Friday, January 8, 2010

Incident At San Jose

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.


stuman714 in Indy said...

Good stuff, Jerry--at least the shots, and thankfully, the aftermath. These WERE the glory days in flat track! Roberts, Kidd, Rice, Lawill, Williams, Keener, Romero, Castro, Aldana, Chuck Palmgren, just to name a few you have captured in these shots. This was the year I found flat track and haven't been able to let it go since. Thanks for the post and the pics to bring us all back to the good ole day of FT!

FlatTrackGuy said...

Jerry, thanks for keeping the flat track stuff going. Great stuff! I grew up in San Jose and began going to The Mile about 1976 or '77 when I was in High School. (Yeah, I am THAT old!) One day, a buddy and I rode our street bikes down to the Santa Clara Co. Fairgrounds to get our tickets for the National races the next day.

We bought our tickets at the front gate and could hear bikes running out on the track. The gate was open, so we thought we would just see how far we could get before somebody stopped us. Well, nobody did and soon we were standing in turn one watching Springsteen and one of the other team Harley riders (I think it was Gary Scott, but not sure) going around the track.

Scott was chasing Springsteen and they were filming for ABC Wide World of Sports. In those days, they used camera's taped to the riders helmets and they could only hold a few minutes of film.

After one session, Scott pulled in out of film and Springsteen did another lap. He came into turn one, right at my buddy and I, flicked that XR sideways and went through one and two without ever dropping his foot.

We looked at each other and could not believe what we had just seen. It was amazing.

Now I'm 50 years old and been racing flat track for about 5 years and loving it!