10 minutes with... Karen Higgins

Receptionist Karen Higgins spends her weekends clearing accidents, dodging bikes and avoiding aggressive confrontations with crashed and concussed riders. And she does it all for free. Is she mad? Nope, she's a volunteer Bemsee race marshal...

Receptionist Karen Higgins spends her weekends clearing accidents, dodging bikes and avoiding aggressive confrontations with crashed and concussed riders. And she does it all for free. Is she mad? Nope, she's a volunteer Bemsee race marshal...

How and when did you become a marshal?
I first became involved in club racing when my ex-husband raced with BMRC (Bemsee). I'd go along to meetings as a rider's wife and I loved it, you get to know everyone and it's very sociable. When my husband retired my involvement stopped, but in 1998 I felt the need for a hobby and I wondered if there was a way I could get involved again. I remembered the marshals and called Bemsee's Bernadette who said, 'Come along, we'll look after you'. And they did.

Do you get paid for it?
No, it's voluntary. But Bemsee look after us; they put money towards our petrol and if you're a regular marshal they make sure you're covered as far as accommodation is concerned. This is just a weekend thing, I work as a receptionist during the week.

Have you only ever marshalled for Bemsee?
I have covered a couple of track days but only because they were combined with the MRO race school, and I marshalled at several BSB and WSB rounds where it's also voluntary. But I stick to club racing now.

Why stick to club racing rather than the glamour of BSB?
It's a friendlier atmosphere and there's less bullshit. You have to take it just as seriously, but in a more relaxed way. There are some lovely racers in BSB, but at club level you get a lot closer to the riders. And supporting so many riders on one grid adds a lot of interest. The job is a lot more challenging too because they're still learning and there are more crashes, so you gain more experience at club level.

So is your job to clear up the crashes?
Yes, but our main role is to prevent incidents. To do this you need to be very aware. You learn quickly to spot things that aren't quite right and you're continually looking out for machine problems.

What do you do in the event of an accident?
I'm an incident officer, which means I'm the eyes and ears of race control. My role is to stand back and get an overall view of what's going on and I only get involved if I have to. I radio the incident number over to race control and let them know if things are clearing up okay. If the rider doesn't get up instantly I call a standby and possible medical attention. If necessary I call for a race stop and race control will ask all marshal points to put out a red flag. Sometimes my role is to assist, and your immediate reaction is to rush out and clear the accident quickly and safely. But you have to be aware of your personal safety so it's important to hesitate. Bikes can suddenly dig in, and you wouldn't rush out when a rider has just deposited a load of oil on the track as you'll get the rest of the pack landing on top of you.

Do the riders ever get nasty?
Most riders are lovely, but there is the odd one who gets aggressive, especially if he's hit his head. You wouldn't get into an argument with them but there have been occasions where I've had to walk away because I'm getting annoyed. I'm not very tolerant as we're doing the best job we can.

What does it take to be a good marshal?
Most of the skills are acquired through experience, but you do need passion for the sport and the will to be out there. If you've got that the rest follows and you rapidly acquire a good sense of what's going on. We work as a team so we all have our strengths and weaknesses. One marshall can't pick up bikes because he has a bad back, but he's happy to do flags all day and he's good at looking out for things. You have to concentrate hard on your section of track and get the flag out immediately to let the riders know there's something in the track. You often have to make split second decisions and be able to think on your feet. We do limited amounts of first aid; at the track side you have medical experts there instantly so all you really need to learn is how to make the rider comfortable.

It must be quite daunting at times
It can be scary. If a marshal makes the wrong decision it can lead to terrible consequences as we're the only line of communication to the riders.

So how can a job that carries that much responsibility be voluntary?
It needs to be voluntary. We're all doing it because we love it and that's the right reason. We want things to run smoothly and the riders to be safe. If people did it for the pay maybe they wouldn't feel so passionate about it.

Is being a marshal exciting?
Sometimes you stand at a post and you're so close to the riders you can almost touch them, and you can feel their adrenaline. Yours is pumping too because you don't know what's going to happen. But it can be a long boring day if nothing happens in your section, and thank God it doesn't.

What is the most rewarding aspect of the job?
The camaraderie. People from all walks of life come together and, although we are involved in different ways, we're all doing it because we share a passion. I've stood on the edge of the track bawling my eyes out so many times after watching a rider who's been struggling all year finally get their trophy. But it's not all happy. It's painful to watch riders you know struggle for sponsorship and bankrupting themselves to do the sport they love. Often I've had to comfort and reassure riders before the medical services arrive. Sometimes they'll come up to me afterwards and say how nice it was to have a friendly face and voice there for them - you know anyway how much it means to them, but it's nice to be told.