After Gilles win in Montreal I thought nothing could top that event for me. Was I wrong! My client list just seemed to explode! I had a trip lined up with my Molson ski race win to shoot the Crazy Canucks in Europe which seemed to like a good start. Early in the year I got a call from Defasco Steel in Hamilton. They produced a wonderful full-colour newsletter that had won many awards for it’s quality of print and images. It was huge! It was roughly 11″ x 14″ in size and used two blacks in the printing which gave more depth to any images. It was a beautiful publication which I would enjoy producing work for during the next decade. They wanted images of the Crazy Canucks to go with copy they already had. I believe the National Ski Team had put them onto me. Dofasco knew I was going over to several races that spring. Over I went and produced images like they had never seen. I then suggested they might be missing one of the biggest Canadian sports stories in Gilles Villeneuve. They agreed and over I went again to Monaco. What a hell of a start to the year!
When I went to Europe for the World Cup Downhill races I brought an assistant Jan Bigelow, who not only had been hanging around the auto racing circuit, but was a wonderful new shooter. She was a skier of exceptional quality. Assistants don’t mean much if they can’t get to the venues and she was more than capable. Now let me tell you about Jan. Firstly you might remember my story about the two kids that I caught on a closed trail at Craigleith when I was on the Canadian Ski Patrol. Jan was one of the kids. The other was Steve Podborski! She was not only a fine shooter and skier, she was a top fashion model and stood at least 5′ 10″! Having her around stopped everyone! While they were drooling I was shooting my brains out. A captive audience! The first race we attended was at Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Germany. I guess I stood out a bit too as I was still in my ‘freestyle’ mode. I wore a black one-piece suit with a cowboy hat I had won in a game of cards in Lake Tahoe the year before. It had a beautiful feather band like the one American ski legend Billy Kidd always wore. I wore both my Hasselblads on my hips. I guess I looked more like an American buckaroo than a Canadian when I skied by. Doors just kept opening when they saw the Canadian flag on my lens hoods. Jan and I started it off well and got in deep with the race organizers when we skied down the edge of the course after the first training run. Down one of the long steep pitches the powder was at least two feet deep. Aahh…HOME! I love powder and just floated in. When we got to the bottom we were asked to see the clerk of the course. We were fairly well reamed out, but the Canadian coach John Ritchie went to bat for us and we kept our credentials for the weekend. I guess we just extended the reputation of being a little crazy too. We moved on to both Wengen and KitzbÃƒÂ¼hel to enjoy the excitement created by Ken Read, Steve Podborski, Dave Murray and Dave Irwin – the Crazy Canucks! We drank in the beer halls and recovered in the cafes in the morning. I enjoyed the attention all Canadians received courtesy of our ‘Fab Four’.
When I got home I quickly got my images together for Dofasco. There was a message from Ford. I wondered what they wanted. I had never shot for them. They had a private little adventure they wanted to record and through racing and Len Coates my name came up. They wanted to introduce their new F100 truck series with a stunt of epic proportion. They wanted to drive up the Dempster Highway. So what kind of a stunt was this? The Dempster Highway is about 800 miles long and runs from just south of Dawson City in the Yukon to Inuvik in the high arctic. Nice assignment you say. How about in the middle of winter with a standstill temperature of -48 degrees! My contact was Doug Mepham of Ford who bought me a high arctic coat that hung to my knees and covered my head. Even with this on I would only have a limited amount of time outside on the back bed of a truck barreling along a snow covered road at 70 miles-an-hour. The other adventurers on this trip were a group of automotive journalists and support crew that included Jacques Couture, also a well known racing driver. It was not going to be a slow gentle drive through the tundra. Dan Proudfoot, Richard Russell, Mac Perry, Len Coates and his lady Donna are about the only names of the journalists I can remember. Doug and his boss were also on the trip that was directed and controlled by a wild-eyed-patch-wearing pirate by the name of Mac Henry who drove taxi in Whitehorse when he was not telling long-winded stories of his adventures to unsuspecting tourists in the north. I’d love to tell you the real story of this trip, but I’d have to find a place to hide. Lets say we had a lot of fun and I in particular kept myself amused. I had never seen such beautiful yet hostile country. You didn’t want to get stranded out there in the best of weather.
1979 was a pre-Olympic year. During that year the venues of the Olympic events hold competitions to try out the facilities. Off I went to Lake Placid to cover the men’s downhill. I had trouble getting good angles and was not pleased with the images. There was one event, actually two events, that firmly fix the three days in my head. I brought my eleven-year-old son JP with me. He had been doing a lot of racing whenever I could afford it. He had first put on skis when he was eighteen months old. Well ahead of most kids of the time, he skied with a helmet. He often needed it! During one of the training runs the course radio blared about someone on the course. It was a kid running flat out when they were side-slipping the course between the racers. The kid climbed on the binders before the finish and disappeared into the crowd at the side of the course. I had missed seeing this as I was at the start. I was well aware of who this little interloper was and told him that night not to pull this off again if it was indeed him that everyone was talking about. On race day I was about 500 yards from the finish below a very large bump which produced big air images. With me was Andrzej Kozbial, director of the National Ski Team and Donald Green who had given me the assignment for the image of Greg Athans and his ‘LOOK’ logo that ended up on the front cover of Greg’s book Ski Free. Donald was a rep for several equipment suppliers to the national team. As we stood around between the first and second seed of racers as the course was cleared and side-slipped the radio erupted again that there was a racer on the course. A large lump formed in my belly! We looked up the hill, but could not see past the bump. Suddenly in a small tuck was a diminutive little figure with a red and white helmet about fifteen feet off the ground soaring past us! “Hey! Isn’t that your kid?” I’m not sure who said it, but I suspect it was Andrzej. I knew I was in the stew when I got to the pressroom. What happened to JP? He didn’t stop before the finish. He slid right through it! Did it end there? Not at all. Two guys picked him up and put him on their shoulders and paraded him around the finish area. They signed his little helmet along with several other of the first seed of racers. The two that held him up were Dave Irwin and Franz Klammer! That helmet! It has meant a lot over the years. It did not end there. The event was over so I did not worry about my credentials, but I was questioned about his presence when I got to Whistler for the next race. Before we left for home from Lake Placid Donald Greene asked if we could come to Montreal. He wanted to outfit JP with new skis and boots and any other equipment they might be able to supply both he and I with. Things were looking good for us on the World Cup circuit. A sad and unfortunate accident at Lake Placid with downhiller Leonardo David brought me quickly back to Formula One. The 19 year old Italian would live in a coma until his death almost five years later. The similarities between F1 and downhill and their dangers were constantly evident. The big thing in downhill was that there was little or no protection at all for athletes and those that worked the racing circuit. Serious and often fatal accidents were part of the game as it was in auto racing.
Gilles had started the year off slowly by qualifying 10th in Argentina and dropping the car off the road for a DNF. In Brazil he qualified fifth and finished in the same position. In South Africa he started third, had the fastest lap and stood on the top of the podium for the second time. He was where he wanted to be with the fastest lap. Winning was a bonus. His new team leader was Jody Scheckter. Their friendship was strong and trusting. Long Beach in California would give Gilles the pole, his first, the fastest lap and the top step again! He was on a ripper! The next race was a non-championship race at Brands Hatch. He qualified third again and won going away. Bouncing back and forth to races made life for me a world wind! I would not have had it any other way. Several races proved to all that Gilles was out there on the edge and loving every minute of it. Three races from 1979 come to mind. The French Grand Prix dawned dry but cool which suited the now ever present and challenging Renault turbos in the hands of Jean-Pierre Jabouille and Rene Arnoux. At the start Gilles took off like a scalded cat and split the two Renault on the front row and led into the first corner. Once Jabouille got his act together he passed Gilles on the main straight when Gilles got held up by backmarkers. His Ferrari was handling poorly and Rene was reeling him in. The final few laps are now well recorded and viewed even today as one of the most exciting finishes in racing as Gilles and Rene bumped and banged each other to the finish. Gilles took the duel from Rene and the fans hardly looked to the winner Jabouille. It was Gilles and Rene who had created all the excitement. As a shooter in one spot I could tell that something was going on with the crowds around the track drowning out the cars. I had seldom heard that on French soil. In Italy this often happened when a Ferrari dealt a pass on a competitor. When the race was over I walked passed the T4 that Gilles had completely wrung out. In the quiet I could hear the car moaning and squeaking as it cooled down. The tires were cords and I doubt it would last another lap. I soon got to see the film and was blown away by the trust and performance of both these fine drivers. “The duel with Gilles is something I will never forget”, said Rene after the race. “…I knew I had been beaten by the best driver in the world.” The press and officials condemned them as dangerous, crazy and irresponsible. Mario Andretti considered it wonderful and thought it was just two young lions clawing at each other. The other race meeting that comes to mind as a showstopper was Watkins Glen in upstate New York. On the Friday the practice was visited by conditions that had organizers considering cancelling any adventure out onto the track. Gilles demonstrated his complete mastery in the wet. Only eight cars ventured out onto the track that was riddled with standing water. You could hear the cars as they made their way around the track. They aquaplaned and sent the revs soaring as the rear tires lost adhesion. “I scared myself rigid that day,” remembered Jody. “I thought I had to be quickest. Then I saw Gilles time and I still don’t understand how it was possible.” Gilles had gone eleven seconds faster than his team leader in second! “My preoccupation was staying alive, but Gilles had to be the fastest on every lap…even in testing. In my mind he was the fastest racing driver the world has ever seen.” To Jacques Laffitte it was simple. “He’s different than the rest of us. He’s on another level. Nobody commands magical powers, but Gilles made you wonder. He was that quick.” Gilles display in the Dutch Grand Prix convinced many he was mad! He made a breathtaking pass on the outside of Alan Jones on the very dangerous Tarzan. Gilles deliberately spun his Ferrari during the sharp right-hander just after the pits when he realized he had a quickly deflating left rear. It was the only way he could make the corner at all. He beached the car on the left side of the turn. Everyone expected him to jump out of the car and retire. The sound of the starter on the stalled Ferrari was shattered by the roar of the flat-12 engine as it regained it’s life. Gilles slammed the car into reverse and backed out onto the track. The car took off up the track with the offending tire flapping in the breeze. The pits were almost a full lap away! The tire was hammering the car with every foot it travelled. Soon the wheel was hanging off and dragging behind as Gilles pursued the pits with a vengeance. He crabbed into the pits in the three-wheeled-wreck and sat in the cockpit waiting for a new wheel and tire. His crew had to get him out of the car to show him the irreparable damage. From in the cockpit he could not see the tire ripping up the rear of the car. He was again criticized as dangerous, but he argued that he did not realize how bad the car was. Gaston was in the pits and to him it was just another display of how Gilles was. “He would have gone out on three wheels again. That was just the way he was.”
The race at Monza was a race that would have special significance that day as it would later in Gilles driving life. Heading into the Italian Grand Prix Laffite was second to Jody in the championship with 36 points to Jody’s 44. Gilles was in third with 32. Alan Jones had won the last three races, but due to the scoring system at the time he could have won the remaining three races and still not win the championship. The most he could win under the new system was 40 points. Only Laffite and Gilles could overhaul Jody for the crown. The two Renaults sat on the front of the grid, but by the first turn Jody had the lead and Gilles was third. The Italian fans were wild with excitement at the two Ferraris. Depression soon set in as Arnoux took the lead from Jody and easily pulled away from him. On about the eleventh lap Arnoux’s engine faltered. He waved Jody, Gilles and Laffite by. He retired soon after. The Tifosi were apoplectic. The two Ferraris were in the lead! Gilles stayed behind Jody throughout the rest of the event although he pulled up beside him several times just to let him know who was fastest on this day. Jody was the team leader in the lead of the championship. He was in the lead of the race and Gilles knew his place. He would not challenge his friend. Jody won both the race and the championship in Italy to the delight of the team and all of Italy. Earlier in the year in South Africa Gilles and Jody in a light rain had hung on the very exhaust of the Renault of Jabouille. All three entered Leeukop Bend on their tip toes. The turn was like a skating rink. Jabouille dabbed the brakes. Jody passed him on one side and Gilles on the other. Gilles was now in the lead. The heavens opened up and out came the red flag. When the race was restarted the two Ferrari were on the front row. Gilles was on wets with Jody on drys. The team had it covered. In the wet Gilles pulled away from Jody who had his hands full of Jabouille. The sun then came out and Jody took the 15-second lead away from Gilles to the delight of the South African crowd. Gilles pitted for drys. Jody’s tires were getting decidedly used up as Gilles appeared in his mirrors. Gilles backed off and let his team leader lead. He would not pass the leading Ferrari. He did not have to concern himself with the situation as Jody pitted for fresh tires on lap 52. He had flat-spotted his left front and the rest of his skins were not in much better condition. Jody then began to do the reeling in as Gilles slowed to conserve his tires. The crowd went wild at the possibility of Jody’s win, but Gilles judged his speed and finished three seconds ahead of his teammate. He had won his second GP and loved the T4. GillesÃ‚Â finished second to Jody in the championship with 47 points to Jody’s 51. A little luck in one or two races might have made the result different, but Gilles displayed clearly the code he lived by.
Read more from the Shutter Speed series here.