Indy 500 flagman living his dream, inspiring others along the way

SPEEDWAY, Ind. — The checkered flag is an icon of racing. It decorates homes across Indiana in the month of May.

But the two checkered flags that really matter will be in the hands of Aaron Likens on Sunday.

”Whether or not you know racing,” Likens said, “Odds are you know the checkered flag.”

It’s an honor for Likens to be one of two chief starters for the NTT IndyCar Series. He’s a lifelong IndyCar fan and was a spectator at the Indy 500 for years before getting his dream job.

”I either wanted to cross the yard of bricks first after 200 laps or wave the flag after 200 laps, either or,” Likens said.

Likens has worked his entire life to get where he is now. He first started waving a flag when he was five years old.

Now, Likens climbs the more than 20 feet on a skinny ladder into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway flag stand. He always ties the eight different flags he uses to a rope, and then pulls them up to the stand.

You’ll see Likens waving the green flag with the honorary starter, the double checkered flag at the finish and every flag in between. But his job is much more than just that.

Likens and the others in the flag stand are monitoring the race, listening to five different radio channels and scanning the track below them for any issues. Likens stands the entire time, saying it’s all adrenaline.

”The world ends in the front row, it doesn’t exist,” Likens said. “You become so focused on what’s going on out there.”

That doesn’t mean the pre-race traditions and pageantry don’t still impact this lifelong Indy 500 fan.

“‘Back Home Again in Indiana’ plays, and I’m in tears, even up there,” Likens said as he pointed to the flag stand.

It doesn’t take long for Likens to regain his focus, though.

”Emotions go away,” Likens said. “It’s game time.”

Likens is there for the beginning of the race and the end, waving the double checkered flag as the the winner of the Indianapolis 500 speeds by 20 feet below him over the Yard of Bricks.

”Words fail me,” Likens said grinning. “That smile, I hope, says it all because it’s indescribable.”

The way Likens waves the flags is expressive to say the least. It’s a barrage of speed and twirling, creating a blur of black and white as Likens’ face is locked in concentration.

”I wave completely subconscious,” Likens said. “I don’t know what I’m doing, so a new move can pop in there somewhere.”

This dream hasn’t come easy for Likens, though. When he was 20 years old, he was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome.

”My doctor didn’t even know what it was when he read the assessment,” Likens said.

In the early 2000s, when Likens was diagnosed, awareness of the autism spectrum was nowhere near what it is today.

”First thing I read was people with Asperger’s will never have a job, will never have friends, will never be happy,” Likens said.

At first, Likens believed what he read to the point where he dealt with depression. But through his love for writing and racing, he’s reversed his mindset in the years since he received his diagnosis.

”If you believe nos, don’ts and cants,” Likens said, “That is what will happen.”

Likens came out with his second book this year — ‘Playing in Traffic: My Journey from an Autism Diagnosis to the Indy 500 Flag Stand.’ He hopes his story can inspire others in a similar position.

”I was told many years ago that dreams don’t come true,” Likens said. “My Indianapolis dream came true.”

Sunday will be Likens’ third time flagging the Indy 500 from start to finish. When the engines roar, look for Likens in the flag stand.

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