Watkins Glen International (1948)
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Watkins Glen International
Watkins Glen International

Watkins Glen International

Watkins Glen Circuit

Cameron Argetsinger

The success of Formula and Open Wheel racing in the US, and in particular the Watkins Glen International, was the result of hard work and risky business conducted by many - but there is arguably one person that stands above all others - Cameron Argetsinger, who instigated racing at Watkins Glen in the years after World War 2. So popular was the circuit that it would go on to hold the United States Grand Prix each autumn. It was one of the races on the Formula One calendar which the drivers and constructors especially looked forward to; the Finger Lakes region of New York is not only beautiful, the Watkins Glen purse is large enough to be especially desirable.

The shores of Lake Seneca

Cameron Argetsinger was born in 1921. A law student, he liked to spend his summers at his grandparents' home in the rolling countryside on the shores of Lake Seneca. He loved driving his MG TC along the winding roads and dreamed of organising car races at Watkins Glen, a resort on Lake Seneca some 260 miles north-west of New York City. Argetsinger aroused enthusiasm in the village elders and Alec Ulmann, the Sports Car Club of America's Activities Chairman (who later introduced Sebring to the motor racing world), helped him with the enormous task of obtaining local and state authority for the closing of roads while the race was in progress. A circuit measuring 6.6 miles was mapped out, utilising village streets, country roads and dirt tracks.

The Ardent Alligator

The first Watkins Glen Grand Prix was run on 2 October 1948, and over twenty cars were assembled for the four-lap race which was to settle the starting places for the eight-lap Grand Prix itself. Frank Griswold won both races in his 2.9-liter pre-war Alfa Romeo coupe. It was a tremendous success. In 1949 the AAA sanctioned the meeting and the following year the FIA gave it international status. Winners were Miles Collier and A. E. Goldschmidt respectively. Collier raced his 'Ardent Alligator,' a Ford-engined Riley, while Goldschmidt's mount was an Allard J2-Cadillac. In 1951 - now with SCCA sanction as the AAA's requirements which applied to oval tracks could not be implemented on a road course - Cunningham had a 1 -2-4 result.

Phil Waiters Chrysler-engined Cunningham C2 won the 15-lap, 99-mile race at the record average speed of 77.65 mph. In 1950 there had been an accident in which three spectators were injured. Crowd control was difficult, with around 100,000 spectators watching the Grand Prix free of charge. In 1952, however, a small boy strayed too near to the edge of the track and was killed by Fred Wacker's Allard J2-Cadillac. Twelve others were injured. The insurance company refused to allow another race. Camerson Argetsinger, who had quit the Watkins Glen scene in 1951 after an argument over the sanctioning of the annual Grand Prix, rejoined in 1953 to help seek another course.

Wait Hansgen's Jaguar XK 120

The choice was a 4.6-mile, almost square group of rough roads in Dix, some four miles from Watkins Glen itself. The SCCA viewed the proposed circuit in June and refused to sanction the race, stating it could never be made ready in time. Argetsinger and members of the Watkins Glen Grand Prix Corporation raised $25,000 locally and in July the course was made ready. Innumerable fences and posts were moved, the roads widened from six to 20 feet and surfaced and adequate verges and drainage provided.

Land was leased from farmers on each side of the road so that the public could be charged admission. And the Corporation went ahead with the Grand Prix, without an official SCCA sanction. A crowd of 75,000 lined the dusty course to see Wait Hansgen's modified Jaguar XK 120 triumph over George Harris' Allard J2-Cadillac by 1.1 S after the ro r.z-mile Grand Prix. The SCCA, shamefacedly, agreed to sanction the race in 1954 and 1955. Phil Waiters (5.4-liter Cunningham C4R) won handsomely in 1954, while the following year Sherwood Johnston's Cunningham-entered Jaguar D-type outpaced the latest Maserati 300SS.

George Constantine and Jack Ensley

But there were new problems. The Dix circuit had become bumpy and drivers disliked the many blind crests and inadequate 'escape' roads at the end of the long straights. The SCCA insisted upon a new circuit before they would agree to sanction a Watkins Glen Grand Prix in 1956, so the Corporation built a new 2.3-mile circuit at a cost of $200,000 which was given its final layer of asphalt the night before the first practice for the Grand Prix. George Constantine and Jack Ensley took their Jaguar D-types to a 1-2 finish. With a permanent circuit at their disposal, the Watkins Glen Grand Prix Corporation expanded operations. The SCCA ran regional meetings, while, owing to the SCCA's opposition to professionalism, an approach was made direct to the FIA for a USAC-sanctioned international formule libre race in 1958.

1974 US GP at Watkins Glen
1974 US GP at Watkins Glen. Ragazzoni's Ferrari leads the McLaren M23 of Jochen Mass, the Lotus 72 of Ronnie Peterson and the Williams of Jacques Laffite. Victory went to Carlos Reutemann in a Brabham BT44.

Aerial view of Watkins Glen circa 1969
Aerial view of Watkins Glen circa 1969. At the time the photo was taken, Watkins Glen was one of the best equipped in the world and had established itself as the home of the US Grand Prix.

Wait Hansgen's Jaguar D-type

A NASCAR stock car race was also held in 1957, the year in which Wait Hansgen's Jaguar D-type won the Grand Prix. Hansgen had to play second-fiddle to team-mate Ed Crawford in 1958, the pair driving Briggs Cunningham's Lister-Jaguars, while in 1959 it was Hansgen again from George Constantine's Aston Martin DBR2/420. The inaugural libre race in 1958 drew little support, but provided a European victory as Jo Bonnier triumphed in his Formula One Maserati 250F. Next year Stirling Moss was enticed over in a Formula One Cooper T51-Climax entered by the Yeoman Credit Racing Team; he enjoyed a hollow victory over a collection of sports cars and USAC midgets. Moss won again in 1960, by which time the race assumed the title of the Watkins Glen Grand Prix. Moss beat European drivers Jack Brabham, Roy Salvadori and Jo Bonnier, all driving Formula One machinery.

In 1961 the United States Grand Prix was run at Watkins Glen following two abortive attempts at Sebring and Riverside. It was a success, being won by Innes Ireland's Lotus 21-Climax, and over the years the early-October date became a firm favorite. Each year the crowds became larger, making the Grand Prix a festive occasion. Jim Clark (Lotus 25-Climax) won the 1962 United States Grand Prix, then for three successive years Graham Hill triumphed for BRM. In 1966 and 1967 it was Clark and Lotus again and then Jackie Stewart (Matra MSIO-Ford) maintained the list of British drivers' victories in 1968.

Emerson Fittipaldi Takes The US Grand Prix

Jochen Rindt made history in 1969, winning his first-ever World Championship Grand Prix at the wheel of a Lotus 49B-Ford. Eleven months later Rindt was killed practising for the Italian Grand Prix, yet he had scored sufficient points during the season to be declared World Champion posthumously. But Lotus were not certain of the Constructors' Cup until the relatively inexperienced Emerson Fittipaldi won the 1970 United States Grand Prix and made sure of Lotus' success. It was Fittipaldi's first Grand Prix win. By now Watkins Glen also hosted a major early-July date for sports cars. A six-hour event for the sports car championship was usually run on the Saturday, to be followed by a round of the Canadian-American Challenge Cup on the Sunday. As Can-Am waned, so it was replaced by Formula 5000.

In 1970 Cameron Argetsinger left the Watkins Glen Grand Prix Corporation. He had tried to use part of his personal wealth to buy the Corporation, but his fellow townsmen refused. Malcolm Currie, another Watkins Glen stalwart, replaced him as executive director of the Corporation. Argetsinger had transformed Watkins Glen beyond recognition. He made sure that the non-profit making Corporation put its surplus funds back into the track in the form of circuit improvements, spectator improvements or increased prize funds. The US Grand Prix became easily the richest Formula One race of all. In 1971 major track improvements were made which totalled $2,000,000. The track was widened from 24/28 to 36 ft all round and a new pit area built.

Catch-fences and guard-rails were erected to bring the circuit in line with modern thinking. The first phase of the new circuit increased the lap distance from 2.3 to 2.428 miles, in which form it was used for the July sports car weekend. But by October's US Grand Prix an extension had been completed which increased the lap length to 3.377 miles. Winner in 1971 was Francois Cevert and his Tyrrell-Ford team-mate Jackie Stewart stole victory the following year. Sadly, Cevert was killed practising for the 1973 race-won by Ronnie Peterson's John Player Special/Lotus 72-Ford-and during the 1974 event Austrian driver Helrnuth : Koinigg received fatal injuries when his Surtees TSI6/3-Ford crashed into the guard-rails at speed. Race winner that year was Carlos Reutemann (Brabham BT 44-Ford).

Graham Hill

It was thought that both deaths might have been avoided if the guard-rails had been more secure. 1975's Grand Prix was the first run with the new chicane in place, on what was called 'Graham Hill', designed to limit speed in the interests of increased safety. Niki Lauda's Ferrari won from Emerson Fittipaldi's McLaren in a race notable for some excessive blocking of Fittipaldi by Lauda's team mate Regazzoni. In 1976 the American crowd saw Hunt's McLaren M23 close right up on Lauda in the championship by taking the US GP from Scheckter and Lauda, while Jacky Ickx's spectacular flaming accident in his Ensign resulted in only comparatively minor injuries to the rather shaken Belgian driver.

Autumn 1977 in Watkins Glen was cold and wet as it was so often for the Grand Prix, but James Hunt was happy enough to take his second, consecutive, win at the Glen ahead of Andretti's Lotus 78 in what was, by common consent, a soulless procession. By the time of 1978's GP Mario Andretti had settled the championship, but much to the disappointment of the large partisan crowd, Mario failed to take his 'home' race when his engine gave up on, lap 27, allowing Reutemann's Ferrari an easy win.

There was, however, a stirring performance from Lotus stand-in driver Jean-Pierre Jarier before he was robbed of a probable third place after running out of fuel. Watkins Glen has been the mirror of post-war road-racing in the United States. It began in primitive fashion; it survived difficult periods. Now it is firmly established as one of the most well-equipped tracks in the world.

Watkins Glen International

In 1983, Corning Enterprises, a subsidiary of nearby Corning, partnered with International Speedway Corporation to purchase the track and rename it Watkins Glen International. The renovated track, with the chicane at the bottom of the Esses removed, reopened in 1984 with the return of IMSA with the Camel Continental I, which would be conducted until 1995, with the last two years under the name "The Glen Continental" after Camel's withdrawal from IMSA. (The event was numbered with Roman numerals.) In 1986, the top NASCAR series returned to Watkins Glen after a long layoff, holding one of only three road races on its schedule (two beginning in 1988), using the 1971 Six Hours course, raced when the new section off the Loop-Chute was not finished in time. As the cars come off the Loop-Chute, instead of making the downhill left into Turn 6, the cars shot straight through the straight and headed towards Turn 10, as was the case from 1961 until 1970.

NASCAR Busch Series (Now Called Nationwide Series) action would arrive in 1991 with a 150-mile (240 km) race on the weekend of the Camel Continental, won by Terry Labonte, who would be a master of the circuit during its Busch Series races, winning the inaugural race, and winning three consecutive races from 1995 until 1997. The 1995 race would be the first conducted as a 200-mile (320 km) race, and became the first Busch Series race to be televised on broadcast network television, as CBS broadcast the race live until TNN took over in 1997.


Only twice - 1998 and 1999 - did a Busch Series regular driver win the race. The first seven races were won by Winston Cup Series (Now Sprint Cup Series) regular drivers, sometimes referred as "Buschwhackers" during their off-week. In 1998, the race went against the Cup race in Sonoma, California, eliminating the idea, and stayed that way until 2000. In 2001, the race was run the day after the first Saturday in July.
However, the race was eliminated from the schedule after the 2001 season, only to return in 2005 as an undercard to the Nextel Cup (now Sprint Cup Series) race.

A pair of incidents took place in 1991 resulted in a massive overhaul of the circuit's safety. During the IMSA Camel Continental VIII, Tommy Kendall's prototype crashed in Turn 5, severely injuring his legs. Seven weeks later, NASCAR driver J. D. McDuffie died in an accident at the same site. Track officials added a bus stop chicane to the back straight in Spring 1992. In 1996, the Glen Continental reverted back to a six hour format, and was once again called the Six Hours At The Glen with the IMSA format, and stayed there until a split in American sports car racing. In 1998, the race became an event sanctioned by the Sports Car Club of America under their United States Road Racing Championship. In 1999, the FIA GT series staged a 500 km race with some USRRC entrants after USRRC canceled the last two rounds of their season before their six-hour event at the track. The following year, the six-hour race returned once again with the newly-founded Grand American Road Racing Association (Grand-Am) sanctioning the event.

International Speedway Corporation

In 1997, International Speedway Corporation became the sole owner of the historic road course, as Corning Enterprises believed they had completed their intended goals to rebuild the race track and increase tourism in the southern Finger Lakes region of New York State. The circuit annually hosts one of the nation's premier vintage events, the Zippo U.S. Vintage Grand Prix. When the 50th anniversary of road racing in Watkins Glen was celebrated during the 1998 racing season, this event was the climax, returning many original cars and drivers to the original 6.6-mile (10.6 km) street circuit through the village during the Grand Prix Festival Race Reenactment.

After a 25 year layoff, major-league open wheel racing returned to the track as one of three road courses on the 2005 Indy Racing League schedule. In preparation, the circuit was overhauled again. Grandstands from Pennsylvania's Nazareth Speedway, which had closed, were installed, the gravel in The 90 was removed and replaced with a paved runoff area, and curbing was cut down for the Indy Racing League event. Previously, the high curbing in the chicane had become a place where NASCAR Sprint Cup Series cars would bounce high off the curbing, creating an ideal opportunity for cars to lose control, and to slow cars. Other areas of the track received improvements as well: the exits of turn 2 (the bottom of the esses), the chicane, turn 6 (the entrance to the boot), turn 9 and turn 11 all had additional runoff areas created and safety barrier upgrades. The carousel run off was paved, as well as turn 1 (the 90) and the esses are being paved in the winter of 06-07. Augmenting what was already in place along the front stretch, additional high safety fences were installed on the overpasses crossing the service roads at the top of the esses and just out of the boot immediately after the exit of turn 9.

Another overhaul for 2006 made fundamental changes to the circuit for the first time since 1992. Officials installed a new control tower, which includes booths for the officials, timing and scoring, television and radio (the new position allows broadcasters to see more action from Turn 10 through the foot of the Esses), and the public address announcer on top of the new frontstretch grandstand, moving the start-finish line further ahead of the Sprint bridge, as the start-finish line is moved 380 feet (120 m) further towards The 90 in order to accommodate the new timing and scoring post.

The new start-finish line also meant the starting lights used for club races was moved further ahead, creating more action off Turn 11 as tactics would change with the later finish line, where slingshot moves could become paramount to the finish. Other changes to the infrastructure included the purchase of adjoining property. Most of Bronson Hill Road now incorporated as a service road to the facility. A new section of Bronson Hill leading up from NY 414 was built as the main ingress road to the facility, bending south at Gate 6 and continuing to County Road 16, just south of the credentials and sheriff's office buildings.

Track safety is also always changing and constant training is needed. Race Services Inc. provides the track with volunteers to work Fire-Rescue, Medical, Grid personnel and Corner workers to help keep both the drivers and spectators safe. The Argetsinger family is an advisor to the circuit, and the track named the trophy for the inaugural Watkins Glen Indy Grand Prix presented by Argent in honour of the late patriarch Cameron. On March 6, 2007 just before 9pm, fire destroyed the recently remodeled Glen Club situated on top of the esses. Originally called the Onyx Club (named for the sponsor, Onyx Cologne), the Glen Club was used primarily as an upscale venue for race fans. After being recently remodeled, it was being advertised as a social venue for locals to use for weddings, business meetings, etc. No cause could be determined and the building was a total loss. The loss included irreplaceable, unique original motorsports artwork donated to the facility by several artists along with other racing memorabilia. Glen officials were quoted in local media stories as being adamant that the loss of the Glen Club would in no way affect the 2007 racing schedule.

For 2007, Watkins Glen International again made improvements to the facility, specifically the track surface. All of turns 1 (the "90"), 5 (the "Loop-Chute") and 6 (entry turn into the "Boot") have been repaved. A temporary "Glen Club" replaced the permanent structure destroyed by fire at the races in 2007 with plans in the works to replace it with another permanent building. New sponsors for both the INDY and NASCAR weekends were signed to multi-year deals. Camping World is now the sponsor of the "Camping World Grand Prix" INDY weekend at the Glen through 2010. NASCAR weekend at the Glen received a double shot—Zippo Manufacturing announced a three year extension of the Busch/Nationwide Series race, the "Zippo 200". The Sprint Cup series is now known as "The Heluva Good! Sour Cream dips at the Glen". Additionally, Brad Penn lubricants of Pennsylvania (former Kendall Oil refinery) has been announced as the sponsor of the annual vintage sports car weekend for 2007 and 2008.

A new media centre is being constructed to replace the former building, which had also been the control tower with the 1971 improvements. The aging structure had been the bane of many professional media members in recent years with many uncomplimentary things published and broadcast about its inadequacies, especially the lack of insulation, air conditioning, few (if any) amenities that other facilities have, which resulted in race control moving to the new control tower at the start-finish line in 2006. The new media centre will be moved back in order to allow a full 43-car NASCAR grid.
Sherwookd Johnston's Briggs Cunningham entered Jaguar D-Type wints the 1955 Watkins Glen Grand Prix
Sherwookd Johnston's Briggs Cunningham entered Jaguar D-Type wints the 1955 Watkins Glen Grand Prix.
Cars at the start line of the 1964 United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen
Cars at the start line of the 1964 United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen. Victory eventually went to Graham Hill in his BRM - in car #3 pictured at left.
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