In Their Own Words: Las Vegas, Kansas. Hmmmm...
By James Likens
Editor's note: The opinions expressed herein are those of the author exclusively.
If you've ever watched a race or been to one, nothing
happens until the flagman throws the green flag. On November 21-23 one of the largest professional kart races in the world took place in the parking lot of the Rio Hotel
and Casino in Las Vegas, Nev. And, like any other race, nothing happened until the flagman threw the green. This year that flagman was Aaron Likens of St. Louis, Mo.
But how does a young man with Asperger's Syndrome (diagnosed when he was 20) become the flagman for one of the largest kart races in the world? Well, it's really all about Kansas.
L to R: Aaron Likens and Tom Kutscher at the
SuperNats. Photo by Richard Grimm
I'm his dad, so let me explain. When I was a pastor in Indianapolis Aaron attended the pre-school at my church. During the month of May, when school was over at noon, he
and I would travel the one mile to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. We would park in the infield and run to the grandstand where we would sit, waiting. Waiting for what? When he was five I bought him
his first set of racing flags. On weekends he would spend the entire afternoons waving those flags as he watched races on television.
Aaron's real hero was not Mario, or Michael, or
one of the Unsers. No, his hero was Duane Sweeney, starter and flagman of the Indy 500 from 1980 to 1996. When he was seven, I asked Joan, a member of my church who worked for
USAC, the sanctioning body of the Indy 500, if she could get an autographed picture from Duane.
One morning I got a call from Joan and she asked me to come over because she had
something for Aaron. When I arrived she handed me an envelope with a picture of Duane Sweeney and autographed “To Erin.” (He spelled his name wrong, but so what.)
Then she said she had something else. She left the kitchen where we were drinking coffee and came back with a checkered flag. Again, autographed by Duane “To Erin.” She told me
Duane always did a double checkered flag at the end of the 500. One of the flags would be signed by all the drivers in the field and the winner received that flag. Arie Luyendyk would have received that
flag on May 27, 1990. Instead, it went to a seven year old boy.
As he grew, the only thing Aaron wanted to do with his life was race. When he was 12 he started
racing go-karts. At the track I noticed that he preferred sitting across the track with the Frankie, the 80 year old flagman, rather than running around with the other drivers. Well, it must be because
Duane Sweeney gave him that checkered flag. Before that first year was over, Aaron became the assistant flagman because Frankie really didn't know the difference between eight or 12 laps when it
came to a 10 lap race.
The next year, when Aaron was 13, he became the head flagman for the St. Louis Karting Association
(SLKA), making him one of the youngest chief starters in American racing. He began telling people,
“I've wanted to race since I was five years old. That's “Plan A” for my life. There is no “Plan B.” Well,
since his dad isn't a millionaire “Plan A” hasn't happened (yet). But the flag thing, boy has that ever happened.
Aaron raced karts for seven years before going back to flagging races. He also became the race director and ran the entire weekend of racing for the SLKA. Three years ago he became the race
director/flagman for a regional racing series, which became part of Super Karts: U.S.A. (SKUSA). Last summer, Tom Kutscher, owner, president, and CEO of SKUSA, came to a race in St. Louis. One of the
biggest kart races in the world was five months away and a flagman for five years. But then he saw Aaron.
“Aaron was so cool the way he ran the race,” Kutscher told me. “I love to see people that dedicated
to racing. Aaron was the most dedicated flagman I had ever seen! I watched him and I said ‘this guy needs to be at the SuperNats' (in Las Vegas).”
After the final race, during the trophy presentation, while Aaron was standing by him, Kutscher announced “And I would like to introduce to you the new flagman for the 2008 SuperNats: Aaron
Likens.” Aaron thought he was going to die, and then he was sure he had and had gone to heaven.
Kutscher told me two days before the race, “It's exciting when you can make life a little better for someone. I've worked with a bunch of people. I had to tell my flagger for the last five years that I
found a guy that is way better and that's the guy who's going to do it.”
While writing this (Monday) Aaron is still in Vegas helping to break down the track and clean up.
Aaron told me it was the hardest experience of his life. A few of the old-timers on the race crew didn't appreciate a kid coming in and taking their friend's job. On Sunday, after the final checker flag,
all the old-timers, including the former flagman, told Aaron he was absolutely amazing.
Kutscher was right when he told me “I think this will be one of the best things in his life.” It was. It is
. It will be. I'm also writing this one day before the national release of Aaron's new book “Finding Kansas.”
You see, Aaron wasn't in Las Vegas. For him, it was Kansas. For Aaron, Kansas is that place where a person with Asperger's is most comfortable: In the comfort zone of their interest, obsession, or
whatever you want to call it. Kansas might be planes, trains, rocks, warts. Who knows? For Aaron, Kansas is anything to do with racing.
So, for ten short days in November, in the parking lot of the Rio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Aaron Likens was smack dab in the middle of Kansas.
Want to take a guess who is going to be the flagman for the 2009 SuperNats? You're right. Aaron Likens, author of the new book “Finding Kansas” available at Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com,
tateplublishing.com, and FindingKansas.com.