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Nice Work If You Can Get It
John Grossmann
May 27, 1996
Since 1980, no Indianapolis 500 has begun without a wave from Duane Sweeney
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May 27, 1996

Nice Work If You Can Get It

Since 1980, no Indianapolis 500 has begun without a wave from Duane Sweeney

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"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.

On May 26, Sweeney will stand 20 feet above the celebrated Brickyard's start/finish line and signal the beginning of the race by Hashing two green Hags 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 Hags: 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 position).

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."