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A 30-YEAR HERITAGE OF DARING
Brock Yates
October 03, 1977
The wind is shifting north. It is sluicing down the 40-mile trough formed by New York's Seneca Lake and gnawing at the treetops on the hill where the race circuit sits. The leaves are aflame and sparrows wheel through the graying autumn skies. Mallards and heavy-bodied geese are easing down from Canada, dropping into quiet coves. And in the streets of the usually serene village at the foot of the lake, loud, audacious automobiles are on the move.
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October 03, 1977

A 30-year Heritage Of Daring

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The wind is shifting north. It is sluicing down the 40-mile trough formed by New York's Seneca Lake and gnawing at the treetops on the hill where the race circuit sits. The leaves are aflame and sparrows wheel through the graying autumn skies. Mallards and heavy-bodied geese are easing down from Canada, dropping into quiet coves. And in the streets of the usually serene village at the foot of the lake, loud, audacious automobiles are on the move.

It is Grand Prix time. Watkins Glen (pop. 2,716), the Green Bay of motor sports, is waking up again, as it has at this season for 30 years. Soon the multitudes will come, pouring over the winding two-lane roads in vans and sedans, pickups and motor homes, motorcycles and mopeds—everything from Porsches to Peterbilts—to cram the handful of hotels and coffee shops and to spread over the hilltop in a vast smoky encampment. Among the first to arrive, and first to leave, will be the featured guests—international driving stars with their tiny, whooping wide-wheeled cars.

What has attracted nearly 100,000 spectators and men like Niki Lauda, Mario Andretti, James Hunt and Emerson Fittipaldi to Watkins Glen is the 199.243-mile world championship Formula I Grand Prix race, which will be held next Sunday on the 3.377-mile multimillion-dollar road course that threads a convoluted path around the hilltop.

During the ragged postwar days of 1948, another type of driver competed on the streets and outlying roads of the village. They were gentlemen amateurs—a band of men with the interest and the means to own imported exotica like straight-8 Bugattis, supercharged Alfa Romeos and MG roadsters. They drove them fast for the hell of it. Frank Griswold, a wealthy Philadelphian, won the first Watkins Glen Grand Prix in a fatfendered Alfa. His triumph was witnessed by perhaps 5,000 people. The course then was gruesomely dangerous. It was narrow and treelined, with blind crested hills, a plunging 90� turn in the center of the town and one dusty straightaway featuring a 100-mph leap over a railroad crossing.

The race was held on that venue for five years, the crowds swelling annually. In 1952 the locals estimated that 200,000 were on hand. Cooler observers said there was a quarter of that number lining the streets. Whatever, it was too many to be adequately controlled throughout the circuit and, inevitably, a spectator was hit. A young boy sitting on a curb was killed when struck by a spinning wheel that had torn loose from a race car. As a result, the State of New York outlawed racing on its public roads. Racing at Watkins Glen seemed over.

But business had been too good. The aroma of big bucks lingered in the streets. A new patchwork circuit was hooked together exclusively on town roads until a consortium of local investors was able to build a track on private land. In 1956 a 2.3-mile teardrop-shaped course, the nucleus of the present circuit, opened. The races were still essentially amateur. Overhead was high and the crowds were modest. It was time to gamble.

A U.S. Grand Prix had been held in 1959 and 1960, the first at Sebring, Fla., the next at Riverside, Calif. Neither race had been a financial success, so in 1961 the date was open. The promoters at Watkins Glen anted up and prayerfully scheduled their first U.S. Grand Prix for Oct. 8, 1961. It was a massive, surprising success, thanks in great measure to thousands of Canadians who poured over the border to gape at men like Jack Brabham, Stirling Moss and race-winner Innes Ireland in their Coopers and Lotuses. That race put Watkins Glen on the international racing map.

The event bloomed in the '60s when America went cuckoo for fast cars. Armies of college kids arrived from all over the Northeast on the first weekend in October to brawl and booze and puff on strange weeds against a background of screeching mechanical music. The race became an annual counterculture highlight, a last blast outdoors before the Northeast bundled up for the winter. Then things got ugly for a few years, and the wild goings on at a spot called the Bog began to seem more newsworthy than the race itself. The Bog was just outside one of the tunnels leading to the infield, a spot where certain enthusiastic types cavorted in the mudhole and burned stray automobiles. It was eventually bulldozed into oblivion, but a few diehards still gather at its grave to drink and smoke and rev their engines.

This year attention will zero in on a pair of men. One is Andretti, from Nazareth, Pa.; he is unbeatable when his car behaves and is capable of making a recalcitrant machine go fast through sheer force of will. For Andretti, this season has been one of brilliant victories and of serious blunders. Twice he has been involved in opening-lap crashes. The other man is Lauda, a cooler and more consistent driver. His courage is awesome. Just one year ago he was recovering from burns that had left him all but dead. Although the Canadian GP on Oct. 9 follows Watkins Glen on the 17-race 1977 Grand Prix calendar, in all likelihood Lauda will win his second world driving championship next week. His Ferrari has been first three times this season, and in only two races has the 28-year-old Austrian failed to get championship points. Still, he does not seem to be satisfied. He recently announced that next season he will be driving for the Brabham team.

Special men in a special place. For 30 years it has been such at Watkins Glen. So much so that now the race is as much a part of autumn in New York as the freshening north winds.

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