Interview with Ben Huisman

In preparation for this documentary researcher Nando Boers spoke with Ben Huisman, the 1973 Dutch Grand Prix race director on the circuit of Zandvoort.

“In 1972 and 1973, when the circuit was effectively closed, Johan Beerepoot and me founded CENAV, the Circuit Exploitatie Nederland Autorensport Vereniging. We started to raise funds to modernise the circuit in order to comply with the safety standards. This had to be done as the circuit was banned, bushes grew on the tarmac, the clipping points was no armco or apex but those bushes which grew on the tarmac. The council wanted to close the circuit and that is why we joined forces and said: 'No way! We have to race. Motorracing at Zandvoort has to remain possible.' Johan and me took the lead and said: we have to raise sufficient funds. Subsequently I moved to Zandvoort.”
Q Why did the Zandvoort Circuit had to close in 1971?
A “It was run down. The pitboxes and pitlane were a complete shamble”
Q What had to be done?
A “I met heavy opposition form the municipal council and all odds were stacked against us. As our adversaries had strong backing from third parties.
Q Who were those adversaries?
A “13 neighbours had filed a formal complaint. And there was a lot of resistance against motorracing in general. Nowadays that resistance has faded away and almost non existent. The resistance was not based on the dangers of motorracing but motorracing was simply not done.”
Q Environment, noise?
A “Yes. And people in Maastricht, that is the other side of the country, could file a complaint as well. Anyway, I moved to Zandvoort and started with Beerepoot. We put everything together. Smallegange was our constructor. He mounted the armco and built the pitlane, which are both gone now, and the tower, which still exists”
Q How old were you then?
A “36”
Q What became safer?
A “Run off areas and fences, with poles. The entire track was resurfaced and a new corner constructed”
Q How did you finance it all?
A “From everywhere. Sponsors bought the pitboxes and an investment bank lent us money. Anyway, we had a lot of participants. The financing was pretty well organized, nothing wrong there”
Q Who called the shots when it came to safety?
A “It was all directed from Paris. Jackie Stewart was the main man”
Q Did Paris want to include Zandvoort on the Grand Prix calender again?
A “Yes, they had a safety committee”
Q Why did they want Zandvoort to be back on the GP calender?
A “The Dutch motoring organizations felt we had to have a Grand Prix. We wanted to have the big boys. Anyway, after our plans were approved by the safety committee we started to rebuilt the circuit.”
Q Came Jackie Stewart came to Zandvoort in 1972, or earlier ?
A “I picked him up from Schiphol Airport near Amsterdam. We weren't very talkative on our way to the circuit. We didn't really like each other. I had no problems with Lauda, got on with Hunt very well and Graham Hill was a friend of mine. I drove 50 km/h (32 miles per hour). He wanted to go slow and, just like I did with my father earlier, I lowered my speed even more. We walked across the circuit. It wasn't the first time and certainly not the last time someone walked across the circuit. I wasn't a member of the Stewart fanclub. I found him a pain in the arse. In hindsight he was right. He had to race and had to ensure that he would survive to tell the tale.”
Q Was he satisfied?
A “I don't think so. He felt that a lot had still to be done”
Q And was he right ?
A “In hindsight .... let's put is this way, remember the 2003 GP of Brazil, with that rain? You can not say: 'they had to stop the race'. I say, just like Allard Kalff (Dutch television commentator & racing driver): 'If you can't stop, you can always go slower'. The only point I want to make is, and that was the whole issue back in 1973, we didn't give Roger Williamson a chance to survive. I was totally responsible. When someone died in GP racing in 1973 it was nothing out of the ordinary. But on that circuit, on that particular spot the chances to survive a crash was virtually nill. That is the sole criterium. Nowadays you have to make sure that such a chance exists. You have to run into a patch of really bad luck when you kill yourself on the track. In those days you were lucky when you didn't kill yourself on the track”
Q It was a nice day, July 29th 1973, wasn't it?
A “Yes, we were at Tijn Akersloot, on the beach. So we went to the circuit in a happy mood, we were awarded with a silver plate from the KNAC, because of all the efforts Beerepoot and me had put into it all. So the race started at a high note”
Q What did you like, being a race director?
A “If I may say so: I'm very good in motivating people. It's a second nature to me. Zandvoort was no exception. I had no problems in relating to the marshalls. You know, people who are on your payroll can be ordered to do this and that. But that's a completely different ballgame when you deal with volunteers. The most difficult thing to do is to work with a couple of hundred volunteers who run the circuit posts with just a couple of sandwiches, an apple and a bottle of softdrink as compensation”
Q An apple and a bottle of softdrink?
A "Yes, no compensation for the trainfare or gas either. I didn't receive any financial compensation either. All for the fun of it. When it rained and they returned soaking wet after the race I was soaking wet aswell. Even if I had to go out in the rain just for the sake of it I did just that. You couldn't sit nice and comfy in your office when these guys came in, all soaking wet. I just felt that the sport was of paramount importance and then automatically someone will excell. And that was me. Such an organisation has to have one captain on the bridge. Constant discussions don't work under those conditions. But, times have changed.”
Q Back to the 29th of July.
A "Sundaymorning was business as usual. Beerepoot and me took a motorbike and drove around the track in the morning. Checked the circuit, saw how beautiful and tidy everything was. The specators came 70,000 or so. We were very proud with such a large crowd. The sun was shining, flags waving, music all around. Everything was allright. And Dutchman Gijs van Lennep participated in the race for Frank Williams, thanks to Marlboro. Dutch television was present, for the first time. With Frans Henrichs and Henk Terlingen as commentators. Gradually they lined up for the starting grid. I only had to tell them to hurry as otherwise I would close the pitlane. No one was in a real hurry, it wasn't as organized as nowadays. When everybody had found their place on the starting grid I went to the timekeeping office. The OCA stayed in touch with the marshall posts across the circuit and the firebrigade had their own communication system.They were located in the tower, as a matter of fact, right here. The marshalls on their posts around the circuit were both my eyes and ears.”
Q Where were you?
A “I was outside, at the entry of the pitlane. I started the race with the Dutch flag. Quite nice actually. The satisfaction: we did it, a great circuit, great pitboxes, great controltower, and lots of spectators. We could congratulate ourselves. We watched the cars leave – we had no communication – and after a lap we saw the positions. I was outside near the armco. And then... we see a black cloud of smoke What could have happened?”
Q You stayed near the armco?
A “Yes, right opposite the timekeeping tower near the start/finish line. Within audible range from the 1st level of the timekeeping office. We also had a ladder, so when I couldn't hear it properly I would climb the ladder and ask what was going on”
Q Then lap # 8.
A “We see smoke, but don't hear anything. Perhaps someone had set fire to some tyres or something like that. We said: can't be that important as the laptimes are still the same”
Q Who saw the smoke first?
A “Someone might have yelled: look smoke. Then we started to analyse: any news from a marshall post? No. I climbed the ladder. Have you heard anything ? No. Well, it might be someting back in the woods. Laptimes? Anyone entering the pitlane? Must be a fluke”
Q But, there are enormous clouds of smoke and you think it is a small fire with tyres...?
A “Yes, something like that. We were not thinking of the race itself”
Q Never one thought ?
A “No, nothing could happen on our circuit? We did build a safe circuit? What could happen on our circuit?”
Q Weren't you a little bit naive?
A “Yes, I think so. Without a doubt. Nothing could happen. But than it sinks in: something is wrong.”
Q Who reported that?
A “The marshalls.”
Q It fits in your story that no one is aware of anything at the timekeeping office.
A “We were unaware and then we found out...”
Q When was that ?
A “During lap #20 we thought: something is wrong”
Q Because there was still smoke?
A “Then we sent the fire truck.”
Q Where did that truck come from?
A “From the Gerlach curve. A slow old fire truck.”
Q An old fire truck slowly climbing the hill 2.5 miles per hour, something like that?
A “Before the truck was on the location of the accident I am still unware of what happened so I could not stop the race. The race had just only started, no drivers come into the pits, so nothing seriously could have happened.”
Q You were still unaware of what happened?
A “We did know something happened but the message we received was: accident, driver OK. He is standing next to his car.”
Q Who said so?
A “I do not know, probabely somebody from the timekeepingoffice.”
Q How is it possible that a race director decides: it's early in the race, the race can go on. Was that normal in those days?
A “Listen: there are three reasons. We had no information that something serious had happened and secondly how do you get everything going again? That would not have been easy with 70,000 spectators. After consulting the sports commission I decided: I will not stop the race. And third and above all; laptimes did not decline.”
Q But you missed two cars?
A “If there would be crashed cars on the track you must lower speed. But there was no reason for it. They all drove with the same speed. And what I never understood is that not a single driver entered the pitlane wondering why no action was taken.”
Q So they were as naive as you?
A “Yes, they misjudged the situation as well. They saw Purley. Can you imagine? Drivers concentrate on the inside of the turn and Purley's car is on the outside. At these speeds you have to focus on the clipping point and not the outside. So it was a combination of things. Things are happening during races all the time. I do not panic too quickly. Imagine: you stop the race and then it becomes evident that nothing happenend.”
Q Can you recall the moment when you heard that it was not OK?
A “No”
Q Why don't you know?
A “I do not know. It gets serious when firefighters enter the track. But the message: 'he is dead'.... I really do not know when that came in. It even might have been my own conclusion. It took a long time before we knew for certain. The story grows.”
Q Did you feel an urge to visit the location?
A “No, it wasn't possible. It is 2.5 kilometers. If you want so, you first need to stop the race.”
Q Spirits were low?
A “Yes, we saw the bad weather coming.”
Q Stewart wins, and then?
A “We should have had a victory celebration. I can't remember. I do not think Stewart was in the mood to celebrate.”
Q Afterwards there was a press conference?
A “Behind a table, in a tent behind the pitboxes. Everybody was yelling about Roger Williamson but the only one who knew him was me. Dennis Hulme made some nasty remarks. People were calling eachother names. I replied: son of a bitch, why did you continue to race at full speed and didn't bother to come in?”
Q Who were present?
A “Everybody who wanted to enter the tent. Everybody hurried inside. Everybody was present. Heated debates. After an hour everything cools down. When all arguments have been repeated more than twice.”
Q Spectators are gone?
A “Yes it is just like a heavy shower of cold rain. Everybody is down, the show is over. I assume we said something along the lines of 'tomorrow another day'. We couldn't change what had happened.”
Q Just like how things were in those days?
A “Yes, so I went to Graham Hill for a drink in his camper on the inner area of the circuit. He just said to me: 'Not so good Ben. Not so good.'"
Q And then?
A "In hindsight we described it as a Titanic experience. It is a new ship which is unsinkable. Hadn't we built a new circuit, the safest of all?”
Q Whereas is was the most dangerous circuit all?
A “But awfully quick.”
Q How do you look back at this period?
A “I think this is a black page in my book. Perhaps I have saved some lives another time as well.”
Q Do you still think of it?
A “Yes. Men can't determine its own destiny. It proves that it is impossible to have everything under control. It depends on so many elements but people expected me to control them all. You will not hear my say not my fault. No. The others were not to blame.”
Q Did you have sleepless nights?
A ”Might be. Roger Williamson was still young and we took away his chance to live a normal life. And he was a nice young man too.”
Q When did you hear your services were no longer needed in 1974?
A “I said that to myself, right after the accident. I will finish this season and then I stop."