Back when English sports cars were just getting hot following WWII, a local enthusiast named Cameron Argetsinger, became an early member of the SCCA (Sports Car Club of America), an organization devoted to this new breed of cars that championed racing them here in America. His family lived in Utica, New York and he was a law student at Cornell. He enthusiastically proposed an amateur road race to his peers, to be held directly across the famous Seneca Lake from Ithaca. He suggested calling it the Watkins Glen Grand Prix. After he received full support from the local Chamber of Commerce, the real work began. Creating what turned out to be a 6.6 mile course using mostly local paved roads in the town, as well as a few short stretches of then gravel roads, the SCCA and the New York Railroad approved the project. Trains were stopped and roads were closed in order for the race to take place. At 12 noon on October 2nd, 1948, the first race took place. During the race, one of the entrants, William Milliken, a noted aircraft dynamics expert, rolled his Bugatti 35 on the last lap giving the now famous name, “Milliken’s Corner” to that section of the rural roadway. The race ran annually through the public roads until it was deemed no longer safe, due to accidents and a couple of tragic deaths, including one of a famous driver of the time, Sam Collier and another of a little boy who was struck and killed as a car went out of control through the hay bales at the start of the race on the front straight.
In response to the pressure from New York State officials, organized racing on public roads was under pressure to be banned. As a solution to this problem, a group of enthusiasts including Argetsinger, was able to secure a plot of land high on a hill top in the town of Dix, just a few miles from the downtown Watkins Glen location. After agreements had been reached with the locals and New York State officials, a 4.6 mile course was laid out and constructed under the Watkins Glen Grand Prix Corporation name. 1953 saw the very first race run at the new circuit.
In the ensuing years, much discourse took place between the race organizers and the SCCA. Management within the SCCA and those in charge at the new track did not see eye to eye. For several years (including 1953) the SCCA did not sanction racing, but racing went on regardless with a limited number of drivers. By 1957, compromises were made and the course was reduced to 2.3 miles in length. For the next several years, the track went through more changes including legal issues and continued confrontations with the SCCA. But by 1961, Watkins Glen International had established itself. The first US Grand Prix for Formula One cars was held that year, adding to its numerous sports car races. Even NASCAR took a close look at The Glen, although it would be many years before they took to the track. Everything from Indy Cars, Formula 5000, Vintage cars, Can-Am, and Trans-Am raced there. In 1981 hard times hit the track again. It was closed down due to the need for serious repairs, and the track filed for bankruptcy. Nearby, in the town of Corning, sat the world famous Corning Glass Works. A subsidiary of CGW purchased Watkins Glen International in 1983 and formed a partnership with the International Speedway Corporation (who owned other tracks at the time including Daytona International Speedway). After a ton of money was poured into WGI to fund extensive improvements, this track would soon become one of the finest in the world. It is often called the only real hallowed race track of the United States.
Several famous drivers have lost their lives here in both Formula One and NASCAR racing. Additional safety procedures were put into effect including two chicanes (a circuitous deviation from a straightaway). The idea was to slow the cars down before they enter the wide but tight right hander that leads into the long left hander down into the boot area. Originally, a chicane known as “Scheckter Chicane” was put in place thanks to F1 driver Jody Scheckter, who saw his friend Francois Cevert beheaded in 1973 just before the uphill esses. Cevert was Jackie Stewart’s team mate and it was during that practice session that Stewart hung up his helmet for the final time after his best friend’s death. JD McDuffie, a popular NASCAR driver also lost his life at the end of the back straight as his car went off into the woods on driver’s left. Scheckter Chicane was removed when the track was purchased in 1983, and in 1992 the “Bus Stop” chicane was added to the end of the long back straightaway.
When NASCAR started to race here, in the late 1980’s, many of the beautiful trees and forest areas were thinned to make room for more travel and RV vehicles. It was a shame to see so much beauty cut down, but in the name of business and revenue, it was gradually accepted. Today, well over half a million people attend races at Watkins Glen each year. During the fall, the changing natural colors make for glorious photographs and during the spring the place is as green as a lush golf course. Permanent stands have been put into place along the course to accompany the few concrete original ones at the end of turn one. The views are clear and unobstructed for all fans regardless of where you decide to view the races. A few years ago the old media center was torn down and an ultra-modern media center with two large rooms for photographers and PR was built. The building houses conferences rooms, a huge room used for catering banquets, as well as radio studios and a number of other rooms to accommodate other needs.
Each year since the middle of the 1970’s, the track has played host to a race known as the 6 hours of Watkins Glen. Originally called the Continental 6 hours, then later known as The Camel GT 6hr, it eventually evolved over time into the 6 hours at Watkins Glen. Grand Am began racing there in 2000 and continued twice a year for almost 12 years running the 6 hour in late June and joining NASCAR on their weekend in August. The tradition continues as the new Tudor Sports Car Series has taken hold in 2014 and the first combination of the old American LeMans Series cars do battle with the former Grand Am Series sports cars.
This year, some 55 cars in four classes competed on the historic full grand prix course at WGI. Now known as the Sahlen’s Six Hours of the Glen (Sahlen’s, a meat company, is the title sponsor) the race went off without a hitch. With clear skies and very little wind and relatively low humidity, the track was packed with fans. Campers and day trippers came to watch the competition which was as fierce as ever, both on the track and in the pits.
Taking the overall win was The Spirit of Daytona Corvette Daytona Prototype driven by team mates Richard Westbrook and Michael Valiante, in the Prototype class. Taking the win in the Prototype Challenge class was Jon Bennett and Colin Braun in their Core Autosport Oreca FLM09 open cockpit car. In the GT LeMans Class, Jan Magnussen and Antonio Garcia took the checkered flag as a win in their Compuware Chevy Corvette C7R machine. Dane Cameron and Markus Palttala won the GT Daytona class in their Turner Motorsport BMW Z4 machine.
Watkins Glen International is known as a very fast, sometimes dangerous, thrilling and extremely rewarding course to drive. It, like so many other race courses, requires consistent concentration by the drivers. Over a six hour race this becomes very fatiguing. Racing in today’s world is so different from that of the past. For many years it was customary to take one’s time and not come blasting out of the start gate full bore and stay that way to the end. At times teams would order a driver to play rabbit in the old style of a driver running full tilt from the start making the competition chase after him in hopes that the competition would break down trying to keep up. Today that doesn’t really apply. It is a full sprint race from the time the starter throws that green flag and the radios in the drivers ears blast as their team managers yell ”Green Green Green” in hopes of a successful scramble for that first corner and the lead. The cars and drivers are all very fit for these sprints whether for a 2.75 hour race, 3 hour race, 6 hour, 12 hour or even now the 24 hour events. The cars are solid and tight and flexible with all kinds of safety devices and constructed to protect the driver in almost all crash conditions. The drivers are all top athletes who spend several hours a day working at maintaining their fitness levels and their aerobic strength. Shifting constantly, braking, turning in and accelerating out of a corner with tremendous G-forces takes a lot of effort and stamina. Watkins Glen is the kind of race course that will reward you well if you can hold up without making any mistakes at the wheel.
The 6 hour event is a wonderful weekend for those who want to take in the smells, the colors and the action of motor racing at its finest. The excitement of the entire place creates a fantastic memory. It is a race any enthusiast should really attend. And it is one of those endurance races that makes you realize how friendly the drivers and teams are and how social an environment a race track can be to the general public: how serious a team sport auto racing really is.