Green Flag On A Dream: Local Official Rich Keator Living Out Childhood Fantasy On Track

STAFFORD – You can find them at most any short track around the country.

Rich Keator (Photo: John Driscoll)

Rich Keator (Photo: John Driscoll)

They are the kids who work the grandstand, mimicking every move made by the starter on the flag stand. Some do it with a solitary concession stand sold checkered flag or some even fashion their own miniature set of colored flags to make their impressions that much more realistic.

Rich Keator, surprisingly, wasn’t one of those kids. When his father took him to races at the old Riverside Park Speedway in Agawam, Mass. as a child Keator would put each moment of the event he watched in his memory bank.

“I would buy the little checkered flags from the concession stand, but I ended up making my own little flag set at home, but I would never bring them to the track,” Keator said. “Oddly enough, me being a little weird sometimes, I was the kid who would go home and replay the whole race in my grandparents’ driveway on Sunday morning. I would flag the whole race right from their side porch.”

Today the flags are real for Keator and instead of a porch, he’s working flag stands at short tracks across New England, living a dream he’s had since he started attending short track events at five years old.

“I don’t remember how it exactly started, there’s kids that grew up wanting to race, but I grew up wanting to be a flagman,” Keator said. “It’s kind of a weird thing I guess.”

The 26-year old Keator is currently the chief starter for the touring Valenti Modified Racing Series. On Friday nights he’s the chief starter at Stafford Motor Speedway for the track’s NASCAR Whelen All-American Series action. He’s also the chief starter on Monday nights at Stafford for the Ceric Fabrication Karting Series. Keator also serves as the assistant starter  for Whelen All-American Series action at Thompson International Speedway.

The Terryville native spent five years working as a starter at the Waterford Speedbowl before leaving the shoreline oval after last season and he also has worked this season with the Granite State Pro Stock Series.

“I grew up relatives of relatives of [former Modified team owner] Bob Judkins and the Judkins family,” Keator said. “I was going to Riverside [Park Speedway] as a child and my dad worked on Street Stocks at Thompson and Stafford back in the early 70’s. I was kind of born into it.”

Keator’s not exactly sure where the driven passion to become a flagger came from, but he points a bit to the fact that longtime Riverside Park Speedway flagger Billy Dunn was his father’s mailman when his father was growing up.

“So I always kind of idolized Billy Dunn,” Keator said.

After Riverside Park Speedway closed in 1999 Keator stopped going to the races, but the desire to become a racing official didn’t wane in his time away from the track.

“The very first place I flagged for real was at the Berlin Fairgrounds when they ran Quarter Midgets,” Keator said. “Gary Bienkowski, a really good family friend, asked me if I would be willing to flag. That was in 2005 if I remember right.”

In 2007 Keator started working in the pits at Stafford Motor Speedway, working as an official in numerous capacities, none of which included working the flag stand.

“I had contacted some people at the Speedway at the end of the season in 2006 about helping there,” Keator said. “Then I contacted [former track official Jimmy Milo] during the winter and [Spring Sizzler weekend 2007] was the first weekend I worked there.”

Keator worked primarily in the handicapper’s booth at Stafford, waiting for the opportunity to work the flag stand at the historic half-mile oval.

Then an opportunity presented itself on the other side of the state. In 2008, Waterford Speedbowl starter Craig Merriman contacted Keator about working part-time as a flagger at the shoreline oval. Keator jumped at the opportunity and by the start of the 2009 season he was a full-time starter at Waterford.

Keator’s father passed away of sarcoma cancer in October 2009.

“Working that year at Waterford was special because my dad was sick at the time and he was there,” Keator said. “It was very special for me that he was able to see me living out that childhood dream of flagging at a short track. It means the world to me that he was able to see me do that because he put the racing bug into me. He’s the reason why I love it so much.”

In addition to his duties at tracks during racing season, Keator also works as the head volleyball coach at Terryville Middle School and works in the school’s athletics department during the winter. Racing though is the bulk of his life.

“I never envisioned this, but the more and more I got involved the more I wanted to do it,” Keator said. “It’s definitely a passion and I really hope to someday move up the ladder. It would be nice to have high dreams that I could make a living off it someday, but I don’t know if that’s ever going to happen.”

It didn’t take long for Keator to realize the danger involved in an innocent childhood dream. There was never flying debris – or flying cars for that matter – launched at him during his days flagging from his grandparents’ porch. But he realized just how dangerous it could be on a short track in his first race at Waterford when former competitor Jeffrey Paul flipped his SK Modified under the flag stand.

“My first show and I’ve got a car on its roof,” Keator said. “I don’t know if I have a scariest moment though, they all kind of blend in together over time.

“You have to be fearless. It’s amazing, people don’t realize how tough of a job it is. People say, ‘You just get up there and wave a piece of cloth stapled to a stick.’ But you get hit with all kinds of things. You’re in the eye of the crowd and they basically think that you’re running the show. They don’t realize there’s a race director telling you what calls to make. So that makes it interesting at times.”

Keator said he finds entertainment in the fans that make their way to the flag stand to colorfully direct their displeasures at him about the way a race has been officiated.

“I enjoy that, it’s part of the show,” Keator said. “An official once told me that you’re kind of the conductor of the orchestra up there. You’re at the center of it all. You get the humor out of it when the crazy stuff happens. You just laugh.”

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Comments

  1. coors light says

    nice story !

  2. Sharpie Fan says

    Keator,

    May your flags continue to wave for many seasons!

  3. Keep up the good work. So proud of you. <3

  4. Thanks for saving my engine a couple Mondays ago. I threw my hands up at ya but if I didn’t get off it woulda seized.

  5. My kids ran that first race at the Berlin Fairgrounds and I remember you being a GREAT flagman there, no idea it was your first time, that was a great day after ALOT of hard work.

  6. Pete "Mugzy" Newsham says

    Great Story!! Great Guy 🙂

  7. Good read, nice to hear of childhood dreams coming true!

  8. Congrats keator! Well deserved.
    Gonna miss having you around though

  9. mike serluca says

    One of the best guys involved in auto racing. This is an excellent story about Rich. The time he puts in, the enthusiasm he brings to the track, and the professionalism he displays are unmatched, plus he’s just cool as hell. Keep on keepin’ on buddy. Good luck in all your future endeavors. Nobody deserves it more than you. great article Shawn

  10. Dave Dykes says

    Excellent story about one of local racing’s “good guys.”

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