Above the Crowd by Anne Proffit CART's chief starter talks about the view above the start-finish line. What's it like out there? Ask Jim Swintal, CART's most visible official outside of CEO Andrew Craig. On his perch above each start-finish...
Above the Crowd by Anne Proffit
CART's chief starter talks about the view above the start-finish line. What's it like out there? Ask Jim Swintal, CART's most visible official outside of CEO Andrew Craig. On his perch above each start-finish line, chief starter Swintal watches over the Champ Car flock as it dukes it out on road, street and oval tracks through the 20-race circuit. Often before the data-acquisition experts, Swintal can sense when a car is pushing or when it's loose, when a black flag is necessary, when a yellow's about to fly. Swintal has been on the job since 1993, succeeding Nick Fornoro. Fornoro started exactly 200 races from 1979 to 1992. Swintal, who apprenticed as Fornoro's chief observer and the Indy Lights starter, capped 100 starts at the 1999 Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on April 18. "Working with Nick was a challenge. He was lost up there sometimes when he couldn't hear well. Over time we developed a sign language ... Now we've got a sign for everything," Swintal chuckles. Flare is important for a starter, so Swintal livened his style. "I was criticized, in a good way, when I first came up. I was trying to be a bit circumspect, not too flamboyant, jumping up and down." He picked up pointers from everyone, including his chief observer, Dayton Indy Lights starter Gordon Ensing. "Gordy uses a lot more wrist [in his movement], where Fornoro used to swing at the elbows, like a big, flapping bird. For the race finish, I try to keep the checkered flags close together." The look is elegant and graceful, much like Swintal. Trained as an architect and currently a highly regarded motorsports artist, the Indiana native started his officiating career in the usual place, as an unpaid corner marshal at Elkhart Lake's Road America circuit. He volunteered to assist CART at Michigan Speedway in 1982, working the center pit area. It was the right place at the right time. He was hooked. Swintal became a regular volunteer on the Champ Car circuit and did his first start-stand duty at the Phoenix Indy Lights opener in 1990. "What amazed me was how calm I felt. It seemed like time slowed down, like the cars were slowing instead of speeding up. It felt like I was opening a screen door for a freight train [as the cars approached for the green flag]. I thought, 'You ain't gonna stop 'em!'" Swintal's track-side office changes with the nuances of each venue. At most ovals, he's high above the action, able to see the race unfold. At street and dedicated road courses, he gets the same view as spectators seated at the start-finish line. There, he relies on his radio contact with race control for information, on the occasional big screen installed for the benefit of paying customers or, in the case of Road America, a television acquired for the benefit of the race's starter. His favorite stands are those at the Belle Isle street circuit, which is the same height as the track's low barriers, and the Laguna Seca start-finish tower. "We can feel them coming by. It's really exciting for us," grins Swintal, speaking of the Detroit stand. At the Monterey, Calif., venue, the platform is under a pedestrian bridge. It's a rustic, wooden promontory with "lots of character and a nautical feel." When he's away from the track and at home in Irvine, Calif., Swintal has racing action on his mind. His artwork has been commissioned by the Indy Lights series, which presents an original Swintal painting each year to its champion, by CART sponsor PPG for its Refinish Award, by the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course for its annual CART program cover and poster and others. Swintal lithographs also commemorate such racing moments as Andre Ribeiro's inaugural win for Honda at New Hampshire, Mark Blundell's photo-finish victory at Portland, Bobby Rahal's final CART race at Fontana and many, many more. What's next for Jim Swintal? "It's truly amazing that I've started half as many races as Nick Fornoro in less than seven years. If I work 25 more years at 23 or so events annually, that would make 675 starts. And that would be more than A.J. Foyt in his entire career."