Mid-Missouri starter brings decades of experience to races

Tuesday, May 5, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 7:08 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, May 6, 2009
Prior to the races, Dave Carlson goes over the rules at the starting line with runners participating in a relay.

An earlier version of this story reported that officials use only red flags to help run track meets. They also use white flags.


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COLUMBIA — On your marks … get set … bang!

The pistol shot rings through the air, and the runners bolt from their starting blocks. Less than a minute later, the first heat of the girls 100-meter hurdles is finished. The next heat lines up and the starter reloads his pistol.

Dave Carlson wears a white MSHSAA polo emblazoned with his name. On his left arm, he wears an orange sleeve. Earplugs hang from his neck and a hat covers his head. At the start of each race, his orange-sleeved arm rises and swings down. Simultaneously, his other arm shoots the pistol into the air. The routine continues throughout the course of the meet.

Carlson, a 71-year-old Columbia native, says he finds track and field an enjoyable experience. When Hickman track coach Steve Kissane first started coaching the Kewpies, Carlson had already become established as a starter with experience going back to 1963. Kissane says starters are an important part of running a quality meet.

“I really enjoy being around the athletes, and outside of coaching, this is the closest I can get to them, ” said Carlson, who was a coach at Jefferson Junior High from 1963 to 1998.

Running a track and field meet properly requires a group of officials to follow a standard set of routines using several different signals.

The first and most recognized signal the starter's pistol. They shoot .22- or .34-caliber blanks, and new laws require closed barrels. The pistols are used not only for their noise, but for the fire and smoke that is ejected from the pistol when it's fired. For meets using electronic scoring, the fire triggers the automated timing.  

Officials also use red and white* flags to keep a meet running smoothly. Officials position themselves at intervals along the track and wave a red flag to let the starter know athletes are ready to begin an event. This time, for a relay race, Carlson stands near the center of the track waiting for officials to signal him from each one of the exchange zones. He blows his whistle when everyone is set.

“I think an experienced starter is important for a quality meet,” Kissane said. “It's unique because the starter is the one who has close contact with athletes right before they compete.”

As Carlson lines up the athletes, he gives them bits of advice and makes sure the rules are clear. Kissane says an experienced starter has a steadying and calming way about them that doesn’t add additional stress to the athlete.

And then the pistol goes off.

At bigger meets like the Hickman Invitational, three starters work as a team to start the races. At this particular meet, Carlson’s team includes Moberly’s Ken Asbury and Mexico’s Ron Whittaker. This team works together starting meets all across mid-Missouri, switching positions.

“Those three gentleman bring a wealth of experience to the meet and we are blessed to have them,” Kissane said.

This time, Carlson pulls the trigger. Asbury stands close to the starting line and drops his arm. Whittaker stands near the exchange zone with the additional runners. As the runners make their way around the track, Carlson watches. His fascination with starting races began with a fascination in coaching.

In 1960, after competing as a shot and and discus thrower in both high school and college, Carlson became a coach and teacher at North Nodaway Junior-Senior High School in Hopkins. After three years there, he came to the MU to get a masters degree and got a job teaching and coaching at Jefferson Junior High. He began starting races at the same time and has continued even after retiring from Jefferson in 1998.

He says it keeps him busy and his participation hasn’t faltered.

“You got your rule books, you have to go to clinics, you work with your partners all the time, talk about rules, and rule changes," Carlson said. "It's fun, but you got to study a little bit.”

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