Colorful Characters: The life of a speedway starter

It takes a village to put on a race. There needs to be safety personnel, officials, and fans present to make a racing event work and be worthwhile. One crucial part of the racing central nervous system is the flagman or starter. This job entails being the main communicator to the drivers on track by using a series of colored cloth flags. The starter tells the drivers when to start, when to stop and when to be cautious.

The most famous starter from the Portland area is Pat Vidan. Born in 1914, Vidan became fascinated with local auto racing. In 1946 he became the chief flagman at Portland Speedway. He believed it was his responsibility to entertain the crowd during intermissions. Local old-time racers remember Vidan doing back flips down the center of the track while they drove on either side of him. He would get on the back of a Multnomah County sheriff officer’s motorcycle and do stunts, including standing atop the rider’s shoulders. Vidan even did caricatures of people in the stands while commentating over the loudspeaker. An article from the Oregon Journal dated March 16, 1958 stated, “It was Vidan’s reputation as one of the nation’s most acrobatic starters that led him to the top.” They list his other talents as “a star ice skater, a three meter diving champion, a motorcycle stunt rider, a top swimmer, a gymnast, a skier and a designer and builder of boats.” He was truly a jack of all trades.

His act was so entertaining that he was invited to flag the Tangerine Bowl race in Florida. There, Tony Hulman the owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, officially invited Vidan to the big leagues. He was an assistant Indy500 starter for four years before becoming the featured flagman in 1964. Though IndyCars were too far too dangerous for his stunts, Vidan liked to be as close to the action as possible.

For 17 years the Portland native waved the checkered before retiring in 1979. He was a frequent guest on TV and talk radio, talking about his experience in racing. Bodybuilder by day, Vidan understood that fitness and a healthy physique is important. Records show that while working and living in Indianapolis he ran a gym close to the racetrack.

Pat Vidan was one of the most prominent auto racing figures to come out of the Portland area. “Although cars roar by him just inches from his body, Vidan has never been injured on the racetrack.” states the Oregon Journal article, there are no indications that Vidan ever had an incident at the races. “A track is no place to get shook up. You are the only means of communication between them (the drivers) and what’s going on at the track. Those fellows depend on you.” he stated. Pat Vidan made it to Indy for a number of years by taking his job seriously. In 1983, Vidan passed away and chose his final resting place to be in Indianapolis. Between acrobatics and walking the paddock, Pat Vidan was one colorful character.