Ballad of a Dancing Flag Man!
By Terry Waterfield
The 64-year-old native of Pictou, NS leans forward, body stiffening, his eyes now focused on the leaders while the cars begin to increase their speed as they negotiate corner’s three and four, approaching the start/finish line of Scotia Speedworld’s one-tenth mile D-oval. Suddenly Steeves is upright, frantically waving a green flag over his head and the 2010 Atlantic CAT 250 is under way as he begins a unique ballet which will continue for the next 250 laps, plus caution periods.
Just seconds later, however, the green flag is out of sight and Steeves is waving a yellow flag as several cars come together in corner three, leaving one sitting sideways on the track, causing the first of many caution periods that will mar the race. But the ballet goes on. As the night continues, Steeves will usher the cars around the track with a combination of signals, including different coloured flags and arm and body motions, signals that the drivers have come to recognize and respond to. From the stands, Steeves’ actions can sometimes be more entertaining than the race. “I was given a plaque in Fredericton a couple of years ago and it said ‘All the best to the dancing flagman’” he laughs.
At his side, Steeves has a number of flags that he uses to inform competitors on the status of the race, in addition to the green, which is waved to signal both the race start and restarts after caution periods. A steady green indicates the track is open for racing. The yellow, when waved, signifies a problem on the course, either an accident or a spun or stalled race car, telling competitors they must slow down and follow the pace car at a reduced speed until the problem is solved and the waving green tells the drivers to resume racing.
Others flags include a black one with an orange ball in the centre. Steeves will wave the flag and point at the driver to tell him he must report to his pits because of a problem with his car. An all-black flag informs a driver he has been a naughty boy or girl, and has been disqualified from the race. Two other flags, one white, and the famous white/black chequered flag are welcomed by drivers. The white flag indicates one lap remaining in the race. For the lead driver, however, the all-important chequered flag is the most crucial for one simple reason: It means victory, and the end of the race. Laps run under the caution flag are not counted at times, Steeves will climb the rungs of the flag stand and lean out over the cars that roar by at more than 100 miles per hour, scant feet below.
“I got that from hanging lights down at the TV station where I worked,” he explains. “Hanging lights from a grid was part of my job, so it’s natural that I did it (at the track). “If there was a set of pipes that I could stand on, it was just natural.” When he wasn’t racing or flagging, Steeves had a real job at the ATV studios in Halifax. Steeves began his motorsport career as a driver. “I go back to my soap box derby in the driveway in Pictou years ago,” he says. “My father taught me how to drive. He always said if my foot wasn’t so heavy I’d do better.” Soon Steeves was behind the wheel of a race car. “We got involved at Nine Mile River. I guess it was in 1964, ’65, Then I moved to Seabreeze Auto Raceway in Lawrencetown, NS and got to work on the cars down there.
“I kicked around the dirt track first, at Seabreeze and got involved with modifieds on a paved track in 1967 and then we progressed to Drag City. That’s where I had my mishap. I had my accident in the year-ender International and spent the fall in a body cast. “But the love of the sport didn’t go away and when I came back I did tech with the cars, but that still didn’t take the place of racing, so I put together a sportsman car and took up some flagging in my spare time and weekends we were off. MASCAR was formed in 1982 and Jim Hallihan and I raced together for years when he moved down here from Ontario.”
As time went on, Art’s flagging slowly took over and he became the official flagman for MASCAR until it disbanded at the end of the 1999 season. “I made trips to Oxford Plains (Maine) in the early 70’s that was our venue in the U.S. and sitting one day in the stands I thought, ‘I didn’t get to drive at Oxford Plains. Sometime in the future it would be nice to be able to flag here.’ “Later I was asked to do several of the international pro stock Series, which took in New Hampshire, Maine and I-95, and of course, several in Nova Scotia. “I did get to do the Oxford Plains 250 with 18-19,000 in the stands, which was a thrill for me. “There was one particular time I flagged at Oxford on a Saturday afternoon, left there at eight o’clock at night after flagging a 150-lap race, drove to my home in New Glasgow, where I now live, had a bath and changed my uniform and flagged a MASCAR race at two o’clock at Riverside.”
These stories are typical of the efforts put out by Steeves at the time, while still holding down a full time job with the TV station. But the toll on his back as a result of his accident early in his racing career became too much and when MASCAR disbanded following the 1999 season, to be replaced by the CARQUEST Tour, Steeves decided he had had a enough. “I raced with MASCAR and did some flagging as well. I had a lot of pain in my back. I didn’t want to give it up, but finally, in the CARQUEST Tour time I did have to pack it in.” The retirement lasted one year. “I was like a wandering gypsy,” Steeves admits. “I’ve endured a lot of pain and there was nothing that could be done about it, so it was time for me to put the pain behind me and try to keep at it if I can, do some specials, one or two per year. “All the management, whoever the management was, they were all receptive to me coming to do a couple of specials per year. I still try to put some effort into it, 110% as you’ve seen yourself. It’s in the blood, it just doesn’t go away; you just can’t shake it.” So Steeves was back at the track, performing his distinctive ballet on Saturday night CARQUEST Pro Stock Tour events, just like he had never been away.
Last summer his health took another serious hit when he was diagnosed with cancer and underwent eight weeks of treatment. But that didn’t stop him from being at the track on Saturday, up on the starter’s stand with his bevy of coloured flags, going through the same dance he had done week after week for so many years. “On a Friday, when I got up off the machine, I’d shake my arms and my legs and if I saw they worked then I’d say ‘It looks like I’ll be flagging at whatever track it would be that Saturday.’ The radiologist people think I’m crazy, but it’s an adrenalin rush for me and you can’t just shed your hobby you’ve had for 45 years. I hope I’ve contributed something to stock car racing. It’s an ambition I’ve had since I was a kid. “People don’t realize that with qualifying and practice you’re on the stand most of the day. I’ve just got to judge myself better during the day so I can still give that 110%. My ambition is, I want the fans to come back. “I guess Jim Hallihan and I, we raced together, we had cancer together, we officiated together and we want to stay together. Jim Hallihan and I will finish our lives at a race track if we possibly can.
“I feel they’re saying that I’ve beat the cancer, with my attitude towards life and if management will still have me, even if it’s just doing specials, I’ll be there. “If there’s any way that I can contribute to the sport, then I’ll be there. I’ll definitely be at a race track as long as I can move my feet, I think.” It’s a good bet that management, drivers and fans will be happy to see Art Steeves and Jim Hallihan at a race track as long as they want to be.
Much, much more in the print addition of Auto Atlantic.
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