The Glen's glory years

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Glen in the fall amid autumn leaves ablaze in red and yellow and the shriek of Formula 1 cars filling the air. For 20 years from 1961 (above) this was F1 ‘s memorable end-of-season scene. The Glen quickly established itself as one of the most popular venues on the F1 calendar. It was a race loved by everyone, and through those 20 years the rolling hills of upstate New York’s Finger Lakes district were jammed with enthusiastic spectators. Looking back, the two decades at the Glen stand out as F1 ‘s heyday in North America.

On October 8 I returned to Watkins Glen to help celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first United States Grand Prix at the track. We gathered at the International Motor Racing Research Centre in downtown Watkins Glen, where Michael Argetsinger had invited Ferrari expert Michael Lynch and myself to talk about America’s two World Champions. Lynch spoke about 1961 champion Phil Hill and I talked about 1978 winner Mario Andretti.

Michael is the son of Cameron Argetsinger who first brought motor sport to Watkins Glen in 1948, organising a race through the streets of the village and on the roads of the surrounding countryside. In 1956 the original 2.3-mile teardrop-shaped road circuit was opened high atop the hills south of town, and with Argetsinger’s prodding F1 soon found a home at the Glen.

The story of the Glen’s long run of US GPs is told in authoritative detail by Michael Argetsinger in his new book, Formula One at Watkins Glen – a must-read for any F1 fan (see review on p129).

Cameron Argetsinger had promoted a trio of Formule Libre races at the Glen from 1958-60. The first was won by Jo Bonnier in a Maserati 250F, beating the likes of Phil Hill and Dan Gurney in Ferrari sports racers, before Stirling Moss scored consecutive wins in an F1 Yeoman Credit Cooper and Rob Walker’s F1 Lotus 18.

Thanks to Argetsinger’s energetic support the race became the last round of the World Championship, and lnnes Ireland came through to score a famous first F1 win for Team Lotus in 1961 after early leaders Moss and Jack Brabham dropped out. Then came the Jim Clark/Graham Hill era, with Clark winning in 1962, ’66 and ’67, and Hill taking three victories in a row from 1963-65.

During this time all the drivers and teams stayed at the Glen Motor Inn located on the shore of Seneca Lake just north of town. The Mexican GP was added to the F1 calender in 1964 followed by the Canadian GP at relatively nearby Mosport in ’67. The arrival of these races outside Europe helped turn F1 into a true World Championship and resulted in the drivers and teams adopting the Glen Motor Inn as their home for two or three weeks each year.

By the mid-60s the US GP had become a roaring success and in 1966 the track paid $100,000 in prize money, making it the world’s richest F1 race. In 1970 a decision was made to extend the circuit to 3.37 miles and the Watkins Glen Grand Prix Corporation resorted to floating a bond issue to pay for the work. Sadly, it was the beginning of the end, as Argetsinger resigned believing the debt incurred by the bond would bankrupt the track.

Press director Mal Currie was installed as the Glen’s new boss but Argetsinger’s fears soon proved true. The financial problems snowballed and in 1980 Bernie Ecclestone underwrote the cost of the race, but although still strong, the crowd was down. Thus ended the Glen’s marvellous tenure as the home of the US GP. Long Beach, Dallas, Detroit, Phoenix and Indianapolis tried to fill the Glen’s shoes but each failed in turn.

Today, the Glen is owned by NASCAR, and since 1986 the big event has been a Sprint Cup race. Gone are the days of F1, Can-Am, F5000 and World Championship sports car racing. But you can relive the track’s halcyon years with a visit to the International Motor Racing Research Centre to enjoy its vast collection of books, magazines, racing art, posters and an array of film and video. It leaves you with the best kind of warm, fuzzy feeling.

Gordon Kirby

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