In the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York at the south end of Seneca Lake lays the village of Watkins Glen. It is located 17 miles north of Elmira and about 50 miles southwest of Syracuse, as the crow flies. The picturesque village has two claims to fame.
The first is the gorge the town was named after. Located in a state park, the Watkins Glen gorge is a mile and a half long trough scoured out by glaciers, creating 19 waterfalls and 300-foot high shale and sandstone cliffs. There are trails along the rim of the gorge, many blazed centuries ago by Native Americans. The gorge trail follows the bottom of the gorge and has over 800 stone steps. The trail passes over and under waterfalls and is a beautiful, peaceful hike. You can park at the bottom, get a ride to the top of the gorge and take the easy hike down the trail if you prefer. It is well worth the effort. The park is just south of the downtown business district in the village of Watkins Glen on Highway 14, the main north/south street in the town.
The area’s second claim to fame is located high up in the hills a few miles southwest of the village. This is the Watkins Glen International Raceway, once home to the United States Grand Prix. Watkins Glen has a history very similar to that of Road America and Elkhart Lake. A gentleman named Cameron Argetsinger spent his summer vacations in the village of Watkins Glen and dreamed of bringing European style road racing to the area. He realized his dream on Oct 2, 1948, "the day they stopped the trains."
This was the first post-WWII road race in the United States. There had been no such racing in the previous five years because of the war. Argetsinger set up a challenging course which, like the first races in Elkhart Lake, utilized both country roads and village streets. The course boasted a tough combination of asphalt, cement and dirt roads. One difference from the course in Elkhart Lake was that the Watkins Glen circuit crossed a set of railroad tracks. Argetsinger got the railroad to stop train traffic for the race, hence the claim, "the day they stopped the trains."
The racing on this circuit continued for the next five years. Then in 1956, it moved to a temporary circuit. The next year the races moved to a permanent 2.3 mile course located high on a hill with a great view to the north of the Finger Lakes area. The first professional race on the new permanent road course took place the following year. It was a NASCAR Grand National Stock Car event won by Buck Baker over Fireball Roberts. True international racing came to the track in 1958 when they hosted a Formula Libre race.
The track became the home of the United States Grand Prix when the famed drivers of Formula One first raced at the track in 1961. The winner of that first Grand Prix race was Innes Ireland. Subsequent winners at the track read like a who’s who of Formula One racing including Jimmy Clark, Graham Hill, Jackie Stewart, Nicki Lauda, Emerson Fittipaldi and James Hunt.
The Glen hosted a variety of racing competition over the years including Can-Am, Trans Am, Indy cars and even 6-hour endurance sports car events. Other winners at the track included Mark Donohue, Mario Andretti, Jody Scheckter and Bruce McLaren.
The track was the home of the United States Grand Prix from 1961 to 1980 when the track ran into financial difficulties, finally declaring bankruptcy in 1981. For the next two years the track fell into disrepair, hosting only a few non-spectator SCCA races. Then Corning Enterprises purchased the track in 1983. This was a newly formed subsidiary of the Corning Glass works, which was based in nearby Elmira. They formed a partnership with International Speedway Corporation and created Watkins Glen International.
The Glen reopened on July 7, 1984 with Al Holbert, Derek Bell and Jim Adams winning the inaugural Camel Continental at the renovated facility. On August 9, 1986, NASCAR returned to the track with Tim Richmond taking home the first place hardware. The NASCAR event remains the biggest race on the Glen’s calendar.
By the end of 1967, I was pretty well hooked as a race fan and decided it was time for me to check out the greatest drivers and cars in the world. That meant a trip to Watkins Glen for the United States Grand Prix and Formula One or F1 as it is often called. Formula One has always been, and still is, the pinnacle of auto racing. Without question, Formula One boasts the best drivers in the world in the most sophisticated and expensive racing cars anywhere.
It is the only series that can truly call its champion the World Champion. Grand Prix races are held all over the world, with no country hosting more than two events a year. The only exception was in 1983, when there were three US Grand Prix races. In most cases, it is one country - one race. Formula One cars race in Europe, South America, North America, Australia, and Asia. They have raced in Africa and in 2004, they ran the first Grand Prix in the Middle East.
The drivers, too, are from all over the world. My first Grand Prix in 1967 had drivers from Great Britain, New Zealand, Switzerland, Australia, Sweden, France, Belgium, Austria, Mexico and the USA. While other series have drivers from all over the world, and many race in more than one country or even more than one continent, no one does it as much with as much variety as Formula One. The Formula One champion is truly the World Champion.
Formula One cars have always been on the cutting edge of technology. They are single-seat, open-wheeled cars with 3-liter normally aspirated engines. The cars today share the same basic formula, although if you look at an F1 car from the 60’s and compare it to today’s F1, the differences in appearance are amazing. That is because it was not until the late 1960’s that F1 teams really started to push the envelope of aerodynamics. With today’s cars, nearly all the development involves aerodynamics and tires. Some advancements have been taken away, such as active suspensions, traction control and launch controls, to put more control in the hands of the driver and make him less of a passenger.
Unable to convince anyone else to go with me to Watkins Glen, I decided to go it alone. I packed up my car on Thursday night. This did not take long as my car was a 1966 MGB and the first car I ever owned. I had a part-time job while in college and with that huge influx of money, I bought my MGB. As all British sports cars should be, mine was British Racing Green. It was a great little car and handled like a dream.
I quickly learned that one drawback of the MGB was that it came with a Lucas ignition system. Lucas ignition systems did not like rain - or moisture of any kind. In fact, it often seemed that a dark cloud in the sky would cause trouble starting the car. On a rainy or humid night, if you opened the hood you could see sparks running on the outside of the spark plug wires when you turned the ignition. I would carry a can of stuff to spray on the distributor and spark plug wires to seal them. After a quick spray of this stuff, I could usually coax the engine to life. I am sure the only reason the British drink warm beer is because they all have Lucas refrigerators.
I had room in the trunk of the car for a cooler of beer and a bag with some clothes and a lawn chair. I put a second smaller cooler full of Pepsi on the passenger seat so I would have something to drink and help keep me awake for the eleven-hour drive to the Glen. I did not pack any camping gear or food since I planned to sleep in the car and rely on concession stands for meals. Besides, there was no room for any of that stuff.
I drove to work Friday morning instead of taking the train as usual. I left work at 5 pm, changed into casual clothes, jumped into my car and headed east. I drove all night and pulled into the entrance road for the Glen around 5 am on Saturday morning, September 30, 1967. The gates were not open yet, so I leaned my seat back and slept till they opened at 7 am. Since it was my first time at the Glen, I bought a program and studied the track map. Then I drove around the grounds looking for a place to park at the fence near a good viewing area. I had always thought that you could not find a more beautiful racetrack than Road America, with its location in the rolling wooded hills of the Kettle Moraine, but I was impressed with the Glen. It was fall and the leaves were in full color, so the view to the north was spectacular.
The Glen allowed camping right on the racetrack grounds and since it was already Saturday morning, the place was pretty crowded and my first parking choices were all taken. Realizing I was not going to be able to park near the fence, I just picked an open spot a couple of rows back from the fence on the west side of the course. At that time, the track here bulged out to form a sweeping right hand corner known as Big Bend that led to a tight but quick left-hander. The track then plunged downhill to a 90-degree right hand corner onto the front straight.
I parked next to a large, straight-bed U-Haul rental truck - one of several such vehicles I had noticed around the grounds. I thought this seemed like a strange vehicle to take to the racetrack, but I was still tired from my all night drive and quickly went to sleep again. About an hour later, I awoke to the magical sound of Formula One engines at full song.
Formula One cars have a smaller displacement engine than cars in other major series, such as stock cars. Even so, they deliver more horsepower. That is because, while having a maximum displacement of 3 liters, the engines are much more sophisticated and rev much higher than bigger displacement engines. Current Formula One engines can reliably turn over 19,000 RPM, with up to 900 HP, while a NASCAR car with its 350 to 358 cubic inch engines (equal to about 5.8 liters) can only get 9,400 RPM and 700 HP. The result, as far as the sound goes, is that the Formula One car screams rather than rumbles or roars.
Tired as I was, I grabbed a beer out of my cooler and excitedly made my way to the fence along the track. The very first F1 car I saw was the Lotus 49 of Graham Hill in its British Racing Green livery. I vividly remember seeing that distinctive blue helmet with the vertical white dashes around it, emblematic of the London Rowing Club, as he flashed by me.
More cars screamed past including the great Jimmy Clark, best racing driver of the time, in his Lotus - then the one I had been waiting for, Dan Gurney in his blue and white Eagle. Sponsor advertising was not allowed in Formula One until 1968, so all the cars were in national racing colors. Great Britain’s was British Racing Green; Italy was red, France blue, Germany silver, and the USA blue and white.
As I sipped my beer and took in the sights, sounds and smells, I felt as though I was in heaven. My fatigue from lack of sleep vanished and I was as excited as a little kid let loose in a candy store. For the first time in my life I realized that there was no other place on the face of the earth that I would rather be, or any thing else I would rather be doing, than being right there at the Glen at that moment watching Formula One cars.
I still feel that way now when I am sitting in the stands near corner one at Indianapolis, the new home of the United States Grand Prix, waiting for the standing start, or standing at the fence in front of my motor home at Road America watching the first lap of a Champ Car race. It is a unique and satisfying feeling to know with a certainty that there is no place else you would rather be or anything else you would rather be doing than where you are and what you are doing at that moment.
After the F1 activities of the day concluded, I had some time to kill before my next big event of the weekend. I drove down to the village of Watkins Glen to look around and get something to eat. In those days, the track did not have any fixed garages for the F1 teams to work on their cars so most of the teams erected large tents alongside their transporters. Ferrari was the exception. They rented garage space on the north end of the main street in downtown Watkins Glen. Someone told me they actually drove the cars on the public roads to get from the track to the garage and back but I never saw that happen.
As I was exploring the town, I heard the now-familiar sound of an F1 engine being revved up. The sound drew me to the Ferrari garage like a magnet. By the time I got there, the sound had attracted a small crowd. The front door to the garage was up and we had a perfect view of the interior. Ferrari had only one entry in the race, for Chris Amon, but had his prime car and a backup in the garage. As I watched, a mechanic slid under one of the blood red machines and within a couple of minutes came out from under the car with the transmission. He took it over to a workbench at the front of the garage right in front of a large window.
I moved to the window to see what he was doing. As I watched, he completely disassembled the transmission, carefully inspected each gear and part and then put it all back together again in just a few minutes. He then took it back and re-installed it into the car. The whole thing took less than fifteen minutes. It was the first time I had ever seen a race mechanic at work and I was impressed. It would take me nearly that long to find the right size wrench for the first bolt.
At the track, I had seen a flyer advertising a church in town that was offering a turkey dinner with all the trimmings for a nominal fee. It seemed like a good deal to me so I went to church. It turned out to be a great deal because the food was prepared by the Ladies Aid group of the church and was just like a home cooked Thanksgiving dinner. The dinner was well attended and I thoroughly enjoyed the great food and visiting with other race fans.
After my turkey dinner, I drove a little way up the west shore of Seneca Lake to the Sons of Italy Hall to meet my hero. Dan Gurney had quickly become my favorite driver and I was a charter member of his All American Racers Fan Club. The club was having a meeting that night at the Sons of Italy Hall and Dan was going to be there.
I had never seen a driver up close and in person. I had seen many drivers before this, but they were all wearing helmets and goggles and were moving rather quickly past me. This was different, because just a few feet away from me stood the great Dan Gurney. I was thrilled to death. He gave a little talk about how things were going that weekend so far and about the season in general, and then opened it up for questions. I remembered how impressed I was watching that Ferrari mechanic go through that transmission, so I raised my hand.
Dan Gurney in the Eagle T1G Westlake
To my amazement, he called on me and there I was talking to my racing hero. "Dan," I said, "You mentioned that at the Canadian GP, your crew changed the engine in your car in less than half an hour, finishing just as you had to go to the grid. I find that amazing because when I work on my car it takes me five minutes to find the right size wrench. How do your guys do it?"
Dan smiled at me and replied, "Well, for starters, they all know what size wrench to use on each bolt so they don’t grab one to see if it fits and then go get another to try if it doesn’t. Plus, my crew does this all the time, week after week, day after day. They could change the engine in that car blindfolded. The amateur mechanic just does not get enough practice." I sat there the rest of the session in a warm glow. The Great Dan Gurney had spoken to me.
Later, Dan took the time to sign autographs so I got one for myself and a friend of mine from Duke's, who collected autographs. I even talked to him again for bit. Since then, I have talked to him only once more, many years later at Road America. Dan owned a team of CART championship cars still called Eagles and with an eagle’s head painted on the nose. As I was walking through the hospitality area of the paddock, there was Dan getting on a motor scooter.
I stopped to say hello and told him I was a charter member of the American Eagle Club and that I had first met him in '67 at the Sons of Italy hall in Watkins Glen. I added that I was still rooting for him. He smiled and said, "Well, thanks for your support over the years, don’t give up on us." I told him I wouldn’t and he rode off on his scooter. Unfortunately, his team was not doing well in CART and he dropped out the next year.
While attending the first USGP at its new home in Indianapolis, there was a rumor that Dan Gurney was going to be putting together an American team to compete in F1 again. That never happened, or at least has not as yet, but if it does I will be the team’s first fan. I have not given up on him and never will.
Back at the Watkins Glen track after meeting Dan Gurney, I parked where I had earlier, next to this big U-haul truck. Behind the truck was a group of people sitting around a campfire. Figuring the fans here would probably be as friendly as those at Road America, I took my cooler and lawn chair and asked if I could join them. As I expected, they were friendly and welcomed me. It even turned out that I did not need to bring my cooler. They were working on a half-barrel of beer and invited me to join in. The beer was a local brew I had never tried before called Utica Club, brewed (naturally) in Utica, NY, a few miles east of Syracuse. It was not bad and it was free.
These folks came from Ithaca, which was only 20 miles east of Watkins Glen. It turns out that renting a U-haul straight-bed truck of this type for a race was common at the Glen. People split the cost of the rental evenly amongst the group so it really did not cost each one very much. The group would set up cots and sleep in the back of the truck and there was still plenty of room for their grill and kegs of beer. Yes, I said "kegs," - they had brought 3 of them. The kegs were kept in washtubs full of ice to keep them cold. These guys would have fit in at Road America quite well.
They even had a little port-a-john screened off in the front of the truck. If it rained, they could stay dry in the truck and it was high enough so they could see the track over the cars between them and the fence. What I thought was a pretty strange way to go to the track was actually quite practical.
The apparent leader of the group was Bob, who was studying labor law as a grad student at Cornell University in Ithaca. His companion was a beautiful and friendly Irish setter named Brandy. I thought that was a great name for a dog, especially this one, as her coat was the color of brandy.
The next day I joined Bob and my new friends at the fence to watch the F1 warm-up. They tapped a fresh keg of Utica Club, which they told me was a race day tradition for them and a great tradition I thought it was. The cars came out for the warm-up and we watched them screaming past as we began working on the Utica Club.
Later, Bob invited me to have lunch with them and grilled a couple of extra burgers for me. I was grateful for this, since I had not been impressed with the concession stand food. It was certainly not up to Road America’s standards and, to my dismay, did not serve brats. It just did not seem normal for me to be at a racetrack and not have a couple of brats.
My excitement grew as race time approached. The first row on the grid was all Lotus, with Graham Hill on the pole and Jimmy Clark next to him. This was evidence of how far Lotus had come that year. After winning the world championship three times from 1962 to 1965, with Clark winning twice and Hill once, Lotus had struggled in 1966 and the first part of 1967. This was due to a change in the engine formula raising the displacement from 1.5 liters to 3 liters for the 1966 season. Lotus was unable to come to grips with the new formula until about mid-season in 1967, when Colin Chapman, the team owner, managed to hook up with Ford and Cosworth. This was a winning combination that put Lotus at the front of the grid again. The Cosworth DFV engine went on to be the most successful engine in Formula One history.
Jimmy Clark and the Lotus 49
Third on the grid was my hero and buddy from the night before, Dan Gurney. Next to Dan was Jack Brabham, also known as "Black" Jack Brabham because he was known to do things like intentionally dropping a wheel off the track and shooting stones back at the cars behind him to discourage them from following too closely. Brabham was the defending world champion, having won the championship for his third time in 1966. Other famous names in the race included John Surtees, Denny Hulme, Jo Siffert, Jacky Ickx, Jochen Rindt, Bruce McLaren, and the wee Scott, Jackie Stewart.
Hill took the lead at the start, followed closely by Clark and Gurney. A couple of laps into the race, I was thrilled to see Gurney go by in second place. He held on to second until the eighth lap when Clark reasserted himself. Gurney hung in there in third place but on lap 24 he had rear suspension failure and was out of the race. My hero gone I began to cheer for Hill. I had come to like the stoic Brit with the Errol Flynn mustache, lantern jaw and British wit. Besides, British Racing Green was my favorite color.
My cheers did not help as Clark slipped past his teammate, who was having gearbox problems on lap 41. It appeared to easily be Clark’s race when, with only two laps to go, we were startled to see him come by with one wheel leaning alarmingly inward. His suspension had inexplicably bent somehow. It was a testament to his skill that he was able to keep the car going and beat Hill to the checker by 6 seconds. Finishing in third place was Denny Hulme, who went on to clinch the world championship that year by also finishing third at the next race in Mexico. I had seen Hulme win the Can-Am race at Road America and he would become a familiar sight at the front of the grid at Road America Can-Am races. Rounding out the points paying positions were Jo Siffert, Jack Brabham, and Jo Bonnier.
I was disappointed with Gurney’s result and that Hill had not won the race. However, I am now glad that Clark did win, because it was the first and last time I would see this great driver in action. On April 4, 1968, Clark was driving in a Formula Two race at Hockenheim, Germany, when a rear tire failed at 175 mph. His car veered off the track into some trees and he was killed instantly. This was a huge blow to racing as it lost the dominant driver of the time.
Jimmy Clark had won 2 world championships, 25 races and 33 pole positions. In 1965, he won the world championship despite missing the Monaco GP to race in the Indy 500, which he won. He was the first to win the 500 in a rear engine car and the first to win in a green car. Green was considered very bad luck in USAC, the sanctioning body for the 500 at the time. No one would have any green on their car at all, let alone have a primarily green car. During practice for the 500, while going down the back straight at about 190 mph, the strap for Clark’s goggles broke and wind ripped the goggles off his face blinding him. "What did you do?" he was asked. Clark replied, "I counted to three and turned left."
As my first Grand Prix at Watkins Glen ended, I joined the crowd and leaped over the fence and ran down the hill to the pit lane which was only a hundred yards or so away. There were still cars on their cool off lap, and by the time they tried to enter the pit lane the crowd was already there. People were running everywhere as the cars tried to make their way to their pits. It was bedlam. I am amazed that no one got run over.
I ran around in this mob, looking for drivers and trying to get autographs. I did get autographs from Jacky Ickx and John Pierre Beltoise. At least I think it was Beltoise. I was just sticking my pen and paper in front of anyone in a driver’s suit. I could not read his signature but it had what appeared to be three words and he was the only driver in the field who used three names. I was able to recognize Jackie Ickx from his pictures. I tried to get to other drivers but the crowd kept me away from them. I could not get near the podium and Clark, Hill and Hulme; still, getting two autographs in the middle of that throng was something.
I did get to see the three guys on the podium copy Gurney’s action from Le Mans with the champagne, but was far enough away to not get wet. When you think of it, that was quite a podium. Clark had two world championships and won the Indy 500 in 1965. Hill had one world championship so far and another to come, plus he won Indy in 1966 and would win Le Mans in 1972. Hulme would be that year’s world champion and would go on to win two Can-Am championships
Back at my car, while we let traffic thin out a bit, I exchanged phone numbers with Bob and we promised to meet each other again at next year’s Grand Prix. I was hooked and knew I would be back for sure. Bob lived so close it would be foolish for him not to come. Saying goodbye to Bob and his gang and giving Brandy a final hug and pat on the head I got in my MGB and headed west.
It was late in the afternoon by the time I got out of the track and I had no intention of driving all the way home. Instead, I drove to Niagara Falls and got a motel room. I have to admit that a shower and a full night’s sleep in a real bed sure felt great. The next morning, I drove to the falls and did my tourist thing on both the American and Canadian side. This also marked my first time in another country. From there, I drove home though Ontario to Detroit and on to Chicago. Even going solo, this had been one of the best trips of my life.
Copyright © 2006 by Terry Aasen