Story and photos by Rich Martin
By the time the 1973 United States Grand Prix came around I practically made Watkins Glen my second address. My big brother Joe really started something special for me, between Grand Prix racing, Can-Am, Le Mans sports cars, Trans Am, Formula A/5000, and any other sports car event we could go to, it was just about all I was thinking about!
We had been to a number of events together since 1969 and rather than stay in a hotel room we started thinking about staying at the track. In 1972 we rented a Winnebago with some of my brothers friends and even though it was a total disaster (more on that in another story!) we really enjoyed being at the track all the time. For the Grand Prix in October it looked like it would be just a family affair so Joe and I rented a pickup truck with attached camper from a local RV place. We made our way up to Watkins Glen early Friday morning arriving at about 10AM. It was cool and damp but the sun was out and we were psyched up for a great weekend! With a nice camping site set up we made our way to the pit roof where we had bought seats to view the USGP action.
All the cars were out and we were running up and down the pit lane snapping pictures and enjoying the sights and sounds of F1. It was an awesome time in F1 with newly crowned world champion Jackie Stewart and Francois Cevert in their Tyrrell Fords, joined this weekend by Chris Amon in a third car. 1972 World Champion Emerson Fittipaldi and Ronnie Peterson were in gorgeous John Player Special-liveried Lotus 72 machines, James Hunt was very quick in his Hesketh March, Denny Hulme and Peter Revson were there in beautiful Yardley McLarens joined this weekend by Jody Scheckter in a third M23.
Other top drivers and cars at the 1973 United States Grand Prix were Arturo Merzario in a Ferrari, Carlos Reutemann and Wilson Fittipaldi were in Brabhams, Graham Hill ran an independent Shadow, and the factory Shadows were there as well with George Follmer and Jackie Oliver, Surtees had a three-car team of Carlos Pace, Mike Hailwood, and Jochen Mass. Another three-car team was entered by BRM with Jean Pierre Beltoise, Clay Regazzoni, and Niki Lauda. Rounding out the field were two cars entered by Frank Williams, ISO Fords driven by Jacky Ickx and Howden Ganley. Mike Beuttler in a March, Rikki Von Opel in an Ensign, and Jean Pierre Jarrier in a March filled out the field .
As I recall practice and qualifying on Friday was uneventful and we enjoyed walking around taking in the sights of not only the cars but all the nonsense that went on at Watkins Glen at that time. There were thousands of people everywhere around the track, it was a very friendly crowd, probably because of the gallons of beer that were consumed by most of them! The bog was in full swing, we watched from a safe distance and it was always fun to see a drunken muddy topless girl once in awhile!
Saturday morning dawned a bit damp but the sun was out and it was reasonably comfortable. We made our way over to the pit roof and within minutes all the teams were coming out. We were sitting towards one end and I remember looking down to see Francois Cevert walking past with a girl, smoking a cigarette and limping slightly. Stewart, Fittipaldi, Peterson, Hulme, Revson, and the rest all followed as the teams got ready for practice and qualifying.
All went well until just before the session was over when everything went quiet. We didn’t know what was happening and there was no announcement right away so we waited. It was obvious something really bad happened by the reaction up and down the pit lane, I remember looking down in pit lane and seeing a man from one of the teams whisper something in a woman’s ear and she burst into tears. It was an awful feeling. After a bit the announcement came that Francois Cevert had crashed heavily in the uphill esses and was killed. It was the most surreal thing I had experienced to that point in my young life, I felt absolutely numb. My memory of what followed is a bit fuzzy but I remember an honor guard coming out, a moment of silence, and I think there was a band that played something in honor of Cevert. We retired back to the camper to mull over the events. My brother woke up that morning not feeling well and after what happened he wanted to leave. I talked him out of it and we went back out when the cars came out for the afternoon session. Surprisingly, Francois Cevert’s teammates at Tyrell, Jackie Stewart and Chris Amon, were out with the other cars. It seemed like everyone was just going through the motions and the session ended without any further drama, Ronnie Peterson ending up with pole position. We found out later that Tyrrell would withdraw and we wouldn’t see Jackie Stewart run his 100th Grand Prix.
At that time they would open the track to the spectators after the action ended. I was surprised when my brother asked if I wanted to take a walk to the esses. I didn’t question why, I just went with him and to this day I don’t know why he wanted to go there. When we got to the spot of the accident there was quite a crowd there. Everyone was quiet, I wanted to believe it didn’t happen but it did. Someone laid out large stones to make a cross close to the spot and we just stood there for a few minutes solemnly. I noticed at my feet was a small sliver of blue fiberglass, perhaps only a half inch wide by two inches long. Without thinking I picked it up and nudged my brother with my elbow. He looked at it for a second and in an angry voice said “put that down!” I dropped it, quite startled by his reaction. Later on I asked him why he reacted that way and he told me it would have been disrespectful to take it. It was a day I’ll never forget.
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