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Watkins Glen International occupies hallowed ground in the history of American motorsports. Its winding course through the forests and hillsides of upstate New York echoes with the snarls and screams of legends from eras gone by. Generations of racing heroes have battled for supremacy on the Glen's challenging tarmac.
The origins of the track date back to 1948, when local enthusiast Cameron Argetsinger mapped out a 6.6-mile circuit utilizing the rural roads surrounding the village of Watkins Glen. The course provided a true test of man and machine, snaking through the countryside with little run-off room for error. The inaugural Watkins Glen Grand Prix attracted top drivers from the exploding sports car scene. Frank Griswold piloted his Alfa Romeo to victory in just over 10 minutes, averaging nearly 61 mph over 142 grueling miles.
Watkins Glen soon earned a reputation for pushing drivers and fans to the absolute limit. Its bumpy, undulating circuit showcased bravery and car control. Legends like Stirling Moss, Phil Hill, and Dan Gurney tamed the Glen's daunting twists and turns. Fatalities inevitably occurred as well, sobering reminders of the sport's inherent dangers. But the yearly pilgrimage to Watkins Glen became a beloved tradition for competitors and spectators alike.
Over time, safety improvements and circuit modifications slightly tamed the track. An influx of corporate sponsorship and television coverage also gradually transformed the Glen. But the essence of the course remained, beckoning heroic drivers to conquer its rollercoaster elevation changes and high-speed sweeps.
When NASCAR began racing at Watkins Glen in 1986, stock cars introduced an exciting new dimension. Crowd-pleasing wheel-to-wheel battles unfolded as the stars of oval racing adapted to the serpentine layout. The thrilling new era further cemented Watkins Glen as a motorsports mecca.
The Watkins Glen vintage event pays homage to the icons of a bygone era of motorsports. Legends that risked it all on skinny tires, minimal safety equipment, and sheer nerve. Their exploits live on in racing lore and black-and-white photos capturing sideburned daredevils sideways through corners. To see these vintage racers resurrected today is to vividly relive racing's unfettered early days.
Moss. Hill. Gurney. Names that echo through history. The bold pioneers who pushed boundaries at breakneck speeds in the 1950s and 60s. Their daring and innovation laid the foundation for modern racing. But the analog machines they mastered represent motoring alchemy. Each a singular melding of chassis, suspension, brakes, and engine output. No driving aids, telemetry, or computer wizardry. Just a delicate balance of components and a pilot's finesse coaxing the whole to life.
The crowd stirs as a scarlet 1958 Maserati 450S Spider growls through the paddock. Its curvaceous bodywork concealing a raucous 4.5 liter V8. An iron-willed giant seeking taming. Imagine juggling its prodigious power sans radio or crew chief. Reading road nuances through the steering wheel and the seat of one's pants. Dicing side-by-side sans HANS device while sparks erupt from uncomplaining drum brakes. Unique machines demanding unique skills.
Equally stirring is the banshee wail of an Offenhauser engine propelling a roadster bearing Foyt or Andretti's name. The exposed induction stacks add auditory menace to the visual madness of riding virtually atop the licensing tag. An Era of white knuckles and checkered flags furled before technological dependence set in.
The pits swarm with vital activity as crews make final preparations, their weathered coveralls bearing grease and glory in equal measure. Nearby, drivers down coffee, steal furtive glances at clouds, and make small talk laced with good-natured psychological jabs. The machinery they soon will harness spans decades of racing evolution. Forgotten models resurrected from dusty garages. Each entry a priceless capsule granting passageway back through time.
Togas of white peek from beneath a Porsche 917K's removable hood panels. Its flat-12 cylinder yields a primordial howl that prickles neck hairs even when idling. Only 37 examples of the legendary 917 were produced for a scant three seasons of Can-Am and endurance racing. Yet it utterly dominated the era, securing Porsche's first overall win at Le Mans in 1970. The model on display claimed back-to-back 24 hour victories in 1971 and 1972, yet had not turned a wheel in competition for nearly a half-century.
Nearby, a Lotus 49 bristles with intricate suspension members painted British Racing Green. Its Cosworth DFV V8 lurks behind bodywork more aviation than automotive. A true pioneer, the 49 introduced influential aerodynamic concepts and a stressed chassis design. Graham Hill claimed the first Formula One victory for Lotus with the 49 at Zandvoort in 1968. Of its five Grand Prix wins, two came via the brilliant Jim Clark, who never fully realized the car's ultimate potential before his tragic early demise.
Each ticking minute heightens the sensory assault. Unleaded fuel mingles with Castrol smoke. Sun-faded racing jackets worn thin. And everywhere, the hypnotic dance of crews honing half-century old muscle to peak efficiency. Their weather-lined faces mask pride in preserving history.
The legends lining up on the grid represent a living bridge back to racing's unfettered early days. Their weathered faces tell stories of triumph, tragedy, lessons hard-learned. Watkins Glen represents sacred ground where they built fearsome reputations and created indelible moments.
78-year-old Jacky Ickx rubs shoulders with racers he once battled wheel-to-wheel. The stylish Belgian won 8 Grands Prix, achieved podiums in three 24 Hours of Le Mans races, and twice conquered the Glen's undulating twists. But his flinty eyes still burn with a younger man's competitive zeal. Hands that calmly piloted fragile Formula One rockets now lovingly caress the curves of a '69 Ford GT40. Ickx will harness over 500 galloping horses in the coming run, though his skills grant him control of a thousand more within.
Looking to stay within striking distance is Hurley Haywood, who claimed overall victory at Le Mans three times. But the Porsche 962 he will pilot today favors agility over brute force. "This car keeps you honest. You have to slow it just enough to load the chassis entering a corner. Get greedy and you'll pay the price," notes Haywood with well-earned wisdom. Cornering on vintage bias ply tires leaves no margin for error.
Sentiment swells as Bobby Rahal emerges wearing his trademark cap emblazoned with an artful R. Watkins Glenminted the American legend, the site of his first professional race in 1977 and lone Formula One podium two years later. "This place means the world to me," Rahal beams. The track's flow simply suited his nuanced driving style. Where power pilots struggled, Rahal found grace notes through sweeping turns 3 and 5. His footwork still exquisitely precise four decades later.
The throaty thunder of vintage racing engines provides an auditory time capsule transporting fans back through the decades. Their snarls and shrieks sing a siren song that grips the soul of every racing purist in attendance. The symphonic tones produced by these marvels of engineering stir profound emotions and vivid sensations within those fortunate enough to witness their resurrection.
Unlike the muffled and tightly controlled engines of modern racers, classics from the 50s and 60s bellow unrestrained power and fury. Massive carbureted induction stacks guzzle atmosphere and fuel in the quest for maximum output. The resulting combustion rattles grandstands and pulses through the chest cavity like a second heartbeat.
The wail of a Ferrari V12 echoes Enzo's operatic temperament, its dozen pistons flailing in sonorous fury at 9000 RPM. The lupine song of the Porsche flat-six captures the tension between Germanic precision and barely-restrained aggression. And the venomous bark of an Offenhauser-powered Indy roadster pays homage to the dirt tracks and county fairs where these juggernauts first prowled.
Beyond visceral thrills, engine sounds also impart vital clues to drivers attuned to nuances. The slightest stumble or sputter can signal impending failure. An adept pilot might nurse a wounded powerplant to the finish rather than pushing to destruction. Says IMSA veteran Tommy Kendall, "You become one with the machine through your hands, seat, and especially your ears. Tuning your hearing to understand all the sounds clues you in before your gauges."
Meanwhile, crews interpret engine tunes with an expert's ears. A slackening camshaft, crimped exhaust, or fouling plug can trigger tuning tweaks between sessions. The ultimate goal, of course, keeping these vintage powerplants singing at the razor's edge of detonation without pushing them past the brink.
The visceral thrill of vintage racing lies in the sheer audacity of pilots pushing antiquated chassis and underdeveloped tires to the very limits of adhesion. Unrestrained by electronic aids or radioed warnings from engineers, veterans of the golden era display a mastery born from dancing time and again along the razor's edge between glory and disaster. Watkins Glen once again provides the canvas for painting in broad, lurid strokes of speed.
"These cars demand your full attention every second," notes Tracy Krohn, themselves a championship sports car racer. "You're in a constant state of gathering, processing, and reacting." A premium is placed on processing inputs and making minute adjustments in real time. The bond between human and machine blurred by velocity. There is no time for deliberation when mere milliseconds separate heroism from the unforgiving Armco barriers lining the Glen's unimproved sections.
Veteran prototype driver David Hobbs speaks to the constant mental calculations required just to keep vintage racers moving forward rather than sideways. "You need to stay three corners ahead. Entering too fast or braking too late is an invitation for a vicious tank-slapper." Unassisted steering requires Popeye forearms and steely reflexes to contain wayward tail-slides. Drivers grit their teeth and saw wildly at wooden wheels, wrestling the serpent rather than dominating it outright.
Nowhere is the edge more perilous than plunging downhill through the rollercoaster esses. The rapid changes in elevation weight and unload the chassis, altering its balance mid-corner. Bump undulations threaten to airborne even the most advanced suspension designs, never mind 50-year old lever shock dampers. Yet the veterans needling their mounts down through the cyclone somehow emerge grinning rather than ashen.
Matt Drendel, long-time Ferrari collector, gleefully recounts tagging along with Ickx through the Glen's trickiest sector. "My head was pinned back by G forces, vision tunneled. But Jacky calmly flicked left-right-left at impossible speeds, cool as Sunday morning." Such car control surely seems supernatural to all except those select few capable of replicating the feats. The esses represent a point of separation between competent racers and hand-picked legends boasting supreme vehicle empathy.
The throaty roar of high performance Pontiacs evokes muscle car nostalgia for legions of fans. During the 60s and early 70s, Pontiac cultivated a potent reputation for street performance. Models like the GTO, Firebird, and Trans Am became synonymous with tire-shredding power straight from the showroom. This parade of potent Pontiacs allows fans to relive the brand's glory days.
No Pontiac better embodies the era than the 1969 GTO Judge. The Judge package turned up the wick on performance, with bespoiled bodywork and a standard 366 hp Ram Air V8 under the hood. "I wanted my Judge to stand out back in high school," recalls owner Gary Sampson. "The hood tach, spoilers and orange paint shouted "look at me" even sitting still." Today the car attracts admiring looks four decades later, its Endura front end and Radial Tuned Suspension riding higher despite heavy downtube headers.
Not to be outdone is the emitted Firebird piloted by Jim Coyne of Canandaigua, NY. His stunning green 1969 convertible packs a 400 cubic inch Pontiac motor backed by a 3-speed Muncie transmission. Period-correct "Honeycomb" styled wheels and a signature hood tach give the Firebird an unmistakable identity. "I fell for these as a kid when the new models came out every fall," Coyne reflects. "To find one just like I remember is really completing a childhood dream."
The featured Trans Am demonstrates Pontiac's racing heritage. A white 1973 example, one of only 729 4-speed cars produced. Veteran racer Sam Hoover revels in the connectivity of three pedals. "You feel truly engaged with the drivetrain. The engine barks when you blip the throttle. And you can drop a gear exiting the bus stop to blast down the front straight." Despite modest horsepower, the Trans Am's handling balance made it a force to be reckoned with in the Sports Car Club of America's Showroom Stock class.
Watkins Glen hums with tales of triumph, tragedy, and tribulation from decades of intense competition. Its storied tarmac seems to channel racing ghosts of the past, an endless stream of daring drivers and unique machines that left indelible marks during their brief moments in the spotlight. While the stands overflow with fans eager to witness living legends, one senses the presence of those who paved the way, their exploits no less vivid despite having long since faded into memory.
Moss. Clark. McLaren. Rodriguez. Legends claimed before their time by the inherent risks of early motorsport. Others survived by wit and reflexes to tell hair-raising tales tempered by wisdom. Yet behind every larger-than-life competitor lies a supporting cast of mechanics, designers and engineers equally crucial to etch their drivers" names into history books. Without their innovations and late-night engine rebuilds, the headliners would never have scaled such heights.
Talk to vintage racers and you quickly detect a poignant awareness of those no longer present. The safety crews donning Prof. Sid Watkins' name. A stickered helmet tribute to Mark Donohue's bravery and engineering insights. A minute of silence for promising Canadians Gilles Villeneuve and Greg Moore, who both suffered fatal crashes at Zolder and Fontana respectively. Knowledge of future triumphs and tribulations casts an affective pall.
There are wistful glances to garages occupied long ago by legends. Yarns spun of dicing with Foyt or Andretti asequals before their eventual ascendance. Chris Amon's storied ill luck recalled by peers who recognize his scintillating natural speed. Along with the sweet comes the bitter. The fatal accidents of francs and pros invoking shaken heads and grim looks. Safety advances made only in response to sobering calamities.
Still the atmosphere evokes overwhelming goodwill. Old rivals smile and embrace like long-lost kin. Close calls and the vagaries of fate instill perspective. Life's shared fragility supersedes past disagreements or petty jealousies. There is comfort in the familiar as drivers settle into proven rituals. Solace too in steering machines decades older than most racegoers, thus connecting with past masters now only present in spirit.
Watkins Glen links eras through drivers, mechanics and machines. The racing family tree stretches roots back decades below the surface. Knowledge hard-earned gets passed down the generations. Along with past champions come quirks, stories and traditions accrued through decades of racing. Look closely and you may recognize an apprentice bearing an elder's mannerisms or work ethic. Listen and you'll hear familiar accents from sons who followed fathers from the same British hamlet or Italian village to seek glory stateside.