The History of Watkins Glen International

Watkins Glen International is located in a village called Watkins Glen in the southern Finger Lakes area in New York State. In 2020, the population of the village amounted to 1,829. Watkins Glen can be found between the towns of Dix and Reading.

Towards the southwest side lies Watkins Glen International- a race track where the NASCAR cup series is held every year, along with the Weather Tech Sports Car Championship races. In the past, Watkins Glen International has also hosted the Formula One United State Grand Pix, drawing in crowds from all over the world.

The History Behind It

In 1948, Cameron Argetsinger introduced road racing in Watkins Glen. He was a law student who studied at Cornell University and spent a large part of his time in his father’s summer house on Seneca Lake.

Argetsinger was a member of the SCCA and proposed that an amateur road race be introduced by the name of Watkin Glen Grand Prix. The public reacted greatly to this idea, and soon, Argetsinger drew a 6.6-mile course that included paved roads on a gravel and dirt stretch.

By October 1948, 15 cars lined up to perform the 8-lap race at Grand Prix, 52.8-miles long. Many prominent figures participated in this race, including Bill Milliken, who drove his Bugatti 35 and won the race, and Charles Addams, the creator of the Addams family.

After five years of the Watkins Glen Grand Prix, lots of accidents were reported. This included a crash in 1952 in which Frank Fazzari, a seven-year-old child, and several others lost their lives. Hence, the speedway was moved to a new location in the southwest area of the town. The second layout was built in 1953 and included a 4.6-mile track. Even though the new track was smaller, concessions, parking, and crowd control were majorly improved here.

However, by 1955, it became clear that closed public roads that were also used as farm roads could no longer be used because of poor visibility. Hence, another race course location was opened, which was 550 acres. Even though this location overlapped a previous street layout, it did not include any roadways. In fact, new roadways were built for the race.

The 2.3-mile track was developed by many Cornell University engineering professors, bringing NASCAR Grand National Division to the area in 1957 and the International Formula Libre one year later.

In 1961, Watkins Glen started to prepare for the Formula One World Championship, which attracted a knowledgeable audience from upstate New York. From 1968 to 1981, the race featured some of the most popular drivers, including Derek Bell, Pedro Rodriguez, Jacky Ickx, and Mario Andretti.

Even though the races were very popular, the circuit had a hard time surviving, and eventually, it closed in 1981 after declaring bankruptcy.

Finally, in 1983, Watkins Glen International was born as Corning Enterprises, and International Speedway Corporation purchased the track. The track was renovated and reopened in 1984. Within two years, the NASCAR series returned after a long time, dragging large crowds from different areas of the world.

In 1997, International Speedway Corporation became the only owner of Watkins Glen International, as Corning Enterprises managed to rebuild the speedway and increase tourism in the Finger Lakes area of New York State.

Interesting Things You Didn’t Know About the Track

  • Handling the races at Watkins Glen International was no joke. Since the races would happen on public roads, the organizers would have to obtain numerous easements for viewing areas, permits from the state and local authorities, permission to stop trains since a railroad ran on top of the course, and approval to close roads.
  • The race organizers would usually receive the permits a week before the race was due. This meant intense planning since they would have to organize everything at the end minute.
  • October 2, 1948, is known as the day the trains were stopped. The mayor of Watkins Glen spoke to the train master in Corning, who connected him to Frank Chase- the man because of whom these races took place. If he had not permitted to stop the trains, races at Watkins Glen International would have never taken place.
  • In 1952, there were more than 100,000 spectators who came to watch the race. However, a young boy was killed, along with 12 spectators. This happened when a race car struck the crowd. These spectators had entered an unauthorized viewing area and suffered the cost heavily.
  • In 1953, a new bill was announced that banned racing on public roads. Hence, the races were moved up the hill towards what is today known as Watkins Glen International.

Developments at Watkins Glen International

In the 2000s, Watkins Glen International saw many improvements- front stretch grandstands were added, along with a paved runoff area. A new control tower was installed, and housing areas for series officials and radio and television announcers were on top of the grandstands.

A new media center was also made as it replaced the old building, which had been used as a control tower since the 1970s.

In early 2015, the NASCAR tripleheader weekend was announced rather than the conventional U.S. Vintage Grand Prix event. The track was repaved as the entire racing surface was removed. The International Speedway Corporation funded this operation, and a few months later, the new track was ready for races.

In recent years, Watkins Glen International has become incredibly popular in the NASCAR community. In fact, it has been called “America’s Best NASCAR track” four different times. Every time a NASCAR Cup Series race was held, all the seats would be sold out here, providing how popular these events were as they drew in professionals and locals from all parts of New York.

The McClain Family

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