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My Shot: Kenneth Olausson, Switzerland 1967

By Brett Smith

In 1967, Gérard Lédormeur was the subject of Kenneth Olausson’s greatest shot.

The best part of the story might be that 19-year-old Kenneth Olausson had to wait more than two weeks to realize he’d taken the best photo of his entire life. The next best part is that had Olausson not made the decision to try a different location for capturing the start of the race, he would have missed the opportunity to capture what became one of the most reproduced, ripped off, republished, and recurring photographs in motocross history. He also may have been killed.

Date: September 1967 Race/Location: International Invitational Motocross, Cossonay, Switzerland Rider: Gérard Lédormeur (French) Photographer: Kenneth Olausson Equipment: German Leicaflex w/35mm lens

He started as a racer himself. When he was 16, Olausson competed in three motocross races, finishing last place every time. He was so short he couldn’t reach the ground with his toes. His parents implored him to quit. “I had an answer ready for them,” he says. “I told them, ‘You can stop me from racing, but you can’t stop me from going to races.’ I learned how to handle a camera and have been a journalist and racing photographer ever since.”

Olausson’s career also took him to 47 Formula One events after he befriended Swedish driver Ronnie Peterson, who won 10 F1 races before his death in 1978 in Italy. Olausson’s F1 days ended with Peterson’s passing.

18-year-old Kenneth Olausson

His most fruitful day as a photographer, however, came in September 1967 in Cossonay, a small village in western Switzerland. The motocross race was an international invitational with riders from eight countries represented, as Olausson remembers it. He was there with Husqvarna factory rider Olle Pettersson, a Swede who finished third overall that year in the FIM 250cc World Motocross Championship. (Ed note: Four months later Olle became Suzuki’s first development rider for the Grand Prix series, helping the Japanese brand bring the RH line into MXGP. In 1969, he finished third again in the 250cc series).

In Cossonay, it wasn’t difficult to find a good spot to shoot photos. The town sits at just under 1900 feet of elevation and is surrounded by the Alps. Olausson, however, wasn’t happy with his shooting position at the start of the moto. “I placed myself close to the edge of the track for the start, having a wonderful background for the takeoff. I was just in front of the spectators and behind a fence. Seconds before the start, I moved 25 yards closer to the starting ramp to get an optimal frame. That move saved my life.”

Holding his German Leicaflex and 35mm lens, a base setup he bought in 1966 and used for 25 years, the teenager from Stockholm waited for the pack to roar toward him. The flags of the countries represented can be seen in the background, strung high across the starting line of the course: Finland, Great Britain, France… When the starter’s flag went up, Olausson pulled the Leicaflex up to his face and waited for the first riders to crest the rise in the track before pressing the shutter button.

“Gérard Lédormeur (rider number 5) miscalculated the first steep hill and never realized how much he would be airborne with his speed,” Olausson says. “Some said his throttle stuck, but that was, of course, nonsense. He went too fast to make the holeshot.” Olausson’s impeccable timing captured the Frenchman and his Métisse motorcycle just as they appear to be at peak height and separation from each other. Lédormeur is looking down, his legs still in saddle formation, his arms still forward, reaching for the handlebars to remount, as if he’s at the midpoint of some form of freestyle maneuver three decades before its time.

Lédormeur, of course, doesn’t reconnect with his motorcycle, and his day (and those of two spectators) ended in the hospital. No major injuries were reported. “When I turned to look at him grounded, I could see that there were injured spectators. With horror, I observed that the heavy machine of the Frenchman had landed exactly on the spot where I had sat half a minute earlier!”

Olausson doesn’t remember who won the race but he sent his film off to Kodak for development and had to wait two weeks for the results. When he saw the chromes, he immediately contacted Se, a popular Swedish weekly, the American equivalent of Life. In a 12-in. by 18-in. spread, the photo – headlined “His Air Ride Ended Among the Spectators” – was named Se Photo of the Year, and he earned 1000 Swedish Crowns for it [$200 USD]. In the 50 years since its initial publication, the photo has appeared in publications in 24 different countries, including a spread in the revered German weekly, Stern, which had more than one million subscribers at its peak.

Today, Olausson writes for car and bike magazines and does historical work for Husqvarna, most notably on the marque’s Good Old Times blog. Olausson’s archives (and racing memories) are extensive and worth a visit if you’re interested in motocross history.

The crash wasn’t the last time Olausson heard from Gérard Lédormeur. “He continued racing motocross, and I had a long letter from him at the end of the 60s, where he claimed that he had a right to my original negative. I never answered that letter, of course.”