One of the most powerful signs that NASCAR was going to expand into all corners of the United States and dominate America’s motor racing landscape came at Watkins Glen a quarter of a century ago.
The Glen had been known for many years as the home of American road racing and Formula 1 in America, but following the departures from the Glen in the early 1980s of F1, Can-Am and world championship sports car racing, the track decided to give NASCAR a try.
NASCAR first raced at Watkins Glen in the modern era in 1986 and within two years the race had established itself as America’s biggest road race with more than 90,000 spectators jamming the Glen’s 2.4-mile short circuit on race day. For the past 25 years the Glen’s mid-summer NASCAR race has been by far the track’s largest and most defining event.
A few years after its debut at the Glen NASCAR’s separate track-owning company, the International Speedway Corporation (ISC), bought the track which is the only road course among its contemporary suite of a dozen tracks. The rest are all ovals – Daytona, Talladega, Michigan, California, Darlington, Phoenix, Homestead-Miami, Kansas, Richmond and Martinsville.
These days the Glen’s big August weekend provides the fans with a full NASCAR schedule including a Nationwide race on Saturday afternoon, a Grand-Am race on Saturday evening and the featured Sprint Cup race on Sunday. This year Carl Edwards won Saturday’s Nationwide race while Marcos Ambrose scored a superb last-lap victory in Sunday’s Cup race. Ambrose was third going into the final lap but the track was soaked in oil and leader Kyle Busch got sideways and spun while Ambrose was able to slither round Brad Keselowski to repeat his win at the Glen last year.
After the race there was not a trace of whining from Ambrose or Keselowski who congratulated each other for hard but sportsmanlike racing. “That’s the way racing should be,” they said. Who could ask for a better show?
It’s great that NASCAR has enabled Watkins Glen to stay in business as a professional racing venue, but it’s sad that there are no longer any major international road races at the track. Grand-Am runs a six-hour race at the Glen in July but it’s nothing like the old days when the Can-Am/Six Hour weekend in July was almost as big as the F1 race in the fall with huge crowds throughout the weekends spilling down from the track and through the village of Watkins Glen.
The Six-Hour weekend ran with great success from 1970-83 and was replaced by an IMSA Camel GT race for quite a few years. But with ISC owning both the track and the Grand-Am series we’ll never see an ALMS race at the Glen.
CART raced at the Glen for three years from 1979-81 but couldn’t pull much of a crowd even with Mario Andretti in the field, fresh from his 1978 F1 World Championship. More recently the IRL tried racing at the Glen from 2005-10 but again the crowd was tiny compared to the NASCAR weekend or the old F1 and Can-Am/Six Hour weekends. IndyCar may try again at the Glen in the coming years.
Many fans would love to see F1 return to the Glen but I can’t see it happening because it would cost many millions of dollars. And why would ISC spend all that money when they can feature their own product without any such expenses? Quite apart from the massive fee Bernie Ecclestone would demand it would be necessary to make massive changes at the Glen. The old three-row guardrail has been there for 40 years and it would have to be ripped out and replaced with cement walls and new barriers. Run-offs would have to be built and the pitlane would have to be substantially revamped.
Unfortunately F1, international sports car and IndyCar racing failed at Watkins Glen enabling NASCAR not only to fill the void but take control of the track. The home of American road racing is sure to remain a NASCAR track for many years to come.