Remembering George Francis
On the 11th of April, 2019, Indian motorsport lost one of its most enthusiastic champions - veteran motorsport photojournalist, George Francis. Anyone who had been trackside at a motorsport event in the country over the past three decades, is sure to have encountered George. He'd either be seen traipsing around by the side of the racetrack, training his lens on cars and bikes that were going at breakneck speed. Or he'd be at rally stages, at various parts of the country, trying to shoot from a safe vantage point. And, if there happened to be some sort of gathering of journalists and photographers over lunch, George would be there. The first one to introduce himself to the nervous cub reporter, the first one to offer a helping hand to someone who needed to bag an interview but wasn't quite sure how to go about it, and often the first one to share a motorsport anecdote that would entertain everyone at the table, and have them all in splits, ultimately leaving George chuckling too. Other than his terrific photographs, I suppose it's George's distinctive laugh that most of us remember so very clearly.
If you'd like an example of one of these motorsport anecdotes, try this on for size. The year was 1994. The ever-intrepid protagonist of this column was standing his ground, watching rally legend Hari Singh's Gypsy grow larger and larger in his viewfinder. And then, just when he was about to press the shutter release, the car vanished from his sight entirely. Puzzled, he lowered his camera, the angry growl of the machine still reverberating in his ears. He felt something in the air, that caused him to look heavenwards. What he saw was that Gypsy - airborne - sailing clear over his head. How many of us can say that we've had a rally car fly right over us?! Well, George certainly could - and it was merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
George's career as a motorsport photographer began in 1984, when he first went to the Sholavaram track, with a camera slung around his neck. The motorsport weekend that he witnessed, left him spellbound. In fact he was so enchanted by the sport that he'd seen, he abandoned plans of being a priest, and took up a career as a photographer. He founded his own company - Scorp News - that specialised in motorsport photography - that same year. And he set about taking photos at as many races and rallies as he could. Along the way he saw it all and did it all. Whether it was races at the hallowed ground that was Sholavaram, the Great Desert Himalayan Rally, the London-Sydney Rally, the Raid De Himalaya, or numerous rounds of the Indian National Rally Championship - he was always present and clicking away. And, he painstakingly documented an era of Indian motorsport better, perhaps, than anyone else.
What makes George's journey through Indian motorsport so remarkable, though, is that he began at a time when motorsport photography hardly seemed like a viable career option. I remember the time that George told me how he'd cover whole events with no more than Rs 200 in his pocket. And of how he'd travelled on the roof of a bus to make sure that he got to the next leg of a rally he was covering - because not showing up was simply not an option. By the time that he was sharing these stories with me, he'd already survived 25 years as (at that point) the country's only dedicated motorsport photographer. And even though he sometimes sounded a little wistful, the jingling in his pockets a harsh reminder that his passion for motorsport and his love for photography often outweighed the pay-off, he carried right on. He was at the next race that I went to and at the race after that. And, save for a brief period of time when illness kept him away from racing, he was at nearly every event that followed. The last major event that George covered was the MRF Challenge finale in February 2019.
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to get an idea of just how in-depth the Scorp News archives truly were. See, between 2011 and 2013, the magazine that I then worked at, carried a series called "Retro Racer". It was a bid to celebrate the icons of Indian motor racing's bygone eras. This involved talking to racers and rally drivers from the past, condensing their stories into brief anecdotes, and illustrating them with lovely black and white or sepia-toned images. And who do you think we turned to for these images - George, of course! I remember the many photos he'd sent us over the years - Sundaram Karivardhan's famed Formula Atlantic that was dubbed "Black Beauty", Akbar Ebrahim in the Formula Indian McDowell's 1000, and Vicky Chandhok tackling a corner in the Team MRF Formula 2 car - those archives really were a treasure trove. As was George's phonebook, no doubt. All you had to do was tell him that you were hoping to interview so and so. Within the day, you'd have the number you needed, along with a message assuring you that formal introductions had already been made, and the person in question was expecting your phone call.
The fact that George is gone at the age of 57, is particularly saddening. He had years of motorsport photography left in him, and so many more anecdotes to share with us all. In a world where a lot of us make safe choices, choosing to attach ourselves to magazines that allow us, at the very least, a steady paycheque, George was a pioneer. His journey, being the road less travelled, probably wasn't easy. However, it was vastly more entertaining and colourful than the well-trodden path - a lesson worth remembering. After all, if the rest of us are digital photographs, George was the original bromide print.
Go well, George. Wherever you are now, I hope there are a few rally cars flying about.