For most of the year Watkins Glen, population 2,716, is just another bucolic village tucked away in the verdant hills of New York state's wine country. You first locate Schuyler County, then drive cautiously through a speed trap called Horseheads, and you've found it. There are sure-enough tourist wonders in Watkins Glen. Most important is the glen itself, with its photogenic waterfall, one of the few remaining spots in the country that give you the chance to use the word bosky. And there is Lake Seneca which, viewed in just the right slanting afternoon light, looks like a lot of other pretty hometown lakes. All together, it is rural America at its best, pure Saturday Evening Postland. For most of the year, that is.
Then, all of a sudden during the first week of October, Watkins Glen becomes an acoustical nightmare. The dulcet chortle of the capon and the contented lowing of dairy herds give way to a harsh metallic keening that soon grows to a dragon's roar. The rhythmic snippety-snip of the vintner's shears is replaced by an awesome and seemingly unending chorus of shrieks. It is rubber on asphalt, mostly, punctuated at times by the hammering of pistons trying to escape through finely milled engine blocks. What is even worse, the comforting, adenoidal plainsong of country speech usually heard in the bars and Deaneries of the Glen, good old ordinary American conversation dealing with irregularity or whether or not the rain'll hurt the rhubarb, dramatically yields to a whole lot of smart talk in foreign accents.
There are smarmy Britons in flared pants, cocking their lisps in unconscious parody of Monty Python. Italians and Brazilians, with imitation gold snaffle bits on their loafers, gabble unintelligibly but loudly—and lewdly, of course—as they ogle the plump giggling farm girls. Frenchmen (Frogeaters to the locals) whine nastily to one another about the menus in even the finest restaurants of nearby Elmira, while Germans and Scandinavians turn up their noses at the wine lists, as if good old Taylor's best was not good enough for their continental palates. And then comes wave upon wave of college kids who follow the aliens—the long-haired backsliders to whom America and American cars are no longer cool, who drive fancy foreign machines like BMWs and Triumphs and those killer Datsun 280Zs. Unlike the continentals they idolize, these would-be expatriate kids don't stay in motels, where they would at least contribute to the local economy. Too straight. They camp out and smoke funny cigarettes and even bring their own wheat germ and T. J. Swann for sustenance. "The Invasion of the Body Scratchers," sneer the locals. Yessireebob, it is Granpree time again. It is that wicked wastrel weekend when up to 110,000 interlopers from foreign climes as distant as Cornell University (25 miles) and Argentina (5,500) congregate at the Glen for the final event of the Grand Prix circuit. (Sometimes this last race decides the world driving champion for the year, although this time Austrian driver Niki Lauda and Ferrari have the title locked up as they head for the Glen.)
Sports-car racing at Watkins Glen dates back to Oct. 2, 1948, when a 52.8-mile "Grand Prix," unsanctioned by the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile, was run right through the village streets, and thus put the Glen on the world auto-racing map. The credit—or blame, depending on your vantage point—accrues to Cameron Argetsinger, then a young Cornell law grad and now executive director of the Sports Car Club of America. He had vacationed at Seneca Lake, sipped the local champagne and convinced the town elders to authorize a real European-style road race through the town. Fame and fortune would be theirs, he promised, and indeed by the third year the race was attracting as many as 100,000 spectators (no admission was charged in the good old days, now it is $19 per weekend).
October 5, 1975
Then, in 1952, a careening race car hit and killed a young onlooker who was sitting on a curb, and suddenly the town became conscious of the perils of racing in the streets. The race was moved briefly to the nearby crossroads hamlet of Dix, then onto a 2.3-mile circuit on a ridge above the Glen. The first few U.S. Grand Prix races authorized by the FIA were staged in Sebring, Fla., and Riverside, Calif.—they were financial disasters—and in 1961 the event returned to Watkins Glen, where it has remained in excellent health ever since. The cars now run an expanded 3.37-mile course to accommodate modern speeds. These days they turn laps of 125 mph, compared to the 71.4-mph which George Constantine's D-type Jaguar averaged to win the first race on the oldtime circuit in 1956.
Ironically, dates, numbers and speeds are among the least of the attractions that draw crowds to road-racing events like the U.S. Grand Prix. They are more autumnal rites. The contrast between the bucolic and the slickly sophisticated underlies the charm of the Glen, just as it does lesser races at Elkhart Lake, Wis., and Road Atlanta. For all its hick-town hokum, upstate New York is splendid country in early October. There are strangely tilted landscapes, fiery fall colors, the smell of woodsmoke mixing with burned rubber, and there are the cars—sleekly ravenous monsters out of a hashish dream—gobbling up the countryside. It is a lesson in the nature of heroism to wander among the drivers. Good heavens! They are inevitably little dinks of guys who seem far too effete ever to try anything so deadly as racing a Formula I car. And to talk with them, to discover that they are steely tough despite their funny clothes and accents, is always a revelation.
For the cognoscenti, there also is the wheeling-dealing as drivers and owners intrigue around the tacky tables of the Glen Motor Inn to arrange for next year's sponsorships and rides, not to mention the arcane automotive lore that fills the cavernous Kendall Tech Center, where the cars are housed and the innovations of future cars are bruited about. After all, those tiny cars with those tinier men inside them are still doing more, in a racing sense, with much less power than American Indianapolis-type machinery.
All of this is in the air: it is atmosphere that makes the Glen the exciting spot it has become. Monaco may have its haughty hotels and waterfront yachts; the N√ºrburgring its gnome-fraught forests; Silverstone is thick with wheat and cozy Cromwellian inns; Zeltweg, in Austria, is near unto the Alps; and Monza is hard by the jewels of the Italian lake district. But none of them has The Bog, a nightmarish swamp full of drunks and dopers that eats whole buses alive. Perhaps that is the true image of the U.S. Grand Prix: courage and corn pone; sophistication with a straw in its teeth; hazard in the midst of hokum. So what if next year the FIA sanctions a second U.S. Grand Prix in Long Beach, Calif. Even with the Queen Mary going for it, that hick town will have to go some to beat the Glen.