"The thumb is on the goods," says Duane Sweeney, demonstrating
one of the most visible grips in sports. Arms outstretched, the
73-year-old Sweeney prepares to wave two checkered flags. It's
something he has been doing at racetracks across the U.S.,
Canada and England for more than 40 years, and for the last 16
at the Indianapolis 500.
This is an article from the May 27, 1996 issue
On May 26, Sweeney will stand 20 feet above the celebrated
Brickyard's start/finish line and signal the beginning of the
race by flashing two green flags in overlapping figure-eight
patterns. Two hundred laps later, at the race's end, he will do
the same with twin black-and-white checkered flags. During the
race he may unfurl as many as five other flags: yellow (all
proceed with caution), red (all stop), white (one lap remains),
black (a racer is being penalized or called to the pits to
consult on a mechanical problem) and blue with a diagonal yellow
stripe (a racer is about to be lapped and should hold his
Since 1935 there have been four official starters at the Indy
500. Sweeney, the only one still living, is known for his grace
under pressure. "He's unflappable," says Donald Davidson, the
historian and statistician of the U.S. Auto Club. "Drivers like
him because he does such a sensible job."
Says Sweeney, "I'm a fanatic. Racing turns me on. What more
could you want in life than to put them cars out there, turn 'em
loose and make 'em do what you want 'em to do--most of the time?"
Sweeney might have had a career on the track rather than off it,
but as a young man he weighed 238 pounds, too heavy for the
45-cubic-inch motorcycles he tried to race. So he drifted into
officiating, first at motorcycle events, then at any dusty stock
car or champ car or midget oval he could drive to after
finishing his shift as a machine operator at Waukesha Motors in
Waukesha, Wis. As many as six nights a week, for as little as
$20 a night, he waved his flags. He worked his way up the
officiating ladder and in 1980 got the call to the Brickyard.
The start at the Indy 500 is tricky, and at the 1994 race
Sweeney almost had a disastrous start. Green flags in hand, he
listened through his headset for a single word from Tom Binford,
then the chief steward: not go, which might be misunderstood as
no, but green. Binford typically prompted Sweeney when the lead
car reached a specific spot heading out of Turn 4, well before
the starting line. But Al Unser Jr. was moving much faster than
expected, and he passed the marker with no word from Binford.
Sweeney wondered what was going on. Instinctively, he bent to
grab a yellow flag from the stand at his feet. He didn't wave
it. With the cars practically below him, Binford finally
hollered, "Green!" Sweeney, still holding both green flags,
waved them furiously.
Each year Sweeney's wife, Mary, makes him new flags at their
house in New Berlin, Wis. He insists on flags that are 24 inches
square, and he eschews metal poles--too slippery--in favor of
wooden dowels. His flags are different from those of his
predecessor, Pat Vidan, who worked the Indy 500 from '62 to '79.
Vidan flashed 20 squares on his checkered flags; Sweeney blurs
the air with 25, insisting on black squares in each corner. This
way his thumb hits a black square, and the flags stay cleaner.
The question Sweeney is asked most often speaks to his biggest
fear: Has he ever dropped a flag? Yes, he admits somewhat
abashedly: once, when he was showing off. Next most often he's
asked when he plans to retire. That time, alas, may be at hand.
"I'm not a kid anymore," Sweeney says. "I had heart surgery last
year, and that slows me down a little more." Then again, he may
stick around the Brickyard a couple of more years. "I retired in
1984," he says, referring to his last day at the engine plant,
where he had risen to supervisor. "I don't consider this work."
John Grossmann is a regular contributor to SI.