Avon Resident Talks Being the Starter at the Indianapolis 500

Writer  /  Christy Heitger-Ewing
Photographer  /  Chris Jones, IMS PHOTO

For the past decade, Tom Hansing has been a starter for the Indianapolis 500. This means that on race day, he shows the flag colors from race control, which dictate what happens on the track. When Hansing enters the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on race day, he’s always overwhelmed with emotion.

“The morning of my very first 500, driving underneath the tunnel on the north end, between turns 3 and 4, and coming out and seeing the Pagoda, I remember thinking, ‘Is this for real? Am I really here?’” Hansing says. “It’s goosebumps on goosebumps, and through the years that’s never changed.”

The electric atmosphere of race day could be described as the excitement of Christmas morning wrapped into the adrenaline rush of skydiving.

“Right there along the front straightaway, when you’ve got all 33 cars coming at you for the very first time—that’s amazing,” Hansing says. Then there’s the energy that builds during pre-race activities. Hansing vividly recalls the 2011 race. It was the 100th anniversary of the Indy 500, and Bruce Crandall was named the honorary starter. Crandall, who flew more than 900 missions as a helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War, had received the Medal of Honor —the highest military decoration awarded by the United States government.

“When he left the flag stand, he shook my hand and clasped in his hand was the commemorative coin that all Medal of Honor recipients receive,” Hansing says. “Everyone in the grandstand was on their feet cheering. He stopped and saluted. It was a ‘wow’ moment.”

During practices, Hansing carefully studies the cars’ colors because it’s hard to tell who’s coming out of the fourth turn since they’re so far down the track. Starters rely not just on the cars’ colors but also the computer that’s in the flag stand, which has a map of the racetrack and shows the car numbers as they’re moving around the track. A diamond indicates the leader.

Occasionally, starters help with set-up of timing and scoring. In the past, Hansing has also assisted with tech inspection, which includes looking at ride height and wing angle and also making sure the mirrors are within a certain parameter.

“Dashboard and continuator lights are checked as well as other nuances,” Hansing says. “You have to do like 200 different things in 10 minutes or less.”

Hansing was first introduced to the world of racing in 1999 when he met the midget starter for the United States Auto Club (USAC) while refereeing for Special Olympics basketball. Hansing started going to races, getting in with a pit pass and doing gofer work. He later got licensed.

One of the first races Hansing worked was a Silver Crown Series race at the Indiana State Fairgrounds—a mile dirt track. With 32 seconds between laps, that’s just enough time to get distracted and forget to switch flags. So he’s always practiced keeping the flag he’s going to use in his hand.

“Even when I’m waving the white flag for the last lap, I’ve always got that yellow flag in case there’s a wreck,” Hansing says.

Though he has never forgotten to switch flags, he once dropped one at a USAC race in Richmond, Virginia.

“I hit the flag on the flag stand just right and it came out of my hand and floated to the racetrack as we went yellow,” Hansing says. “That was embarrassing, and the crowd gave me a hard time, which I deserved.”

The most shocking memory, however, occurred in December 2013 at an indoor race when Hansing was taken out of the flag stand on a stretcher.

Racer Nick Hamilton and another car made contact and Hamilton’s vehicle hit the wall. The car lifted and its front right wheel hit the bottom of the flag stand, causing the scaffolding to collapse. Hansing went airborne and came crashing down on his left side rib cage on top of the metal support bar of the flag stand.

“People hollered at me to lay still,” Hansing says. From there it was all a blur as paramedics rushed to put him in a neck brace and position him on the stretcher. Miraculously, nothing was broken or punctured. Hansing thanked God for sparing him serious injury.

Though he was raised Catholic, Hansing fell away from his faith during high school. In college, however, he met a beautiful woman named Rica at a country club dance. Though she initially declined his request to dance, three weeks later, she accepted his marriage proposal. That was 22 years ago.

The couple began attending Our Shephard Lutheran Church and School in Avon when Rica was pregnant with their first child. The church’s marriage retreat, men’s retreat, and other functions helped Hansing reconnect with Christ.

“Rica and I were fortunate to have people who walked alongside us and made us feel welcome,” says Hansing, who started volunteering with the church’s Little Rams program, which he now heads up. Little Rams offers soccer and basketball programs for preschoolers through fourth grade. Hansing loves mentoring the children and seeing their confidence blossom. He also helps coach the school’s basketball team and maintains the soccer fields and cross-country course. In addition, Hansing helps teach Bible and confirmation classes. Every opportunity to serve has helped his faith grow.

This season, Hansing will be the starter for USAC and the Pirelli World Challenge, a new sports car series. He also splits the starter duties at Kokomo Speedway. For the Pirelli World Challenge (PWC), eight classifications will run throughout the season. (Not every classification will run on the same race weekend.) While Indycar events are a prescribed number of laps, PWC races range from 40 to 60 minutes. The PWC schedule contains 10 race weekends from March to September, with an 8-hour endurance race (part of the Intercontinental GT Challenge), which takes place in October.

“It’s such a rush,” says Hansing of working in the racing industry. One of the biggest perks of the job is getting the chance to visit different cities. The flip side of travel, however, means time away from his family. Plus, since this isn’t Hansing’s full-time job (he works at Republic Airline as manager of CrewPay Systems), he has to use a big chunk of his vacation time to attend races.

Prior to having kids, the couple made race weekends into extended getaways. For instance, when there was a race in Syracuse, New York, and another race the following weekend in South Boston, Virginia, they visited Washington, DC, in between the two.

Now Hansing is more intentional about carving out time to do special things with each of his children. That might be catching a showing of Mary Poppins with his daughter Emma (13) or taking his son Robert (9) go-karting. Or sometimes he spends his free time at the track. Hansing has ridden with an Indycar driver for the two-seater experience at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“We got up to 190 mph,” Hansing says. “That was enough to catch my attention.”

He also did the single seater experience where he drove an Indycar around the track three times with a pace car leading the way.

“To realize that my bottom was less than 12 inches off the ground was crazy,” Hansing says. But as you might expect, he loved every minute of it.

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