In racing, the checkered flag is the ultimate goal—making it there, and making it there before everyone else. Passing under that flag first is synonymous with sweet, sweet victory, but it wasn’t always that way. At one time, it might have just meant ‘stop racing and come eat dinner.’
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There are several theories about how the checkered flag came along, and one stands out from the rest. But before we get to that theory, let’s discuss some of the wackier ones first.
Some theories back to the years when car racing didn’t even exist yet. One such theory, according to NASCAR.com, is that horse racers in the 1800s would have a meal together after a day at the track. Someone had to let the racers know when it was time to pull off of the track and eat, and the most self-explanatory way to do that was waving a checkered tablecloth at them. Thus, the checkered flag caught on.
The other theory from NASCAR.com is from the days of car racing, with dusty race surfaces and low visibility. As would be expected, a bold black-and-white checkered pattern was easier to spot in the mess than something of a less-striking nature.
Another set of theories comes from the realm of bicycle racing in the 1860s, per a 1999 story from the Indianapolis Star. According to the story, the checkered flag could have stemmed from three aspects of bike racing—officials marking the course, an official marking the finish, or a generous lady who loaned her scarf as a finishing symbol.
Officials stationed along the course to mark the path for racers to follow needed attire that would make them stand out, and a checkered pattern would do the trick. The same goes for an official at the finish, but there was no clarification in the story on whether both of these methods were used or if it was just one.
The last theory attributing the checkered flag to cycling competition couldn’t be plausible, since the Indianapolis Star states that it happened years after the flag showed up at a motorsports event. According to the Indianapolis Star, the woman who apparently loaned her scarf as a flag did so in 1964. Auto racing was in full swing by then, and a historian who researched the matter thoroughly enough to publish a book about it wrote that the first checkered flag flew in 1906.
The International Motor Racing Research Center at Watkins Glen published that book in 2006, a century after the flag flew at the Vanderbilt Cup race in Long Island, New York. It wasn’t the first time a checkered flag had been used in a car race—just the first time it marked the end of the event.
According to the book, Origin of the Checker Flag: A Search for Racing’s Holy Grail by Fred Egloff, Packard Motor Car Company employee Sidney Waldon designed the pattern to mark checkpoints on the American Automobile Association’s Glidden Tour earlier in 1906. The rally-style event that tests reliability, which began in 1904 and still runs today, took place over 12 days and spanned 1,150 miles, and marking the 54 different checking stations likely make it easier on drivers.
When drivers got to the checkered flag marking the checking station—that sure is a play on words—the scene somewhat resembled the one that occurs after a modern-day checkered flag. Sort of like a post-race inspection, officials at each checkpoint would make sure drivers followed the rules that disallowed parts replacements and governed speed limits.
Just like some disciplines of motorsport in modern racing—we’re looking at you, NASCAR—a victory couldn’t be taken away for disobeying the rules after taking the checkered flag in the Glidden Tour. The difference is that a victory hadn’t been awarded yet.
It didn’t take long before the Vanderbilt Cup picked it up, and other events caught on soon after. These days, the checkered flag is what racers dream of—but back in the day, it was just a checkpoint along the journey.
Or a sign that the burgers were ready. Whichever you prefer.
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