Touring the Original Course on Public Roads Gave This IMSA.com Contributor a Sense of The Glen’s Tremendous Tradition
By John Oreovicz
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – One of the best perks of attending IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship events is the opportunity to experience a variety of historic racing venues. Watkins Glen International, which hosts the next two IMSA race weekends, is a great example.
Fans like us think of Watkins Glen as a racetrack, but the village of Watkins Glen, (population approximately 2,000), nestled at the southern tip of Seneca Lake in New York’s Finger Lakes region, has much more to offer outside of nearly 75 years of racing history.
Seneca Lake is the largest and deepest of the 11 Finger Lakes, and it is billed as the lake trout capital of the world. The region boasts nearly three dozen cool-climate wineries. And right smack in the middle of “downtown” Watkins Glen is the entrance to Watkins Glen State Park, 800 acres of wooded wonderland that feature 400 feet of elevation change, a spectacular gorge and 19 waterfalls.
But you’re probably here for racing-related activities, so let’s get down to business.
Watkins Glen claims to have hosted the first major road race in the United States after the end of World War II, on Oct. 2, 1948. The event was staged on 6.6 miles of public roads that you can still drive.
The start/finish line, located on Franklin Street across from the courthouse, is commemorated with a monument. Driving southeast to begin a clockwise lap, the first corner is a 90-degree right onto Old Corning Road that winds uphill, turning right onto Townsend Road (New York Hwy. 329) and finally emerging onto a long straight stretch after the White House “S” complex of corners.
Soon you find yourself at what was known as School House Corner. If you take a sharp left on Meads Hill Road, you’ll be at Watkins Glen International (the actual racetrack) within three minutes. Instead, veer right to follow the original circuit, down a steep hill into the state park to an ancient stone bridge crossing a creek. Whites Hollow Road continues to the right, uphill through a series of challenging, blind corners until it finally breaks clear of the forest for a short run to Archy Smith’s corner.
Turning right onto Station Road (N.Y. 409) takes you back into the village of Watkins Glen, the latter part of the run including a fast, sweeping downhill corner that must have been thrilling and terrifying to negotiate in the sports cars of the late 1940s.
In 2014, I drove the old circuit in a rental car with my then 8-year-old son, who captured pictures and video on my smartphone – we clocked a lap in 8 minutes, 26.57 seconds. What a fantastic way to gain an appreciation for racing the way it was back in the day, when safety measures would have consisted of a few haybales strategically placed in the most dangerous corners.
After the death of a driver and multiple spectator injuries along the original course, racing activity was moved to a shorter hillside course, still on public roads, from 1953-55. The 2.4-mile permanent circuit opened the following year; a mile-long extension known as “The Boot” was grafted on in 1971. WGI hosted the Formula One United States Grand Prix from 1961-80 and has been a mainstay on the NASCAR schedule since 1984. While IndyCar racing also has a fair bit of history at WGI, sports car racing has been the track’s bread and butter since the permanent circuit went into operation in 1956.
You can directly contrast the original road circuit with the modern track, because for just $30, you can drive your car around Watkins Glen International behind a pace car on certain days (Drive the Glen). Still in our rental car, we were led around the 3.4-mile track rather faster than expected – certainly fast enough through the Bus Stop chicane to excite the 8-year-old strapped into the back seat!
Before calling it a day, serious racing buffs will want to visit the International Motor Racing Research Center (610 S. Decatur Street, Watkins Glen), a superb collection of car and racing-related books, magazines, models, art and memorabilia. In addition, several shops along Franklin Street offer vintage racing goods.
If you play your cards right, even your accommodations can have racing history. Until the relatively recent construction of the Harbor Hotel, lodging in Watkins Glen was a decidedly “mom-and-pop” affair. But that’s no bad thing; you can stay in the same rooms or cabins at the Seneca Lodge that were once occupied by the likes of Jim Clark, Jackie Stewart, Niki Lauda, James Hunt and Gilles Villeneuve. Their U.S. Grand Prix victory wreaths hang proudly in the Adirondack-style lounge.
The Glen Motor Inn boasts similar history. Survey a plethora of vintage photos while you check in and reminisce with the Franzese family about the famous faces who have stayed in the motel and dined at the Montage restaurant overlooking the lake. A few times, I found myself in the room traditionally occupied by Paul Newman.
If you have any appreciation for racing, there’s a little bit of history almost everywhere you look in a sleepy little town in central New York.