“She told me, ‘I’m 100% certain I’d have hit that car if I didn’t have the Flagger system in my car.’ That right there kind of told me that what we were doing was a good idea.” That’s Matt Eastling, CEO and co-founder of the Flagger In-Car Alert System, relating the story of someone’s experience with his system.
At its simplest, Flagger is an electronic flagging system. Drivers install a small LCD screen tied to an integral communication module, battery pack and onboard accelerometer—the whole thing is about the size of a pager but a little thicker. That module relays the flags from the corner stations to the cockpit.
Eastling is serious about safety: “I showed up to one of my first HPDE days in basically full gear. It felt a little weird looking around and seeing everyone else in street clothes, but I don’t think anyone should ever have to feel weird for being overly cautious.”
Hence Flagger. Eastling is quick to talk about the safety aspects of the system, although it’s really much more than an in-car flag indicator. But we’ll talk about that more in a minute.
“There’s going to be times when you might not be able to get your eyes to a flag station as quick as you’d like,” Eastling says. “I race a Spec E46, and those cars are tall, and big, and we’re always right on top of each other. Sometimes the first glimpse you get of a flag could be through someone else’s windshield.
“I had an idea for a system that would give drivers instant info, in the car, about what flags were present in what locations. That was a few years ago, and the system you see now came from those ideas.”
Eastling continues about the Flagger system: “And not just for drivers. Those workers out there at every corner are facing some of the most danger of anyone on a hot track. If we can come up with a system to keep them safer and let them do their jobs with more confidence, which in turn keeps the drivers even safer, it’s win-win.”
American Endurance Racing has already adopted Flagger.
The system is highly tunable by race control stewards to provide drivers with as much or as little supplemental information as stewards deem necessary. The hardware of the system consists of the in-car display units placed in each on-track vehicle; a small laptop, monitor and transmitter/receiver device at race control; and handheld units at each corner station. The entire system is linked by its own RF network and requires no outside network infrastructure to run properly.
Race stewards can define the operational area for each corner using GPS coordinates, and any in-car receiver entering that operational area will display flag data from only that area. Once the car has cleared the area defined by the stewards, the display will clear itself.
In addition to local flags sent from the handheld units at corner stations, the race control station can also broadcast full-course, local or even single-car advisories—particularly useful in situations where a driver’s transponder may not be working or a mechanical issue with a car requires a single driver to pit.
Beyond the real-time communication functionality, Flagger also logs all events triggered by either the stations or by race control. It also allows race control to insert notes or comments, whether general or regarding any specific events.
This is where Flagger moves beyond a mere real-time in-car flagging indicator and becomes a powerful race management suite. Having a single-location digital record of the control aspects of a race will be invaluable for both small clubs with limited staffs and large clubs hosting high-profile events that need a deep well of on-track accountability.
We also mentioned that the in-car units feature accelerometers, and these are present as an additional safety measure. Any deviation outside normal operation—sudden massive g-loads (as would be present in a collision), sudden changes in orientation (as would be present in a spin or, heaven forbid, a rollover), or unexpected stoppages due to mechanical failure—are instantly alerted to race control. This could notify the race director in the control tower of a red-flag-necessary condition before they even get the radio call from a corner station.
Additional functions are being added to and developed for Flagger as well. Aside from simply being able to relay on-track flag info, Flagger also has the ability to direct groups or specific cars to specific locations, like impound or the post-race scales. It’s powerful to be able to communicate directly with every driver regardless of weather, ambient noise, or line-of-sight issues.
For drivers, $250 gets you the hardware unit and communication; software and hardware support then costs $75 for the first year and $100 per year after that. The annual fee covers all future updates and firmware functionality upgrades, along with a no-questions-asked hardware support program.
Now it comes down to adoption: Unless clubs and drivers fully adopt the system and equip every car and corner station, it’s not going to work to its potential.
But the system is so clever, so intuitive to use and so effective that we foresee a lot of clubs jumping on board. As we mentioned, AER is already fully integrating the system into its races for 2021, and Eastling is doing demos in the near future with Lemons, #Gridlife, several SCCA and NASA regions, and a few marque clubs and tracks that run their own track days.
We think it won't be long until most cars on track will have one of these tiny digital corner workers riding shotgun, keeping their drivers better informed than ever before.