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Beyond the Fence Line: A day in the life of a motorsport volunteer

2 July 2015

Most of us would probably like to think of ourselves as masters of our own destiny, but there are times where you aren’t — when a seemingly innocuous action can trigger a chain of events that will have implications for yourself that you will have no control over. Unbeknown to me, I had got myself ensnared in one of these situations when I started to befriend various members of The Motorsport Club.

The Motorsport Club is New Zealand’s largest volunteer organization dedicated to motorsport, providing their broad range of services to an equally broad range of different forms of racing. From flag marshals to scrutineers, The Motorsport Club sends them to various events nationwide.

Becoming friends and hanging out with certain members of The Motorsport Club seemed a cordial enough pursuit at first, but I was soon sucked into the vortex of having to ‘do time’ with the organization, and this inevitably resulted in me raising my hand to help them out on a flag point at round two of the North Island Endurance Series on June 26 at Hampton Downs.

I’m generally a pleasant person. I say good morning to strangers, I give way to people on the motorway, and I eat with my mouth closed. But under my ‘life achievements’ tab, the volunteering section is objectively vacant. However, contrary to lack of history, this was something that I was more than happy to do.

Short on numbers for the event, I had been headhunted for a slot as a ‘flaggie’ in the Friday-evening test session. Arriving trackside with time to spare, I expected to have some kind of guide given to me to skim through prior to hopping onto a point — this didn’t happen. Fellow volunteers to share the induction process with were thin on the ground. The introductory conversation went along the lines of: 

“You’re gonna flag for us today?”



You have to sympathize with the club. Despite the lure of being closer to the motorsport action than anyone else, there is still a big struggle to mobilize people to lend their time to volunteering. And it didn’t help matters that the session happened to be on a predictably traffic-jammed Auckland Friday evening. 

They stationed me on the front straight at the finish-line flag point, to be paired with a fellow journalist-type named Alex Mitchell — no doubt another victim of the same vortex. Considering Alex and I were both journalists in close proximity, I was convinced that by the end of the night one of us would have pushed the other down the stairs to their probable doom.

As the sun started to set, cars filed onto the circuit for the first of the evening sessions. Things actually ran very smoothly. There were no major incidents and no proper action needed to be taken by either of us, apart from the occasional blat on the radio. Standing there on point, drinking in the various noises and flavours of each individual car, could in fact be seen as the ultimate therapy for any racing nut.

Session two, however, was a doozy. Just minutes in, a marshal recognized that a couple of cars were running with passengers. In a field of competitive drivers, this was quickly noted as a no-no over the radio, and predictably the responsibility of fixing the issue was handed down to peanut one and peanut two on the start–finish line.

“Copy start–finish. Two cars have passengers on board. Could you please use the boards and black flag them,” relayed race control.

The pair of us stared at each other blankly, before panning our heads in unison to the empty space next to us where a pit board should have been sitting.

“Copy race control. We don’t have any pit boards here on point,” I radioed, resisting the urge to make any Top Gun references. This was serious.

A runner, situated between pit lane and the officials building, quickly delivered us a pit board, and with our dual sets of jelly fingers, we hurriedly assembled the car numbers. But it was too late, the cars had been given alternative warnings and had both filed into pit lane.

“I think that’s their way of telling us that we weren’t fast enough,” Alex said.

As the sun disappeared, the on-track mood changed. The brake lights on the horizon from passing northern traffic became one of our only visual bearings, with almost everything else swallowed by darkness. With our ability to see beyond the tips of our noses gone, I’ll admit that I felt somewhat nervous. The requisite list of ‘what ifs’ entered my mind, but before I could begin to gather some composure, the cars were on the track — whizzing past at over 200kph, each car briefly interrupting the black with blinding white.

Surprisingly though, the final session started and finished without a hitch (barring my fingers freezing themselves near solid to my radio). As we extracted ourselves from our point and rendezvoused with the rest of the volunteers, it became clear that we had been lucky — many of the others were sweating from head to toe, their steps outlined in mud. We learned during the debrief that throughout the evening, some marshals had been forced to bolt from point to point on the soggy Waikato earth. While others had battled misbehaving light boxes. 

But as we all started to exchange these tales of the night, what struck me was how many of these sweaty humans were grinning from ear to ear, laughing with each other as they reviewed a job well done.

Once you break through that initial layer of responsibility and duty, volunteering for motorsport is volunteering to be part of a bigger family — all unanimous in their love for racing. Our sport needs these people, and I would encourage anyone serious about its future to raise their hand and get amongst it.