1973 United States Grand Prix – Race Profile

Story and photos by Rich Martin

Tyrrell 006 of Francois CevertBy 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.

Francois Cevert in his Tyrrell 006 on Saturday morning

Francois Cevert in his Tyrrell 006 on Saturday morning

Francois Cevert - Tyrrell 006

Francois Cevert in his Tyrrell 006 chatting with crew on Saturday

Francois Cevert on one of his last, if not the last lap.

Francois Cevert on one of his last, if not the last lap.

Comments

  1. Pete Patrick says

    Excellent story Rich. The memories of Watkins Glen run deep with me, as does the roar of F1 engines around that great track. Thanks for stirring them up.

  2. says

    Personal story sticks to the point. Info and photos limited to what’s needed. Recounted today in the language of a kid at the time. Cannot do much better than this. Fantastic job.

  3. Tom Bridgers says

    Isn’t that Chris Economaki wearing the red jacket and plaid pants in the winners circle?
    He just turned 90!

  4. Rich Martin says

    It is indeed the famous Chris Economaki in the winners circle. He was always there at the Glen at that time asking drivers famous questions like ‘whats it like out there?” Or on a 100 degree day asking a driver “how hot is it in the car?” Always great entertainment!

  5. Tom Bridgers says

    I remember him calling lots of races back in the day for the fledgling network attempts to bring motor sports to the forefront of entertainment. He was always entertaining.
    Thanks so much for sharing these memories.

  6. John Gauerke says

    Rich, Thanks for sharing. We lierally must have been standing next to each other above the pits because I have the exact sequence of photographs from both mine and my dad’s archives. You nailed it when you said that it was all very surreal after the accident. My lasting memory is how eerily quiet everything became.

    • Corinne MALNOU says

      Hello John,
      I’m French and my boss wants to write a book about François Cevert.
      We are in contact with Rich Martin following the great paper he published in sports car digest.
      Please, have you some pictures of François Cevert at the Glen the sad day of his death ?
      It would be great for us if you could share them with us.
      Best wishes,
      Corinne Malnou

  7. Dieter says

    Excellent text and pictures. See the pretty blond returning James Hunt’s glance in the victory photo. Something going on there?
    I first went to the Glen for the 64 GP and returned many a times. Now, only for the vintage events, as I am vintage, too.

  8. Hank Cornelius says

    I was there with three of my friends. We attended all of the Can-AM and F-5000 races east of the Mississippi that year. Great memories – ‘the bog’ and all. Wasn’t this the year that the Greyhound Secnic Cruiser was sacrificed in the bog?

    • Rich Martin says

      The infamous bus into the bog was the following year, 1974. A group of Brazilian tourists here to cheer for Fittipaldi to win the championship ended up with no luggage for the trip home!

  9. Jurriaan Tas says

    What a poignant story. I was 14 years old at the time and Cevert was a major reason why I became interested in racing. He was everything a racer should be. Good looking, glamorous, cultured and French to boot !!
    I had gone to my first Grand Prix at Paul Ricard earlier that year, where he finished second. As the season progressed, it became obvious he would be the guy to beat in 1974. Jody Scheckter (who had the Ricard race in his pocket until Fittipaldi punted him off) had just been announced as his new team-mate following Stewart’s retirement.
    I remember Ocfober 6th as an altogether horrible day. I was a cold, drizzly autumn dy in Holland and, if I’m not mistaken, it was also the day the Yom Kippur war was launched.

  10. says

    thanks for sharing those memories, a time I will never forget. As I recall, poor Francois’ injuries were so grave that they didn’t bother to extricate him, merely throwing a blanket over his car at the esses….Very sad, especially considering that the outcome has been attributed to improper guardrail installation….

  11. steve c. says

    the music was the french national anthem played shortly after noon. at the time, i knew nothin’ of the accident so i wondered why they played that music. i had juat left that section of the track jus’ before 12:00. i found out later that cevert had died.

    sad but the blue tunnel was something jackie stewart insisted be installed around “the glen”.

  12. Paul M. says

    Rich:

    Excellent story and photos. A sad day but overall, many great memories. 1973 was my first trip to the Glenn. I returned annually for the Grand Prix. The greyhound bus in the bog was 1974 – I know because I took a wrong turn and drove my car into the bog that year. Mud everywhere and my car (1972 Z28) was low to the ground and had an air dam on the front. Etched in my mind as I successfully spun my car around and headed back out was a large group of people ahead of me with a bus and several other vehicles on fire!

  13. Ron Cohn says

    Thank you for sharing this accurate account of the events of that October day at the Glen.

    My teammate, Bruce MacInnes and I, were at the Glen that weekend to compete in the Formula Atlantic race on Saturday. Before our race, Bruce was talking to Jackie Stewart in the pits (having met him at the World Formula Ford Championship at Brands Hatch) and I was just harging around Cevert, not making a pest of myself, taking in the sights and just happy to be able to compete in a preamble race to a Grand Prix.

    The F-1 cars then went out for a short practice and our race was to begin right after F-1 practice concluded. After about ten minutes the F-1 cars slowly came in to the pits and went to the paddock. There was silence around the track for at least an hour and we had no idea what had happened or what was happening. Then, roughly 15 minutes before our delayed race was to begin, there was an announcement about Cevert’s death. It really placed a heavy burden on us all, and yes, it was on Yom Kippur.

    I later learned that Cevert’s father was a Parisian jeweler and was Jewish. Several years later, I went to Paris and was going to look up Cevert’s jewelry store and stop in to see him. I decided not to, not knowing what I would actualy say, having been one of the last people to see his son alive.

    My race: If you believe in fate, continue reading. Our race started and there was bedlam in the 34-car field. When I reached the uphill esses, my car abruptly stopped, having had a black-box electric failure. I am Jewish, and it wasn’t the best day for me to be racing.

  14. says

    Thank you for your thoughtful and accurate reporting of the Glen’s ’73 GP. Myself, having missed the bulk of the ’70s racing, as I was mostly traveling, I spent many a weekend during the ’60s at various racing venues. Sadly many events were occassioned by news of one hero or another sharing Cevert’s fate. While post “turbo years” regulation changes are not universally applauded the dramatic safety improvements are most welcomed.

  15. Mike says

    I was at the track that day as well. I was on the far side of the track from where the accident took place but as soon as I saw other drivers coming by with their helmets and bella clavas removed I knew it was going to be really bad news. Sadly it was. No doubt Francios was ready to assume the mantle of team leader at what was one of the most innovative teams ever to race in F1.

  16. James Sofchek says

    Truly a sad moment for auto racing and the newest rising star at the time. If you get a chance read about that dreadful day in Sir Jackie’s book. I was recovering from knee replacement surgery this time last year and read the account of Cevert’s death and the tragic F1 years by Jackie himself, it’s very insightful.

  17. Bob Weber says

    It was my first GP as well. Myself and 2 friends drove up to the Glen in his Kent motor Pinto, and slept (!) in the car! The following year we took my then new Mazda RX4 coupe that had reclining front seats, making for a far better place to sleep at the track. ‘ 74 marked our ‘arrival’, as we herded a Winnebago up route #17 from NYC, with 6 aboard. Of course, nothing worked on the darn thing; the dealer must have seen us coming.

    Cevert’s death was not the introduction to GP that we sought; we arrived just as it happened, and it was (indeed) surreal.

    I was down in the boot in 1974 when Helmut Koinigg went straight-off into the guard rail with a sickening thud and was decapitated. I’d had enough for a while, and it was another 15 years before I went to another GP.

  18. Bob Weber says

    BTW, that first year we were parked next to the ‘Fabulous Farkelinos’ motorhome, and we happily watched as they preyed upon young women with a very clever pitch: ‘Boobs for Beer’.

  19. Mark Arnold says

    Great job, this was my first GP. It would cause the brains of today’s teams to explode, imagine everyone tramping through the garage with the cars disassembled.

  20. Dr Frank Celenza says

    I,too,remember those days at the Glen, I’d come down from College in Buffalo. Strolling the Kendall garage I was face to face with the likes of Surtees, Lauda, Merzario and other heros to me.
    Such awful wrecks when that new armco was improperly installed, Koenigg also a victim.
    Now I race there regularly, and I’ve always been critical of those “blue bushes” although I’ve never been in them. So many incidents that would be simple spins at other tracks become total wrecks becuase of them. I hate it.

  21. Jack Dales says

    Excellent piece Mr Martin. Thanks for sharing.

    To me, reading the comments is why the internet is a valuable tool that can never be matched by print magazines. On top of the story, we get to read multiple first-hand references to Watkins Glen and everyone’s fun stories. It’s as if the story takes on a life of its own in the hands of the readers.

    Quite enjoyable to read all of the comments.

  22. IndiansFan says

    Well done Rich!

    You have brought back many memories of our annual treck to the track. My first GP at the Glen was five years later, in 1978. We would drive all night from Cleveland, Ohio, arriving at dawn on Saturday morning. We also chose to stay at the track, camped on the outside of turn one. Strolling thru the garages Saturday night as the teams made their final preparations for the next day were as interesting and informative to me as the race itself.

    Ron Cohn, thanks for sharing your comments.

  23. says

    Dear Cevert fan’s

    It’s so good to see this reactions on F. Cevert, so many years after.
    He was my first idol, later it was Keke Rosberg, only the best could be my idol……now I’m a BMW team Schnitzer fan, and this for over 40 years

    • Lin Carlson says

      Thank you Rich for sharing this. Your piece has really brought back the memories.
      I was there that weekend, my 6th GP at the Glen as I recall. Was on the pit roof with you for the weekend but we had decided to walk the circuit that morning, taking photos out on what was then known as “the new section.” When all became quiet, we assumed the practice session had ended and we walked back to our rented motorhome, parked just up the hill from the esses. We first learned of Cevert’s accident when we walked to the garage area. I recall the crowd around the Tyrrell area. I’ll never forget the look on Jackie Stewart’s face. Others were snapping photos but we just couldn’t. I’ve never regretted that decision. I have some good photos of Cevert, taken two weeks earlier at Mosport.
      Sad to look at them, even now, and realize he only had a few weeks left to him.

  24. Jim Hatfield says

    Thanks for your post, Rich My first USGP was the year before, and I had intended on returning in ’73 but was not able to. Cevert was my wife’s favorite driver (yeah, just a bit jealous ), and we had enjoyed seeing him the year before and at several Can-Am events. Needless to say we were greatly saddened by his death and that was one race I’m glad we missed. In that time, with so many top line drivers dying in the line of duty, I eventually lost interest in professional racing for a time. We can look back now at 1960s and early ’70s and remember it as a golden era of racing, but I for one remember it with a great deal of ambivalence.

  25. Anonymous says

    Given the severity of Cevert’s accident and its gruesome consequences I find it hard to believe that anyone felt able to race on the Sunday. Still, drivers at that time seemed accomplished at blocking out the more brutal side of their sport ; only Pace’s reaction seemed in anyway normal when he said, ” I wonder why we bother doing this when such terrible things can happen “.

  26. says

    Rich,

    We must have rubbed elbows in the stands. I have similar shots to yours. My friend and I hadn’t heard the news either and we wondered why everyone was so quiet Saturday afternoon. I asked a woman passing us and she broke the news to us. I remember that after the last practice session the track announcer asked for a minute or so of silence in memory of Francois Cevert. A Ferrari mechanic was driving Merzario’s car back to the garage when one of his teammates gave him the “cutthroat” sign to shut it off. The only sound was the wind. Then the French national anthem was played over the PA system. It was a very sad moment. But, being young and stupid we didn’t think much about it on race day even after seeing the Stewarts walk down pit road. Sadly, it would happen again the following year with Helmut Koinigg. And, a couple of years earlier I was at the Norisring when Pedro Rodriguez died. Those were bad times when it came to safety.

    I have several memories of Cevert at Daytona with the Matra team, standing next to him in the Hotel de Paris in Monaco in ’71 (or was it ’72). But, the most significant was that weekend in ’73 when I was standing by the Tyrrell garage when in walks Jody Scheckter. Seeming to want to prevent a fight, Ken Tyrrell got between them. But, I think Scheckter only had come to apologize for the crash he caused the weekend before in Canada, probably why Cevert was limping. As luck would have it Scheckter was the first one to arrive at the crash site and tried to help. But, seeing how bad it was he was reported to have sat on the Armco and cried. The next year he drove for Tyrrell.

    I enjoyed your article. Thanks.
    FL

  27. says

    I would also like to leave a comment. This was my first ever F1 race. I agree with ALL of the above comments, but would like to add my own.
    First, it was an extremely sad day. As I arrived and stood in line to pay for my entry, they shut down the entry because of an accident. That accident (of course) was the fatal accident of Francois Cevert. (Paul Newman stood by a racecar trailer while a Scottish bagpiper played a dirge…..all alone)
    I would like to focus instead, on the extreme camaradarie that existed in F1 at that time.
    Each Lotus F1 car had a sticker on the rear wing which read ” Won two, One Two”, because the Lotus F1 cars had won the two previous races in first and second places.
    However, I noticed on the rear wing of the newly crowned winner of the 1973 Driver’s Championship, a LOTUS sticker which read: “WORLD CHAMPION……Nice one Jackie”. Please note this was a Lotus sticker on the Tyrrell F1 car of Jackie Stewart, and NOT on an Lotus F1 car.
    Try to imagine that happening in the incredibly contentious times of the F1 Driver’s Championship of 2014! It’s not going to happen, because 1973 was in fact, a kinder, gentler time for racing. I really miss that kinder/gentler time:-(

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