Rooms with a view

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Formula 1 is poised to return to America after a five-year absence, but more than three decades have passed since the United States Grand Prix last took place at its spiritual home, Watkins Glen. It was one of the most popular races on the schedule, and a fragment of that era thrives still…
By Gordon Kirby

You can’t miss the Glen Motor Inn. It’s less than one mile north of Watkins Glen on the east side of New York state route 14, overlooking the southern end of Seneca Lake. Owned and operated by Vic (left) and Linda Franzese, the Glen Motor Inn is an unpretentious, Sixties-style motel with 45 simple rooms and a great little restaurant. The place remains much the same today as it was 50 years ago and is a magnet for race fans. If you haven’t yet been, you should.

“We like to keep it somewhat the way it was in the 1950s and ’60s,” Vic says. “As everything progresses into mediocrity, we like people to know we still use paper and pencil here and greet people by name rather than a number. I’d love a new facility and know what it would look like, but I don’t have the $30m it would take.”

The United States Grand Prix ran at Watkins Glen for 20 seasons, from 1961-1980, and each autumn the Franzese family’s motel was, for a week or more, home to F1’s drivers and teams. “They would stay here for a few days before the race and during the weekend, and that continued over many years,” Franzese says. “They added the Canadian and Mexican Grands Prix and everyone came here directly from Mosport Park. Some of them would stay here before leaving for Mexico, too. In those days there were no sponsors and all the teams and drivers would be here for damn near three weeks, so we got to know them and their families pretty well. We had to feed them, entertain them and take care of them.

“Graham Hill and I were talking one time and he said, ‘Vic, you don’t know what you’ve got here’. I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘In Europe we don’t stay in the same hotels. We tend to be in different places and only meet at the racetrack. We spend a little time together and that’s it, but here it’s like a party. It’s the end of the year, we’re all together and can really enjoy everybody’s company. We really like this.’

“Then I saw it in that light. It was a kinder, gentler time and we were learning a lot of new innovations in racing. It was a wonderful time. I wish everyone could have experienced it. It was F1’s age of innocence.”

Vic’s grandfather emigrated to the United States from the Abruzzi region of Italy at the turn of the 20th century. Initially he worked as a labourer before bringing his wife and family to the new world and buying a small farm on the southern shores of Seneca Lake. Vic’s mother and father married in 1937 and took over running the farm, adding some summer cabins for rent after WWII. They also opened a Texaco gas station and started selling hot dogs, hamburgers and souvenirs before Vic’s father decided to build a small motel – the Glen Motor Inn.

Motor sport reached Watkins Glen in 1948, with a road race through the village’s streets and surrounding countryside. “I remember it clear as day,” Vic says. “We were selling gas and peaches and at noon my father and mother said they were putting everything away and we were going down to town to watch the races. We had just left behind the farm’s barnyard smells and were walking around downtown near the cars, with a very different set of smells, pretty ladies and people drinking champagne. It didn’t take long to figure out I liked this racing thing.”

Franzese volunteered to work as a gofer for Tommy Cole, who raced an HRG and stayed at one of the family’s cabins during meetings, and in 1962 bought a Lotus 11 for use in SCCA club events. For a few years he even owned a small Can-Am team, after buying a couple of McLaren M12s from Holman Moody for $10,000, and he continued racing over the years in a variety of saloon cars.

Meanwhile, F1 arrived at Watkins Glen in 1961. “When they opened the permanent track in 1956, all the fans in the area got educated, so we were paying attention to international sports car racing and Formula 1,” Franzese says. “They ran a Formula Libre race in the fall and that brought in some big names and cars. There were some fancy Ferraris and a guy named Jo Bonnier showed up with a 250F Maserati. People took to it immediately.

“The Formula Libre races were well attended and people were saying we should run an F1 race here. Alec Ullmann promoted the Sebring and Riverside Grands Prix in 1959 and ’60, but they didn’t do so well and [circuit founder] Cameron Argetsinger made a deal to bring the race here. He persuaded 2500 citizens to pay for it and it worked. Can you imagine 2500 farmers putting on an F1 race? But that’s what we did. Everybody knew it was going to work and they had a hell of a crowd for the first race.”

Argetsinger and the track’s management team quickly decided that the Glen Motor Inn was the only place suitable for F1 drivers and teams. “We were the newest facility in town,” Franzese says. “We were the only ones with clean, tidy rooms and a restaurant. In those days we were setting the pace for the future of tourism in Watkins Glen. We happened to be in the right place at the right time. We used to put people in rooms they preferred. Ferrari was on the bottom level because they liked that best.”

Stirling Moss first came to the Glen for one of the Formula Libre races in 1960. “His mental capacity was epic,” Franzese remarks. “He’d go like hell. The man was so fast. He used to do laps around here in a four-door Jaguar. He and his father came in one time. Stirling pulled up, let his father out and took the bags out of the car. The next thing you know he was doing laps. He was trying to see how close he could get to the suitcases without hitting them and his father came out of the room and had a fit. It was hilarious.

“But he was so fast. He had almost too much talent to be a regular champion because he only knew one speed. He was interested in winning races. He didn’t notice the bigger picture.

“Guys like Jimmy Clark and Graham Hill were my age so we sort of grew up together over the years. After the race was over I used to close the cocktail lounge so that nobody could bother them. They would party down there and enjoyed it because nobody else could look in on them. In ’63 we had Jimmy Clark, Graham Hill, Dan Gurney, Jo Bonnier and some others. We were downing gin and tonics and I’m not a drinker. I got drunker than a hoot owl. I went down to the house, where my wife was within a couple of weeks of having our daughter, Nancy. I literally crawled up the stairs on my hands and knees.

“The morning of the Grand Prix that Jim Clark won [in 1966] with the BRM H16 engine I was sitting at my desk and Colin Chapman was on the other side on the phone to his chief mechanic Bob Dance about which engine to put in – the H16 or the Climax –and Colin looked at me and said, ‘We’re going with the H16, Bob.’ And Clark went out and won. I felt like I was part of that victory that day and of course the H16 never won another race again.

“One day we decided we would put on a golf tournament. A lot of drivers learned how to play golf here. Graham Hill was one of them and so was Dan Gurney. He was so powerful. He drove off the tee and put it on the green with his first swing of the club! We had a dinner after the game to give them trophies. Rob Walker always wanted to win: it wasn’t until the last year that he succeeded and he couldn’t have been prouder. He wanted that trophy so bad it was incredible.

“The first year we had a tournament for the mechanics and the Ferrari guys got up there and started firing the balls down the fairway. We couldn’t stop them. They just went for it, firing the balls just past the heads of the guys in front and when they got to the clubhouse they thought they had won. They thought that’s the way you played golf – the first guy across the line wins!

“We used to have tennis tournaments and we used to go fishing. Jacques Laffite loved it. He would be down there standing up in a 16-foot rowboat with a fishing pole. He would cast and pick them off. He was a great angler.

“In those days they didn’t have credit cards. Cheques were no damn good, and deutschmarks and lire were no use to us either. Trying to take care of the money was a daunting task, though.

“Teams would come into my office with envelopes full of cash and ask me to take care of them. Colin Chapman would walk in with envelopes that weren’t even marked and I’d say, ‘Colin, don’t you want me to at least count it?’ And he’d say, ‘No, no’. So I’d wrap it up, seal it and write their names on it. All the teams would bring in money and give it to me to keep in my safe.

“One day the Ferrari guys came in with two briefcases full of cash. Each of those briefcases must have had $25,000 in them and they gave them to me with no receipts or anything. And you know where I kept them? Under my desk. At different times I had more money under my desk than we took in more than a year. Either they had a great deal of trust in me or they thought Vic was so stupid he wouldn’t know enough to steal it.

“Bernie Ecclestone stayed here from when he was a motorcycle salesman. When he first came you wouldn’t have known him from a bushel of pears. But it only took two or three years ’til I figured anybody who hooked onto this guy’s coat tails was going to go somewhere.

“He used to sit here and play backgammon with [journalist] Roger Benoit and others. I’m sure Benoit’s company must have given him money to lose because watching Bernie play backgammon was like seeing someone steal candy from children. I didn’t know how to play the game but I could tell he was taking them to the cleaners.”

Eventually, though, it was the Glen that ran into difficulties. Alan Jones won the venue’s final US GP, on October 5, 1980, and a year later the circuit effectively closed (although it would formally reopen in 1984).

“I was madder than hell when they eventually did what they did to us here,” Franzese says. “We never needed to go bankrupt. It could have worked out, but there were too many greedy people. When the race went down and we were sued, everyone in the community wondered why they were being kicked. We didn’t create the monster. We were doing it out of a labour of love. We never bothered to add up the money we were going to make or lose. A lot of people in the community felt very bitter about that.

“The saddest thing for me was the fact I became president of the Chamber of Commerce. The Grand Prix Corporation was a subsidiary of the Chamber of Commerce. At the same time, the county put me on the Industrial Development Agency to stir things up and I became chairman for 10 years. When Watkins Glen collapsed I was chairman of the IDA that had the bonds for the racetrack and chairman of the board of directors. My ass was in the soup.

“I had lists of people who wanted the racetrack. They either had the money and no experience, or plenty of experience but no money. It was just sad. We had a million and a half dollars in bonds. Over the years we were the victims of our own success. Little hick farmers in little hick towns just don’t know what they’re doing.

“Once the money and sponsorship got into it in about 1975, previously great relationships fell apart and anger and mistrust arrived. It got to the point at the end where it was no longer fun. Instead of trying to work things out, it got to be all about money. That bothered me a lot. We watched the whole thing disintegrate.”

Franzese pauses, grins and talks about one of his most prized guests. “Rob Walker was one of our very favourite people. He stayed in room 44 for 21 consecutive years. That was his room. We had so much fun with Rob. He owned a castle in England but drank Miller beer and some wine. He had discriminating taste and was just a delightful man.

“When the final Grand Prix was over in 1980, Rob was about the last to leave here. He didn’t want to go. As he headed off, he looked out across the lake and said, ‘I shall miss this place very much, Vic. It makes me very sad to have to go’.

“A few years later I was at Long Beach and walked into the garage area and everybody said ‘Hey Vic! How are you?’ I asked them how the race had been in Las Vegas the previous year and they said they’d been treated badly. As soon as the race was over, they’d been told to pack up and get out of town. Teams said they liked Watkins Glen and wished they were back there.”

Franzese believes the demise of F1 and international racing at Watkins Glen had a seriously deleterious effect on all forms of road racing in America. “In the days of Can-Am and the Six Hours,” he says, “we had wall-to-wall people for those races as well as F1, and lots of spectators for all other events. When we started we had to fight to get a mention at the bottom of the sports pages; then it became huge. But once F1 stopped coming here I think you found a gradual decrease in attendance at all forms of racing and media coverage diminished, too. We hadn’t just lost the race here – it killed the interest in the sport.”

Today, NASCAR’s mid-summer Sprint Cup race is the Glen’s big annual event, but if you want to relive F1’s glory days you should spend an evening at the Glen Motor Inn. Take in the Franzese family’s collection of signed racing photographs and memorabilia and enjoy dinner in the restaurant overlooking the lake.

You never know, Vic might drop by to relate a few favourite tales of yore.

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