Amid all the talk about reviving the United States Grand Prix in Texas – or anyplace else – many people like to reminisce about the 20 years Formula 1 enjoyed at Watkins Glen. It’s a classic road course of course, with plenty of fast corners, located in a beautiful setting in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, and many fans have fond memories of the blazing fall colours providing a marvellous backdrop to the F1 races there. Quite a few Motor Sport readers have asked ‘why not return to The Glen?’
The answer is that the International Speedway Corporation – NASCAR’s separate, publicly traded, track-owning company – now owns the circuit. ISC owns a dozen circuits – Daytona, Talladega, Darlington, the Michigan and California Speedways, Chicago, Homestead-Miami, Kansas, Martinsville, Phoenix, Richmond and Watkins Glen – which stage 19 of the 36 Sprint Cup races. NASCAR has raced regularly at The Glen since 1986 and the Sprint Cup event is the track’s major event, drawing close to 100,000 fans.
NASCAR races on the 2.4-mile short circuit rather than the full 3.4-mile Grand Prix layout, but since ISC bought The Glen they’ve spent money cleaning up the place, building a new media centre and making improvements to the run-off areas in a few places. But most of The Glen remains much as it was in 1980 when F1 last raced there, including rows of pale blue guardrail surrounding almost the entire track.
To make Watkins Glen safe and acceptable for modern F1 many miles of guardrail would have to be replaced with walls, additional run-off areas would be required, plus a new pit and garage complex and expanded media centre. So it would cost millions to bring The Glen up to Bernie Ecclestone and the FIA’s standards – and to what end?
Watkins Glen makes plenty of money from its Sprint Cup race but all those profits would have to be ploughed back into the track to make an F1 race happen. Why would NASCAR, or ISC, gamble the success of their own brand of racing to provide F1 with a renewed foothold at the place once known as ‘The home of American road racing’? Particularly when the chances of making a profit on an F1 race are small, if not zero, and neither NASCAR nor ISC want anything but the Sprint Cup race to be The Glen’s major event each year. So there’s little, if any, reason for F1 to return to upstate New York. And yet…
ISC is facing tough times with ticket sales flagging at all its tracks. Profits are down substantially and earlier this month it cut its staff by 10 per cent. Belt-tightening rather than expansion is the order of the day, and the prospects are not good for returning to the glory days of a few years ago.
In times like these radical thinking is often required. Imagine if ISC was to turn its hand to properly promoting and marketing the return of F1 to Watkins Glen? It would be a big job, requiring huge investment, but ISC’s people might surprise themselves with the response from both old and new race fans across the north-eastern US. There are a lot of them out there, thirsting for F1 at a proper and attractive venue.
But NASCAR and ISC are conservative companies and this scenario is unlikely. Plus it’s difficult to imagine ISC doing business with Ecclestone. So, sorry to say, it’s Austin or bust for F1 in America.