Watkins Glen, New York was the site of the first post-World War II road race in America on October 2, 1948. It marked the rebirth of road racing in the United States and the birth of SCCA (Sports Car Club of America) road races. Many people know this story, but there are so many little known facts behind it. With September right (and the Grand Prix Festival as well as the Vintage Grand Prix) around the corner, there is no time like the present to share some of this incredible history.
- It took a lot of hard work and perseverance at the local level – and things happened quickly. Local resident Cameron Argetsinger was a long-time race enthusiast and an associate of SCCA. In April of 1948, Cameron sent a letter to Donald Brubaker, the President of the Schuyler County Chamber of Commerce, sharing his idea to bring road races to Watkins Glen. Mr. Brubaker liked the idea and in May 1948, a group of road racing enthusiasts and SCCA associates met up at the Indy 500. They discussed the idea and agreed to move it forward. (Photo above right, Grand Prix meeting at Seneca Lodge. Back row: Don Brubaker, Sr., Henry Valent, Cameron R. Argetsinger, and David Whitcomb. Front row: William F. Milliken, Jr., and Allen D. Erway, Mayor of Watkins Glen. Photo courtesy International Motor Racing Research Center)
- Beyond hard work, the race itself required a lot of cooperation – and a good deal of luck! Given that the race would occur on public roads, the race organizers had to obtain a number of easements for spectator viewing areas, permits from the village and the state, approval to stop the trains (there was a busy railroad that ran directly over the proposed course), and a permit to close the roads. The 1948 race could very well be known today as the race that never happened. The organizers didn’t receive the required permit to close the road until a week before the race. Imagine playing that waiting game! (Photo above right: Stone Bridge 1948. First lap of the Jr. Prix. George Weaver in his RI Maserati is the leader, 2nd Briggs S. Cunningham in his BuMerc and 3rd
is Frank T. Griswold, Jr. in his Alfa Romeo 2900B.)
- Speaking of permits and cooperation, October 2, 1948 became known as the day they stopped the trains. The race course crossed a busy railroad and the trains needed to be stopped for the duration of the race. Good old fashioned cooperation is the only way it happened. The mayor of Watkins Glen knew the train master in Corning, where the trains originated. The two of them had a conversation and worked out the details. Indeed, the trains would stop. That train master’s name was Frank Chase and history will remember him as The Man Who Stopped The Trains. Without a doubt, he played a key role in the kick off of racing in Watkins Glen and without his assistance, racing may not have made it to our village in the first place. Imagine how different things would be?
- After several successful years, tragedy did strike the race. In 1952, the race welcomed a huge crowd to the small town of Watkins Glen. There were an estimated 100,000+ spectators that year. Race organizers did their best to monitor the course, keeping spectators in designated viewing areas. Sadly, a young boy was killed and 12 spectators injured, when a race car left the track, striking the crowd, which had gathered in an unauthorized viewing area. This would become the end of racing through the village in Watkins Glen. In January 1953, a bill was introduced in the New York State Senate to ban racing on public roads. That bill was tied up by a local assemblyman in committee and never passed. However, following the crash, the planning committee was told that if the race went through town, it wouldn’t be insured. In the fall of 1953, the race was moved “up on the hill” (outside of town) and took to the roads near what is today known as Watkins Glen International. The roads were improved for racing and spectators were kept 25 feet back from the course. (Photo above right: Start of the 1954 Queen Catherine Cup Race. #23 Otto Linton (OSCA), #173 Russ Boss (OSCA). JimWalsh, photographer)
- Racing has been a part of the fabric of our history for decades, despite some speed bumps along the way. In 1956, the, a 2.3 mile circuit was built and the following year The Glen hosted its first professional race, a NASCAR Grand National Stock Car Event. Racing continued at that facility until bankruptcy forced its closure in 1981. The Glen reopened in 1984 and still welcomes visitors today. Watkins Glen International has even been named the Best NASCAR Track in the nation by USA Today readers – 3 years in a row.
- A number of celebrities participated in races in Watkins Glen. Charlie Adams, who drew the original Addams Family cartoon, raced in 1948. The Collier Brothers built cars and raced in the early days of the races. Dave Garoway, who was the first host of the Today Show was a flagman at School House Corner during the 1948 race. He also raced for a couple of years himself.
- Officially known as the Watkins Glen Grand Prix Course, the original 6.6-mile track was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2002.
- Cameron Argetsinger organized and directed races from 1948 to 1970. He was twice awarded the Grand Prix Driver’s Association award for the best organized Grand Prix.
- The Grand Prix Festival (coming up on Friday, September 7) celebrates racing history in Watkins Glen. This festival is designed to recreate the ambiance of the 1948-1952 Watkins Glen Grand Prix and welcomes over 25,000 people.
Today, Watkins Glen International welcomes over 800,000 visitors annually for races including NASCAR and IMSA, and even non-race related events such as Finger Lakes Wine Festival and the Ticket Galaxy Beer Festival.
While many people know Watkins Glen and Schuyler County for fantastic hiking at Watkins Glen State Park, wineries, breweries, and stunning Seneca Lake, Watkins Glen will forever hold a place in racing history thanks to a couple of innovative, dedicated dreamers named Cameron Argetsinger and Donald Brubaker and the planning committees that supported them.