Spectators soon will fill the stands at area dirt tracks as local racecars thunder into action. With all eyes focused on the cars as the April through September racing season gets under way, few probably will recognize the composer of each race -- "the flagman."
Yet to the observant, Elkins' Billy Simmons is as much a fixture at two tracks in the region as the sound of engines thundering through the mountains.
Simmons, also a carpet layer for Classic Carpet in Elkins, is starting his ninth season as head flagman at Interstate 79 Speedway near Shinnston and Roaring Knob Raceway Park in Markleysburg, Pa.
Jim Merschap, promoter of Roaring Knob, actually believes some spectators enjoy watching Simmons at work as much as the cars.
Simmons wanted to be a driver at first but soon found he could make more money working at the track.
He began at Elkins Speedway, selling tickets and lining up cars in the pits before moving to the flagman's stand.
There, he studied under veteran flagman Richard Skidmore. By 25, Simmons had advanced from flagging 4-cylinder races to head flagman for late model, semi-late-model, street-stock, E-mods, dirt bikes and 4-wheeler races.
The hardest part of his job, Simmons said, is the drive to the track and pre-race "butterflies."
There's also fairness to consider, he says. A flagman must have drivers' respect, he adds.
Simmons also has the respect of Merschap, who said he gives Simmons plenty of responsibility in directing races because he trusts his judgment.
"Billy is the best I've ever seen in the position," Merschap said. "Drivers trust he'll do what's right."
Interstate 79 Speedway promoter Steve Baker also likes Simmons' work.
"Billy's the best flagman around," Baker said. "That's why we have him at Interstate."
Sometimes, Simmons has to be an enforcer.
Prior to one race, he told drivers he would "black flag," or disqualify, anyone who got too rough or did too much bumping. The first offender: His brother, who he promptly black-flagged.
One disqualified driver and his pit crew waited on Simmons to return to his home.
"Anything that happens at the race track, stays at the race track," Simmons said he told them in his driveway. That, he said, diffused the situation.
A local seamstress helps control Simmons' costs by making his flags. He also uses hand and arm signals to align cars and count down the final laps. Throughout the race, the flagman communicates with the race scorers via radio.
Safety is critical. Simmons has the discretion to penalize drivers by moving them to the back of the pack for unfair or unsafe tactics. He signals the driver by pointing at the car, raising his left knee high in the air and smacking his left hip.
His fiancé, Teresa Calvert, says some women attend in hopes of seeing her man go through these gyrations.
There is some danger to his work.
Last summer, on the final two laps of a race, a golf-ball size rock flipped up and caught Simmons in the eye. Had it been a smaller rock, doctors said he would have lost his sight in that eye. Although his vision was blurred for about a week, Simmons was back flagging cars the next evening.
Simmons can be seen on April 20 (opening night) at Interstate 79. He also will be working at Roaring Knob when it opens May 5.
For further information, check out www.i79speedway.com or www.roaringknob.com.