America’s own antidote to oval tracks boasted a level crossing, a stone bridge and every type of bend. Gary Watkins enjoys a lap with the circuit’s creator
Should you chive through on your way your to New York State’s picturesque Finger Lakes, you could be forgiven for thinking that this is any other anonymous town. Stop the car, however, and Motorsport history is never more than a step away. Literally. Saunter down the high street and you will tread on some of the great names of North American motor racing — from Andretti to Villeneuve — for Hollywood Boulevard-style plaques are embedded into the pavement, part of the town’s ‘Walk of Fame’. Step off the main drag into a chemists, a bookstore or the local deli, and chances are you’ll be confronted by a poster bearing Mark Donohue’s 917, or a Lotus styled after a packet of fags, or perhaps an early-1990s IMSA Jag. Motorsport is everywhere.
Watkins Glen, population 3000, is proud of its heritage, and rightly so. It’s not just that the track of the same name, located a few miles up the hill, has probably hosted more major events — and certainly more Formula One Grands Prix — than any other road course in America. Perhaps more importantly, it is here that road racing finally took hold in the United States.
Watkins Glen’s Walk of Fame begins at the very spot where the flag fell for the first post-war US road race more than half a century ago. Eight years before the permanent venue came into being, a circuit blasted right through the middle of town.
The rest of the course, measuring 6.6 miles, was made up of narrow lanes that wind around the glen from which the place takes its name. It’s a track with everything: flat-out crests on steeply-crowned roads, blind twists through trees, and what must surely be one of the longest corners in motorsport’s long history. There are steep gradients, a duck under a railway bridge and a dive over a creek. There’s even a level crossing.
‘Steep gradients, a duck under a railway bridge, a dive over a creek… even a level crossing’
The original Watkins Glen makes the Nurburgring-Nordschleife look tame. It was created in the image of the great European tacks. Cameron Argetsinger, the man behind the project, had yet to make a trip across the Pond, but he knew all about the Mille Miglia, the ‘Ring and Monaco. His influences are clear the White House ‘S’ is named after Maison Blanche at Le Mans.
“I was inspired by those places,” says the 80-year-old. “We wanted a track in a European manner, and I think this has many of the features of a classic road course.”
Argetsinger, who had spent holidays at his parents’ house overlooking nearby Lake Seneca, wanted to take the track through the town, hence the start-finish line on Franklin Street. It was here, on October 2, 1948, that 15 cars lined up for the inaugural the First Annual, as it was hopefully christened Watkins Glen Grand Prix. Earlier in the day, 23 entries had taken the start for a support race entitled, for reasons its instigator can’t recall, the Junior Prix.
An eclectic mix of machinery gathered in upstate New York for the two races, which differed only in their duration eight laps for the Grand Prix and four for the Junior Prix. Among the hordes of MGs entered by members of the Sports Car Club of America, which sanctioned the event, was some European exotica: George Weaver brought his pre-war Maserati R1 GP car, while Bill Milliken turned up in a Bugatti T35. Frank Griswold Jnr, the winner of both races, entered an Alfa Romeo 8C 2900B Coupe, while Briggs Cunningham raced his BuMerc, a Buickengined Mercedes hybrid.
Argetsinger, who finished ninth in the Grand Prix with his red MG TC, had other features he felt obliged to incorporate into his circuit design. “I knew I had to go through the town and I also wanted some kind of hill climb,” he explains.
The first of two steep uphill gradients follows the first corner. The track makes a 90-degree right off the high street and onto Route 329 just before Smalley’s Garage. It was here that scnitineering took place under the watchful eye of Florence ‘Flossie’ Smalley, wife of Lester, one of the powerhouses in the organisation of the event. “Smalley was a key person, because he took care of so many things,” recalls Argetsinger. “The race couldn’t have taken place without him.”
The route up Old Coming Hill took the cars past Seneca Lodge, the hotel, bar and restaurant owned by Don Brubaker, chairman of the local chamber of commerce, and another key player in the organisation of the event. It was the scene of post-race prize-givings in the early years, but its place in Motorsport folklore is assured by more recent goings-on under its oak beams. It may be myth that a worse-for-wear James Hunt stripped naked here celebrating one of his two Fl triumphs at the Glen, but anyone involved in F1 during the 1960s and ’70s has a tale to tell about the area’s best-known watering hole. The happy-snaps on the wall in the bar are testament to its popularity with the racing fraternity down the years.
‘Only at the last moment does octogenarian throw his lumbering Cadillac into the turn
The Lodge has changed little, and the same goes for the public roads that make up a track used for a final time in 1952. Resurfacing and repair have altered it only fractionally.
“‘The county highway superintendent got very enthusiastic about the race,” Argetsinger explains. “He would bring his trucks out and bank a turn a little bit here and there or, maybe, he would ask me how he could change the shoulder to make it more suitable for racing.”
The White House ‘S’, a mile-and-a-third up the hill from the start, has changed the most. “‘This ess has been a little eased,” reckons Argetsinger, who still drives the old track regularly.
The road, one of the main routes up to the permanent circuit’s car parks, takes the track under the New York Railroad. The so-called Underpass remains feasibly narrow — imagine taking a street circuit through London’s Admiralty Arch. “The sides of the Underpass were right on the edge of the circuit,” remembers future Sebring 12 Hours-winner, John Fitch. “You mustn’t forget that none of this track was main road.”
Two-and-a-bit miles in, the track sweeps to the right and then left. It was here that Sam Collier met his end while leading the 1950 GP in a Ferrari 166 borrowed from Cunningham. The car, which had finished second in the race the previous year in the hands of its owner, got loose in the right-hander and rolled into a field just as the road kinks the other way. A memorial stone commemorates the lives of Sam and his brother Miles, the winner of the 1949 GP. The latter announced his retirement following Sam’s death in a local hospital. He died four years later of pneumonia.
The track darts off Route 329 at School House Corner. You don’t get much warning, especially if you take a lap with the still-sprightly Argetsinger. A tiny lane leaves the bigger mad just opposite the one-room school building that has long since been converted into a private home. But only at the last moment does the octogenarian throw his lumbering Cadillac Eldorado into the turn and down the hill.
“My MG TC was pretty agile through here,” he says. “I remember passing Charlie Addams [cartoonist creator of The Addarns Family] in his big Mere on the way down.”
The creek crossing at the bottom of the hill, known as Stone Bridge, was one of Argetsinger’s reference points when he schemed out the track on the floor of his family home in Youngstown, Ohio, during the winter of 194748. “I knew this would be a really challenging section, but! didn’t know how I was going to get back up the other side of the valley. Fortunately, my cousin, Phil Smith, a student at Youngstown University, knew of a link road. Thus, we had our circuit.”
‘The original Watkins Glen Grand Prix course is just a collection of lanes and back roads’
The track twists steeply up the other side of the valley on what, back in 1948, was an oiled gravel surface. This rejoins a larger road, Route 409, at a tight right-hander known as Archie Smith’s Corner, after the local dairy farmer who owned the house opposite.
The following Railroad Straight is barely that, though its winding course has straightened out by the time it reaches the level crossing! The problem for the drivers, however, was that the rail line was on a curve.
“This meant that the rails were banked,” explains Fitch, who was fifth on his Glen debut (1949), and came home second at the wheel of a Cunningham two years later. “The cars took off at this point, but they didn’t go in a straight line.”
Just after the upper entrance to the Watkins Glen State Park, the 409 turns left at Friar’s Curve, so called because it borders land once owned by the Franciscan Brothers. This corner leads directly into Big Bend, a sweeping, downhill right that appears to go on for ever, getting steeper all the while.
“It was such a wide radius that you could run flat-out through there in anything, “remembers Fitch. “The Cunninghams were probably doing 160mph. The real problem was stopping for the tight left-hander that follows. A lot of people overcooked their brakes.” Most famously, Milliken rolled his Bugatti here in the 1948 Junior Prix, thankfully without personal injury. Thus, Thrill Corner became Milliken’s Corner.
Fifty yards on from this 90-degree bend is another leading back onto Franklin Street It was at the end of the start-finish straight that the fatal accident which precipitated the demise of the circuit occurred. A seven-year-old child was killed, and 12 other spectators were injured, when the Allard of Fred Wacker struck the crowd after mounting the pavement, just one lap into the 1952 Grand Prix.
Racing in Watkins Glen subsequently moved to a shorter, less challenging track laid out to the south-west and, in 1956, onto the permanent circuit in operation today. The original course, thankfully, remains almost as it was.
There’s no reason why it should have changed, or is likely to change in the foreseeable future. After all, the original Watkins Glen Grand Prix course is just a collection of lanes and back roads.
“It was just so incredible” says Fitch. “If you weren’t there at the time, it’s difficult to believe that you could race on that track.”
Almost impossible to believe.