François Cevert, Watkins Glen, And The Myths Of Dead Heroes

A special thank you to Jake Yorath, who designed this image just for this story. Please check out his other gorgeous artwork—you won’t be disappointed.
A special thank you to Jake Yorath, who designed this image just for this story. Please check out his other gorgeous artwork—you won’t be disappointed.
Image: Jake Yorath

Watkins Glen International existed in my imagination long before I ever saw it in person, so tangible that I could transport myself there just by closing my eyes. It had that faint sepia tinge in my brain, like it was perpetually golden hour in upstate New York, because of how many old home movies I’d watched and photos I’d accumulated: race fans lighting cars on fire in the campground, people packed into the tall front stretch grandstand, a beloved French racing driver crossing the line in his royal blue Tyrrell for his first and only win. The whole reason I was there.

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So when I showed up in person on a cool July afternoon, my heart trying to pound its way through my chest, it took me a moment to adjust to a clear-cut reality. After I’d paid my $25 and promptly mounted the Red, White, and Blue grandstand, I couldn’t get over how blue it was. Powder blue Armo fencing lined the strip of asphalt that ribboned through rural greenery. The sky was crystal clear and stretched on for miles. Where was all the yellow? Where were the spotty brown edges?

“How close are we to where… it happened?”

A quick consultation to a track map, a moment to orient myself with respect to the pit lane. To my right, turn one. To my left, the Esses. Shielding my eyes from the bright blue day, I pointed.

“It was right there.”

To my left, the place where one of my heroes died.

Illustration for article titled François Cevert, Watkins Glen, And The Myths Of Dead Heroes
Photo: AFP (Getty Images)

François Cevert died at Watkins Glen International in upstate New York on October 6, 1973. During his Formula One career, he had only won one race: the United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen in 1971. In the endurance racing world, he finished second at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1971.

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Cevert died during the last moments of qualifying in 1973. Despite having set a comfortable time, he thought he could better it. He ran several laps to warm up the car. Then, he set out on his flying lap.

During the time, the Esses were a difficult corner. Team leader Jackie Stewart and Cevert disagreed about how to take it. The Tyrrell that year could be jumpy, so Stewart preferred to take the Esses in fourth gear at the low end of the engine’s rev range. It was calmer that way, easier to control. Cevert, though, preferred third gear, at the top end of the engine’s rev range. It was quicker in some ways, but it required a gear change partway through the corner, and it was jumpier.

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Whether that was the cause of Cevert’s mistake, though, is unknown. He brushed the Armco barrier on the right of the Esses and tried to correct it, but it was too late. Still running flat out, he hit a curb, launching it into the other side of the track. The nose of his Tyrrell wedged between two metal strips of the Armco. The car was rent apart, as easy as if someone were cutting a strip of paper. As his biographer Jean-Claude Hallé puts it, “He has just signed his death warrant.”

The drivers who witnessed the aftermath of Cevert’s accident don’t talk about it in much detail. It was too horrifying to describe, they tell us. It was obvious he was dead.

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As he ran into the Armco barriers at full force, it’s likely that Cevert was quartered by the very seatbelts designed to protect him.

He was 29 years old.

The street where Cevert grew up.
The street where Cevert grew up.
Photo: Elizabeth Blackstock
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The Esses you see today aren’t exactly the ones you would have seen back then. The layout of the circuit has been the same since they added the Boot in 1971, but with one exception: a chicane was added leading up to the Esses to slow cars as they approached. The changes, initially inspired by François Cevert’s accident and reaffirmed by Helmut Koinigg’s, took place in 1975.

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But knowing that doesn’t change the fact that looking down that section of the track was enough to make my heart skip a beat and send chills down my spine. There I was, 1700 miles away from home and 2000 miles deep in a motorsports road trip, and I had finally laid eyes on the place that had claimed the life of someone I hold in deep regard, someone who had passed away over four decades prior, over two decades before I was even born.

One thousand and seven hundred miles away from home, two thousand miles into a road trip, twenty years into my life, and somehow, finally, I had ended up on that particular grandstand at Watkins Glen.

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We all make sense of tragedy in different ways. Especially when it comes to a sudden, unexpected death, we want to find a sense of comfort. We want to feel like it was coming, that we could have predicted it, that we can now find meaning in it.

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And studies show that, when we find meaning in tragedy, we’re less likely to suffer long term mental distress. Sometimes, that meaning is found within the event itself: I feel better about my child dying quickly because she had suffered so much during her battle with cancer. Sometimes, that meaning is imposed on the event later: had I not lost my mother so early, I wouldn’t be the strong person I am today. And sometimes, we just make up meaning to make ourselves feel better. A child who witnessed the 9/11 attacks later drew pictures of people leaping from the Twin Towers onto trampolines because that was how his brain had rationalized the tragedy.

Illustration for article titled François Cevert, Watkins Glen, And The Myths Of Dead Heroes
Photo: AFP (Getty Images)
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When François Cevert died, the people in his life tried to wrap up his story in a way that made the abruptness and violence of his death make sense.

His ex-girlfriend, Nanou van Malderen, tells the story about how she went to a clairvoyant who told her she would meet him and change her life. That same clairvoyant later told François that he would live a glorious life but that he would be dead before he was 30. When he died during qualifying at Watkins Glen, it was the final race he’d have contested as a 29-year-old.

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His brother-in-law, fellow driver Jean-Pierre Beltoise, believes that tragedy happens when we’re on the cusp of great change. And François most certainly was that, ready to usurp the retiring Jackie Stewart as leader of Team Tyrrell.

His mechanic, Jo Ramirez, remembers that François told him it was supposed to be a good day: It was October 6. He was driving Tyrrell No. 6, chassis number 006, engine number 66. Cevert thought it was meant to be his day. Ramirez, A Contract With Death hints, believes otherwise.

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His biographer, Jean-Claude Hallé, hypothesizes that, perhaps in some way, François knew what was coming. Aside from asking Ken Tyrrell for more money, and despite a fairly successful career in sports cars, Cevert had made no plans for 1974. Even his Formula One plans weren’t solidified. It was as if he was holding off for something he knew to be inevitable.

Turn 1 at Watkins Glen.
Turn 1 at Watkins Glen.
Photo: Elizabeth Blackstock
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Albert François Cevert Goldenberg was born on February 25, 1944 to a Russian Jewish father and a French mother. In order to keep the family safe, Charles Goldenberg—Cevert’s father—encouraged the children to take their mother’s traditionally French surname while he was fighting against the Nazis during their occupation of Paris. Much to Goldenberg’s dismay, the children never retook his name.

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The Cevert family wasn’t rich, but they were well-off and comfortable in their Parisian suburb home. Charles Goldenberg was a jeweler who wanted François to follow his own path in managing the family business—it would have been a noble career for a young man who was well-versed in the piano and smart but “too pretentious and not sufficiently hard working” in school, according to one of his teachers.

His true passion lay in speed. No, Cevert didn’t grow up worshipping racing drivers or aiming for Formula One. He just enjoyed talking his mother into buying faster and faster scooters and racing them through the streets. It was something he was good at. Saving up to buy motorbikes and then taking them to the race course became his all-consuming purpose in life.

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On a holiday, Cevert met Nanou van Malderen, a married woman who became his girlfriend, someone he’d come home to see even while he was in the midst of undergoing his mandatory military service.

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Nanou was able to use her money to bolster Cevert’s career. She paid for Cevert to attend driving school, to compete in the Shell Racing Scholarship challenge, where Cevert proved himself to be a natural talent and won the car provided by the challenge. Nanou and François set about taking their terrible open-wheel machine to as many races as they could, sleeping in cars and showering in Cevert’s sister’s hotel room because Jacqueline was dating one of Cevert’s peers, Jean-Pierre Beltoise. By that point, he had essentially been excommunicated from his family after his father refused to allow François to race while living under his roof.

A naturally quick driver, Cevert made an impression on the F1 drivers of his day. Back then, men like Graham Hill and Jackie Stewart would compete in Formula 2 events during off-weekends to rake in more money. When Tyrrell driver Johnny Servoz-Gavin suddenly withdrew from the 1970 F1 season due to an eye injury he’d hidden away, Cevert was pegged to take his place alongside Jackie Stewart. Cevert received the call while he was in the bath; for weeks, he’d waited by his phone, desperate to hear if the rumor that he’d be moving into F1 was true.

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The rest, they say, is history. Stewart set about becoming something of a mentor, teaching Cevert everything he knew, refining François’s raw talent into something that translated directly into a smooth result on track. In 1971, Cevert won his first race at Watkins Glen International, where he discovered that his champagne had sat out in the sun for too long and so he wasn’t able to send it cascading over the crowd. He grew progressively better—more stable, more reliable, more relaxed—as Jackie Stewart taught him the ins and outs of open-wheel racing. The two became fast friends, vacationing together, traveling together, racing in non-F1 events together. Stewart was setting his mentee up to eventually, one day, replace him as number one on the Tyrrell team.

And then François Cevert died.

Illustration for article titled François Cevert, Watkins Glen, And The Myths Of Dead Heroes
Photo: Reg Lancaster/Daily Express/Hulton Archive (Getty Images)
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In the middle of a cool, alcohol-soaked night, we jumped the fence, rolled down the hill, mounted the Armco, then stood in the middle of a wide swath of asphalt. We were standing on the track surface of Watkins Glen International.

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While most of my other companions saw the novelty wear off around the time we walked the length of the Boot, I was on a mission. I stayed as silent as possible, creeping over the ribbon of race track, leaping behind the powder-blue Armco barriers any time the track patrol truck came my way. I had a singular purpose. I needed to get to the Esses.

The journey there felt interminable, but when I finally stood at the corridor of barriers that now protect that wiggly bit of road, time stopped. I could sense its presence more than see it in the depths of the night. Formidable metal fencing with lush forests waiting just beyond. Heavy blankets of silence weighing me down. A chestful of victory and tragedy all at once. A sense of the infinite and the finite, right here at Watkins Glen.

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I don’t know when I first noticed the twinkling lights. Hundreds of fireflies seemed to be dancing and flickering in every available pocket of space, like pinhole stars had descended to the earth. More than I’d ever seen before in my life. I don’t know how many breathless moments I spent there, enveloped in the comfort of the moment, but the peace couldn’t last forever. When the track patrol came into sight, I knew it was my time to return to camp.

But the next morning, as we nursed hangovers with Pedialyte and a cacophony of race cars warming up in practice, my friend Remy asked me, “Did you see all those fireflies last night?”

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I had. It was impossible to miss them.

“There’s this legend,” they began, a little haltingly, “that fireflies are the souls of the dead. They come back and light up so we remember them.”

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Somewhere in the caverns of my throat, my heartbeat stuttered.

 


If François Cevert were alive today, I don’t know if I’d like him. In A Contract with Death, he comes off as something of an asshole, demanding his girlfriends be impeccably made up before waking him in the morning with breakfast, lest a hair out of place ruin his day. He had a temper. He liked his women “submissive.” He was a “misogynist,” according to fellow French driver Henri Pescarolo.

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And I’m sure he’d probably share some takes I don’t agree with, the way Jackie Stewart has claimed that Formula One is very tolerant, actually, even when Lewis Hamilton is being punished for wearing a t-shirt demanding we remember Breonna Taylor.

Illustration for article titled François Cevert, Watkins Glen, And The Myths Of Dead Heroes
Photo: Don Morley / Allsport UK (Getty Images)
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If I were to rewrite history in his favor, he would have won the 1974 Formula One World Championship instead of Emerson Fittipaldi, but that would be all, I think. I think maybe he’d have one of those accidents that doesn’t kill you but makes it impossible to keep racing at the peak of your capabilities. Or, maybe, he would drag it out to the bitter end, slipping further and further down the grid. Maybe he would have retired after one Championship. He might have lived the playboy lifestyle the same way Rush portrays James Hunt as doing, and that would become his legend.

And I don’t know if I’d like that. I don’t know if I’d be as compelled by someone I could, theoretically, still interview today, or by someone the motorsport world watched gracelessly age into the grave.

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In some respects, it’s the myth of François Cevert that I feel attached to, not the man. It’s the youth and the wasted potential. The things that could have been. The way his life was cut short just before he’d have had it all. The way I get to fill out the parts I like best and leave out those I don’t care for. It’s the tragedy of a plot that never quite reached its climax, the way I get to take the tattered ends and make them into anything I like.


I was not expecting my life to change at my yearly pilgrimage to Watkins Glen International for the six-hour IMSA event, but that’s exactly what ended up happening in 2018. I was existing in a very liminal space where I firmly believed that consequences didn’t matter and that, if they somehow did, I’d just be able to bullshit my way through it like usual.

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I’d just graduated with an undergraduate degree from the University of Texas and would, in under two months, be moving across country to attend a graduate school I’d specifically chosen because it was close to my then-long-term-boyfriend—who waited until after I’d submitted my nonrefundable acceptance fee to tell me that he kind of preferred the novelty of having a Texan girlfriend because he didn’t have to see her all the time.

I responded by attending the Six Hours of the Glen with him and proceeding to flirt with the big group of online friends we met up to camp with. It was not my finest moment, but our relationship was already rocky, and part of me had decided that, if we were going to inevitably break up, I might as well speed things along.

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As expected, we broke things off just after I’d settled into my new apartment. I did not expect that one of the guys I’d been cozy with at the Glen would end up being my husband. But that night, he had sat with me on the grass, drank champagne, watched the stars, and asked me to listen to Van Halen with him. I messaged him during the ride home with my then-boyfriend, asking him for round two.

Illustration for article titled François Cevert, Watkins Glen, And The Myths Of Dead Heroes
Photo: Keystone Features/Hulton Archive (Getty Images)
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I drove up to Canada to spend time with him in August. We started dating in September. By December, we were engaged. The following March, we got married.

I really didn’t have an interest in sportscar racing, not to the extent that I would travel for it, but I’d done it for the first time in 2017 because a friend had talked me into it on the basis of meeting the people I’d been friends with online for a year. Every year, they don the title of Camp Hooligan, buy up a swath of campsites lining the Boot, and distribute them (for a fee) amongst whoever calls dibs on Twitter.

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I’d gone that first time because I wanted to see an actual race there. I’d gone because I wanted to see my friends. In 2018, I’d gone because I felt like I had to. I drove solo from Texas to New York in two days because I needed to be at that track that year. And that race was the reason I got married.

I think about it a lot. I think about how, after my very first trip to the Glen, I’d written my first blog about race cars trying to sum up what I felt up in that grandstand chasing ghosts. Then, I’d spent a year trying to write about the fireflies. That first blog spiraled, quickly, into a freelance writing post with Red Bull, then my gig at Jalopnik. That firefly story got me accepted to grad school.

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It all feels serendipitous. I grew up in rural Michigan with the expectation that I would commute to the local community college, get a sensible job in a field like engineering, get married and have kids, buy the house next door to my family’s, settle in for a nice, conventional life.

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But I don’t think there was ever any indication that I was going to follow that path. I didn’t like math and instead read hundreds of books a year, setting records in my tiny school that still stand today. I wrote stories in every spare moment of time I had between assignments and packed a lunchbox full of CDs to listen to on the playground: Rob Zombie, Van Halen, Hole. My parents divorced and moved to opposite ends of the country, and I struggled to maintain meaningful friendships when I spent several months of the year in a different time zone.

I knew I wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t know what I’d write about. My home in Michigan wasn’t the kind of place that inspired coherent growth, so I tried on many different hats to see which I liked best. I was, simultaneously, the kid at the top of my class who ate lunch at the teacher’s table and the degenerate that would show up to school in a leather dress and black lipstick. I loved weightlifting as much as advanced psychology. I was a typical angry feminist and, as the only woman in my house, the homemaker that cooked dinner and cleaned.

And then, my junior year of high school, I saw Rush.

Suddenly, things made sense. I got home from that movie and immediately dove into the archives of the internet to see what else I could learn about these mad race car drivers from the 1970s. I was drawn to a handsome Frenchman with bright blue eyes and a tale of tragedy.

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I grew up on a steady diet of classic rock, American muscle cars, and a whole era that had been over and done with long before my parents had reached adulthood. It appealed to everything that’s captivated my attention: fast living, faster cars, and fatalism captured in the nostalgic sepia tints of Polaroid cameras. It was why I latched onto François Cevert. Something about those charming blue eyes, the fond way he’s remembered, and the tragedy of wasted potential had me hooked from the very first time I heard his story. His story is the kind I would love to write novels about.

The first thing I bought with my first credit card was his $200 out-of-print biography. I started watching modern races. I asked for tickets to my first race during my freshman year of college, the 2014 United States Grand Prix. I planned a trip to Europe to see more races and started painting banners and flags for my favorite drivers. I went to the house in Neuilly-sur-Seine, to the apartment where Cevert had lived. I hunted down more and more archival photos, more obscure facts. I found closer friendships than I’d had with the people I’d known since preschool. I started writing about it all.

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I got a job. I graduated college. I found the purpose I’d missed out on all those years. But I’m still trying to explain how, exactly, a dead French race car driver is the person who somehow did all that for me.

Illustration for article titled François Cevert, Watkins Glen, And The Myths Of Dead Heroes
Photo: GABRIEL DUVAL, JEAN-PIERRE PREVEL/AFP (Getty Images)
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After an inordinately stressful week, my mother-in-law, Karen let me know that it was time. She took me to her treatment room and laid me on the table for an hour’s worth of reiki treatment, a form of energy healing. I’ve never known how much of it I believe, but I’ve also found it helpful to spend time in a dark room, imagining my own energy. Where it flows. Where it sticks. How I can change up my daily life in such a way that I feel slightly less shitty.

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Karen works with the chakra centers, and for me, two are always blocked: my root and my sacral chakras. The chakras that govern the basic foundations of security, survival, pleasure, and well-being. For a long time, I pictured those energy centers all bound up with thick, knotty roots that pumped poisonous, black sludge and connected me to all the things I’d tried so hard to escape from.

I couldn’t cut those roots. I couldn’t ignore them. Neither could I think about them for too long without feeling like all that poison was seeping into my other energy centers, my bones.

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But that day, something was different. The roots seemed browner, more natural. Still there, but not quite as imposing. I didn’t know it then, but it was the first step toward viewing those bound up chakras as tangled, knotted yarn: no longer living, now made frail and soft. It may take time for me to unravel, but when I do, it can become useful to me again. I’ll be able to weave it into something beautiful.

That day, when we turned on the lights after the session, Karen’s eyes were filled with tears.

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“I saw someone,” she told me. “He was helping me. He’s been there for you this whole time, always out there somewhere, but today I saw him.”

For a while, I thought she was talking about one of my childhood friends. The first time she met me, she described a spirit sticking to me that sounded like Logan, a boy I’d known since I was born who had died soon after we graduated high school. She’d accurately described the heart condition he’d been born with, the one that ultimately killed him, and the nature of the friendship we’d had for decades.

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I thought for a moment that, maybe, it was Logan again. But she’d seen Logan before. He’d been the first of ‘my spirits’ that she’d sensed.

“He’s tall. Has an accent. Dark hair, about to here.” She gestured just past her ears. “The most beautiful blue eyes I’ve ever seen. Just gorgeous. I don’t think you’ve ever met him, but you know him. He’s always been there, getting you where you need to go.”

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Part of me thought—indulgently, perhaps—the name of a particular French racing driver, but I kept it tucked away inside myself. I don’t know if I believe that… but I have to admit that I like it. It could very well just be me ascribing meaning to tragedy again, trying to make sense of my own existence in a wider context, trying to give it a neat and tidy narrative to wrap things up. I have to admit that it sounds far more profound than pinning my draw to this seemingly random man on a crush or an idolization or an obsession, to say that François Cevert’s purpose in my life has been to put me on my current path.

It certainly makes for a nicer story, using his to tell mine and in turn keeping both threads alive. And as a writer, I think that’s the moral I’m going to stick to. It has its own special kind of magic to it.

Weekends at Jalopnik. Managing editor at A Girl's Guide to Cars. Lead IndyCar writer and assistant editor at Frontstretch. Novelist. Motorsport fanatic.

DISCUSSION

nkann
Sgt. Pegleg

As you, yourself, have admitted to some emotional confusion about your affinity for Cevert, I can’t for the life of me understand how this man can hold such a grip on your passion for the sport as well as the direction of your life. As you alluded to in your story, I’ve rarely heard a good syllable spoken about Cevert as a person. If he were alive in today’s society, I believe he would be what we’d refer to as “a total douche”. Given your displayed bent on feminism and equality (I mean that in absolutely the best way possible), Cevert seems like the antithesis of who you would deem a racing hero. I hate to speak ill of the dead, but is what is...

I do understand your unexplained draw to him, though, as I am deeply emotionally drawn to death in racing, as well.  Not in a fascination way; it just emotionally impacts me.  I’m assuming that Cevert was probably the first racing death you really paid attention to, and I’d guess also that the morbid interest began with the violent way he died, and then the “cusp of greatness” backstory.  For me, that driver is Greg Moore, who was killed in 1999 at Fontana.  Greg was signed to drive with Penske the next season.  With Moor’s unfortunate death, we have the legendary career of Helio Castroneves, who filled the empty seat.  As you kids say, I am still shook every time I think about the circumstances around Greg Moore’s entire weekend of the crash that took his life.  I can’t say that it influenced the direction of my life and future, but it still made a major emotional impact felt even today.  Greg would be a great subject to do a deep dive article on sometime.  Great writing.