I’ve always had an aversion to watching races from the grandstands, and in my youth I was adept at finding ways to get into the infield and take the kind of photos I just couldn’t get from the nosebleed seats.
On July 7, 1974, I had weaseled my way into the San Jose Mile and was standing outside turn three, behind the waist-high wooden rail fence that along with a row of moldy haybales was the state of the art in track safety. Turn three was a great place to shoot. In truth, there was no bad place to shoot at San Jose, but here I was able to see the bikes barreling down the back straight right at me and watch the riders flick them sideways to scrub off speed, then follow them through the turn, panning and shooting as they passed.
I had put my camera bag down on the ground next to one of the big trees—another safety feature—behind the fence and was leaning out over the top rail with one eye shut and the other looking through the viewfinder of a 35mm Nikkormat. I had snapped off a couple of shots of a group of bikes setting up for the turn when something—probably that very same keen instinct for self-preservation that prevented me from becoming a really fast racer—told me to get the hell out of there. I turned and ran.
The next few seconds were a blur, and they remain so today. All I remember is when I looked back, Jim Rice was standing in front of me—oddly, on my side of the fence—and dust was everywhere.
Out on the track lay Mert Lawwill. He was motionless in that way that is never good, especially when it’s the result of a hard crash. Track workers ran to him, and after a while he came to, groggy and no doubt hurting, but breathing.
I was snapping pictures when the roll in the camera ran out. I started to rewind the film and went to get a fresh roll from my camera bag...which was nowhere to be seen. Until they lifted Mert’s bike onto its wheels and rolled it away. The bag had been trapped under it, half squashed, but the other camera body and the lenses in it were undamaged.
Rice's bike came to a stop down the track from where he had jumped or been thrown over the fence. The action was red-flagged while they cleaned up the mess, and later Mert limped out there and gave it his best, just like he did every time he raced. I forgot how he did that day, but I bet he remembers, and probably wishes he didn't.
I had pretty much forgotten this incident until a couple of nights ago, when after years of putting it off I finally started cataloging and scanning the hundreds of black-and-white contact sheets and boxes of color slides I have from the mid-1970s through the mid-1980s, when I shot flattrack races and roadraces, first for myself and later for Cycle Guide. Depending on how quickly the scanning goes, I’ll be posting something from that era at least once every couple of weeks, either as part of the Flashback Friday series, or as stand-alones like this.
I’ve previously mentioned that I wasn't big on labeling photos back then—when I shot them they represented rent money, not history—so if I get some of the details wrong please let me know. And if you have a story of your own to add about any of the photos, please contribute that, too.