Racing flags 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 on top of a flag stand near the start/finish line. Track marshals are also stationed at observation posts along the race track in order to communicate both local and course-wide conditions to drivers. Alternatively, some race tracks employ lights to supplement the primary flag at the start/finish line.
Status flags are used to inform all drivers of the general status of the course during a race. In addition, the green, yellow, and red flags described below may be augmented or replaced by lights at various points around the circuit.
The solid green flag is usually displayed by the starter to indicate the start of a race. During a race, it is displayed at the end of a caution period or a temporary delay to indicate that the race is restarting. The waving of a green flag is almost universally supplemented with the illumination of green lights at various intervals around the course, particularly on ovals.
If the race is not under caution or delayed, it is said to be under green-flag conditions. However, the flag itself is typically not continuously waved by the starter. No flag displayed at the starter’s stand implies safe, green-flag conditions. At all times, however, the green lights remain lit.
- When shown at a marshaling post, a green flag may indicate the end of a local yellow-flag zone.
- A separate green flag displayed at the entrance to the pit area indicates that the pits are open.
- In NASCAR, a green and yellow flag waved at the same time indicates that the race is being started or restarted under caution and laps are being counted. This is sometimes called a “running yellow” and usually occurs when a track is drying after a rain delay. The officials will utilize the cars in the field to facilitate the final drying of the course, but in order to not waste fuel (affecting fuel strategy, etc.), and delay the race further, the laps are counted towards the advertised race distance.
- 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.
There are numerous hazards that might cause a need to halt 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 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 number of race laps available to finish the race, when a fuel spill occurs on the circuit, or to maximize safety teamwork. 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.
- In NASCAR, a practice session or a qualifying session is ended with the red and black flags waved together.
The solid yellow flag universally requires drivers to slow down due to a hazard on the track, typically an accident, a stopped car or debris. However, the procedures for displaying the yellow flag vary for different racing styles and sanctioning bodies.
Click here to read our full article about the use of the Yellow Flag, including the use with Safety Car, Virtual Safety Car, and Slow Zones
Red and yellow striped flag
The red and yellow striped flag also called surface flag is displayed stationary at local flag stations to indicate that track conditions have changed due to substances on the track which could reduce grip or cause a car to lose control. Generally, oil, coolant, small pieces of debris or sand are the hazards. It can also be “rocked” back and forth 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”.
In Formula One, the white flag is waved on the last corner and the pit straight at the end of free practice sessions on Friday and Saturday, indicating to drivers that there are drivers doing practice starts on the pit straight. Drivers are permitted to do one practice start at the end of each free practice session.
In all championships which use the FIA International Sporting Code, as well as North American road racing, 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 NASCAR, IndyCar, North American motorcycle road racing, and most American forms of motorsports, a waved white flag displayed at the starter’s stand indicates the start of the final lap of the race.
Instruction flags are usually used to communicate with one driver at a time. Normally the flags are being waved together with a sign holding the number of the driver.
The solid black flag is used to summon a driver to the pits. It is usually associated with a penalty imposed on the driver for disobeying the rules, but may also be used when a car is suffering a mechanical failure, leaking fluid, exhibiting damage such as loose bodywork, loose hood, dragging bumper, or any other damage that could potentially become a hazard to the driver or other competitors. In some cases, the black flag may be used to call a driver to the pits when their radio is not working.
In FIA International-permitted series, the black flag means an immediate disqualification for the driver involved. The car number of the summoned driver is displayed on the finish line. Some sanctioning bodies wave the black flag 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.
When the black flag is used for disciplinary reasons in most races in North America, a driver is required to return to pit lane for at minimum a drive-through penalty. A driver may be black-flagged for failing to maintain a reasonable minimum speed, even if no apparent damage or mechanical failure is present. In almost all cases, the team is given a chance to make repairs to the car and get it up to an acceptable condition. If the driver still cannot maintain minimum speed in relation to the leaders after repairs, the driver may be required to park for the remainder of the race.
Black flag with orange circle
A mechanical black flag is a black flag with an orange disc in its center indicates that a vehicle is being summoned to the pits due to serious mechanical problems or loose bodywork that presents a risk to other competitors.
Per-bend black/white flag
Some administrators like NASCAR and IndyCar do not distinguish mechanical problems or unsportsmanlike conduct from rules violations and simply use the solid black flag for all violations.
Black flag with white cross
Ignoring the black flag or the black-white cross flag intentionally may result in post-race disciplinary action in addition to disqualification from the race. Fines, probation, suspensions, and other penalties may result, depending upon the severity of the situation.