Just Above Sunset
Volume 5, Number 10
March 11, 2007

Guest Photography

 The world as seen from Just Above Sunset -

"Notes on how things seem from out here in Hollywood..."


Just Above Sunset sent photographer Bill Hitzel on assignment, in a manner of speaking.  He just returned from the Zippo US Vintage Grand Prix at Watkins Glen International - September 8-10 in Watkins Glen, New York.  Yes, that would be the Zippo lighter people.  We were able to obtain a press pass for him - full access to the pits and everything. He's sending along nearly one hundred photos of the event, and the best will be posted here when the post office gets the CD to Hollywood.

Here are four initial shots he sent via email - a 1972 McLaren, owner-driver Mike Dunkel - a Lotus Formula 1 at speed - and some older machines on the streets. Much more will follow.

1972 McLaren, owner-driver Mike Dunkel
Lotus Formula 1 at speed
Zippo US Vintage Grand Prix at Watkins Glen International
Zippo US Vintage Grand Prix at Watkins Glen International

Photos Copyright © 2006 - Bill Hitzel

Notes -

Watkins Glen International (nicknamed "The Glen") is located near Watkins Glen, New York at the southern tip of Seneca Lake. It was long known around the world as the home of the United States Grand Prix, which it hosted for twenty consecutive years (1961–1980), but it has been home to road racing of nearly every class for over fiftty years, including:

  • Sports Car Club of America (SCCA)
  • NASCAR Busch Series
  • Formula Libre
  • Formula One
  • Can-Am
  • Trans-Am
  • Formula 5000
  • International Race of Champions (IROC)
  • Champ Car
  • NASCAR Winston/Nextel Cup
  • World Sportscar Championship
  • Indy Racing League

The first races in Watkins Glen were initiated by Cameron Argetsinger, whose family had a summer home in the area. With Chamber of Commerce approval and SCCA sanction, the first Watkins Glen Grand Prix took place in 1948 on a 6.6-mile course over the local roads. For the first few years, the races passed through the heart of the town with spectators lining the sidewalks, but after a car left the road in the 1952 race, killing one spectator and injuring several others, the race was moved to a new location on a wooded hilltop southwest of town.

The new 4.6-mile course for 1953 also used existing roads. The Watkins Glen Grand Prix Corporation was formed to manage spectators, parking and concessions. This arrangement lasted three years before a 2.35-mile permanent race course was constructed on 550 acres (2.2 km˛), overlapping part of the previous course. It was designed by Bill Milliken and laid out by several engineering professors from nearby Cornell University. Along with the annual SCCA race, the track hosted its first professional race (NASCAR Grand National Division) in 1957 and became truly international when the Formula Libre race attracted some of the best road racing drivers in the world, including Jack Brabham, Stirling Moss, Phil Hill and Dan Gurney from 1958 through 1960.

After two less-than-successful US Formula One events in 1959 (Sebring, Florida) and 1960 (Riverside, California), promoters were looking for a new venue for an American Grand Prix in 1961. Just six weeks before the scheduled date for another Formula Libre race that fall, Argetsinger was tapped to get Watkins Glen ready to host the final round of the Formula One World Championship instead. While many of the necessary preparations had already been made for the Formula Libre race, new pits were constructed for the F1 Grand Prix according to the European style of pit boxes with overhead cover. Seven American drivers participated, and the race was won by British driver Innes Ireland with American Dan Gurney second. The sole disappointment of the weekend was that newly-crowned American World Champion Phil Hill appeared only as the event's Grand Marshal, not on track in his shark-nosed Ferrari, as the team was still mourning over the death of Count Wolfgang von Trips at Monza the previous race.

The United States Grand Prix at The Glen quickly became a fall tradition as huge crowds of knowledgeable racing fans flocked to upstate New York each year amid the spectacular fall colors. The race was also among the most popular on the global Grand Prix calendar with the teams and drivers because its starting and prize money often exceeded those of the other races combined. The race received the Grand Prix Drivers' Association award for the best organized and best staged GP of the season in 1965, 1970 and 1972.

One fixture of the USGP at The Glen was the starter for the races, "Tex" Hopkins. Wearing a lavender suit, clenching a big cigar in his mouth, and giving the job everything he had, Hopkins was the most recognizable starter in Grand Prix racing. Once the cars had taken their places, Hopkins strode across the front of the grid with his back to the field, turned, and jumped into the air, waving the green flag to start the race. At the finish, he would meet the winner in similar fashion, this time waving the checkered flag as the car crossed the line.

Before the 1971 race, the course underwent its most significant changes of the Grand Prix era, as it was extended from 2.35 miles to 3.377 miles by the addition of four corners in a new section called the 'Boot' or 'Anvil.'. The new layout departed from the old course near the south end into a curling downhill left-hand turn through the woods. The track followed the edge of the hillside to two consecutive right-handers, over an exciting blind crest to a left-hander and back onto the old track. In addition, the circuit was widened and resurfaced, and both the pits and start/finish line were moved back before the northwest right-angle corner known as "The 90."

Despite the improvements, the circuit began a slow decline in the 1970s as a few horrendous, sometimes fatal accidents and increasingly rowdy segments of the crowd began to tarnish its image. Financial difficulties and the inability of the circuit to safely handle the increasingly faster and stiffer ground effect cars of the era led to its exit from the Formula One calendar after Alan Jones won the 1980 race for Williams. It would be another 20 years before the United States Grand Prix would be held on a natural road course.

From 1968 through 1981, the "Six Hours at The Glen" endurance race featured top drivers like Mario Andretti, Jacky Ickx, Pedro Rodriguez and Derek Bell. Different races were sometimes featured together on the same weekend (e.g., Six Hours and Can-Am) and drew sizable crowds, but without a Formula One race, the circuit struggled to survive. It finally declared bankruptcy and closed in 1981.

For two years, the track was not well maintained and hosted only a few SCCA meets without spectators. In 1983, Corning Enterprises, a subsidiary of nearby Corning Glass Works, partnered with International Speedway Corporation to purchase the track and rename it Watkins Glen International.

The renovated track, with the chicane at the bottom of the Esses removed, reopened in 1984 with the return of IMSA with the Camel Continental I, which would be conducted until 1995, with the last two years under the name "The Glen Continental" after Camel's withdrawal from IMSA. (The event was numbered with Roman numerals.)

In 1986, the top NASCAR series returned to Watkins Glen after a long layoff, holding one of only three road races on its schedule (two beginning in 1988), using the 1971 Six Hours course, raced when the new section off the Loop-Chute was not finished in time. As the cars come off the Loop-Chute, instead of making the downhill left into Turn 6, the cars shot straight through the straight and headed towards Turn 10, as was the case from 1961 until 1970.

NASCAR Busch Series action would arrive in 1991 with a 150-mile race on the weekend of the Camel Continental, won by Terry Labonte, who would be a master of the circuit during its Busch Series races, winning the inaugural race, and winning three consecutive races from 1995 until 1997. The 1995 race would be the first conducted as a 200-mile race, and became the first Busch Series race to be televised on broadcast network television, as CBS broadcast the race live for three years.

Only twice - 1998 and 1999 - did a Busch Series regular driver win the race. The first seven races were won by Winston Cup Series regular drivers, sometimes referred as "Buschwhackers," during their off-week. In 1998, the race went against the Cup race in Sonoma, California, eliminating the idea, and stayed that way until 2000. In 2001, the race was run the day after the first Saturday in July.

However, the race was eliminated from the schedule after the 2001 season, only to return in 2005 as an undercard to the Nextel Cup race.

A pair of incidents took place in 1991 resulted in a massive overhaul of the circuit's safety. During the IMSA Camel Continental VIII, Tommy Kendall's prototype crashed in Turn 5, severely injuring his legs. Seven weeks later, NASCAR driver J.D. McDuffie died in an accident at the same site. Track officials added a bus stop chicane to the back straight in 1992.

In 1996, the Glen Continental reverted back to a six hour format, and was once again called the Six Hours At The Glen with the IMSA format, and stayed there until a split in sports car racing in the United States. In 1998, the race became an event sanctioned by the Sports Car Club of America under their United States Road Racing Championship. In 1999, the FIA GT series staged a 500km race after the USRRC canceled the rest of their season before their event at the track. The following year, the six hour race returned once again with the newly-founded Grand American Road Racing Association (Grand-Am) sanctioning the event.

In 1997, International Speedway Corporation became the sole owner of the historic road course, as Corning Enterprises believed they had completed their intended goals to rebuild the race track and increase tourism in the southern Finger Lakes region of New York State.

The circuit annually hosts one of the nation's premier vintage events, the Zippo U.S. Vintage Grand Prix. When the 50th anniversary of road racing in Watkins Glen was celebrated during the 1998 racing season, this event was the climax, returning many original cars and drivers to the original 6.6-mile street circuit through the village during the Grand Prix Festival Race Reenactment.

After a 25 year layoff, major-league open wheel racing returned to the track as one of three road courses on the 2005 Indy Racing League schedule. In preparation, the circuit was overhauled again. Grandstands from a speedway in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, which had closed, were installed, the gravel in The 90 was removed and replaced with a paved runoff area, and curbing was cut down for the Indy Racing League event. Previously, the high curbing in the chicane had become a place where NASCAR Nextel Cup cars would bounce high off the curbing, creating an ideal opportunity for cars to lose control, and to slow cars. Other areas of the track received improvements as well: the exits of turn 2 (the bottom of the esses), the chicane, turn 6 (the entrance to the boot), turn 9 and turn 11 all had additional runoff areas created and safety barrier upgrades. Augmenting what was already in place along the front stretch, additional high safety fences were installed on the overpasses crossing the service roads at the top of the esses and just out of the boot immediately after the exit of turn 9.

Another overhaul for 2006 made fundamental changes to the circuit for the first time since 1992. Officials installed a new control tower, which includes booths for the officials, timing and scoring, television and radio (the new position allows broadcasters to see more action from Turn 10 through the foot of the Esses), and the public address announcer on top of the new frontstretch grandstand, moving the start-finish line further ahead of the Sprint bridge, as the start-finish line is moved 380 feet further towards The 90 in order to accommodate the new timing and scoring post. The new start-finish line also means the starting lights used for club races is moved further ahead, creating more action off Turn 11 as tactics will change with the later finish line, where slingshot moves could become paramount to the finish.

Cameron Argetsinger remains as an advisor to the circuit, and the track named the trophy for the inaugural Watkins Glen Indy Grand Prix presented by Argent in his honor.

[Guest Photography]

Last updated Saturday, March 10, 2007, 10:30 pm Pacific Time

All text and photos, unless otherwise noted, Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 - Alan M. Pavlik