The countryside around Watkins Glen, N.Y. is oddly canted in a vast crazy quilt of slopes and ridges affording a magnificent view from practically any vantage point In autumn the scenery is doubly delightful. The umbers and ambers of woodlots are punctuated with the flaming red of maple groves and the tidy white of toylike farms and hamlets. If you drive up from Watkins Glen to the site of the United States Grand Prix, some six miles out of town, you can see it all—every umber, every amber, every chicken, cow, weather vane, pigsty and farmer's daughter in Schuyler County. For at Grand Prix time Watkins Glen presents one of the grander absurdities of motorized America: a six-mile-long queue of cars that winds through the hillsides at less than a walking pace, while on the course, 2.3 miles around, the racing cars whip along at speeds up to 180 miles an hour.
Fortunately, the ennui of getting to the Glen is more than offset by the race itself. Last Sunday was no exception. Not only did the field of 18 include the best of the new young drivers but also the sagest of the old, and the prize money—$206,000—was the richest purse in the history of road racing. Indeed, only the Indianapolis 500 pays more anywhere in the racing world. First-place bread alone—$50,000—was more than double the money for any of the other 10 Grand Prix this year. Even the last-place man, whether he finished or not, was guaranteed $6,700.
The crowd of 100,000 was less concerned with prize money than with the action itself, for only once a year can American speed buffs see the thoroughbreds of motor sports competing on U.S. turf. This year there were a pair of interlocked extras to draw the crowd and keep it hyped up throughout the long, loud afternoon. Scotland's Jackie Stewart, who had sewed up the world driving championship at Monza in September, was shooting for his seventh victory of the season—and a tie with the record set in 1963 by the late Jim Clark. To do it, the crowd knew, Stewart not only would have to beat the regular Formula I field, which abounds with young talent in Austria's Jochen Rindt, England's Piers Courage and Belgium's Jackie Ickx, but also would have to shade the 500 winner and American champion, Mario Andretti, who had won the USAC title only two weeks before. Andretti's addition to the Lotus team gave Manager Colin Chapman a veritable murderer's row: double world champion Graham Hill, the aggressively quick Rindt and minuscule Mario, whose physical stature is in inverse proportion to his racing skill. Though Andretti rarely appears on the Formula I circuit (Sunday's Grand Prix was only his fourth), he has logged thousands of road-racing miles.
With the stage thus set, the crowd began funneling into the Glen at midweek. The weather was just what the clothes-conscious car set ordered—nippy and changeable, demanding at least three separate wardrobes. Fun furs and bush jackets walked side by side through the muddy infield. It wasn't at all unusual to see a girl warming her ears inside a fuzzy balaclava while her toes turned blue in a pair of open Spanish sandals. A tent city of 40,000 inhabitants bloomed along the ridges in green and yellow and deer-hunter red. What with the autumnal chill, local entrepreneurs did a thriving business in firewood (SI for six scrawny sticks), and woodsmoke eddied constantly over the course, mixing with the anomalous smells of perfume and automobile exhaust and, of course, the odd whiff of pot, though the scene was mind-blowing enough without it.
In one section of the campsite a band of Navy white hats from the submarine base at New London, Conn. arrived in a camper replete with generator and stereo set which blasted rock music over the area in counterpoint to the savage sound of motors. During the frosty night many of the campers hiked around with six-packs of beer strapped to their belts, looking for action and warmth. Empty beer cans festooned the saplings. More than 150 police patrolled the area after dark, making some 25 arrests on charges ranging from drug possession to "criminal mischief' (stealing outhouse doors for firewood). A night court set up on the site handled the cases with dispatch.
For those desirous of country delights, the Watkins Glen area offered an abundance. Roadside stands were gaudy with frost-flecked squash, husky tomatoes and pumpkins the size of medicine balls. This is the heart of Western New York State's peach and grape belt, and flashes of rich purple winked from the arbors. Anyone who got bored with greengroceries or car talk could turn on to geology by taking a 1½-mile stroll through Watkins Glen's "world famous" gorge. Then there were the thrills of the town itself, a compact little burg located at the south end of Seneca Lake. The visiting thrill-seeker could take in a sexsational flick (99 Women, rated X at the local bijou), peruse the footwear at the Hughey Boot Shop (the windows of which were plastered with pictures of that eminent connoisseur of shoe leather, J. Stewart) or munch an excellent local hot sausage while sipping a zestful glass of Fyfe & Drum ("the official Grand Prix beer") at a roadside snack tent.
Such adventures in tourism had to come to an end on Friday with the beginning of two days of qualifying runs. The car people reassembled at trackside to watch the battle for starting positions in rain followed by fog. The record lap time for the Glen's pear-shaped, hilly course is 1:02.21, set earlier this year in a Can-Am race by New Zealander Bruce McLaren and one of his hefty seven-liter Group 7 cars. The smaller three-liter Formula I cars couldn't hope to beat that time, which converts to 133.10 mph, but they hoped to get down close to it. In the rain, the fastest anyone could turn was a slippery 112 mph, but driving "in the wet" made for a lot of expert conversation on the comparative virtues of rain tires. On performance, Dunlop's new CR65 rain tire, on which the center rib is grooved out to prevent aquaplaning, seemed superior. Mounted on the Matra-Fords of Stewart and his French teammate, Jean-Pierre Beltoise, it helped turn some of the day's fastest times.
By Saturday, when the chips were down for final starting positions, the track had dried thoroughly, though steely clouds still glowered over the course. Off came the rain tires and on came the quicks. All through the noisy, chilly afternoon the lap times for the leaders dropped and dropped again. In winning the pole position for last year's U.S. Grand Prix, Andretti had set a Formula I record of 1:04.2 (128.97 mph). That mark fell first to Denis Hulme, who turned the course in his orange McLaren-Ford at 129.07. Then Stewart cut loose with three successive laps that all broke the 1:04 barrier, his fastest converting to 129.84 mph. That seemed to unleash the tiger in everyone's tank, for during the next hour and a half both Rindt and Hulme did even better, while times came down generally. Only one second separated the top nine cars. Practice was extended for a quarter of an hour after Jackie Ickx spun out at 170 mph on the Big Bend, a long and demanding curve coming out of the backstretch. Whatever the cause, the effect was to send the Belgian's green Brabham-Ford into a triple spin, ending up in an embankment that jammed its nostrils with burdock and buffalo grass. Both car and driver were unhurt, and Ickx—winner of the Canadian GP two weeks before—came back to qualify eighth. Andretti, in a four-wheel-drive Lotus, could qualify no better than 13th. Rindt ultimately won the pole position, plus $1,000 in special prize money, with a time of 1:03.62 (130.15 mph), a fragile .03 second ahead of Hulme. Stewart had to be satisfied with the second row and the third-best qualifying time.
Race day broke cold and clear, only the second sunny Grand Prix day in the Glen's eight years as site of the U.S. championship. Even before the green flag fell, one car was out: McLaren popped a piston on a warmup lap. Then Silvio Moser's Brabham-Ford spewed a geyser of radiator water on the grid, delaying the start. When the flag dropped, Stewart—with the foot of a frustrated drag racer—leaped quickly into second place, then on the 12th lap broke ahead of the leader, Rindt. Up through the hilly Esses beyond the start-finish line, Jackie seemed to gain, but he was sliding a bit coming out of the course's last 45-mph, right-angle corner. Taking advantage of that, the Austrian snuck inside Stewart on the 21st lap and was never again headed. It was the first Grand Prix victory for the lean, green-hatted Lotus driver, and an immensely gratifying one. Though Stewart retired on the 35th lap with an irreparable oil leak, Rindt had nipped him fair and square beforehand. His average speed of 126.36 mph also bettered Stewart's 1968 record of 124.89.
Mario Andretti never got beyond the first lap (his left rear was clipped in traffic and he pulled in), but the only serious shunt of the day occurred toward the end when Graham Hill rolled his Lotus on the back reaches of the course. Hill's left leg was broken in two or three places above the knee, none of the fractures piercing the skin. After a fine run for second, Jackie Ickx blew his engine on the 78th lap and the $20,000 in runner-up money went to Piers Courage, who lived up to his name by staving off heavy passes by veteran Jack Brabham toward the end of the 248.4-mile race. Courage also won "man of the race" honors and $5,000 extra from BOAC. For Jackie Stewart, win No. 7—if it comes—will have to wait for Mexico City on Nov. 2. But if Jim Clark's record remains inviolate, his good friend and fellow Scot would not be too bitterly disappointed.