At the start of an automobile race, the cars are gridded
in two rows of cars, cars who start side by side in pairs. The drivers are expected to maintain that position during the pace lap
-- if there is one-- and then start in that position. The cars don't line up like that by accident
. That arrangement allows the cars to race each other for position
from the moment the green flag
falls, with the two fastest qualifier
s fighting for the lead into the first turn.
Top professional racing series like Formula 1 or CART often grid their cars right on track. The scurrying mechanics, the driver suiting up and climbing into the car, and all the other necessary preparations add to the pageantry, and spectator anticipation. It is no accident that "Gentlemen start your engines" is one of the best known phrases in all sport. Yet that practice is wasteful in time. There is no reason that mechanics should be scurrying about a race course, when racing cars could be using it to compete.
In the Sports Car Club of America the cars are gridded in their assigned starting order off track, in an area of the course generally known as the false grid here race workers of a specialty known as grid park the cars in specific locations so that the will start in the right order. An experienced grid worker does this with style, using hand gestures and their body language to direct the driver to park his car in the appropriate spot per their qualifying position. In their spare time grid workers talk to the drivers, check their firesuit, belts and other safety gear. They may leave some drivers alone, and mother nervous rookies. Until they blow their whistles and hold up the signs that indicates five minutes remain until the cars will be released upon the track.
Drivers who are not in their cars will return and belt in. Grid workers or pit crew may help them with ther racing harness, arm restraints and window nets. There will be a roar as the engines bark to life, in the stumbling snarl of a racing engine awake, but not yet at song.
One grid worker will split off from the others, and head out onto the track. He or she is the splitter. One day I got to help Nancy Schillace of the Northeast Ohio region of the SCCA as she split a race.
At Mid Ohio Sports Car Course the false grid is located right at Pit in, or the entrance to pit lane. Late arrivers to an event will begin their race after passing through the pit lane, so two orange cones normally block the opening from the false grid to the course itself. Nancy and I moved the two cones so they would block pit lane itself instead, and then moved out upon the track.
We walked about fifty feet (17meters) race direction down the track from that opening. Behind us waited the pace car, its flashers already blazing. I could see the starters in their tower watching us. We wore orange gloves, and turned to face the oncoming cars. I stood about ten feet behind her.
Nancy had explained to me that the polesitter got to choose which side of the course he would start on, and had chosen the left side of the track, to give him the inside line entering turn one. That meant he would pass to our right as we faced them, so she held her right arm behind her back to remember. We heard the whistles blow from the false grid, and the cars began moving forward in a line. They passed through the opening in the pit wall and turned out on track, moving directly at us.
When you're splitting you look the driver right in the eye. Nancy stared him down and using her right arm pointed directly at his eyes. She swept it to our right, and the driver's left and he followed. Then the right arm went behind her back and her eyes and left index finger pointed directly at the second qualifier, moving him to our left, in a stylized motions not unlike the arm motions of trained speed skater. Right, left, right, left, the cars came out, sometimes balky from their high strung engines and racing gears, taking charge, moving them where she sought, splitting the field by twos.
We stood between the passing race cars, feeling the heat. Our bodies vibrated from the tightly leashed power passing close enough to touch. Even the most humble racing car is a thoroughbred, tempramental and grouchy until the accelerater is pressed and the song of climbing revolutions begins. The sound penetrates your skin and bones, shaking you. Each car made it's own wind, and my skin vibrated as the cars passed. After the last car has pased, we turned to face the start tower. Nancy crossed her arms over her head, signalling that the grid was closed.
We walked back inside the pit lane, returning the cones to their original position. Any Johnny come lately would have to pass through pit lane, and wait for the field to begin his moment on track. We waited there should the start be aborted, and we would be there to re-grid the field. So we waited ther as the pace car came in, and the engines began to roar as the green flag was dropped.
I am a corner worker, a practitioner of the racing specialty flagging and communications. When cars crash I am there first. I waive the racing flags that help drivers avoid danger and I control safety equipment when things go bad. I enjoy what I do. But to stand there with cars passing on either side was one of the most inspiring moments I have ever had.
I used to joke that people work grid so they could be the first to the beer when the racing was done. No more. I have backed up the split. I have felt the earth move beneath my feet.