CIRCUITS: WATKINS GLEN

Name: Watkins Glen

Watkins Glen - "The Glen" as it is known to the motor racing world - is a name which in the course of the last half century has become part of racing folklore, not just in North America but all over the world.

The Glen of today is the third circuit to carry the name, the first having been laid out on public roads in 1948. The idea for a circuit came from Cameron Argetsinger who figured that racing would bring tourists to the region and began petitioning the local authorities in the summer of 1947. That first race - won by Frank Griswold in an Alfa Romeo - took place on a 6.6-mile course which included railway crossings and a run through the center of the town. The event became an annual one until 1951 when a driver called Sam Collier rolled his Ferrari and was killed. A year later Fred Wacker went off, killing a small child and injuring 12 other spectators. The event was stopped. There were plans to build a permanent circuit but until that was ready there were races out in the boonies on a 4.6-mile circuit of public road.

The design of the new permanent circuit was done by Bill Milliken with help from boffins at Cornell University. The result was a magnificent 2.3-mile track which wound its way around a wooded hilltop. The track was ready for racing in 1956 but it was five years before Formula 1 arrived in the autumn of 1961. Having won both World Championships Ferrari decided not to bother with the new race but Innes Ireland charged through from eighth on the grid to third in his Lotus and when Jack Brabham and Stirling Moss both went out with mechanical trouble Ireland won his first (and only) World Championship victory, chased home by Dan Gurney's Porsche.

In 1962, Team Lotus won again - with Jim Clark driving - but in 1963-64-65 no-one could touch Graham Hill's BRM. This was followed by two more Clark wins for Team Lotus and then in 1968 Jackie Stewart won in a Matra. The circuit obviously suited the British drivers - with seven wins in seven years.

The track, however, was becoming less safe and after Graham Hill was seriously hurt in a crash the circuit underwent a major overhaul. For many drivers the revised version was much better than the original. The circuit had been resurfaced and widened and the pits moved. But there was also an extra 1.1-mile section of track - which took the length out to 3.3-miles - which added an extra four corners. This new section dived down through the trees into a curling downhill left-hand turn which took the cars along the edge of the hillside until they reached a right-hander which led the circuit back up the old track - over an exciting blind brow. Grand Prix racing came back in 1971 and Tyrrell's rising star Francois Cevert won. In 1973 he was killed in a gruesome qualifying accident. Stewart withdrew from the race - which would have been his 100th Grand Prix - and retired from the sport. A chicane was added in 1974 but during the race a young Austrian driver called Helmut Koinigg lost control of his car and hit a barrier which was lifted up in the impact. Koinigg was decapitated in a grisly accident.

The late 1970s witnessed a gradual decline at the Glen. The 1978 race was an exciting one as Frenchman Jean-Pierre Jarier dominated for Lotus. He was standing in for Ronnie Peterson who had been killed at Monza. Jarier seemed to be en route to victory and a great F1 career but his car broke down and Carlos Reutemann won for Ferrari. Jarier's chance of glory was gone. A year later Gilles Villeneuve won again for the Italian team but by then the F1 circus was tired of the Glen. There were no hotels and the drunken mobs of fans in the infamous Bog - who set fire to cars and rioted - was not the kind of image F1 wanted. The teams packed up and never returned.

The CART Championship stayed on another year but after that The Glen faded somewhat. In the mid-1980s it was bought by the International Speedway Corporation and NASCAR racing arrived in 1986 with victory for the wild Tim Richmond. The Budweiser at the Glen became a major event with thousands of stock car fans turning up in their camper vans to watch the action. The full 3.3-mile circuit is rarely used nowadays but the fans love the track and with the Finger Lakes region being a lovely place in mid-summer the track does what Argetsinger planned back in 1947 - it brings in trade.

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