This post is written by Aaron Likens from St. Louis, Mo. Likens is the author of “Finding Kansas: Decoding the Enigma of Asperger’s Syndrome.” To find out more, check out his blog here.
What does a person say when a lifelong dream is fulfilled? That’s the question I’ve been trying to answer after my experience on Monday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
When I was young, I grew up just a few miles from the Speedway. I had a few drivers I liked, but my true hero was Duane Sweeney who was the flagman. My special interest, or “Kansas” as I like to call it, was the Indy 500 and the flagman who worked it. I’d watch and re-watch the start and finish of the race just so I could see Duane waive the flags.
My dad was a pastor and had a church near the track and one of his members worked at USAC which sanctioned the race at the time. He asked her if she could get me an autograph from Duane. Duane, learning he had a fan, gave me his autograph, but it was on the checkered flag he was going to use for the 1990 Indianapolis 500. My mom has photos of that day but I don’t need any to remember the gigantic grin on my face that day. I waived that flag for hours that day, and many days thereafter, dreaming of a chance to do that at the Speedway for the Indy 500.
Years went by and when we moved to St. Louis I started racing go-karts. At the club I raced at there was this flagman who was around 80 years old and he was starting to lose his vision. I volunteered to become the assistant and I would hand him the right colored flags for him to display. A year later he retired and I became the club’s flagman at the age of 13!
Several years later it looked as if a racing career was going to take off (I had NASCAR or Indycar aspirations) but it didn’t. However, I continued to flag for the local kart club as well as a regional series.
In 2003 I was diagnosed with Asperger’s and, after getting some awful information on the Internet, I wanted to give up. The only thing I looked forward to was the weekends and the time spent with flags in hand working at a racetrack with the dream, still, of someday flagging at Indianapolis.
In 2008 I became the flagman of the world’s largest kart race, The SKUSA SuperNats and in 2010 I became the series flagman for the USAC .25 midget series as well as the SKUSA Pro Tour. Both series had me traveling the country working races and still the dream was the same; Indianapolis.
Last year I filmed a video blog from the flag stand at Indy the day before the Indy 500 and one of the staff there heard my story about flagging, Asperger’s, and the story of my flag and he said, “Aaron, let’s stay in touch because we may just want you to be an honorary starter for one of the days of practice next year.”
We did stay in touch and I got the chance to be an honorary starter this year. It was on Monday and getting to the track that day, well, I’ve never been more nervous to be at a racetrack. I always get chills entering the hallowed grounds of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but on Monday I was almost sick to my stomach. I knew I was about to live out a dream and, above all else, I had this constant voice tell me, “don’t drop the flag… don’t drop the flag…”
The noon hour came and I was on the special stand that the honorary starter stands on. A few minutes passed and JR Hildebrand took to the track. It seemed like an hour from the time he left the pits to the time I saw this blur of color and speed exit turn four. I held my breath as I realized just what the next six seconds would mean for me.
I raised the green flag in the air and held it aloft. There’s a picture of this and I have the most serious look on my face, as if I was unhappy, but this is the way I flag. JR neared the finish line and I unleashed the flag in a flurry of movement and JR flashed pass in excess of 200 mph and left in his wake one of the biggest smiles I’ve ever had.
And just like that my duties at the Speedway were done; a lifelong dream was fulfilled. I always had the dream but I never imagined that I would get a chance to be a part of an event I have been obsessed with my entire life.
So I still have to ask, what am I supposed to say, or feel, after doing such a thing? I’m not sure, but perhaps I’m not supposed to say anything. Perhaps it is the smile I displayed after the car flashed by that says it all. That, and the continuing gratitude I have for Duane Sweeney who gave me one of his most cherished possessions that laid the groundwork for myself living a dream.
Photo By Chris Jones, IMS