Five years ago Jeff Shumate and his wife moved from Oregon to Alaska.
Not long after the move Shumate was driving to meet someone when he passed by a construction site for a new race track.
“It was actually by chance,” Shumate said. “I drove by the track and thought, ‘Oh man, they’re building an oval track out here.’”
The track was Alaska Raceway Park, a third-mile NASCAR-sanctioned track in Palmer, Alaska – the only asphalt oval track in the state.
The track was just opening, so Shumate decided to see if they were hiring.
“I thought, ‘I think I’m going to see about maybe getting a job there, see if they can put me somewhere just so I can continue to be involved in racing.’
Shumate had no experience flagging races before, or any experience working as a track official. But that season he took over in the flagstand at ARP, and was the first, and still the only, flagger in the track’s history.
Shumate’s grandfather was a drag racer in the 1960s, ’70s, and early ’80s, and his uncle raced dirt cars in the ’80s. Both places are where the love of racing was instilled in Shumate at a young age.
“Some of my earliest memories are of going to the drag strip,” he said. “That was our Saturday night entertainment.”
As Shumate got older and into his 20s he started driving himself at a dirt track, Willamette Speedway in Lebanon, Oregon. The cost of driving became a bit too much, but Shumate stayed in the sport as a spectator and crew member for friends.
“It’s pretty neat to be on all kinds of different perspectives in racing,” he said.
Working at ARP was Shumate’s first experience as a track worker. He initially had no set position he was looking to fill at the track, he just wanted to be able to stay in racing in any way he could.
“I thought, ‘You know what, if they just want to put me in a corner as a spotter or something that would be great. That would be fine with me,’” he said. “I just wanted to get back involved in racing and that community. I never thought in a million years that I’d end up where I am now. It’s interesting.”
Having never been in a flag stand before, Shumate had no formal training for the role. He mostly relied on his own racing experience and a few YouTube videos, but he found there is very little out there to help people learn the ropes of working as a flagger, at least at a smaller local track.
The first race at ARP was his official breaking in period. Shumate said it wasn’t until about his third season when he felt settled into the role and was more comfortable in the stand.
“Really I just try to own that position and try to make the best decisions I possibly can and accept the fact that I’m never right,” he said with a laugh. “That’s probably one of the hardest parts about the job is I may be right to some people and wrong to others. It always goes one way or the other.”
Shumate and his wife have fallen in love with Alaska since moving, and he said finding fellow race fans at ARP helped build that love for him and make the transition to a new home easier.
He’s also proud to be part of the history of ARP, and proud to be able to call himself one of a small group of Alaskans who does what he can do at the track.
“We’re the only asphalt oval track in Alaska so it’s really neat to be the first and only NASCAR-sanctioned flagger that I know of in the state,” he said. “As far as I know I think I’m the one and only so far that’s actually been sanctioned by NASCAR, so I get to bring a little bit of maybe history to the park itself and just I guess kind of put my name in the history books as far Alaska Raceway Park goes.”
More than anything, Shumate has found a racing family in his new home, and he’s just as much a part of it as it is a part of him.
“It’s neat to be part of something I really enjoy and I love,” he said. “I’m passionate about racing and have been my whole life. And to be up here and be part of Alaska Raceway Park, it’s just a family-oriented track.”