Road racing came to Watkins Glen in 1948 by way of Cameron Argetsinger, a law student at Cornell University who often stayed at his father's summer home on Seneca Lake, with the family having ties to the area since the early 1800's. Argetsinger, an early member of the SCCA, proposed an amateur road race to be called the "Watkins Glen Grand Prix" to the Watkins Glen Chamber of Commerce. Amid an enthusiastic response to the idea, Argetsinger mapped out a 6.6-mile course using mostly paved roads with a short dirt and gravel stretch, and the SCCA sanction was obtained.
On October 2nd, 1948, 15 cars started the 8-lap, 52.8-mile Grand Prix, with Wayne, Pennsylvania's Frank Griswold winning in a pre-war Alfa Romeo 8C2900 coupe, closely followed by Briggs Cunningham in his famous Bu-Merc. Other prominent entrants included William "Bill" Milliken, who rolled his Bugatti 35 in qualifying, giving "Milliken's Corner" its name. Charles Addams, the cartoonist who created the Addams family, was also entered, along with Miles and Sam Collier, major figures in the history of American road racing.
A Second Course
After five years of the Watkins Glen Grand Prix passing through the heart of the village, the race was moved to a new location on a wooded hilltop southwest of town. The change came in response to several accidents in the latter years of the original course layout, highlighted by a 1952 crash that claimed the life of seven-year-old Frank Fazzari and injured several others.
The second layout, a 4.6-mile track, began use in 1953 and also used existing roads. The Watkins Glen Grand Prix Corporation was formed by the Chamber of Commerce to manage the race, and spectator control, parking, and concessions were all dramatically improved at the new site.
Trouble surfaced in 1955, however, as it became clear that it would not be possible to continue using closed public roads that doubled as farm roads, and the drivers expressed concerns about poor runoff and visibility. The decision was then made to build a permanent road course, and the 9th Watkins Glen Grand Prix in 1956 would be held on an all-new layout, ending the second course's run after only three years.
The Grand Prix Era
The new race course was to be located on 550 acres, overlapping part of the previous street layout; however, no roadways were shared, as entirely new roads were built for the circuit. Bill Milliken was consulted during the design process, and several engineering professors from Cornell University developed the 2.3-mile track, which was completed the night before the first practice.
The NASCAR Grand National Division came to town in 1957, followed by the international Formula Libre in 1958.
In 1961, Cameron Argetsinger was tapped to prepare Watkins Glen for the final round of the Formula One World Championship. While many of the necessary requirements were met by the existing facility, new pits were constructed to satisfy European standards of pit boxes with overhead cover, in addition to a number of other safety and infrastructure upgrades. The United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen quickly became an autumn tradition as huge crowds of knowledgeable race fans flocked to upstate New York each year amid the spectacular fall colors of the region. The race was also among the most popular on the global Grand Prix calendar with the teams and drivers because its starting and prize money totals often exceeded those of the other races combined. The race received the Grand Prix Drivers' Association Award for "Best Staged Grand Prix" in 1965, 1970, and 1972.
Highs and Lows
Prior to the 1971 United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen, the track underwent perhaps its most significant changes in history, with the course extended from 2.35 miles to 3.377 miles with the addition of four new corners in a section called 'The Boot'. The new layout departed from the old course near the south end into a curling downhill left-hand turn through the woods. The track followed the edge of the hillside to two consecutive right-hand turns, over a blind crest to a left-hand turn, and back onto the old track. In addition, the circuit was widened and resurfaced, and both the pits and the start-finish line were moved back before the northwest right-angle corner known as 'The 90' and in 1975, a fast right-left chicane was added in the Esses section to slow speeds through the series of corners.
The Glen hosted a variety of other events throughout the Grand Prix years including Can-Am, Trans-Am, IROC, endurance sports car racing, Formula 5000, and CART. The addition of these and similar events strengthened the circuit's reputation as the premier road racing facility in the United States. From 1968 through 1981, the "Six Hours at The Glen" endurance race featured top drivers such as Mario Andretti, Jacky Ickx, Pedro Rodriguez, and Derek Bell, among others. Although the races drew sizable crowds, the circuit struggled to survive, eventually declaring bankruptcy and closing in 1981.
Watkins Glen International is born
In 1983, Corning Enterprises, a subsidiary of nearby Corning Inc., partnered with International Speedway Corporation to purchase the track and rename it Watkins Glen International.
The renovated track, with the chicane at the bottom of the Esses removed, reopened in 1984 with the return of IMSA and the Camel Continental I. In 1986, the top NASCAR series returned to Watkins Glen after a long layoff, holding one of only three road races on its schedule (two beginning in 1988), using the 1971 Six Hours course without 'The Boot'.
NASCAR XFINITY Series action would arrive in 1991 with a 150-mile race on the weekend of the Camel Continental, won by Terry Labonte, who would be a master of the circuit during its second-tier NASCAR races, winning three consecutive events from 1995 until 1997. The 1995 race was the first conducted as a 200-miler, and was the first-ever XFINITY race to be televised on broadcast network television, as CBS broadcast the race until 1997. The race was eliminated from the schedule after the 2001 season, however, only to return in 2005 as an undercard to the now-Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race.
In 1996, The Glen (Camel) Continental was changed to a six-hour format, and was once again called the Six Hours of The Glen and has remained ever since, now sanctioned by IMSA with the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.
International Speedway Corporation became the sole owner of the course in 1997, as Corning Enterprises believed that they had completed their intended goals to rebuild the venue and increase tourism in the southern Finger Lakes region of New York State.
Racing into the Modern Era
The arrival of the 2000's saw several improvement projects at Watkins Glen International, including the addition of frontstretch grandstands from Pennsylvania's defunct Nazareth Speedway, in addition to the gravel in 'The 90' being removed and replaced with a paved runoff area. Another overhaul included the installation of a new control tower, housing booths for series officials, timing and scoring, television and radio, and the public address announcers on top of the new grandstands, allowing for a better vantage point of the action from Turn 10 through the entrance of 'The Esses'.
A new media center was also constructed to replace the former building, which had doubled as the control tower since 1971.
Prior to the 2014 season, the track was cleaning out a storage barn on the property when the original Dunlop Bridge was found. The bridge was originally used as a VIP area for Dunlop until being moved for use as the starters stand years later. It was taken down and replaced by a new structure during renovations in 2006. The bridge was erected near its original location between turns 1 and 2 and is now once again used for VIP use by companies on race weekends with the company sponsoring the bridge.
It was announced in early 2015 that the year's racing season would conclude with the NASCAR tripleheader weekend in early August, rather than the traditional U.S. Vintage Grand Prix event in September, which was moved up in the year's schedule. The one-off changes would allow for a complete repaving of the track, which incolved removing the entire racing surface. In some places, the track was taken down to the dirt road bed. The project was funded by International Speedway Corporation and a grant from New York State, and a ribbon-cutting ceremony in April 2015 prounounced the new track ready for action, highlighted by speakers Andy Lally, Derek Bell, and Bob Varsha.
Watkins Glen International's popularity within the NASCAR community has exploded in recent years, as evidenced by the facility being named "America's Best NASCAR Track" on two occasions by readers of USA Today. The venue has also announced reserved grandstand seating sellouts in each of the last four Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races, beginning in 2015.