The Racing Capital
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May 29, 2016
May 13, 2013 | By Tom Surber
As a youngster who once had the goal of being a driver at the Indianapolis 500, Aaron Likens aspires to someday be the individual who waves the green flag to start “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
Likens got a taste of what it’s like to be the flagman at the Indianapolis 500 when he served as the honorary starter for the Indianapolis 500 practice session Monday, May 13 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“What an experience to be on the wall there and watch a car coming out of Turn 4 coming at me,” Likens said. “It’s just unbelievable. To say I’ve given the green for IndyCar at Indianapolis, not many people can say that. It’s a dream come true.”
For Likens, 30, today’s special moment has been years in the making.
Former residents of Indianapolis who now live in St. Louis, Likens and his father, James, have been coming to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway since Aaron was 3 years old.
James Likens realized early that his son was following in his footsteps as a huge race fan, so he bought Aaron his first set of race flags at the IMS gift shop when he was 4 years old. Aaron loved to wave them while watching races on television.
Aaron’s hero then and now is Duane Sweeney, the starter and flagman for the Indianapolis 500 from 1980 to 1996. Aaron’s path to also becoming a flagman began when he received a special gift from Sweeney that was arranged by his father.
James Likens is the former pastor of Messiah Lutheran Church in Indianapolis, and Joan Petrie, who worked at the United States Auto Club located near IMS, was one of the members of the church. James asked Petrie one day in 1990 if she could get an autographed photo of Sweeney for Aaron. What Aaron received in return from Sweeney, who was the flagman when Al Unser and Rick Mears each won their fourth Indianapolis 500s, was a very special checkered flag that Sweeney was going to use in the 1990 Indianapolis 500.
“Duane didn’t use that flag because he learned that he had a fan, and his logic was that he didn’t have many fans,” Aaron said. “I wanted an autographed picture, but he wanted to do one better, so he decided to give this kid in Indianapolis a flag. His flags were handmade by his wife and she had arthritis, and she didn’t want to have to make another flag. Duane said that he didn’t have many fans and that he wanted to give that flag to me. One morning I was surprised when my dad brought this flag home, and there it was.”
Since receiving the flag, Aaron has had it signed by a number of Indianapolis 500-winning drivers, including A.J. Foyt, Johnny Rutherford and Arie Luyendyk. It was that special checkered flag that Aaron, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome – a form of autism - at age 20, waved from the IMS flag stand Saturday, May 26, 2012 during a photo shoot the day before the 96th Indianapolis 500.
“I think that would have to be the most amazing view of a racetrack,” Aaron Likens said. “In seeing so many cars coming down the straightaway throughout the years and replaying it, that has to be the most awesome view, the most awesome experience, chills down the spine that will last a lifetime.”
Although waving the green flag at IMS to start practice today was a special moment for Aaron, he considers it a precursor to the future. His ultimate goal is to be the flagman someday at the Indianapolis 500, and he’s taking all the necessary steps to make that happen.
At age 13, Aaron became the head flagman for the St. Louis Karting Association, which made him one of the youngest chief starters in American racing. Aaron also has worked hard to become a quarter-midget flagman for USAC, which qualified him to serve as the assistant flagman at the 2012 Hoosier Hundred at the Indiana State Fairgrounds for USAC Silver Crown Championship cars. Likens also serves as the National Series flagman for SuperKarts USA, which hosts one of the largest go-kart races in the world, the annual SuperNats in Las Vegas.
“There have only been a handful of flagmen in America to give Michael Schumacher (seven-time Formula One World Champion) a checkered flag,” said James Likens. “That’s when he raced here (at IMS) at the F1 races and Aaron at the SuperNats in Las Vegas.”
Aaron’s other passion is what he calls the Race to Raise Awareness to Beat Autism. In 2012, he completed a 45-day, 9,000-mile tour of America to raise awareness about autism spectrum disorders. The majority of his trip occurred in April, which is National Autism Awareness Month.
In addition to his many speaking engagements around the country representing Life Skills for TouchPoint Autism Services in St. Louis, Aaron Likens, who was the recipient of the Champion of Mental Health Award for the state of Missouri in 2012, also has written a book about his life entitled “Finding Kansas: Living With and Decoding Asperger’s Syndrome.”
“Most every child or adult with Asperger’s Syndrome has a special interest and obsession, and when they’re involved in that activity they feel normal,” Aaron Likens said. “My ‘Kansas’ is racing. I was flagging a kart race near Kansas City, and while serving as the race director and flagman, I talked with people, made eye contact and appeared normal. When the race was over, two drivers came up to talk to me. All I wanted to do was to get away from them. I realized that night that being in ‘Kansas’ is everything.”
After a 15-month state of depression he endured after first learning about his diagnosis, Aaron Likens began writing about his life and who he was, hoping his father would understand him.
“Ever since I started to write, my goal has simply been to describe what life on the autism spectrum is like so that others can understand us,” Likens said. “Understanding is the foundation for hope, and because I lived without hope for those dark months after being diagnosed, I hope I can do what I can to bring about an added element of awareness so the world might understand us on the spectrum just a little bit more.”
Likens continues to write about his life on his blog that receives thousands of hits per week at www.aaronlikens.com.