Santa Maria Sun / Sports Lead
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 13, Issue 27
Flag manA Nipomo entrepreneur turns an oft-overlooked aspect of auto racing into a business enterprise
BY JEREMY THOMAS
Unless you happen to be the lead driver heading down the home stretch of an auto race, you probably don’t think much about the checkered flags the flagmen wave to signal a victory.
But if you’ve ever seen the exhilarating finish of any NASCAR or international racing event, you’ve probably seen one of Tony Otto’s products and never even realized it.
That’s because Otto’s Nipomo business, Dynamic DeZigns, produces many of the flags used in competition by the major racing organizations—up to several thousand per year. He’s supplied all three starter flags for the IndyCar series and the Indianapolis 500, nearly all of the United States Auto Club (USAC) circuit races, the NASCAR traveling series, the Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca near Salinas, and other local racetracks.
As one of only three such manufacturers in the country, Dynamic DeZigns specializes in all the standards: the greens waved by starters, the one-lap-to-go whites, and, of course, the checkered finishes. You name it, and Otto has probably had a hand in their creation.
“We’re probably the only one that concentrates exclusively on racing flags,” Otto explained. “Really our only competition is girlfriends and mothers.”
Otto founded Dynamic DeZigns in 1997 to fill the gap left after a Bellflower company—at the time the industry’s top supplier of flags—went out of business. While he’s kept his day job in image processing, producing the flags has become a side project with heart, continuing a racing tradition that began more than five decades ago.
“I’ve always been involved in racing,” Otto recalled. “I tell my mom that she had a choice; she married into it. I didn’t have a choice, I was born into it.”
Otto literally grew up around the racetrack. His father Ron was an influential driver and owner in the National Midget Racing Association’s Three Quarter (TQ) Midget class from 1957 to 1984, and served as president of the association. Ron even has an annual race dedicated to his memory—it was scheduled for Santa Maria in April but was postponed until Sept. 15 in Ventura. Not to be outdone, Tony’s mother Gayla was a longtime race scorer at the Santa Maria Speedway.
With his background already in place, Otto started flagging races at age 16 for midget events in Southern California and continued the hobby throughout his life. He started Dynamic DeZigns in Signal Hill along with a business partner who sold quilt products at the Orange County fairgrounds. At first, the company split production between quilts and flags, but it shifted over to focus only on the racing ensigns in 2000.
The flag-making process is fairly simple. First, Otto buys RipStop fabric—durable nylon used in parachutes and hot air balloons—in 100-yard rolls. From there, the fabric is sent to a seamstress in Victorville, who cuts and hems the flags and attaches the header.
Then, they’re shipped to Nipomo, where Otto performs what he calls the “final TLC.” The corners of the flags are trimmed and sewed, attached to sanded-down dowels, and finalized for use on race day. In addition to several sizes of racing flags, his company also produces international flags, aluminum stands, and holders.
Otto admitted when he happens to catch a glimpse of one of his creations being waved at a big time racing event, he can’t help but feel a sense of pride.
“We’re very happy to see that our flags our well received,” Otto said. “Basically our only advertising is satisfied customers.”
Otto is still an active flagman as well. When he’s not flagging for the TQ midgets at Ventura Raceway, he’s usually found at the Santa Maria Speedway. Over the years, he’s been known to stand in for the regular Speedway flagman when he can’t make the race, especially when the midget cars are in town.
According to Speedway spokesman David Castaneda, it’s important to have a starter on standby with an extensive background, as Otto has. Flagmen have to make significant judgment calls during a race, such as when to throw the yellow flag. They must also align cars, watch out for bumpers and other car parts on the track, and decide whether to black flag a car that’s having engine trouble.
They especially need a sharp eye on the short track dirt, Castaneda explained, where “split yellow” calls have to be made—when a yellow flag is thrown, the cars behind the lap line at the time have to revert back to the previous lap.
“It’s definitely a busy thing and not something that somebody can just jump in there and do,” Castaneda said. “You have to have a good background in the rules. It’s always good to have a flagman that’s familiar with that sanctioning body.”
Car owner and former driver Pete Van Iderstine, who’s raced at the Speedway many times in the past, called Otto “one of the best starters ever.” While there are other eyes in the tower and on the interior track to help sort out the action, Van Iderstine explained, ultimately, the flagman is in control.
“The starter pretty much runs the show,” Van Iderstine said. “You can’t just have anybody. You’ve got to have somebody that knows what’s going on. It’s pretty important.”
Van Iderstine explained when he used to race throughout Southern California, he’d notice young children in the crowd miming the flagman. Many of them grew up to become starters later in life.
“That’s their practice ground,” he said. “Their parents bring them to the races each week and they stand there doing the same as the fellow on the flag stand.”
As someone who’s living proof of Van Iderstine’s anecdote, Otto explained that on race day there’s no better place he’d rather be than on the flag stand, especially during a tight race.
“It’s the best seat in the house,” he said.
Staff Writer Jeremy Thomas has a checkered past. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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