Words and images by Jack Webster
They have been racing cars in and around the little Finger Lakes village of Watkins Glen since 1948. Nestled at the southern end of Seneca Lake, this sleepy village would have likely continued its life as the home of Watkins Glen State Park and the beautiful hiking trails throughout its famous gorge, but for the vision of one man.
Local sports car enthusiast and lawyer Cameron Argetsinger got it into his mind to actually have a sports car race on the roads that led out of, around and then back into the village of Watkins Glen. With the cooperation of the village of Watkins Glen, the surrounding towns, the state of New York and Schuyler County, Argetsinger laid out a 6.6-mile road course that offered high speed straights, fast turns, tight corners and even a stone bridge. The course even crossed over the New York Central railroad tracks, and the railroad was convinced to cooperate by stopping the trains during racing activities. It is miraculous, that even with Cameron’s determination, drive and influence in getting all the pieces to come together, that the race even took place.
The first race was held in 1948 and was an outstanding success with over ten thousand spectators showing up to watch. The race through the streets of Watkins Glen continued through 1952, with larger and larger crowds every year seeing famous drivers like Briggs Cunningham, John Fitch, and Phil Hill race in and around the streets of the village. However, it was apparent that the speed of the cars and the lack of safety for the spectators was becoming a problem. When Sam Collier was killed in his Ferrari 166 just beyond the railroad underpass in the 1950 race, although tragic, death in the post-war era was deemed somehow acceptable because drivers knew the risks they were taking and accepted them. In 1952, the inevitable tragedy occurred when Fred Wacker’s Allard struck a group of spectators sitting on the curb on Franklin Street, injuring 12 and killing seven-year-old Frankie Fazzari. It marked the end of racing through the streets of Watkins Glen.
For a couple of years after that, racing was held on the rural roads around the nearby town of Dix and hamlet of Townsend, but it was obvious that a permanent solution needed to be found if racing was to continue in the area. By this time, Watkins Glen had become known around the country and the world for its racing activities, and the owners of the local hotels, restaurants and shops did not want to see the racing end and the free-spending crowds go away.
In 1953, a community-based nonprofit, The Watkins Glen Grand Prix Corporation, was formed by the Chamber of Commerce and plans were made to build a permanent racing facility at the top of the hill outside of the village of Watkins Glen, near Dix and Townsend. The land was obtained, financing arranged and in 1956 construction began on what would become eventually known as Watkins Glen International.
In 1957, the new permanent race track opened, and continues to operate to this day. Originally configured as a 2.35-mile circuit, the track was expanded in 1971 to meet the demands of modern Formula One. Just over a mile of new track was added the original course, so the new Grand Prix circuit now measured 3.37 miles in length.
It was certainly no secret that Cameron Argetsinger had the dream of bringing Grand Prix racing to this new Watkins Glen racing circuit and shortly after the new track opened, he traveled to Europe to make connections in the racing community where he successfully obtained sanctioning for the first of what would be three Formula Libre races at Watkins Glen for 1958 through 1960. These races, their success and the contacts Cameron made in Europe during that time laid the groundwork for the Grand Prix in 1961, which would then make Watkins Glen the home of the United States Grand Prix for the next 20 years.
With the US Grand Prix looking for a new home after Alex Ulmann’s option (he of Sebring fame) expired on August 15, 1961, the CSI (the sporting division of the FIA at the time) approached Cameron Argetsinger and asked if he could put a deal together on short notice to hold the US Grand Prix by October of 1961. Argetsinger said ‘of course he could’ and the rest is history.
So, October 8, 1961 became quite a day of firsts. It was the first US Grand Prix at Watkins Glen; it marked the first Grand Prix win for a Scotsman (Innes Ireland) and was the first Grand Prix win for Lotus.
Charmed by Cameron and lured by his ability to raise money and offer the European teams free transport for their cars and equipment; airline tickets for owners, crews and drivers; accommodations; starting money and even new Ford road cars (a Grand Prix sponsor) to use on their trips to Watkins Glen, the US Grand Prix went from strength to strength. The teams and drivers loved the area, the small-town feel, the track and without doubt, being paid large sums of American dollars – in cash.
The Glen became a favorite stopping point for the Formula One circus, as the hospitality of the locals along with the outstanding prize money offered by the organizers were a big draw for the Formula One teams. The money alone was excellent, certainly in comparison to the paltry sums being offered by European tracks during that era. And every year the crowds continued to grow and grow.
Local establishments became favorites of the Formula One teams and drivers. They stayed and ate at the Glen Motor Court, just north of the village. The dining room there became the place to mingle with a virtual who’s who of racing personalities and celebrities, as everyone from drivers Phil Hill and Jackie Stewart to celebrities like James Garner and George Harrison stayed and dined there during Grand Prix week. Inn owner Vic Franzese was a gracious host to the world, and his charm and style was certainly a big reason the Formula One crowd loved coming to Watkins Glen. I met Vic years ago and can personally attest to his friendliness and personality. I spent many hours both in his fine restaurant and bar listening to his amazing stories. Sadly, Vic has passed, and with him his wonderful stories about the Formula One days at the Glen Motor Court (now Glen Motor Inn).
Another favorite spot for anyone who went to Watkins Glen for the races was Seneca Lodge, where you could stay in a quaint cabin, enjoy a fine meal or belly up to one of the finest racer’s bars in the country, if not the world. Standing there, you could picture James Hunt dancing on the bar after taking pole, setting fastest lap and taking the win in 1976, or visualize François Cevert playing the piano after his Grand Prix victory in 1971 (the very same piano is still in the bar). Everywhere you turn at the Seneca Lodge bar there are memories – the arrows in the walls, the dried-up winner’s wreaths still hanging where they were placed decades ago. It is all there for you to experience on your trip to the birthplace of road racing in America – Watkins Glen. To this day, Seneca Lodge is still going strong.
Of course, it seems like all good things must come to an end, and after trying to purchase the track in 1970 and being rebuffed, Cameron Agetsinger parted ways with the Grand Prix Corporation, which went heavily in debt to add the 1.1-mile extension to the circuit, build new garages, a new pit lane and make other improvements for the 1971 Grand Prix. The track continued on, struggling financially though the end of the 1970s before facing bankruptcy and eventually being purchased by an ownership group that included Corning Enterprises (a subsidiary of Corning, Inc., the glass company) and International Speedway Corporation. Their partnership saved Watkins Glen for both the racing world and the local community, and with the track again on solid financial ground, ISC obtained sole ownership from Corning in 1997 and remains as the owner and caretaker of this historic facility to this day. As I can attest, ISC has been an outstanding steward of Watkins Glen’s legacy, making improvements to the facility every year. A true piece of American history has been saved, preserved and improved for future generations to experience and enjoy.
Making my annual trek to Smalley’s Garage in the village is a trip back in time as well. It looks pretty much like it did years ago, when it was operated by Tom and Flossie Smalley and where tech inspections took place for the races from 1948-1962. Now in its 81st year of ownership by the Smalley family, this garage is a time capsule of Watkins Glen racing history. Every fall they hang up the original banner and a reenactor portrays Flossie Smalley (this year’s choice was particularly good) as she inspects and provides tech stickers to the assembled cars. For 2022 it was a group of Bugattis, which were a featured marque at the track for the Hilliard U.S. Vintage Grand Prix, making an appearance. It was certainly like time travel to be at Smalley’s for tech inspection, for you could close your eyes, listen to those Bugattis fire up and imagine you were back in the late 1940s or early 1950s. That is the magic of coming back to Watkins Glen today. The history is alive.
Well traveled vintage racer Tradition continues at Smalley’s Garage Bugatti pilote Luca Maciucescu proudly displays the tech sticker he has just received from “Flossie” Smalley Something you don’t see everyday. A Bugatti gasses up at the Sinclair Station at the corner of Franklin St. & Old Corning Rd. in the village of Watkins Glen. The station has been there since the first race in 1948 Nathanael Greene pushes his Bugatti T 35 hard as he exits Turn 9 at Watkins Glen
The village of Watkins Glen has not forgotten its heritage and in fact embraces it: every fall, on the weekend after Labor Day, the Fall Festival is held. On Friday in the village, they recreate the original race through the streets (as a much safer and controlled race car and vintage sports car parade) and there are car shows, a concours, and souvenir and food vendors line up on Franklin Street for this annual celebration of history.
To go along with all the nostalgia downtown, the SVRA holds its annual vintage races, the Hilliard U.S. Vintage Grand Prix, up the road at Watkins Glen International on the same weekend, drawing entries from all over the world and drawing a very large number of campers and spectators who show up every year to enjoy the early fall upstate New York weather. Note – this year was almost perfect, however it was rainy and cloudy on Sunday, but that did little to dampen the enthusiasm of the assembled competitors and spectators.
In addition to the many classes of vintage automobiles racing in the various SVRA classes, the event also featured pro racing with the SCCA TransAm Series presented by Pirelli, including both the TransAm and TA2 races, along with the International GT Series. The quality and number of cars in both the TransAm and International GT were incredible, and a testament to the quality of the show that SVRA puts on when coming to Watkins Glen, or any of the other circuits on their schedule. There was literally something going on constantly either on the track or in the village. It was certainly a race weekend not to be missed.
I have been attending or participating in races at Watkins Glen since the US Grand Prix in 1971, and still get excited every year when September rolls around and it is time once again to bask in the history and revel in the excitement of being at the birthplace of American Road Racing. Time travel certainly seems to be possible, as evidenced every fall on my annual trip to Watkins Glen, where I can immerse myself in a very special place and relive motorsports history.
There is no better place on earth for a car guy to spend some quality time.