The first week of October 1973 saw Liz and me back at the Glen for the Grand Prix. This time we camped south of the access road to the auto tunnel and southeast of the infamous bog. We chose to camp outside the track because it was still cheaper. We arrived on Friday evening, as usual, and pitched the tent next to a guy from Philadelphia, who was there by himself. After we had eaten, I built a campfire and invited our neighbor to join us. The weather was nice, with clear skies and the usual cool temperatures. We spent a pleasant evening sitting around the campfire visiting with our neighbor.
On Saturday morning, three of the U-Haul trucks that were still a favorite accommodation for many Glen fans pulled in and parked in a circle just to the west of us. The three trucks were all part of one group of guys who turned out to be a rather rowdy bunch. They had several kegs of beer and unloaded a ton of firewood from one of the trucks. Not normal split firewood, mind you, but huge sections of tree trunks! They also had a rather loud set of stereo equipment that they powered with a generator. It was not long before I began to regret our choice of campsite.
The Glen was once more the last race of the year on the F1 calendar and, again, the championship had already been decided with Jackie Stewart clinching his third title. There was much speculation that this would be Stewart’s 100th and last Grand Prix as rumors of his planned retirement swirled around the F1 circus.
Stewart’s championship was not won without some controversy, however. At Monza, team boss Ken Tyrell used team orders and had Cevert let Stewart by. The race was won by Ronnie Peterson in the Lotus, with his teammate Fittipaldi in second. Colin Chapman did not give Peterson an order to let Fittipaldi past for the win. Had he done so, Fittipaldi would have most likely won the championship.
It had been a bad year in Formula One with a fatal accident at Zandvoort in Holland. Roger Williamson crashed, was trapped in his car and burned to death. For some inexplicable reason, no rescue service arrived at the crash site in a timely fashion. David Purley stopped his car and ran to Williamson’s aid. As live TV cameras rolled, they captured the heart-wrenching scene as Purley desperately tried unsuccessfully to get Williamson out of his burning car. It is without a doubt the most disturbing F1 footage I have ever seen. Earlier that year at the South African Grand Prix, Mike Hailwood was able to pull Clay Regazzoni from his burning car. Both Purley and Hailwood were given medals for bravery.
Liz and I watched the morning practice in the same grandstands where we had watched the last two races. In the closing minutes of the practice, all the cars stopped coming around and we were speculating on what might have happened. Then the PA finally announced that there had been an incident at the top of the esses. Finally, cars began to come past again, but very slowly. The last car to come by was Jackie Stewart. It was the last time any of us would see Jackie in an F1 car. The incident in the esses involved his teammate, Francois Cevert, whose car left the track and disintegrated after slamming head-long into the guardrail. Cevert was killed instantly.
Ken Tyrrell withdrew Stewart and his other teammate, Chris Amon, from the race even though that cost him a chance at the constructor’s championship. The rest of the drivers, most of whom had stopped at the crash site, had no stomach for further qualifying so the morning times were used to set the field. Jackie Stewart retired right then and there.
Later that sad day, we were sitting in front of our tent when our neighbor from Philadelphia came back to his tent. He stopped and told us that he had been right there at the fence when Cevert crashed. He said he could see he was going to hit the guardrail right in front of where he was standing, so he ducked. He heard the impact and debris rained down on him and other nearby spectators. Fortunately, no one was injured but they all knew the crash had to be fatal because there was nothing left of the car.
As other drivers stopped at the scene and emergency vehicles began to arrive, he looked down and saw a driver’s shoe lying there. He picked it up to throw it back over the fence towards the emergency crews, and to his horror, realized Cevert’s foot was still in the shoe. After sharing this gruesome tale, he said good-bye, packed up his tent and left for home.
I had been at a track before when a driver was killed and it is always a real downer. This was Liz’s first time and it was made especially bad by hearing our departed neighbor’s story. Liz and I spent the rest of the day sitting around a campfire, barely talking. The guys in the U-haul trucks however, did not seem to let the day’s tragic event dampen their spirits. They had the stereo cranked up to full volume and were partying big time. I am not even sure if any of them had even seen a racecar that day.
The bog was in full swing as well. The track had banned unlicensed cars and had put a chain link fence up around the bog itself. That did not last long. Not having any vehicles of their own, the denizens of the bog would steal some poor soul’s car, drive it to the bog and burn it. They just drove right through the fence. I am sure there were only a handful of guys who were stealing the cars, but there were a couple of hundred spectators cheering lustily each time a new sacrifice to the bog arrived. I could not believe that track security allowed this to go on, but they were nowhere to be seen.
Flames in the Bog again
That night, we went to bed with that stereo still thumping for all it was worth. I tried to sleep but just could not with that stereo going. Finally, around 2 am, I had had enough. I told Liz I was going over there to tell them to turn the music off and if they refused, I had my hatchet and I was doing to chop off the wires to the speakers. Liz did not think it wise for me to try this with about a dozen drunks around, but I was determined. I told her if I was not back in a few minutes to go find a security guard because I was probably going to be in need of serious help.
I am not a particularly brave guy, and not much of a fighter, but I was totally ticked off. Steeling myself, I walked into the circle formed by the trucks, hatchet in hand. There was a huge bonfire going that Bunky would have loved. The fire had these gigantic logs piled up ten feet high with flames leaping another 20 feet in the air. But to my amazement, there was no one there! The stereo was still blaring, but no one was around.
Finally, I noticed a guy sound asleep (more likely passed out) in a lounge chair. I walked over and with some effort was able to wake him up. He stared dumbly at me and I said, "Hey, man - it is two in the morning. Would you mind shutting off that damn stereo?" He blinked a couple times and said, "Oh, sure! I’m sorry." And he went over to it and switched it and the generator off. Blessed silence ensued!!! The silence even drew a few cheers from others camped in the area. I thanked him and went back to our tent were Liz was waiting nervously, convinced she was about to be made a widow after only a year of marriage.
With the grid positions for the race set by the Saturday morning practice times, Ronnie Peterson was on the pole in his Lotus. Carlos Reutemann’s Brabham was second, followed by Fittipaldi in a Lotus, and James Hunt in the Hesketh March. The Hesketh team had the coolest logo I have ever seen in F1. It was a cute little teddy bear wearing a helmet with the British flag on it, but they had to stop using it a year or so later. Some company sued them for copyright infringement because they had a similar teddy bear symbol as their trademark. I bet theirs was not wearing a racing helmet, though.
Hesketh Racing Teddy Bear Logo on the Hesketh March
Liz and I went up into the same stands where we had watched practice, and settled in for the race. I must admit that it was a pretty subdued crowd, with yesterday’s tragedy still on everyone’s mind. Peterson took the lead at the start and after four laps, Hunt passed Ruetemann to take second place. Denny Hulme moved quickly up through the field from his eighth place on the grid into fourth.
Peterson and Hunt made the race exciting as they ran nose to tail at the front with Ruetemann remaining a threat. Fittipaldi flat spotted his tires avoiding a spinning Scheckter and had to pit. In the closing laps, Hunt challenged for victory but Peterson held him off and they crossed the line separated by only six-tenths of a second. Ruetemann was third with Hulme and Revson fourth and fifth in their McLarens, and Fittipaldi managed to collect sixth.
Ronnie Peterson in the Lotus 72E
The weekend had been a downer with the death of Cevert and Stewart’s retirement from Formula one, but the race was exciting. If nothing else, we knew as we headed for Niagara Falls that we had seen an historic event.
Copyright © 2006 by Terry Aasen