(The full meaning of each and a little history and facts)
Learn all about the different NASCAR racing flags and their meanings, plus a little history in this article.
One of the thrills about watching NASCAR is that deep down you know you can do what the race car superstars can do. That’s of course assuming that you can drive a manual transmission because knowing only how to drive an automatic is taboo for NASCAR fans. If only you had the time to practice driving at very fast speeds with these powerful cars…
But whether you’re watching the race closely or you imagine yourself behind the wheel of your “own” NASCAR racing car, there are some things you still need to learn. Perhaps the most basic knowledge is what all those NASCAR racing flags are all about. They’re not for decorative purposes, or simply because they like waving flags around to celebrate their love for NASCAR. These flags actually have an important function to the drivers, and as a spectator you should know what they mean too.
Let’s start with something simple, which is the green flag. This is often the first racing flag you’ll see right before the start of the race. The NASCAR green flag starts the race because as every driver knows when waiting at a corner stop light, green means go. When you see the flag drop, it means drivers step on the gas and start racing.
You may also see the green flag NASCAR uses when the race is stopped for some reason and after the problem has been resolved the race resumes. The NASCAR green flag tells the race car drivers that the track has been cleared, and they can resume their former positions for the race.
When we are driving around town, and we see a yellow light, technically speaking this means we need to slow down because the red light is coming up, and we need to stop. It doesn’t mean “go faster”, despite what some smart alecks might say.
The yellow NASCAR racing flags also means that you need to slow down because some conditions have come up that means you shouldn’t race at top speed. A pace car comes out in front of the race cars, and the race cars line up behind.
The yellow flag usually comes out when an accident has occurred. But some other reason may be the cause. It may be raining lightly, or some debris may be left on the race track. A NASCAR tire check may be mandated, or an emergency vehicle needs to cross the track. There were even some instances when the yellow flag was waved because an animal has wandered on the race track.
Now when the yellow flag is waving, the drivers are generally prohibited from passing the pace car. The only time a car can do this is when NASCAR officials specifically tell the driver that they are allowed—such as when the “lucky dog” rule is in effect. This controversial rule lets the first driver who is a lap down get their lap back so, they can win the race.
In most cases, the yellow flag lasts for three laps at the very least. That gives the drivers enough time to make a pit stop and then get back in line behind the pace car. The yellow NASCAR racing flags means recess before everyone gets serious again.
Since we’ve already done the green and the yellow flags, we may as well get to the red. Like the red light, the red flag means stop. And, in this case, NASCAR is very serious about stopping. It’s not just about getting a ticket from a very alert traffic cop.
The red NASCAR racing flags are waved when the track has become very dangerous for all the vehicles and drivers. Usually, the track is suffering from some very bad conditions, or the weather has turned really bad. For example, you’ll see a red flag when there have been a bad accident or emergency vehicles are blocking the track.
And when the red flag waves, it means everything and everyone must STOP. This is the most serious of all the NASCAR flags. NASCAR isn’t kidding when they wave the red flag around. The entire competition stops when the red flag is waved. And it’s not just about the drivers stopping what they’re doing either. The red flag affects the pit crew too. So when the red flag is waved the pit crew stops whatever they’re doing, even if they’re trying to repair a car in the garage area.
When the red flag stops waving, it’s usually followed by the yellow race car flag. This gives the cars some time to warm up their car engines again and visit with the pit crew when they need it.
Now we come to a rather unusual flag, and this flag with a blue background and a yellow diagonal stripe is unusual in a couple of ways. This flag is meant for a race car or a group of race cars that are down about a lap or so from the leaders. When this flag is shown to them, they are being warned that the leaders in the race are coming up behind them. These slowpokes are being told that they need to be courteous, so they have to move over so the leaders can have the right of way.
These NASCAR racing flags are also known as the “optional” flag. Unlike the other flags that must be obeyed, this race car flag can technically be ignored by the driver. Obedience is technically at the driver’s discretion, and they can ignore the flag if they want to.
At the same time, these non-complying drivers need to have a very compelling reason not to heed the call to yield to the leaders coming up behind them. NASCAR officials don’t really have a sense of humor when a driver repeatedly disregards this flag without a very good reason.
The black NASCAR racing flags are waved at a specific driver, whose effectively being told to get off the track and go back to their pit right away. Or at the very least, the driver has five laps to comply.
Usually, this is because the driver did something wrong, or there’s something wrong with the car they’re driving. It’s given to a driver who breaks the rules, such as they broke the speed limit on the pit road, or they didn’t maintain the minimum safe speed on the race track.
It’s also given to a driver when their car is smoking. Or perhaps the car is dropping car pieces on the race track or is in imminent danger of doing so.
These NASCAR racing flags are waved at the drivers who didn’t comply with the previous black flag waved at them. It means that the driver is no longer being scored by NASCAR, so they’re effectively disqualified from the race. They have to get back to their pit and see what’s wrong before they’re allowed back and scored again.
Traditionally, the white flag means surrendering, or at least someone in the field of battle wants a time out in between the hacking to talk and do some diplomacy. The white flag that NASCAR uses, on the other hand, is meant specifically for the race leader. It means they have a single lap to go in the race.
Who knows why they use white? Maybe because the other colors are taken, or perhaps with the race leader needing only a single lap the others should just surrender.
Unlike the other NASCAR flags, the white race car flag is waved only once. The officials don’t wave it at everyone who only has a single lap to go. The white flag in NASCAR is only meant for the race leader.
The checkered flag is traditionally used in just about every car race, including NASCAR, Formula 1, and The World Rally Championship. When the checkered flag is waved, it means the first car has crossed the finish line, and there’s a winner. It’s the finish line flag that every driver wants to see, although it is waved at every driver who finishes the race.
There’s been some debate regarding why the checkered flag is used. One obvious reason is that the pattern is quite prominent and obvious, so no one among the drivers and spectators can fail to see the flag. Even the colorblind folks can discern the pattern.
Another hypothesis is that supposedly, it was first used by horse racing enthusiasts. People used to bring food to horse races, so of course being well off they had checkered tablecloths with them. They were used to wave at the winner right before they set the table for the meal so everyone can now eat.
You can buy Checkered Flag Classics and set it all around your walls while you watch NASCAR on your La-Z-Boy with a beer (s) in your hand.