Showdown at Watkins Glen

Three men are in a dramatically close race for the world driving championship. The deadlock could be broken in Sunday's U.S. Grand Prix
October 04, 1964

Most of the year Watkins Glen goes its own way. It is not the bedroom suburb of a nearby big city—there are no nearby big cities—and the local version of commuting is to catch the Greyhound bus anywhere out of town. There are 3,052 people in Watkins Glen, which is hidden away in an upstate New York area known for the leisurely cultivation of Concord grapes. Then, in a sudden one-week burst, the international racing set comes to town to stage the U.S. Grand Prix and everything changes. The streets come alive with 50,000 strangers. There are roaring little cars and lovely women everywhere; sales of such foreign drinks as daiquiris boom. The men wear either ascots or beards—often both—and continental accents hang thick in the autumn air.

The 1964 trek to the Glen next week promises to be as dazzling as ever, and the race more emotion-charged than any so far. A fleet of the world's fiercest Formula I cars have been entered, and seldom on the championship circuit have their drivers been tangled in such a close race for the world title.

Watkins Glen is not overwhelmed by any of this. Residents are conservative Republican in their politics but global-minded—a natural enough condition in a community with vineyards on one side and wineries on the other.

Watkins Glen is the place where American road racing got its postwar start, 16 years ago, when a few moneyed sportsmen wheeled Allards and MGs and such over 6.6 miles of local road—around the hills, over a stone bridge, across the New York Central railroad tracks (all trains stop, the race map promised) and right past the historic old courthouse on Franklin Street. But in 1952 a racer slashed into the crowd, killing one spectator and injuring several others. Far worse accidents have maimed many more on the overseas circuits, but that was enough for the Glen. It built a handsome new 2.3-mile racecourse on 550 acres of rolling highlands, and now drivers race in relative safety against a country backdrop of scarlet-and-gold trees. Visiting Europeans are wild about the setting, and one journalist sent to report the race last year spent most of his story describing the upstate scenery. On Grand Prix race week the crowds are tightly quartered in a 90-mile radius around Watkins Glen and descend on the course in a sort of Riviera weekend mood with hootenanny overtones.

What the crowds will see next week is certain to be worth the squeeze. The top international drivers are almost matched: Defending World Champion Jimmy Clark ranks second in point standings with 30 against England's Graham Hill, the 1962 champion, who stands first with 32. John Surtees is in third spot with 28 points. Richie Ginther of America, with 20, and Lorenzo Bandini of Italy, with 19, run fourth and fifth—mathematically in the title race but just barely. Among them, these five drivers operate an awesome group of racing machines—Clark in a Lotus powered by a Climax engine; Hill and Ginther in British Racing Motors cars: Surtees and Bandini in Ferraris, powered by the superlative Ferrari V-8 engines.

Nor are these the only notables. The total 18-car lineup reads like a four-wheel all-star game. Corporate entrants include American Dan Gurney and Australian Jack Brabham in Brabham factory cars, and Bruce McLaren of New Zealand and American Phil Hill driving for Britain's Cooper factory. Independents include Great Britain's Innes Ireland and Trevor Taylor, whose British Racing Partnership cars are called BRP-BRMs. roughly the same sound they make on the road. Sweden's Jo Bonnier and Switzerland's Jo Siffert, among the most talented in the game, will drive Brabham-BRM cars. Aside from the top men, none has enough points to win this season's world title; all, however, have the iron will and touch it takes to star in road racing's major league.

Add to all these a new and fascinating competitor: Japan's sleek new Honda Formula I. The Honda will be making its first U.S. appearance, piloted by rookie driver Ronnie Bucknum of California. Honda unveiled the 12-cylinder car for the first time in Europe this season but pointed out it did not expect to win any races until the car has been more severely tested. The Honda started on the back of the grid at the Nürburgring, and by the Italian Grand Prix at Monza had moved up to the middle. Now drivers are beginning to look over their shoulders for it.

After Watkins Glen, only one of the 10 races that count for the world title remains—the Mexican Grand Prix on Oct. 25. In each race, points are awarded the top six finishers on a sliding scale starting at 9, and each driver at the end of the season picks his six best races for his final standing.

The result of all this risk of life and chassis is not as tangible as a diamond-studded world championship belt. But it is tangible enough: an income upward of $60,000 a year, race expenses paid for next season's runs around the world, a growing new source of income in product endorsements (in America, Dan Gurney is becoming as familiar a commercial figure as Chiquita Banana) and a celebrity status that stretches beyond the world of racing.

In road racing, Formula I's are what 12-meter yachts are to sailing: the personal pride of the manufacturer, built to exacting, one-of-a-kind scale. Each car is a $30,000 package of about 990 pounds and 200 horses, with a low-hung body that will handle a course at 120 miles an hour that a stock car would take at perhaps 100.

American automobile makers, keyed to stamping out their cars like cookies, do not play the formula game. In Europe, Grand Prix results are tied closely to car sales and national prides are involved. England has been on top in five of the last six years. Now that splendid old wizard Enzo Ferrari is raising hopes in Italy. He normally paints his cars flame red, Italy's national racing color, but he currently is feuding with the Italian Automobile Club and is threatening to paint them American blue and white for Watkins Glen.

In Europe last week the Surtees-Ferrari combination grew as the favorite to win at the Glen. Clark, who won easily last season, has been fighting mechanical problems this year; Hill fought off the same bugs but wrecked two cars doing it. "I am not thinking about winning right now," said Surtees. "When people start getting worked up they make mistakes."

Whoever he is, the winner will receive $5,000 in cash and a $500 silver bowl splashed full of champagne (he is expected to drink it ceremoniously, sitting grimed and exhausted in his bucket seat at the finish line). There will be an old-fashioned parade down Decatur Street, bonfires and a guitar-thwacking folk-music festival at the racecourse. Storekeepers are decorating for the occasion and converting from their usual merchandise to souvenirs; the kids all get rich selling race programs.

"But most of all," says Mrs. Cameron Argetsinger, who with her husband has been one of the campaigners for the Prix for years, "we have a rural community in a setting of unparalleled scenery. A small town with clean air suddenly caught up in the swirl of an international racing event. We spend money on it—the race takes a $200,000 budget—and we do it well. Watkins Glen is so different from anything seen in Europe that we want to keep it that way.

"The one thing we definitely do not need," says Mrs. Argetsinger, "is for Watkins Glen to become chic."

PHOTOBritain's John Surtees is favored to win Glen race, take championship lead.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)