The First American Road Race In Watkins Glen

The First American Road Race In Watkins Glen

A Brief History of Watkins Glen Racing

Did you know that Seneca Lake is known for more than just wine and waterfalls? In this episode of the History and Mysteries Of Seneca Lake, I’m going to share the history of car racing in Seneca Lake which starts back in 1948. We’ll learn how Watkins Glen is considered the birthplace of American road racing and what famous names are connected to the area.

Racing In Watkins Glen

WWII put a stop to a lot of sports and entertainment activities in America. However, in the late 1940s, people started to look forward to them again. On October 2, 1948, a car show and two car races in the streets launched the start of something big that literally put Watkins Glen on the map.

It all started when Watkins Glen served as the venue for the first post-World War II American road race back in 1948. It started with a car show, where hundreds of spectators and drivers showed off their cars from all over. A 6.6-mile crazy course race was mapped out through the village, around the gorge in Watkins Glen State Park, up through the hills and surrounding farmland, and then back to where everybody started.

There was a Junior Grand Prix that started at noon and it was four laps. Then there was a Grand Prix for the winners of the Junior Grand Prix, which started later that afternoon and was eight laps. The original start-to-finish line was right in front of the Schuyler County courthouse on Franklin Street, right across the street from the Watkins Glen State Park Gorge.

Driving Down The Track

Spectators lined the streets without any kind of special protection from the race cars, and the races began from a standing still start. The race circuit took competitors down the main streets and through residential neighborhoods, turning sharp 90-degree corners and then racing up what is now Route 414. The track ended back down and around into town.

The cars were old European factory-produced cars, NGTC Midgets, and a couple of homemade specials. They raced over a route of asphalt, gravel, and dirt roads, up and down hills, through the busy streets of both business and residential areas, crossing a stone bridge, and even over a railroad crossing.

Cameron Argetsinger

The entire idea of bringing road racing to America—and to Watkins Glen—was the idea of a man named Cameron Argetsinger, a racing enthusiast from Youngstown, Ohio. He grew up taking summer vacations on Seneca Lake at his father’s cottage, and he was a Cornell University Law student in nearby Ithaca, New York.

He proposed an amateur road race to be called the Watkins Glen Grand Prix to the local Chamber of Commerce, and they were enthusiastic and supportive. He’s credited for bringing European-style racing from across the ocean to little old Watkins Glen.

Just to give you an idea of how crazy this is, Watkins Glen is essentially a small tourist town. It’s not very big. You could walk from one side of town to the other end, maybe 30 minutes. It’s literally less than two square miles. The landscape is mostly flat, but there are deep gorges, waterfalls, bridges, and sloping hills leading to the bottom of Seneca Lake.

Crossing The Finish line

Imagine sports cars in the 1940s. These were Chitty Chitty Bang Bang type of cars with no roof, no seat belts, no power brakes, no safety features, and spectators lining the road. Some sources report that 23 cars lined up in front of the courthouse from a standing start and then they raced around the track four times. Out of those 23 cars, only 17 crossed the finish line.

Top qualifiers from the Junior Prix then qualified for the eight-lap race later that day, called the Grand Prix. In total, 15 cars started and 10 finished their eight laps around the checkered flag. The grand prize winner was Frank Griswold Jr. of Wayne, Pennsylvania, who drive a type 35A Bugatti. He was closely followed by Briggs Cunningham in his famous Bu-Merc.

Another prominent entrant was William Milliken, who later rolled a car at a place they now call Milliken’s Corner. Others include Charles Addams, a cartoonist, who later created the Addams Family. There were also Miles and Sam Collier, major figures in the history of US road racing in America.

Rallying The Community

Argetsinger’s crazy dream of creating an international road racing circuit in the remote Finger Lakes region required the support of local racing communities to embrace this idea because it was pioneering. He got the support of local journalists, members of the Sports Car Club of America, the community leaders in Watkins Glen, the Chamber of Commerce, and village auto garages and car dealerships to help pull this whole thing off.

He also got support and permission from state, county, township, and village governments as well as the State Park Service and the railroad. Residents welcomed, housed, and fed the visitors. They also admired the beautiful sports cars and cheered on the racers. This started something really big in Watkins Glen, and they continued to host this Grand Prix right on the public streets from 1948 till 1955.

Making Changes

There was a second race in 1949 and a third race in 1950—the latter which brought tragedy for the first time when a driver named Sam Collier was killed. His car fishtailed and rolled during the race; unfortunately, he didn’t survive. That same day, a car left the road and injured a fireman and two spectators standing at the side.

In the fourth race of 1951, things had to get more sophisticated with communications. New York State also started clamping down on forbidding racing on state highways and across railroad crossings. Additionally, spectator safety began to be more of an issue. Can you believe that people actually used to stand behind piles of hay bales for protection? This likely offered no protection at all.

The first permanent circuit—now known as the Watkins Glen International Racetrack—opened out on County Route 16 in 1956, away from the village and out in the town of Dix. When you come to Watkins Glen and are driving down Franklin Street, you’re probably going to want to stop and hike the Watkins Glen State Gorge. Look across the street near the courthouse to find the memorials to this race where the actual start and finish line was.

The Father Of American Road Racing

Cameron Argetsinger, known as the father of American road racing, is recorded by history as a visionary who could make things happen. He had a passion for fast cars and is remembered for being an outstanding driver. As I mentioned, he conceived, organized, and also drove in that very first race. In photos, he’s seen standing on a lake shore with a toddler and a large dog, in sunglasses and a suit next to a classy convertible, and usually looking very serious.  

Cameron is the man who brought full international races to Watkins Glen starting in 1958 and, beginning in 1961, he was the organizer and race director of the Formula One United States Grand Prix. Formula One enjoyed a successful run of 20 years at the Glen Circuit. He was then named Executive Director of the Sports Car Club of America in the 70s. He later served as commissioner for the International Motorsports Association in the 80s.

Cameron was a graduate of Cornell Law School and practiced law for 48 years. He retired from law in 2002 and was president of the International Motor Racing Research Center until 2007. In 2005, Watkins Glen International honored his legacy by titling the Indy Racing League’s winner trophy the Cameron Argetsinger trophy, a prestigious sterling silver cup.

Our Fascinating History

As you can see, Watkins Glen has a varied and fascinating history—which includes car racing. If you’d like to learn more about Watkins Glen and Seneca Lake history, be sure to subscribe to my channel so you never miss an episode of the History and Mysteries of Seneca Lake.

Don’t forget that I’m in the business of real estate, so if you know of anyone who’s looking to buy or sell property around Seneca Lake or in the Finger Lakes region, please reach out to me and I’d be happy to connect. I look forward to hearing from you!

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