Randall Barnett relates how one man’s enthusiasm created a Grand Prix venue in New York State.
Germany’s original Nurburgring was launched in 1927 to help create prosperity in the impoverished Eifel Mountain area north of Cologne.
The Paul Ricard circuit in Southern France came about because the Pastis tycoon Paul Ricard saw it as a good investment — a safe track in an era that put the stress on safety.
Silverstone track, meanwhile, emerged from a redundant World War II airfield, with runways and taxiways making up the circuit.
And America’s Watkins Glen track in upstate New York?
That one got started because of a university student’s concern about where he could race his newly acquired bright red MG-TC sportscar. There were other reasons, too, but that was one of them.
Cameron R Argetsinger who still lives near the village of Watkins Glen, was certain that the area would make a perfect setting for challenging road-racing in the European manner. And he was right. Through his efforts, and those of his colleagues in the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA), the first-ever Watkins Glen “Grand Prix” was flagged off on October 2, 1948.
Why Watkins Glen? With a population of only 3000 or so, it takes some hard looking to find it on a map.
It was picked because Argetsinger had spent his summers there as a boy while visiting his grandparents, and he later became, as he put it, “one of the summer people who stayed all winter”. Although he thought that the Watkins Glen terrain would be perfect for road racing, he wasn’t looking at it strictly from an organiser’s viewpoint.
“My real concern, a selfish one I admit — was where to race my MG-TC,” he says. “I had always thought a Watkins Glen circuit would be the ideal set-up because it would have everything in the way of challenge. I had even laid out a course during the winter of 1947 and ’48 on our living room rug in my home in Youngstown, Ohio”, where he was attending the university.
Through the efforts of Argetsinger, who became one of the most distinguished personalities in the history of American road racing, Watkins Glen became famous.
He was instrumental in organising that historic first event which was won by Frank Griswold of Wayne, Pa, in a now-classic 8C 2900B Alfa Romeo. It was the first post-World War II road race held in the United States.
Argetsinger, who finished ninth overall and fourth in class in that first race aboard his red MG-TC, received the 1948 Woolf Barnato Trophy for his role in that first “Grand Prix of Watkins Glen.” The trophy is the highest honour for meritorious service awarded by the Sports Car Club of America. Many years later, Argetsinger served as the SCCA’s Director from 1974 to 1977.
A graduate of the University of Youngstown and the Cornell University Law School at Ithaca. N Y. (near the village of Watkins Glen), he and his wife Jean have nine children, two of whom have raced in international events and now race in the United States.
Going back to those heady days when seatbelts were unheard of and Nomex underwear was some 30 years in the future, we discussed Argetsinger’s career recently in his comfortable lodge on Lake Seneca.
He was born and raised in Youngstown, as was his wife Jean, who played a prominent role in the Watkins Glen racing “success story.” Argetsinger’s father was a highly successful corporation lawyer, and he also had a home in Burdett, only three miles from Watkins Glen, hence the connection. Cameron and Jean occupy the home today, and call it “The Farm.”
Their pre-Grand Prix parties at “The Farm” during the 1960s and early ’70s were a pleasant part of the weekend programme, with the Formula 1 drivers always present.
“I was always interested in cars, right from the beginning, and with good reason,” Argetsinger says. “My father, a very generous man, by the way, always loved fast Packard cars. He was a Packard enthusiast, and he sparked my interest in cars.”
After his discharge from the Army in December of 1945, Argetsinger bought a Duesenberg, and he also became a member of the Sports Car Club of America. “In those days, says Argetsinger, “you had to have a sportscar to become a full member, and the Duesenberg didn’t count. So I became a ‘Subscriber Member,’ and this meant that I could pay dues and receive ‘Sportscar’ magazine.
“I sold the Duesenberg and later bought an MG-TO from J S Inskip of New York, who was also a Rolls-Royce dealer. This was early in 1948, and because the MG counted as a sportscar, of course, I became a full member of the SCCA in January of 1948.”
The Watkins Glen racing saga dates back to that very time.
To launch his project, Argetsinger contacted newspaperman Arthur H Richards who immediately saw the tourist potential for a late-autumn race in his village. Both Don Brubaker, president of the Watkins Glen Chamber of Commerce, and Mayor Allen Erway agreed on the value of the project, and on April 1, newsman Richards told Argetsinger to make plans for “bringing on the cars.”
In May of 1948, the SCCA scheduled a dinner meeting at Indianapolis on the night before the annual 500-mile race, and Argetsinger discussed his proposed circuit and plans for the “Grand Prix of Watkins Glen” with the members present. “I described the circuit — 6.6-miles around with its hills, curves and straightaways — and the members loved the idea. Their response was tremendous.” Argetsinger says, “and the SCCA said they would support the race if we could bring it off. So we went to work immediately, setting the race date for Saturday. October 2. We didn’t want a Sunday race-date because of possible conflicts with the churches.”
The SCCA appointed Argetsinger as general race chairman, and he accepted the job with the proviso that his duties would cease on race-day morning so that he could participate in the first Grand Prix of Watkins Glen.
“So far so good.” Argetsinger says, “but now came the matter of setting up the track and bringing the SCCA people in on the whole thing. It was a fairly simple matter of getting together in those days, because there were so few members we could talk about our problems at a breakfast meeting.”
The course that Argetsinger had set up was a difficult 6.6-mile layout that ran on the streets of the village and on the roads above town. It included cement, macadam, oiled gravel and dirt surfaces. A stone bridge and railroad tracks were also featured in those days, road racing was just that.
With public roads involved, permission to use them had to be obtained from nine different authorities, including the New York Central Railroad, which agreed to stop its trains on race day. The police and fire departments and the entire business community of Watkins Glen were mobilised through the Chamber of Commerce. The Boy Scouts and the American Legion also pitched in.
There was no practice for the entrants except under normal traffic conditions so racing drivers had to “speed with care” and obey all signs. As there could be no official practice or qualifying, the starting positions were determined by lot, with the larger displacement classes at the front.
“The first race drew 10,000 spectators,” Argetsinger says, “and there were 35 entries with 15 cars finishing. There were lots of spills and crashes but luckily, no one was hurt. We used straw bales and snow fence to protect spectators and somehow it all worked out.” The following year, the second Grand Prix of Watkins Glen drew 50,000 spectators, and the racing continued on the original circuit until 1952 when a spectator fatality brought it to an end.
But the annual race continued on an interim track, which was used from 1953 to 1955, with attendance figures climbing sharply. A permanent circuit was created above the village in 1956, and this one (with many modifications over the years) eventually became the home of the SCCA-sanctioned U S Grand Prix (the first in 1961) and today’s annual round in the NASCAR Winston Cup championship series for stock cars, as well as IMSA World Sportscar events and other races.
With the exception of the 1952 race, Argetsinger continued in the key leadership role in organising the Watkins Glen races during the mid-’50s, and he became Executive Director of the Watkins Glen Grand Prix Corporation in 1958.
“At that time, I realised that to continue the racing successes at Watkins Glen we needed to go international,” Argetsinger recalls. “It had long been my dream to bring legitimate Grand Prix racing to America, and we immediately began working in that direction.”
Argetsinger organised successful international “Formula Libre” races at Watkins Glen from 1958 through to 1960, attracting mixed fields of Formula 1 cars and the top sports racing cars of the era Among the drivers were such big names as England’s Stirling Moss, Sweden’s Joakim Bonnier, the Australian Jack Brabham and the Americans Phil Hill and Dan Gurney. Argetsinger’s dream of full Grand Prix status for Watkins Glen was realised in 1961 when he received the go ahead for the first United States Grand Prix at that track (Previous U S grand prix races had been staged at Sebring, Florida, in 1959 and Riverside. California, in 1960.
All of the U S Grand Prix races for Formula One cars held at Watkins Glen (from 1961 to 1980 – 20 consecutive years) were conducted under SCCA sanction.
That first world championship round in 1961 was won by the popular Scottish driver Innes Ireland, who piloted a Lotus-Climax. It was Ireland’s first and only Grand Prix victory, but it was historic in nature. The great British driver Moss had already won three Grands Prix in privately-entered Rob Walker Lotus cars, but Ireland’s victory at Watkins Glen marked the first one over for a Colin Chapman Team Lotus works entry.
Discussing the very early days — the 1948 to 1952 era — Argetsinger says he felt that the races at Watkins Glen became a turning point in U S road-racing history and SCCA history as well because ”people who wanted to race came to Watkins Glen and they joined the SCCA to do so.
“This would have happened somewhere in the United States in due course,” he said, “but it did happen here (Watkins Glen) and it all acquired an international aura and a certain style.
“In those early days, the SCCA was a social club,” Argetsinger says. “and there were some wonderful people involved — Briggs Cunningham, Alec Ulmann, Colonel George Felton, Sam and Miles Collier, Bill Milliken, the New Yorker cartoonist Charles Addams, and Frank Griswold to name only a few.” Argetsinger who organised 23 years of racing at Watkins Glen (from 1948 until 1970), drove in several of those races himself — his cars, respectively, being the MG-IC, a Bugatti Type 35A, a Silverstone-Healey and a Jaguar XK-120M.
Anyone who visits Watkins Glen today should drive the original 6.6-mile circuit and marvel that one of the Briggs Cunningham cars achieved an average of 80mph on its extremely difficult stretches. The course is well marked and one may obtain a map at the Watkins Glen Chamber of Commerce office. Going around this wonderful old circuit is a grand experience which evokes a classic sense of nostalgia.
It was our pleasure to do so as passengers of Cameron Argetsinger, who pointed out every marker and detailed every bump in the road, with special emphasis on the railroad tracks and the stone bridge — all still there.