The end of 1976 had a very strange twist for me. On November 15th Rene Levesque led his Parti Quebecois to power in Quebec. I was an Anglophone with a French name! The Bank of Montreal project was over. So were the Olympics! I was living in Montreal on a high, but my client list dried up almost immediatley. I was in a serious situation. The rocket ride had ended so I packed my bags and family and headed to Ontario and Toronto. I was not financially prepared for this change.
When we arrived in Toronto I had no client base to fall back on and money was getting tight. I got several calls in the first week as we were setting up our new and smaller digs in the big city. One was from Bruce Smith, my old patrol leader with the Canadian Ski Patrol. He had just formed a new company – Sports Repair Services. He had a big contract and knew of my art background and my need of food and shelter! He landed a big contract to do the cosmetics on Elan skis…all 800 pairs! At the time a company could bring in a product, in this case skis, unfinished, and complete the product, in this case, putting the cosmetics on the product and have everything tax free. Good deal by my way of thinking. My job was to test the skis for paint adhesion and when I was satisfied, apply the colour via the silkscreen process. For each ski there were five silk screens to be carefully fit and the paint applied. That is five different operations per ski! Let’s see…five fittings…five applications…times two…times eight hundred. Eight thousand operations! Each operation required the screen to be fitted to the ski and the process of applying the paint to the ski. It was a long tedious process that these days would be done by a computer. If I ever see another Elan ski I’ll choke it to death! I took on the job and saw it to the end, but it tried my patience as one small mistake and the whole ski had to be cleaned of the application and the job started again. Not the time to have a perfection complex like mine.
The other phone call was from George Athans, one of my Bank of Montreal First Canadian Gallery of Athletes subjects. I had done George’s portrait in 1975 and we had kept in touch. He had an offer for me that involved my first love, the camera. It also involved sport, my second love. George’s brother Greg was an accomplished water skiier, ski racer, but his real star rose in the sport of hot dog skiing, now known as freestyle. Greg and George are not only athletes, but entrepeneurs in every sense of the word. They thought like businessmen in the world of sport. The proposal was simple…get on the road, my third great love and follow Greg through a freestyle season and shoot images for a ‘hot doggers’ book on how to get the job done in the freestyle world. This proposal caused a new wrinkle in my life – publishing. That experience led to many books on a wide variety of subjects. It took about a nanosecond to make the decision and I got little resistance from Bruce as he knew I would get an offer quite quickly. I still worked at the ski cosmetics, tuned over 200 Olin demo skis during the week and flew off to the freestyle circuit probably with paint still under my nails on the weekends to shoot it’s wild and wonderful characters. I met and enjoyed the antics of the legendary Bowie brothers, John Eaves of James Bond double fame, Stephanie Sloan, Mother of one of Canada’s great ski-cross queens and wife of Crazy Canuck Dave Murray. The list of athletes I was exposed to who went on to international fame continued to grow. It was a high old time in this new venture in the sports world. Things were not as bad as they could be. Now that I was back in the center of the universe(so anyone living there thought!), I was able to rebuild my client list.
In Formula One the year was exciting and again visited by tragedy. Niki Lauda won his second championship even though Mario Andretti won more races. Transplanted Canadian Walter Wolf’s new Wolf F1 car won the Argentine GP in it’s first race with Jody Schecter at the wheel. Jody would also win Monaco and Canada to the delight of the Canadian fans. He also finished second in the driver’s championship. 1977 also saw the introduction of a very unsuccessful turbo car with Renault. This would soon change. It also saw the maiden voyage into the Formula One waters of another Canadian. Gilles Villeneuve had stirred up a lot of excitment with his domination of a Formula Atlantic field studded with Formula One regulars at the 1976 Trois Rivieres Grand Prix. Rumours were rampant about calls from Europe and a ride in F1. The call finally came from McLaren and over he went! During the year before, Len Coates and I became good friends. With my new introduction to the publishing world, I mentioned to Bill Clarke of Clarke Irwin that I could bring both Len Coates and Gilles Villeneuve to the table to do a coffee-table book on Grand Prix racing. I neglected to tell Bill that I had not talked to either of them, but he gave me the green light anyway. I had no problem with either Gilles or Len. Len would ghost write the text for Gilles with my images. We just had to wait to see what would happen with a Formula One ride for Gilles. We all expected McLaren. Gilles had introduced me the year before to Gaston Parent. Gaston was Gilles mentor and closest friend in the racing world. Nothing was done without Gaston’s advice. Gilles often would not take that advice when it had to do with purchasing toys, but he listened very closely to anything ‘Gas’ would say. He later became my mentor as well with advice on both business and personal events in my life. Gaston ran with a very powerful crowd that included Rene Angle and Pierre Trudeau. He got things done. I knew when Gilles got the green light I would be included in some way. History and Gerald Donaldson’s superb books tell us of the McLaren ride at Silverstone and their eventual decision to go with Patick Tambay. It also tells of the phone call taken in a phone booth accross the street from Gilles motorhome. The call was from Ferrari. Gilles and Gaston were on the next plane. He got $50,000 for his first year in a Ferrari. Not quite what they are getting now per race! Gilles debut in a Ferrari was less than spectacular and Watkins Glen produced a 12th place. Not exactly what Ferrari expected of Gilles. Japan would provide another accident which in my opinion was partly due to Gilles driving style. He was a great late braker. This is fine if you are the leader and have no one in front of you. Several times in Atlantic Gilles nailed the car in front of him because the driver in front braked earlier than he did. It happened with Dave Morris in Mosport when Gilles broke his leg and again in Nova Scotia when he hit Steve Saleen up the arse. I don’t know how many other times this happened, but in Japan he either was doing his late braking behind Ronnie Peterson or Peterson was giving the new kid a brake test. I doubt Peterson would do this, but Gilles did brake later than the Tyrell and hit him much like he would hit Jochen Mass in Zolder. It launched the Ferrari high into the air and into a restricted area that was full of fans and course workers. A marshall and photographer were killed instantly with several spectators seriously injured. Gaston told me later that when Gilles got back to the pits he was quite shaken and kept repeating ‘…there were so many faces looking at me in the cockpit when the car stopped! ‘ The season was also marred by one of the most horrific accidents in Formula One history. During the South African Grand Prix in the spring, Tom Pryce in his Shaddow hit a marshall running across the track to the aid of another driver invovled in an incident. The marshall was killed instantly and the fire extinguisher he was carrying dropped into the Shaddow cockpit nearly decapitated Pryce. The leading image in this post shows just how close course workers were to the cars at this time. Legendary racing photographer Dale Von Trebra got this image as James Hunt flew through the air directly at him. I was just down the road and got a similar shot without the dramatic angle of Dale’s famous image. It all happens so fast that little can be done when a crash sequence begins.
On a lighter note, the California race provided the first of many exciting races for both fans and journalist alike. Race organizers led by Chris Pooke put on more parties than most of us had ever seen! Spanky Smith had driven his little Winnebago out from New York and the rich and famous used it as a refuge and a place to chat and party. You never knew who was going to turn up at this little island away from the pace of a Grand Prix weekend. It wasn’t a surprise to be rubbing shoulders with the likes of drivers, team owners, Beatle George Harrison, actors and many other celebrities. The same weekend during practice an event set the pressroom on fire! At the bottom of the chute leading from the pit straight was an apartment building on the outside of the track. It was about seven stories high. The cameras placed to shoot up this chute where things could get pretty exciting were also placed in such a position that a show of affection, Californina style, on a balcony on about the fifth floor was recorded rather than the session! I was on track and missed it all, but I heard the press room was very quiet while the feed from this camera location was broadcast. The scribes who all enjoy their needed air conditioning of a press room during a race weekend got to look at their dreams! They miss the excitment of real life at a Grand Prix with the noise, the dust, the heat and the rain! I love it!
Read the rest of the Shutter Speed series.