Behind The Chequered Flag by Henry Schultz
t’s one of the most enduring mysteries in motorsport; what is the origin of the chequered flag that’s waved to signal the end of a motor race?
Race fans, historians, readers, blokes sitting in pubs, and motoring hacks alike for many years applied their considerable mental faculties to the problem but came up empty handed. This publication first went sleuthing for the answer about a decade and a half ago, exhausting every source we could find: books, motoring experts of both the real and armchair variety, old codgers who speak misty-eyedly of people like Stirling Moss, blokes at the pub; we even asked former F1 commentator Murray Walker.
Nada. All we got were theories, conjecture, and my-dad’s-friend’s-cousin-told-me stories. Nothing concrete that could make us go: “Eureka!”
All we found out is that the chequered flag goes back a long way, and apparently the first recorded proof of one being used in a motor race is a photograph of the winner crossing the finish line at the Vanderbilt Trophy on Long Island, USA way back in 1904. But we could still find no definitive explanation as to who first used a chequered black-and-white cloth to say “race over” and why.
So we thought we’d don our Sherlock Holmes hats again and revisit the mystery, given that all the universe’s knowledge is now just a mouse-click away.
An internet trawl produced mostly the same theories we’d come across before. One postulated a naval origin for the chequered flag and claimed it came from the flags used in ship-to-ship communications. However, the only nautical flag that comes close is blue-and-white (not black-and-white) and denotes the letter “N” – not a likely origin for the flag that waved Sebastian Vettel to five F1 victories last year.
Various other theories have the flag hailing from Roman chariot racing, dog racing, bicycle racing, and flags used on early railways – all of which can be more or less debunked.
One of the most convincing-sounding theories, however, is that the flag owes its origin to horse racing in mid-western towns back in the sepia-toned days. The town’s ladies would cook up huge meals and serve them on the race grounds. When the meal was ready to be served, the gals would start waving a chequered tablecloth to indicate to the spectators and racers that the racing was over and it was time to come and eat. The practice took hold and the chequered tablecloth carried over to when automobiles replaced horses.
Sounds viable, but still just a theory, so we’re spreading the net and asking our ever-informed readers to help solve the mystery. If you think you know the definitive origin of the chequered flag, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Book Number: Behind The Chequered Flag by Henry Schultz