The (Unofficial)History of Watkins Glen

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Editor’s Note: There’s a six hour endurance race this weekend–Sahlen’s 6 Hours of the Glen–at Watkins Glen, the upstate New York racetrack that is one of America’s most famous. The race is part of the IMSA series and features many American  teams that just finished racing at Le Mans, like our friends at Risi Competizione, who took a second at the 24 Hours of Le Mans this year; the race also features the Ford GT team that took a contested first place ahead of Risi Comp at Le Mans. The battle between these longtime rivals–Ford vs. Ferrari–will be renewed at one of the world’s classic tracks. Here’s a short history of Watkins Glen for background (originally posted on the Risi Comp site in 2015).
Paying Attention: Watkins Glen (also known as “the Glen”) is one of America’s most famous and storied race tracks. It’s tucked away in the Adirondacks region of New York, by the town of Watkins Glen, New York. For years, it was the site of the U.S. Grand Prix (1961-1980) and it was F1 that gave the Glen it’s rather legendary status in the U.S.
Formula 1 Racing, however, has never been the mainstay at Watkins Glen. Since it’s start in the late 40s, the town and it’s race courses have hosted a wide variety of road racing events: NASCAR (yes, the big NASCAR stock cars run on the tight course); the long-gone Trans-Am and Can-Am series; Indy Car; and various SCCA and club racing outings.
Originally, the track was created by using the public roads around the village of Watkins Glen as a circuit, a very European style approach which is both charming and inherently dangerous. Cameron Argetsinger, a summer home resident of the area, started the first races at Watkins Glen which took place in 1948 on a 6.6 mile course over public roads. Things soon got out of hand as spectators lined the streets to watch the races and in 1952, a car left the road and killed one spectator and injured many others. Another important name in the early history of Watkins Glen was William F. Milliken, Jr. “Bill” Milliken was an aerospace engineer, automotive engineer, and race car driver and was a founding member of the Watkins Glen Road Races and also served as the head of the Rules Committee. He competed in the very first event and “Milliken’s Corner” on the original street course is named after him. Among other things, he developed the six-belt tire testing machine which remains one of the most advanced tire testing machines in the world some 40 years after its invention.
Because racing was good for the city (it provided an additional revenue stream for local businesses when race weekends were held), it was decided to continue racing activities but move the events to a new track outside outside of town, and so a purpose-built circuit was constructed in 1956.
The same basic track layout that will be used for Sahlen’s 6 Hours at the Glen race this coming weekend has been in existence since 1971. The course that will be raced on the weekend of June 26-June 28th is known as the “1971 Six Hours Course”; there is another (longer) course called “the Boot”. The “Six Hours” course is the shorter of the two layouts at 2.454 miles.
One notable addition to the original circuit design was a chicane, installed in 1975 to slow down the cars as they went through the uphill Esses. The chicane was put in as a result of the death of Francois Cevert, the charismatic French F1 driver who was Jackie Stewart’s teammate on the Tyrell team; Cevert died in a very heavy crash during practice for the 1973 USGP. One year later, another F1 driver (Helmuth Koinigg) died at Watkins Glen.
The Tyrell team did not run after Cevert’s accident and Stewart—who had made plans to retire at the end of the 1973 season—failed to start what would have been his 100th Grand Prix. Jackie Stewart had already amassed enough points to  win the 1973 Driver’s Championship without racing at the Glen, but after winning his last F1 Driver’s Championship, in perhaps an even greater career accomplishment, he went on to become the major advocate of car and track safety for F1 as it entered another growth era. There are many drivers alive today who would not have survived a racing accident without the pressure to make racing and racing  circuits safer  that was imposed by Jackie Stewart on race organizers and track owners.
A chicane was installed in 1975, removed in 1985,  and then replaced with another chicane called the “Inner Loop”. The Inner Loop increased the length of the long course to 3.4 miles and turned Watkins Glen into America’s fastest road course; Davy Jones once won the pole for the Camel Continental IX at 150.334 MPH on the 2.45 mile short course.
The Watkins Glen track has had an adventurous life. Despite being home to the US GP and hosting every type of racing imaginable, the track went into bankruptcy in 1981 when it lost the Formula 1 race because it failed to pay a rather large ($800,000) debt owed to F1 teams and the IASF removed it from the F1 schedule.
The track was purchased in,1983 by International Speedway Corporation, a division of NASCAR and Corning Enterprises, a subsidiary of the world-famous Corning glass company. Corning Glass, ( now Corning, Inc.) ,is a legendary American company which once made the glass for Thomas Edison’s lightbulbs and also created the Corningware and Pyrex glass brands. It has its headquarters in Corning, NY, close to Watkins Glen.
The Fine Print: Lead Photo (C) Doug Kerr 2015. Used under Creative Commons License.  The photo has not been altered.

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