I pulled into the town of Watkins Glen late in the afternoon, but that didn’t matter. It was a hot day. The temperatures hit 93 degrees and most people were busy trying to take their window air-conditioning units out of storage and figuring out how to install them.
Food was on my mind since I hadn’t stopped for lunch and I found that down on the Seneca Lake shore was a fine place to sit, relax, and enjoy the view while I had something to fill in the empty spot in my stomach.
I also had a chance to see the street that was part of the history of this racing town. Shortly after WW II it was Cameron R. Argetsinger who founded (along with others) the Watkins Glen Grand Prix. This was quite a departure from the typical racing venue in the US at the time. While there was some early street races in the first decade of automobile production in this country, arena-style racing quickly took hold and resulted in many local oval tracks all over the nation with the biggest being what is now known as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS). Originally paved in millions of bricks (giving it the name of the”Brick Yard”) it was purpose designed as a test track and break-in track for the multitude of car manufacturers that had been established in Indiana. Later the great IMS track was used for racing and was eventually paved, save for a yard of bricks left at the start/finish line.
Early circle and oval tracks were of various lengths and construction. Some of them were “dirt” tracks paved with a mostly clay mixture, as well as just about anything else you could imagine including wooden banked ovals.
I suppose because of the influence of the GI’s experiences in Europe during the war, our soldiers returned with a taste for sports cars such as the MG-TC and MG-TD that they had driven in England as well as the challenges of spirited driving on the country roads of Europe. This resulted in the creation of the first public road race in post-WW II America. It was a 6.6 mile Formula Libre race on the streets and roads of Watkins Glen.
In those days the barriers on the sides of the road were hay bales and crowd control was virtually non-existent. A few years after the first race in 1948 a car left the road and killed a spectator which quickly inspired the creation of a purpose-built race track just northwest of the town.
After several iterations, we have the layout of today’s road racing facility which provides a venue for several events as well as testing.
This September 6 will be a Grand Prix Festival in Watkins Glen, the town, where many classic cars and others will get to drive the original street course. If you are interested you can visit the Grand Prix Festival web site and see if you can’t join in the celebration.
While you are there take the time to visit the International Motor Racing Research Center at 610 South Decatur Street. First of all, this is not a museum. It is truly a research center facility that has a reading room, media room and does feature a modest amount of exhibits.
On my visit to the center I walked in to see a Porsche 917 in Le Mans livery. What a stunning race car! Seeing one of these prototype cars will really take your breath away. If you’ve ever watched the movie Le Mans (a Steve McQueen must-see) you will recognize it right away.
The folks at the center were more than happy to allow me complete access to photograph this classic.
We talked a bit about these Porsche race cars. How, after doing their duty at Le Mans, the chassis were converted to compete in the CanAm series. They were campaigned by the Penske team and were driven by racing legend, Mark Donohue. In their day they dominated the series to the point that there was no series.
Journalist of the day reported that the horsepower of these CanAm racers was in the 1200 range. As I talked to the guys at the research center they shared that over the years they have learned from team members that in fact these engines could produce 1800 hp any time they wanted. Mark could be traveling at over 200 mph on a straight, hit the gas, and spin the tires. That says a lot for the race car and for the driving talents of Mark Donohue.
While I was at the facility I got to view a movie on the racing history of Watkins Glen that was not only entertaining, but very informative.
Which is probably as good a description as to what this center is all about. It provides an organized and cataloged collection of valuable motor racing history as well as some great archival folks to talk to. There are books you can purchase as well as some DVD’s. The centerpiece on this trip was the 917, but cars such as these are rotated in and out on a regular basis. If you visit, please consider a donation as this center is supported by the generosity of folks like us.
After that I took a lazy lap around the old street course. That was quite an education and really opened ones eyes to just what it must of demanded from a race car driver in those days to balance the level of automotive technology with the vagarities’ of the road course.
Then it was a short ride to the current Watkins Glen race track.
On weekdays entry is free and after signing a release you can drive over to the stands and watch whatever is on the track at the time. This day there were a couple of Aston Martin race cars doing test laps.
With my day drawing to a close I decided to dispense with a motel and instead treat myself to a night at a bed and breakfast. I found a gem of a place at 300 South Franklin Street called Echoes of the Glen. The owners had just installed their window air-conditioning units so the house and my room were getting quite comfortable.
I felt good enough to take a stroll down Franklin toward the lake, stopping off at a a little pub/restaurant called Rooster Fish Brewing. It had some great choices of things to eat as well as being a micro brewer that offered some irresistible beers.
After that my day was fulfilled and I headed back to an excellent bed where I could dream about race cars and race tracks all night long.
Many thanks to Kevin Hughey and Bill Green, from the International Motor Racing Research Center. They really made me feel at home and I definitely want to return.