Hall of Fame starter Tom McTaggart calls Penn Relays "a well-oiled chainsaw"

Starter Tom McTaggart is one of the many officials who bring experience and expertise to the Penn Relays. John Nepolitan/ESPNHS

When Tom McTaggart was invited to his own induction into the Rockland County, N.Y., Sports Hall of Fame last year, he had to inform the event’s organizers that he couldn’t make it. The date conflicted with the Penn Relays.

This year, the banquet has been moved to Sunday.

McTaggart and three other starters will engage in the weekend’s longest relay at Philadelphia’s Franklin Field (a fifth starter will handle the multi events and Thursday night’s races). There are more than 640 races this weekend at the Penn Relays and each one of them will begin with start commands and the pop of a starter’s pistol.

McTaggart has served as the starter at the Olympic Games (1996), numerous Olympic Trials, and almost every significant domestic track and field event. He works throughout the winter indoor season and then allows himself just two weekends off each spring. He will be the coordinator of the timing crew at the 2012 Olympic Trials in June. Even the handle of his email address is "MrStarter."

He began at Penn Relays – an event he calls “a well-oiled chainsaw” – in 1989.

At Penn Relays, the starters are like traffic cops. When the gun sounds, it’s time to go.

And with McTaggart, and the other veteran members of the starters’ crew, athletes at the Penn Relays are in expert hands.

McTaggart will enter the above-mentioned hall of fame not only for his status as a starter, but also for a long career at Suffern High School, where he taught and coached for 36 years (retiring in 2009). He started his first race in 1970, on a day when the regular starter failed to show up. He became one of the best in the business under the wing of Frank Bailey, the official starter of the 1984 Los Angeles Games.

What makes a great starter?

“Patience, confidence, and knowing what you’re doing,” McTaggart said. “An understanding of what athletes are going through, and an ultimate sense of fairness.”

McTaggart says each races begins with “the palpable moment of stillness,” a poetic description of the 1.5 to two seconds between “Set!” and the shot.

Last year, the starter’s crew kept track of the number of shells that were fired, including recalls: 659. Each starter does five races in a row (keeping one extra shell in case a re-start is required) and then rotates out to join the recall crew and reload.

For the 4x200s, with the enormous stagger, starters crack a .38 caliber gun (shooting blanks) for a louder sound that every competitor can hear above the din of the crowd. For the rest of the events, it’s a .32 caliber starter’s pistol.

The Penn Relays has remarkably few false starts. In 2011, McTaggart said there were only six.

“If a kid wiggles, we stand them up,” he said.

What advice does McTaggart have for this week’s newcomers to Penn? He ponders the question and the coach in him comes back to the surface.

  • “On the 4x1s, hopefully you run a good turn, because you are almost running into the next one, so get used to handing off on a turn,” he said.

  • “In any other race, run with your elbows wide. If you think you’re out and about to go down, fall before you get to the clock (for a re-start). I used to have my team practice a tuck-and-roll.”

  • “The big thing is, don’t be afraid. It’s just another meet. Kids get nervous because of the crowd. Treat it like it’s just another meet.”