Your Hometown: Watkins Glen
Each summer, hundreds of thousands of fans make their way to the grandstands at Watkins Glen International. It's the home of racing in the Southern Tier. But racing in the Village of Watkins Glen predates the current track. In this week's edition of Your Hometown, our Lara Greenberg tells us how one man's dream drove Watkins Glen to become a landmark for international raceway competition..
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WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. -- The Village of Watkins Glen is a tourist attraction, filled with shops and restaurants right along Seneca Lake in the heart of wine country. But for years, these roads were the original Watkins Glen raceway. Before WGI was built, there was road racing and it all started with Cameron Argetsinger.
Cameron Argetsinger was a law student who spent his summer vacations in Watkins Glen. But he dreamed of doing more with the quaint village.
"On October 2nd, 1948, Cameron Argetsinger's dream came true when he revived road racing in the United States."
It was the first post-World War II road race. Officials were happy to bring racing to the village since it lengthened tourist season and it continued that way until 1952, when driver Fred Wacker accidentally killed a little boy and injured 12 others.
"He was coming up on Fitch's left and he never realized he was that close. And he brushed the crowd. He never knew he hit the kid, you know. And when they stopped him up near stone bridge and they told him, he turned white as a sheet," said historian William Green.
This was not the first fatality to happen in Watkins Glen road racing, but it was enough to end the six point six mile course.
A temporary course was used for a few years until a two point three mile circuit was built in 1956 and so began the NASCAR, Formula Libra, and U.S. Grand Prix races at the Glen.
In 1971, the track that we know today was built, with a three point four mile long course and two point five mile short course. But in 1983, it went bankrupt, and was saved by Corning Inc.
"They formed a separate corporation called Corning Enterprises, and that's where the racetrack went along with many other things in the three counties which would be Schuyler, Chemung, and Steuben," said Green.
Over the years, more racing came to WGI, and the track itself was spruced up.
"Toilet facilities, showers, you know and just recently they put a new press building. New pits were several years before that. New grandstands, new announcing area," said Green.
"Investing in the track is always the key because again, if we make it better like we did last year for the drivers that ultimately makes it better for the fans."
The track is not just a place to race anymore. Each year, it hosts the Finger Lakes Wine Festival and for the first time since 1973, music returned to the Glen with the Phish Festival over 4th of July weekend.
So what's next for the future of the track?
"Keep making it better for the racers, the drivers, the fans, the teams, the sponsors. And if we can just keep all the momentum going like it has been, we got a pretty easy job," said WGI president Michael Printup.
Cameron Argetsinger, the man who started it all, passed away a few years ago, but WGI President Michael Printup says he would be proud to see what the track has become.
"Maybe not up here particularly at this piece of property, but I think ultimately they knew they landed something when they had that first race down there in Watkins Glen and how they were putting it together and the crowds they used to draw," said Printup.
Road racing in Watkins Glen ended almost 60 years ago now, but the original course is now a part of the National Register of Historic Places.