Nadine Lewis on Being a Motorsport Marshal

Nadine Lewis on Being a Motorsport Marshal
Nadine Lewis on Being a Motorsport Marshal
Nadine Lewis on Being a Motorsport Marshal

While the racing drivers, the teams, and even the fans get all the screentime when you watch any type of motorsport on TV, there are others that often go unsung. Yet, without them the entire event wouldn't happen. These are the marshals, and they are the dedicated group of people who keep the racing going.

It's not so often you'll hear the perspective of a race from a marshal's point of view, so we thought we'd change that. We spoke with none other than the National Chair of the British Motorsports Marshals Club to understand the role of a marshal. Nadine Lewis has over 25 years experience of being trackside on weekends, a voluntary task she juggles with a full-time job. Yet Nadine still found time to talk to Fortloc for an extraordinary look at the job the marshals do in the sport we love.

Motorsport enthusiasts will know what a marshal does, but how do you explain marshaling to people who don't care for racing?

Well, the marshaling fraternity are all the volunteers who actually make motorsport happen. I like to consider us the "Orange Family," but everyone does refer to us as "The Army." There's a lot of us, and in lots of different roles, and quite honestly, without the volunteers, motorsport just wouldn't happen. Pretty much any event that you go to, all the way from the very grassroots right up to Formula One, is made up of volunteers.

You talk about the different types of marshals. Everybody's there voluntarily to help the weekend or the event take place. But what are some of the tasks that each of those marshals would do?

We're there to make sure that it runs safely more than anything else. So it's the safety of the event, the safety of the participants, and each other, and to make sure that everybody has an enjoyable experience along the way.

I guess from a trackside perspective, you'll have the Flag Marshals. Depending on where that is, that might be light operators. It might be actual waving bits of cloth attached to sticks, relevant to whatever is required. Those flag marshals are effectively reacting to what they see, as well as reacting to the neighboring posts. So, depending on what they put out, they might have to put out a flag as well. So they are quite reactive to what is going on.

You then have the Incident Team, who will deal with any kind of incident. So if it's just a car that's pulled off, a mechanical breakdown, [they'll] assist with that recovery. Maybe there's a fire, so put out the fires, maybe get out the driver because they can't get out themselves. So, that's what the trackside marshals are getting involved in.

You may have a Rescue Unit in addition. So if they require additional help to get out of the vehicle, then the rescue units would be called. They may not be on every post, but they would be called to come and assist with an incident.

Then you have the Post Chiefs; the people who are actually in charge of the post or the sector. Some regions call them "sectors" as opposed to "posts." In the UK, we refer to them as posts. That Post Chief is the communication to the clerk of the course, so they are quite frequently in radio communication. They will be relaying what is required, so if they do have an incident on their post... what they require, what assistance they require, whether they can move it under a safety car, whether they require a session stop or whatever, they will be communicating that information.

They're the more experienced marshals out on post, so they have all that necessary experience to know whether "Yeah, we could do that with just a couple of marshals" or "No, we need more help. We can't do that without more assistance". They're also potentially looking at track limits. You'll hear track limits an awful lot called many events now, and the post chiefs are responsible for ensuring that the track limits are adhered to.

The Post Chief is there to kind of [act as] eyes and ears for the clerk of the course to say, "This happened; this needs sorting; I now need a barrier repairing; I need a recovery truck" or whatever it is. So, [they] pass those communications on. A lot of events and circuits have a lot of cameras and TV and everything else but, I would say, you can't look at a bank of televisions very quickly and spot everything straight away.

So these trackside marshals, they're speaking to the clerks? And they are a network of people who the clerk will rely on for information to make decisions?

Yeah, absolutely. The way it works in the UK is we actually have a form. And so the Post Chief has a form; it's very much a tick box so that you can say which flags were out at the time, or what car numbers. You've got little boxes you can fill in to say exactly what happened. That's basically the information that you're relaying to the clerk of the course. They can then go and check. They can look at TV cameras, they can look at all of that if they want to, onboard footage helps as well.

But they're reliant on the initial message from that particular post that it happened here. Also, if the same car is involved in another incident elsewhere on the circuit then they know, they'll pick it up from the next person who calls it in and there's always a log.

There'll also be some information relayed back to the Post Chief from the headquarters, I guess?. So is it quite a reactive job, as well as waiting for further instructions?

Yeah, definitely. There's a network through to race control depending on the level of motorsport, I would say. So, in Formula One, there is quite a lot of direction given. Instructions are given over the radio quite frequently. Whereas, a lot of the lower Formulas, grassroots motorsport, a lot of the reliance is on the marshals trackside to react and then tell them what's happened.

Obviously, in a lot of grassroots [motorsport], there's not as much TV footage, there's not as many cameras that they can rely on, so they are reliant on the people on the ground. Whereas obviously, with something like Formula One, they've got GPS trackers, they actually can work out if there's space for a marshal to go and retrieve something trackside.

But [you're] very much reacting to what is happening in front of you. As the flag marshals, if there is an incident, you are probably going to need to wave a yellow flag. Because [a] car either on their own has left the track or is spinning in the middle of the track, or whatever it is they're doing. And you need to warn the oncoming drivers that something's happening. So it's very much reacting to what you're actually seeing as it happens, rather than waiting for somebody to say "Put out a yellow flag"... because it's too late by that point!

And they're not able to put out a black and white flag, for example? That is an instruction that's given down?

Yeah, exactly. So out on the circuit, at all of the individual posts, you would have the majority of flags on every post... so yellow, red, green, blue are at every post. Whereas the penalty flags, so the black and white, the black with the orange disc, and the black flag; they only come out on the start line.

They are instructed because it has to come out with a car number as well. Everybody then knows which car it is that's got the penalty for whatever reason or needs the information. So it is very much instructional to Chief Flag or whoever's... Chief Start Line... whoever's position it is to display those flags at the start.

How did you first get started with marshaling?

A friend of mine actually heard it being talked about on the radio. It was on [the] local radio. There was a marshal on there who was talking about marshaling. He had been invited on to the radio program, and she kind of said to me, "Oh, that's something you'd be interested in." And I was like, I haven't got time... I don't know anything about this... I'm gonna have to commit to too many days... and I won't be able to do it. You know, all of those excuses that I hear frequently from lots of people. So I was one of those people who had all of those excuses.

And they basically gave out a phone number, which she took down for me, and they were inviting people to a taster day. So I thought, "Okay well, I'll give it a go. I've no idea what this is I'm getting into, but we'll give it a go." So at the time, I was living in Leeds, and the taster day was at Oulton Park, which is a good 2+ hours away, but I was that keen. So I had left very early in the morning, got there at 7 am and there was me and another person on a taster day and the person who took us around.

So it was a person called Cliff Hammond, who unfortunately is no longer with us, but he was Mr. Oulton Park. He knew so much about the circuit. He had been marshaling for an awfully long time already by that point, and he took us on a tour of the short circuit [...], and he showed us what happened at different points along the way, what could happen, what incidents might happen on those posts.

And then for the afternoon, I got put on a post with a group of marshals to see what happened; to get involved in what happened for the afternoon. I had a TVR Tuscan land at my feet – that was it... I was like, "I'm hooked!"

The other marshals who were with me, they went and sorted the car out. The driver climbed over the barrier and then proceeded to sit down and tell me he didn't feel very well, which I was like, "I don't know what to do!". It was panic mode! So [I] just did the "take your helmet off... talk to me... what's your name... what's happened...". Just to talk to somebody and then the guys came back. He was okay, just a bit winded really, that was all.

But then that was it. I was like "When can I do this again? This is great, this is fantastic", you know? I've got to speak to people, I've seen cars going round, I've seen them crash. It's like, wow, when can I do this again? And that was 25 years ago.

It's all voluntary when you're doing this. Was there any moment where you're sitting on a gloomy wet day, not many cars are coming out, where you can start questioning, "Why am I doing this in my weekends?"

Occasionally... and I would say the majority of the time it is down to the people that you're with. So, the banter between other marshals, "What you do for a day job," you know? You start talking about anything if the race is that boring. And obviously, if you've got big gaps, – if there's incidents elsewhere on the circuit and it's not with you – and you don't know what's going on and stuff, there can be times when you do quite question why you're there.

But I have to say, they're outweighed by the times when things are good. And I would say I always say to people, I'm not one for crashes. Okay, I had a car crash on the first day that I marshaled, but I've done 25 years of running after cars, and quite frankly, I'm quite happy to watch a 30-40 car battle go on incident-free.

Are most of the marshals working a full-time job, as well as spending spare time at the track?

I would say there's a mixture. So there'll be people who are retired. There are students who are just coming into marshaling, and they've got free time, and that's what they come and do as their hobby. Then people, like me, who do have a day job and this is my hobby.

So it's kind of completely different from my day job; I look after supply chains and logistics and moving products around in the food industry. That's my day job and so nothing to do with motorsport at all. This is where I get to enjoy my love of cars.

So, 25 years. Along time visiting the circuits, and now an official title as the National Chair of the British Motorsports Marshals Club. What does that entail, and do you get a paycheck at this point?!

No, it's still voluntary. I've been chair now for five years. We, as a club, have nearly two and a half thousand members. We cover all disciplines of motorsports, although not bikes because it comes under a different regulatory body. The regulatory body in the UK is Motorsport UK. Under Motorsport UK we cover rallying, karting, hill climbs, and speed events, as well as racing. So we have marshals who go and marshal at all of those events, all year round.

As Chair, I'm responsible for the club and its strategic way forward. But our main reason for being is to encourage more people to volunteer and to enable motorsport to continue. As I said at the beginning, without the volunteers, it wouldn't happen. There's so many of us, in so many different roles, that if you actually came to a motorsport event and you took the people aside who are actually paid, nothing could happen.

[Some] may get expenses. There may be some even down to scrutineers, clerks, stewards... they aren't paid positions. They are potentially just expensed positions. They may get travel expenses, but other than that, all the marshals don't get paid. You're basically reliant on them to get things done.

For somebody who joins one of these taster days now, what would their day entail?

The same as I had that taster day all that time ago, we now run taster days at most circuits around the country in the UK. It enables people to have that try, really. Just to see how close we do get, and to see the different roles. Obviously, trackside I've mentioned, the flagging, the incident handling, the Post Chief reporting side of things.

But then you have Start line, Pit Lane, you have Assembly Area, and all of those obviously all work together, but we make sure that everybody gets to see all of them. Because there's different roles that suit different people as well. It depends what your character is, as well as what you want to get involved in.

So people can pick and choose what they want to do and where they want to be. So, if you're in the pit lane, people think the pit lane "Oh, you're not going to see much." But you're more likely to have a fire in the pit lane than you are anywhere, purely because there's obviously potential for fuel changing depending on what category is racing.

Also in Pits, Start line, Assembly Area, you're much closer to the public, and so you are potentially dealing with people who shouldn't be there because they're not supposed to be there, as well as people who should like teams, mechanics, drivers and you have all of that remit of people. So, if you're not a particular people person, you might not want to do that kind of role.

From that point, how much say does a taster participant have in choosing the direction they want to continue?

Pretty much you decide as a volunteer. We obviously encourage you to do what you want to do. Unless you're doing something that you like, you won't come back. So we try and get everybody to try different things, so even if you go, "Oh I definitely want to do this," there might be some reason why you can't do it straight away. So Post Chiefing, you've got to work up to that, you can't just be like, "I want to be that person writing reports on the radio." It doesn't work like that, you've got to get the experience first.

I think also in the pit lane, you do have to have your eyes in the back of your head because [cars will] be coming in, they'll be going out, and you know, people crossing. And you've got to deal with all of that happening. If you're not somebody who stands outside all day for eight-ten hours, whatever it is, you've got to get that into your head as well.

Are the rules of motorsport a prerequisite to know before you turn up, or are you just going to go through everything on those days?

The starting point is that you've turned up. You don't need to know the rules; you don't need to be a First Aid person. You just need to have enthusiasm for motorsport. I would say that's the only prerequisite that we ask. Because that's why we're all there and we will teach you.

We have formal training days, [...] we do practical training, so we put out fires, we actually do fire training for people, so that you know what it feels like to put out a fire. The more days that you marshal, we put you with different people, we put you on different posts, so you get to know what it's like being on a straight, on a corner, with a gravel trap, with all the different aspects of what you might have to deal with.

Particularly in Formula One, but across a lot of motorsports, the safety for the drivers and the cars has changed a lot. Has a lot changed from the marshals' side to things too?

Yeah, I would say so. When I started 25 years ago, already there were changes from how it was 25 years before that. There are moves and changes... a lot of it is to do with the actual makeup of the barriers. Obviously, as technology moves along, people understand what works and what doesn't, what's better in terms of a barrier. When I started at Oulton Park, a lot of the barriers were on an earth bank. So you're actually standing on top of an earth bank. They've realized that hitting an earth bank is like hitting a brick wall; it doesn't 'give' whatsoever. So a lot of those earth banks have gone, and they've now been replaced with Armco barriers and tire walls.

I did say to somebody there is footage of the very first meeting at Oulton Park from 1957, I think it is. If you look, there were no barriers, and there were earth banks right up against the edge of the tarmac. There were places where you stood behind a tree and, you know, you look at it now, and you think... I just wouldn't have done it back then. It's just really scary stuff.

Being Chair of Marshals Club, I also sit on a number of committees with Motorsport UK. We're always looking to see what can change, what can be developed, how we can look at technology to help us. So looking at potentially moving marshals' posts so that they're not in a point of danger, but obviously, we still need to be able to do our role. We still need to be able to show the flags, or use lights instead, and so we still need to be fairly close but need to make sure that we're in a position of safety, and there are barriers to protect us, and there are escape points and all of those kind of things.

Do you have a standout memory from your time at the racetrack?

I would say watching people come onto the scene and seeing them progress from two aspects. One: driver aspect and two: martial aspect. So, somebody like Lando Norris, I saw in Ginetta Juniors. I saw Jenson Button when he was in Formula Three. Lewis... you know, so I've seen a few of the drivers come through and then end up obviously in Formula One.

To watch somebody like Lando is fantastic because you could tell when he was out testing in Ginetta, he was just gonna keep going and keep going until he got it right. And that stayed with him. And you can see, he's still such [a] lovely kid as well to go with it, it's brilliant. So I think from that aspect, it's either seeing somebody and going "Oh, I remember when..." and even maybe speaking to them at a later date and having a conversation and going "Do you remember... your first big accident?"

I was there when [ex-F1 driver] Felipe Nasr had his first big Formula Three accident at Oulton Park. He literally ripped off the side of his car. He went round Druids and he hit the out-flag point and took out both wheels off the side of his car. He got out the car, climbed over the barrier and we went in to make sure he was okay. And he was just shaking like a leaf. And I was like, "Are you okay?" and he went [...] "Yeah, that was my first big accident." I said, "Oh well you did a proper job, you know. Took the side of the car off!"

But I saw him six months later, and I can't remember where he'd gone on to, but anyway, he'd got a good drive, and I said, "Don't you remember?" He said, "Yeah I do. I remember that accident." I said it was your first one. So you know, it's something that he remembered, and I remembered, and he was fine afterward, but it was memorable because it was his first one.

What are some of the behind-the-scenes activities that we won't see as fans or spectators that go on with marshaling?

I guess it's all the admin side of things that people don't realize that's ongoing all the time. So as I mentioned before, like the reporting side of things. In a lot of Formula One, you hear about the stewards making decisions and they're looking at cameras. Well, in order to look at the cameras, they need to know what they're looking for. And those reports that are coming in from the posts are what's telling them. It's not just based on what they see on the camera; it's the backup information that they get behind it.

I think it's interesting. We've had a few drivers come on taster days. Some of the clubs in the UK, and championships, award points or you get signatures if you come and do a day marshaling. So we have had a few drivers, they've come on a taster day and, without fail, every single one of them has said that they've learned stuff.

As a spectator, you might watch the winner go past the checkered flag, and then you might disappear off. You might chat with your friends and get a drink or burger. Well, we can't until the last car has gone around, because something might happen with the last car. Then, equally, we need to be there for when the first car comes out for the next session because something might happen, break down, even on the first lap. So we have a very small window between sessions.

What's your favorite track, and what makes it different from the others?

It's always a difficult question. I have to say my favorite track is probably Oulton Park. It's the first one I marshaled at; it's the one I know better than any because I live quite close by. I think it's quite a challenging track for a driver. It's very picturesque; it undulates, we have a lake! We've got everything pretty much. It's a very pretty circuit.

And you are so close to the track there. In comparison, I would say, at Silverstone, we are so far away from the track. If something happens, we've got an awfully long way to go to get to it in the first place. Whereas at Oulton Park, if somebody gets it wrong, they're probably going to be in the barrier because there's very little runoff and give there. It can make it quite interesting watching GT cars and Formula Three cars going around Oulton Park; it's quite a sight!