“Okay, GO! GO!”, came the cry from my usually-soft spoken corner captain. Alex Lynn’s Formula E car had lost electrics and came to a halt right outside my post at turn 11.1, dashing my hopes of having a quiet first weekend of track marshaling. The safety car had gathered the field at the opposite end of the track, and it was up to me and three other marshals to push this awesome, if broken, piece of engineering off the circuit before they came around.
I jumped heroically out of the portal in the catch fencing and immediately banged my head on a metal bar above me. There was an almighty bong that reverberated through my cranium and the fencing all around my station, followed by a few sounds of concern from the marshals behind me. I remained conscious and unhurt, thankful not to be the first marshal in history to collapse into a drooling, unconscious heap on a live circuit in the first two seconds of a car recovery.
Record scratch, freeze frame. Yep, that’s me, and it was my first time marshaling.
A few months prior, I was quietly stewing to myself over how popular the Formula E race in Brooklyn had become. So popular, in fact, that the grandstand seats were sold out long before the event, and I was out of luck. I’d be relegated to watching the race in the Allianz E-Village, which is a fancy way of saying, “large area with big screens and overpriced food kiosks, but no track view”. I could just as easily skip the slog to Red Hook, Brooklyn and watch the race on my own big screen while eating overpriced food in my apartment.
A glimmer of hope appeared when a friend of mine advised me to volunteer as a flag marshal. So I did. A day later, I was accepted!
As the race weekend approached, I began to feel very underprepared. Most track marshals cut their teeth at local racing circuits and events. Here I was, completely green, getting thrown into one of the highest-tier racing series in the world. I had a basic knowledge of the flag types to wave and when to wave them, but the theory was being put to the ultimate test immediately. Just how much of a risk was I taking? Well, there was no point in stewing on those nerves; there was a job to be done.
I can confidently say that the views from marshal posts kick the entire ass. If you’re willing to sign a waiver acknowledging that you might die (or at the very least, smash your head into a metal beam), you’ll be treated to all of the action as it takes place almost within arm’s reach. The sensation of speed that TV provides is a scant photocopy of the real thing from the grandstands; watch at track level, and that gap grows ever larger. Every bit of understeer and oversteer through turn 11 looked positively catastrophic, and a graze of the barriers sounded like an epic accident. To the drivers, it’s a day in the office. To me, it looked like a violent relationship between man and physics, neither budging an inch and giving no quarter. The same could be said of driver versus driver; for the majority of the weekend, the entire field did enough car-to-car contact to make a James Bond car chase look like a tranquil Sunday drive. The canyons of Red Hook’s shipping yard echoed with the grating sound of loose, scraping carbon fiber body panels. Jean-Éric Vergne emerged as World Champion for the 2nd time running, cementing my belief that he still deserves a seat in a Formula 1 car.
It was exhausting just watching this all take place a few meters away, let alone keeping my attention at knife’s edge, waiting for a call to throw a flag for an on-track event -- or to respond to one. The 4:45 AM wake-up calls weren’t of any help either. Would I do it again? Yeah, tomorrow. Today. Is there a race I can marshal right now? Cool, sign me up.
One of the drivers in the field was Felipe Massa, who is arguably one of the most noteworthy Formula 1 drivers of all time. Not only was he the 2008 World Champion for about 30 seconds before being beaten by Lewis Hamilton, he also recovered from a devastating head injury the following year that almost killed him. I spotted his unmistakable bright-yellow helmet during a practice session and suddenly realized that I wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for him. When I returned from studying abroad ten years ago, my father told me about what happened, and how the venerable Michael Schumacher was almost called back to replace him. Not only did I begin following Formula 1, but I checked in on Massa’s recovery closely and happily watched him return to racing for Ferrari in 2010.
So thanks, Dad! And thanks, Felipe, for helping me fall into a hopeless obsession with cars going fast around a circuit. It was an honor to keep an eye on you and your peers.
Thanks, also, to that metal beam on the catch fencing, for reminding me that risks come with perils. They’re worth it, though.