On the surface, this looks like many small towns dotting the Finger Lakes region of New York. Drive down Main Street and you’ll see typical bustling small town stuff. The local auto parts store. A county courthouse. There are a few banks and a singular Chinese restaurant. Signs direct you to a winery. There may even be a tractor rolling through town hauling hay bales. Then you stop for a minute and notice a checkered flag hanging from a light pole. And you hear something. Is it a ghost from the past or history being made? This is a village that does not hit you with its significance right off the bat. Like a flower blooming, its true nature is slowly revealed. This is a farming town with a racing problem.
To understand how this all began, we need to go back to 1948. The Glen was mostly known for its fishing and the natural beauty of the falls, but Cameron Argetsinger had a revolutionary thought. Let’s bring road racing back to America. He laid out a course (a damn challenging one mind you) using state and local roads to the east of town in the area of the state park. There’s almost 500 feet (picture a 50 story building) of elevation change between the top and bottom of the course. He then went to the Sports Car Club of of America, which was a fairly fresh organization at the time, and asked for sanctioning. With that blessing, on October 2, 1948, the first green flag dropped.
Racing continued on the original 6.6-mile course until 1952 when a spectator was tragically killed. In 1958, the new Watkins Glen International Speedway opened slightly south of town on a 500 acre site. Racing has continued since, and the Glen has hosted everything from amateur racing on up to Formula 1.
Sitting at the local doughnut shop at 5:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning, I had a chance to chat with a local gentleman named Paul. Promotion posters and autographed photos of drivers surrounded us, but not obtrusively. I quickly learned that racing is part of the DNA here. Virtually everyone has a connection to the story of Watkins Glen and their own tale to tell. He worked on the grounds crew at the track. One day, after the boss had left early, he needed a break. So, he did what many of us would do in that situation; he took his tractor on a “hot lap” around the course to relax.
The roads making up the original course still exist, and there is signage to direct you around. The only thing that has really changed is the pavement, though it’s still as narrow as it was in 1948. Driving a modern vehicle, (in my case a 2015 Subaru Impreza), even at the posted speed limits, will make you give respect. Respect for the guts of the drivers. They tackled these roads with nothing more than a lap belt, leather helmet, and drum brakes.
Coming back down the steep hill into town and turning back onto Franklin Street, you begin to notice tasteful nods to the town’s racing history. The Watkins Glen International gift shop. The building with a 20 foot tall vintage Bugatti painted on the side. You stop for lunch and start walking down the sidewalk. More things come to light. Little race cars on top of the street signs. Granite markers set into the sidewalk that make up a walk of fame. They read like a who’s who of the racing world. Hobbs. Andretti. Foyt. Earnhardt. Stewart. Yates.
The town has embraced what it has become, but is still humble about it. The biggest signs on Franklin Street (the main street) are for The Seneca Lodge and the state park. The track that draws thousands of visitors a year merely gets a small 12”-square sign pointing you up Schuler County Road 17. It’s stories are quietly revealed by those who are part of the fabric. By the artifacts on display at the pizza shop. With monuments scattered around on back roads. If you slow down and start to listen, the story unfolds.
When you drive along the road, stop for a minute or three. Be quiet. Listen. Shut off the engine and cell phone. Somehow the ghosts of old race cars, cheering spectators, and cursing mechanics can still be heard, echoing through the area.
[Images copyright 2018 Hooniverse/Jason Hopkins]