This fall marked a gloomy anniversary for devotees of Watkins Glen and Formula 1 – 30 years since the last United States Grand Prix at the upstate New York road course. Since then, the track and the sport have taken increasingly divergent paths, and 2011 will mark another milepost in the long history of Watkins Glen, as major-league open-wheel racing will again be missing from its schedule.
Ironically, given the scorn many of the Glen's hard-core road racing fans often express for street courses on RACER.com's comment boards, racing at Watkins Glen started out on the streets. The SCCA sanctioned sports car races on a 6.6-mile course utilizing public roads around the town of Watkins Glen starting in 1948. A crash that killed a spectator in 1952 pushed racing off the city streets, but a replacement layout located on a nearby hilltop also used public roads. The continuing strength of interest in racing events in the area led to the design of a permanent road racing facility, which opened in 1957.
The timing was propitious for Formula 1, which was looking for a new home in America after U.S. Grands Prix at Sebring (in 1959) and Riverside (1960) proved to be commercial failures. The Glen was duly penciled in for a grand prix in 1961 – just in time, it seemed, to get a big boost from the prospect of an American World Champion in the field, as California's Phil Hill battled with Ferrari teammate Wolfgang von Trips for the crown that year. Sadly, von Trips lost his life at the Italian GP just before the Glen's race, so while he did indeed become World Champion, Hill sat out his home race as a mark of respect for his late teammate.
Even so, the USGP at Watkins Glen proved an immediate success, quickly gaining affection among American fans as well as the Formula 1 teams. The spectacular fall colors and crisp seasonal atmosphere of the New York woods provided an ideal backdrop for a race that often proved critical in World Championship races. The teams also appreciated the fact that Watkins Glen's races paid a hefty purse, in an era when F1 events were not exactly renowned for their prize money.
But things weren't as rosy as they appeared. The privately owned circuit struggled to keep up with F1's increasing pressures for safety upgrades, which built following fatal accidents involving Francois Cevert and Helmut Koinigg. The exploits of rowdy fans in the infamous “Bog” in the Glen's infield, and the track's distance from a metropolitan area, also were increasingly at odds with the more polished, “big event” image F1's commercial manager Bernie Ecclestone was striving for.
A dispute over the amount owed by the track to the teams following the 1980 race – won by newly crowned World Champion Alan Jones in his Williams FW07-Cosworth – provided a convenient justification for F1 to say goodbye to the Glen. Instead, F1 opted for a new temporary circuit in the parking lot of the Caesar's Palace hotel in Las Vegas. The latter lasted just two years but, unlike Watkins Glen, few lamented its passing.
It's hard to say F1 missed the Glen more than the reverse, however. Indy car and sports car races proved insufficient to pay the bills and the track lapsed into bankruptcy in 1981. The Glen was revived as a pro racing venue two years later when it was purchased by the International Speed Corporation in association with the Corning Glass Co. The new owners renovated the track and brought NASCAR to upstate New York for the first time, and once again the track was a beneficiary of timing: NASCAR's popularity surge helped put Watkins Glen back on solid financial footing.
ISC, which bought out Corning's share in 1997, also brought back Indy car racing to Watkins Glen in 2005 but, amid IndyCar's general estrangement with the company over attendance and event promotion, the Glen has been dropped from the IZOD IndyCar Series calendar for 2011. While the ambitious plans for a purpose-built F1 track in Austin, Texas, promise that grand prix racing will soon have a new home in America for fans to rally behind, hope for another renewal of open-wheel history at Watkins Glen will have to wait.