Watkins Glen, NY on the tip of Seneca lake is generally a sleepy little town. Many, however, are familiar with the racing heritage that began there after WWII. Like Daytona, Sebring, and Indianapolis, Watkins Glen is one of America’s most famous racing circuits with a great history behind it. Races on the public roads through and around the village began in 1948. In 1956, the permanent course, located nearby, opened to the public. By 1961, Formula 1 had embraced the circuit as the home to the United States Grand Prix. Later, European endurance racing as well as the Can-Am series would arrive.
Many older race fans who recall Watkins Glen and were present during the late ’60s through the ’70s tell tales of the infamous “Bog” which has an almost mythological aura about it. The vast mud-pit, which resulted from the track’s “boot” being added, was the site of countless examples of mischievous automotive (and even tour bus) arson, illicit drug use, heavy alcoholism, and general disorderly conduct – sometimes sporadically interrupted by the National Guard. The brave men and women who bore witness to the Bog’s debauchery often refer to it with a sort-of distant fondness. To look at the area today is like standing before a Civil War battle field. One can hardly imagine the things that took place on such hallowed ground.
The Vintage Grand Prix weekend brings back some of the great machinery that once raced in anger past burned-out carcasses of family station wagons and thousands of inebriated spectators. Fortunately (or not, depending on your point of view), “The Glen” has cleaned up its act significantly in the last 30 years or so. The weekend’s events really get going on Friday afternoon when many spectators, who brought their own vintage and/or sports cars, may enter to drive a few parade laps on what was once the original street circuit. Thousands gather in downtown Watkins Glen along the closed public streets to watch. This year, my father brought the Porsche 914 and I had the opportunity to take part in the driving festivities. Afterwords, many racers bring their competition cars down from the track and drive the old circuit as well. Before the driving begins, it’s a great chance to walk the streets, grab a beer, and take a close look at some of the cars.The featured brand this year was Datsun/Nissan, though honestly (and perhaps obviously) this didn’t attract any especially amazing cars [sorry, Datsun fans]. Although, some great vehicles of other marques were present. A LeMans winning Audi R8, a couple 1930’s Alfa-Romeo grand prix cars (as were popular last year when that brand was featured), a lone Bugatti, a Talbot-Lago grand prix car, a couple of Yardley McLaren F1 cars, and even an ex-Derek Bell & Stefan Bellof Porsche 956.
In addition, there’s never any shortage of classic MGs, Triumphs, Alfas, Porsches, assorted Formula cars, and the like. These cars form the bulk of the machines on track. They’re generally grouped by engine capacity and the various classes run continually in practice, qualifying, and races all weekend. The racing is often fairly tame, as many of the cars are quite valuable. Moreover, the event is really about seeing the cars. There are some who take the “racing” aspect rather (and sometimes too) seriously, but in reality, it’s nice to be able to simply walk up and watch for a bit without committing yourself to watching every lap. The real treat is being able to walk around the paddock and getting a closer look at the cars. It’s not often that you can watch a group of mechanics tune up a 1935 Alfa-Romeo 8C and then walk a few yards and see some others toying about with an Audi R8 endurance racer.
When the festivities are over for the day, it’s a good chance to stop in at the old Seneca Lodge – located across from the entrance to Watkins Glen State Park – for dinner and drinks. (The lodge also provides cabins to those fortunate enough to book them well in advance.) The rough-cut log walls behind the bar are adorned with archery arrows, college pennants, and countless artifacts from racing teams, drivers, and events that took place at The Glen. It’s a friendly and fun atmosphere where “car people” of all sorts gather and converse.
Those who plan ahead have several nice bed-and-breakfasts to chose from for lodging, or, there’s always camping at the track. The chances of finding your car burning in a mud-bath are virtually non-existent these days, but waking up on Sunday morning to the sound of race-cars driving by is a great way to end the season.