On Watkins Glen and What It Means to Have Dead Heroes

“How close are we to where… it happened?”

A quick consultation to a track map, a moment to orient myself with respect to the pit lane, and:

“It was right there.”

It was a beautiful day at Watkins Glen International, my first time actually seeing the track itself.  We’d paid our $25 and had lined up our car near the gate by the Red, White, and Blue grandstand – the grandstand that we promptly mounted to the satisfaction of a view of the beautiful upstate New York countryside: in the distance, rolling hills; thick, puffy clouds dancing around the sun; a dark strip of asphalt ribboning through the greenery.  To my right, turn 1.  To my left, the Esses.

To my left, the place where one of my heroes died.

François Cevert was 29 when he died.  An accident during practice for the 1973 United States Grand Prix had claimed his life on the day before the final race of the season.  Just a little over 24 hours later, he would have been the lead driver for the team, with his mentor Jackie Stewart planning to retire and hand the reins over to the capable Frenchman.  But, too little too late.  François died with a single victory to his name – a victory, ironically, won at the Glen two years before.

The Esses you see today aren’t exactly the ones you would have seen back then.  The layout of the circuit has been the same since they added the Boot in 1971, but with one exception: a chicane was added leading up to the Esses to slow cars as they approached.  The changes, initially inspired by François Cevert’s accident and reaffirmed by Helmut Koinigg’s, took place in 1975.

But knowing that doesn’t change the fact that looking down that section of the track was enough to make my heart skip a beat and send chills down my spine.  There I was, 1700 miles away from home and 2000 miles deep in a motorsports road trip, and I had finally laid eyes on the place that had claimed the life of someone I hold in deep regard, someone who had passed away over four decades prior, over two decades before I was even born.

One thousand and seven hundred miles away from home, two thousand miles into a road trip, twenty years into my life, and somehow, finally, I had ended up on that particular grandstand at Watkins Glen.


 

Falling in love with Formula 1 in the 1970s wasn’t much of a shock.  I grew up on a steady diet of classic rock, American muscle cars, and a whole era that had been over and done with long before my parents had reached adulthood.  It appealed to everything that’s captivated my attention: fast living, faster cars, and fatalism captured in the nostalgic sepia tints of Polaroid cameras.  It was why I latched onto François Cevert.  Something about those charming blue eyes, the fond way he’s remembered, and the tragedy of wasted potential had me hooked from the very first time I heard his story.  His story is the kind I would love to write novels about.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of those so-called racing purists who wants to go back to a time when “men were men“.  I would have loved to be there for races in the early 70s because there was just something…. different back then.  There’s something beautiful about an era when championship winning cars were conceived in someone’s woodshed, when every car on the grid looked drastically different because everyone was pursuing different areas of technology in a time when development wasn’t widely publicized, when drivers’ helmets were distinctive because they were unmarred by sponsorships.  In some ways, it was a simpler time.

But the beauty and simplicity is only the shiny veneer hiding the grotesque truth of the matter.  It was one of the most dangerous eras of racing in history, where technology advanced exponentially to create faster, sleeker, more dangerous, and more experimental cars that were running on tracks designed for their slower predecessors.  It was not uncommon for accidents to be fatal, life-threatening, or incredibly dangerous.  I might look back at pictures of open paddocks and diverse starting grids through rose-tinted glasses, but I also know that so many of those once-smiling drivers never came home to their families again.

For me, that is, I think, part of retro F1’s appeal.  I can embrace it from a distance, with a comforting padding of time separating me from heartbreak.  I don’t have to watch a handful of drivers die each year.  I can recognize that it happened and mourn their loss, but never personally.  I can visit the scenes, the places where these men lived and died, but I never have to experience it firsthand.

It was something I became fully aware of that day at the Glen.  The summer before, I had gone to the quiet Parisian suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine and visited the quiet second floor apartment where François Cevert had lived; a few months later, I had done a quick detour to the Seneca Lodge to lay my very own hands on the piano that he had played that still remains in the bar; and less than a year later, I was overlooking the place where he had died.  Each trip had hurt, had wrenched emotion through the pit of my stomach and made my heart ache, but not in the way it would have if I had been standing atop that very same grandstand on the late October morning in 1973 that had claimed Cevert’s life.  I have to experience it through the lens of half a century, through phantom engines screaming across an otherwise silent track and impressions left by events I know through tales only.

To have a hero who died before you were born is not a tragedy as some might think.  There’s a sadness there, yes, a longing for something forever out of reach.  But there’s a future in it, too.  Each time you remember someone who has gone, you keep them alive in a sense.  They live through you.  Those little shades of a person that you blend into your own canvases, that’s what makes them immortal.  The philosophies of ancient men have been passed on for generations.  Shakespeare is still performed today, because there was something distinct – something undeniably special – in his works that set him apart from his contemporaries and that still resonates with people today.  We relate to the humor and the tragedy alike.  

To have a hero who died long before you were born is to have imagination.  You will never know or meet this person.  You will never have a chance to tell them what they mean to you, how they affected you.  Your hero will always live inside your mind, a figment of your imagination constructed around stories and pictures and videos that you never came close to experiencing firsthand; maybe, if you’re lucky, through small pieces of tangible items or places.  History provides you the threads, but it’s up to you to weave the picture.

That afternoon at Watkins Glen, I knew I wanted to weave a masterpiece.

 

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3 Comments

  1. It was surreal kind of moment, especially driving through the Esses. You definitely explain the appeal of retro F1 in a way that I’ve never been able to summarise. There’s something so intimate about it compared to how it is today. Now it feels like it’s all sponsors and business and politics whereas then it was about innovation and living life to the full because you didn’t know how much longer you’d be able to do the thing you loved. Kyalami Ranch is still my go to example for the differences you can see in drivers then and now. But Seneca Lodge would probably also apply. Even when the drivers do all hang out these days, it still kind of feels like they’re doing it to make a point, rather because they all just like hanging out together.

    It is a curious thing, though. You say that you latched onto Francois because of “the fond way he’s remembered, and the tragedy of wasted potential”… I wonder if you would have been so drawn to him were he still around now. I suppose it would have been a different kind of attachment, like you have for Jackie, rather than the more 70’s romanticism that Francois will always be encapsulated in.

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    • Bless u for your comment ❤ ❤

      I definitely agree about it feeling more political now. There's kind of a detachment now I think, almost like the difference between a human and a machine (although much less drastic). When drivers hang out now, it's usually in response to something, not a thing they do out of their own volition.

      And that's definitely a good point and something I've thought about before; I'm not entirely sure if I was drawn to François solely because he's kind of encapsulated in an era where nothing can touch him and where nothing could have marred opinions of him, or if I would have appreciated him as much were he still alive. It's kind of the Kurt Cobain situation, y'know? Is he idolized because he was a brilliant musician, or because he died? Would he still be as adored today? It's a tough question to answer but I definitely do think I have a tendency to gravitate toward that tragedy because I like the not knowing and I like coming up with my own endings yknow??

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  2. Only recently found this post – just wanted to say that I found it a really accurate and (beautifully written) summary of what it’s like enjoying old-school F1 as a fan in 2017.

    I’ve always found there to be something about F1 in that period in the early to mid-70s, whether it’s the residual innocence before the politics took hold in earnest in the 80s, or maybe the washed-out early colour footage or even the fact that they all just look so damn cool with their shades and sideburns.

    I totally agree with you on heroes and attachment to characters who died even before you were born – I always felt the same way about Cevert, for many of the reasons you mention but additionally (as a Jackie Stewart fan) for the fact that it was such a sad and poignant end to Stewart’s career. Here he was, having witnessed so many close friends perish, supposed to be enjoying the triumphant last act of a glorious career and anointing his successor within the team, only that very weekend to be reminded of how terribly fragile it all was back then.

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