Posted on November 24 2016
Since 1948, Watkins Glen (sometimes called simply, “The Glen”) in upstate New York has been synonymous with road racing in the US.
It all started with a young law student named Cameron Artsinger. Artsinger was familiar with the area from his childhood, when he would make trips to Seneca Lake, one of the Finger Lakes, with his father who owned a house there. As an adult, he was involved in the racing community, becoming one of the early members of the SCCA.
Artsinger wanted to bring European-style racing to Watkins Glen, so he went before the town’s chamber of commerce, and proposed the Watkins Glen Grand Prix – a 6.6 mile course using roads through and around the village. The first race took place in October 1948 and was the first road race run in America since before World War II. The race was an instant hit, drawing huge crowds of onlookers to the small village for the next five years.
In the early 1950s, however, there were a handful of fatal accidents involving both drivers and spectators which resulted in the state of New York banning road racing on public highways. The race proprietors adapted, creating a shorter, 4.4 mile course out of farm roads. While it was indeed safer, the poor conditions of the farm roads simply weren’t going to cut it as a permanent solution.
So, with design help from William Milliken (a racing enthusiast in addition to being an aircraft and vehicle dynamics expert) as well as several engineering professors from nearby Cornell University, a 2.3-mile-long permanent road course was constructed.
The new course opened in 1956 and by the end of the decade had already attracted the attentions of both NASCAR and Formula One.
1971 brought a major, $2.3 million overhaul which included the track being widened and resurfaced. One of the most dangerous parts of the course, known as the “Big Bend” was also dismantled in favor of a track extension. The new replacement features had a distinctively-shaped loop which became known as “The Boot”.
While driver-reaction to the course renovation was positive, the newly install barriers along the uphill Esses proved to be problematic. Two fatal accidents at these barriers lead to financial problems for Watkins Glen, partially due to the sanction fees resulting from these accidents. By the early 1980s, the course was forced to close.
But in 1983, the Corning glass company purchased the track and renovating it once again and renaming it Watkins Glen International. By 1986, NASCAR had returned along with the IMSA series.
Watkins Glen has continued to undergo success and improvements ever since, and finally in 2005, Indycar returned. Most recently, a state-of-the-art media center and two new pit boxes were added in 2008, as the course celebrated its 60th anniversary.
The full course length with “the Boot” is 3.377 miles, and since its installation has become one of the most recognizable track features of any road course in America. Since its repaving in the mid-2000s it has been used by the IndyCar Series, and has even been rumored to be in consideration for use by NASCAR.
Throughout its long and storied history, The Glen has been home to almost every class in the world of road racing, from the World Sportscar Championship, to Can-Am to IMSA, and even Radical. Watkins Glen has surely come a long way since the post-war days of Alfa Romeos and Bu-Mercs tearing through the little village, and it will hopefully continue its status as an American road racing institution for years to come.