw a small item in the newspaper about a race being run near Castle Rock after being rescheduled due to snow. On the make-up date, I finally found the race track and started to look for someone who could accept my membership transfer. I was directed to the Race Registrar, who promptly sent me to the F&C Chief after seeing my National F&C license. In minutes, I was on a corner for the rest of the weekend.
I found out when and where the next meeting was to be held, and at the meeting, I explained how difficult it had been to find them. It was obvious that I didn’t approve of their membership procedure, so one of the members suggested that I run for office if I wanted things changed. That was a challenge to “put up or shut up,” so I ran for Assistant RE and won, since no one else wanted the job. Membership was made easier by a member volunteering to act as a contact, allowing his phone to be listed as Colorado Region SCCA.
Traditionally in the Colorado Region, the Assistant RE became the RE the following year. It was extremely hard to find three more members willing to run for office, but we were elected. I began to wonder why NNJ Region had never had any trouble finding qualified members to run for the office. They elected three members for a three-year term on a nine-member Board of Directors, and the BoD chose the RE, Assistant RE, Secretary, and Treasurer from their nine members. This allowed officers to change each year, so the overall objectives would not be interrupted. I proposed that the Colorado Region change to this form of governing body and succeeded in obtaining support from a majority of the membership. Since the change, we have always had multiple qualified candidates running for the Board.
The next year, I returned to working corners full-time and have continued to do so right up to the present time. Throughout my racing career, I was appointed Regional Chief of F&C for several years, became a member of the Chief’s Team and spent two years as Rocky Mountain Divisional Administrator for F&C. I flagged two Formula 1 races in Phoenix and several CART races, including both Denver Grand Prix. All of this had been made possible by the chance meeting with Neal Wilder. It was Wilder, who so many years ago, selected me apparently because I looked bored. It was Wilder who showed me that the second-best seat at any race is at the corner station. Only the driver has a better one!
Apparently Neal moved to Florida after he retired, and sadly, his obituary appeared in SportsCar several years ago with glowing comments about his contributions to life-long activities in the SCCA. No mention was made about his founding of the Flagging and Communications specialty in the Northeast, which I consider to be his greatest gift to the SCCA. This omission was probably due to the modesty of Neal Wilder, who never did things to attract praise. He always did his job in an efficient manner that attracted little attention bot got maximum results.
Neal Wilder, you will always have my respect—and I thank you for banishing boredom from my life!
Photo by Roz Rosintoski