Introduction: The tragic death of of the talented French driver François Cevert at age 29 was one of the epochal events in Formula One history, documented in books and in films such as 1: Life on the Limit and The Quick and the Dead. It ended Cevert's meteoric rise, caused Jackie Stewart to miss his last race, and crippled the then-dominant Tyrrell team. Richard Kelley, at the beginning of his 45-year career in photojournalism, was there.
Portrait and words by Richard Kelley
I was a 19-year old Indiana University photojournalism student who had been an AP stringer for Chuck Robinson at Indianapolis and begged for an AP pass to shoot the US Grand Prix at Watkins Glen. When the Glen AP editor asked if I was 21, I said, "of course." Luckily, since I had shot for Chuck, it was a wink, a nod, and good enough.
I saw a story in François Cevert that October weekend in 1973. He had patiently learned all of his mentor Jackie Stewart's tricks, and he was now about inherit Stewart's leadership position as well. He confidently told Ken Tyrrell he would put his 006 on the pole. I wanted to try a different approach to capture his character at the Glen. I knew the pictures would be a perfect introduction to his 1974 season. I vividly remember standing next to him that morning in the garages; he was on top of the world. He picked up Helen, Jackie's wife, and gave her a bear hug. François seemed larger than life.
At the beginning of practice, I was my usual "fly on the wall" around the Tyrrell pit, and I noticed François becoming more pensive by the minute. Something was weighing on his mind. I made a series of frames, each one with him alone and lost in his thoughts. I could tell he was replaying his "mind’s tape" of the lap, over and over, looking for a tenth here, another tenth there. I stood up and walked 90 degrees to the left, to stand in the rear of the Tyrrell pit stall, shooting him backlit with a longer lens with Helen Stewart to my left.
I concentrated on isolating the men, first Ken Tyrrell and later Jackie Stewart and designer Derek Gardner bent over François, all in deep conversation concerning his setup. They formed a circle, with François in the center. As the men whispered, I raised my camera and made a frame of François's strained face focused on Jackie as he went through his ideas. I made another frame just as François looked directly into my eyes for a long moment and then, I made a final frame as his eyes seemed to look through me into the distance. Three full-framed images in all, and then I lowered my Nikon FTN. I will never forget the chills that surged through me as I looked into his vacant face surrounded by the total silence of Jackie and Derek. I could not bring myself to make another frame.
A moment later, François buttoned up to leave the pits. He looked up and blew a kiss to Helen; then visor down as he slowly slipped out onto the track. I wanted to make images of him going through the Esses on the back of the circuit; something, anything to erase the memory of his thousand-mile stare. I started walking to the access point; halfway there I noticed that the engines had gone silent. It had only been two minutes. When I arrived at the Esses, I saw his car inverted atop the twisted armco; François was still in the car. Heinz Klutmeier from Sports illustrated ran up, blocking my path and whispering, "...don't go over. He's gone."
I stood there and cried uncontrollably. I can't remember how long. With unspeakable horror in front of me, I couldn’t stop thinking about François' turmoil those few moments before he left the pits and the real significance of what I had seen in his eyes. I had experienced it alone, not recognizing the clue of what was to happen moments later. I felt soul-shaking sadness.
This last frame has haunted me for 44 years. Had he survived, François would have just turned 73 years old. Many believe he would have won multiple F1 World Championships, and how many more Grands Prix races? Present-day Grand Prix history would be different, and François would be reflecting on his long career with his children and grandchildren. As a trained pianist, he would have been into his music, wine, and life.
Today, he would be one of the giants of French motorsport and would revel in the stories that could finally be told. I can accept that being a Grand Prix driver was his dream, and he left this world doing what he loved, then. It's his missing the rest of his life that's an absolute shame, now.
©2017 by Richard Kelley, all rights reserved
The photo was taken with a Nikon FTN and 200mm ƒ/4 lens at 1/500th sec. at ƒ/4, on Tri-X at ASA (as ISO was called then) 400. You can see more of Richard's excellent and dramatic motor racing work at his website. He originally submitted this picture for the "Baker's Dozen Black-and-White" feature, but I felt the story and photograph deserved its own post and Richard kindly consented. —Ed.
[UPDATE Thursday 2 p.m. from Richard Kelley: "Thanks to you all for your kind words and comments. The moment I walked onto the Formula One pit lane, I knew my life would never be the same. At 19 years old, I could have gone a number of ways, but the 'decisive moment' and 'full-frame' had been drummed into my mind by Dr. Will Counts at IU, and so that was all I was searching for...sometimes I went a half hour between images, other times, it was rapid fire (for a Nikon FTN in those days).
"I just felt as though I had been given the privilege of being with those gentlemen to tell their stories and having a style that was different than all the other shooters, I wanted to do it the right way through my eyes. These images have only been introduced to the public in the last four years. I've had overtures from less than sincere entrepreneurs who wanted to print a book, but wanted to return only pennies. Your words and impressions here give me the determination to carry on and someday make that presentation a reality.
"Thanks again to Michael for the chance to spread these images to quite a few more eyes, and thanks to you all again for seeing what I saw in those men and how I tried to capture those moments."]
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Manuel: "Here's a post on a subject close to my heart. Having a rather rational approach to most things in life, it's odd that I have a fervid passion for cars and motorsport, but I do.
"The blue Tyrrells of Jackie Stewart and François Cevert cast such a spell on me I used to drive my father insane by incessantly asking him to give me a diecast model replica. When I got—I was nine by then—I was the happiest kid in the world.
"Then the news came about the death of François Cevert. Strangely, my acquaintance with the French driver's career came through comics: Jean Graton was the author of the popular adventures of Michel Vaillant, which featured real Formula 1 drivers as well as fictional characters. That's how I got familiar with François Cevert, but also with Jean-Pierre Beltoise, Jacky Ickx, Clay Regazzoni, Jochen Mass, and some other drivers.
"One of the features Jean Graton reproduced admirably in his comics was François Cevert's eyes. They were bright, expressive and intense, just like in real life. (At least as much as pictures and TV coverage allowed me to perceive them.) The picture in this entry captures that intensity in an admirable way, and in hindsight it's a rather troubling look. A bit like the last TV images of Ayrton Senna before he died, which show his anxiety and strain. Both leave us to wonder—in a rather frightening way—whether that was some kind of premonition. That's what's so disturbing—but not in a morbid manner, mind you—about Mr. Kelley's photo.
"Brilliant text, brilliant photo. It's such a shame people in the US have so little contact with Formula One. It has such rich history. The only part of the entry I can't agree is when Richard states that Cevert would be one of the giants of French motorsport if he were alive. Actually, he is one of the giants of world motorsport—despite his single Grand Prix win. As with Gilles Villeneuve, Chris Amon and a few others, talent prevails over stats."
Lenya: "A very sad story, very gracefully told. But my comment is also a thank you to Mike for an introduction to other Richard Kelley photographs via this guest post. The Portraits and Duos on the website are quite extraordinary, even to someone who knows nothing of motor sports whatsoever. Makes one long for a book that does not seem to exist...or does it?"
Earl Dunbar: "I am not much of a car guy, and even less of a racing fan. I consider auto racing an environmental sin. But this is a great, wonderful post and an amazing story, one of the best on ever on TOP, with a most haunting image. Thanks."
James Weekes: "I was at that race. A friend and I went to Watkins Glen for seven straight years. This was the last. Jackie Stewart was our hero and Francois Cevert was poised to replace him in our regard. What a loss. He was an incredibly smooth yet aggressive driver. This is a wonderful picture.
"Richard's website is well worth the viewing, especially if you loved Formula 1, but if you love the look of 35mm Tri-X well interpreted, it will reward you as well."