You can still drive old Watkins Glen
She laid the map out on the desk between us, and her eyes sparkled.
"Young man, you are going to love this."
Rose Chedzoy had been waiting all weekend for someone to walk into the Watkins Glen, N.Y., Visitors Center and ask what I just had. Excuse me, but do you have a map of the old Grand Prix Course?
It was NASCAR race weekend 2011, and that afternoon's Nationwide Series event had wrapped up quickly. Sunset was still more than an hour away, and I had some time to kill. So why not travel over the winding, rolling, foliage-enveloped route that served as the birthplace of modern American road course racing?
No, not Watkins Glen International as we know it today. I was in search of the racetrack before the racetrack. The 6.6-mile course that wound through the streets of the village and up into the hill above. It hosted events from 1948 to '52, reviving sports car racing in post-World War II America and eventually gave birth to the current facility just a few miles away.
Throughout the year, car clubs and curious would-be racers drive the course in groups of dozens or on their own. The largest of those outings is the annual Watkins Glen Grand Prix Festival, held each September. But somehow, despite so many trips to The Glen, I'd never done it. Today that was going to change.
The course was originally dreamed up in 1947 by law student, sports car enthusiast and lifelong Seneca Lake summer vacationer Cam Argetsinger, with little more than a map and a handful of die-cast cars spread across the floor of his den in Youngstown, Ohio. His father had collected Packards. Now he had purchased an MG TC and joined the fledgling Sports Car Club of America but had nowhere to cut the regal-looking roadster loose.
I met Argetsinger once. It was a decade ago at the U.S. Vintage Grand Prix at The Glen, held on the modern 2.45-mile track where NASCAR races this weekend, a layout modeled after his original street course. "I have been accused of bringing racing to Watkins Glen for no reason other than because I needed somewhere to drive my MG TC," he said to me with a smile. "Guilty as charged."
He pitched the idea to the Chamber of Commerce. They loved it. He traveled to the 1948 Indianapolis 500 and pitched it to the national gathering of the SCCA membership. The SCCA members loved it, too.
"He was such a good man," Chedzoy said to me of Argetsinger, who spent the second half of his life in Watkins Glen until his death in 2008. She thumped her finger onto the Grand Prix Course map unfurled onto the desk between us. It was drawn by Sam Cobean, who was a cartoonist for The New Yorker, and the roadsides were marked with drawing of landmarks along the way, mostly farmhouses. "He convinced all of these farmers it was a good idea to have these cars go racing by their houses. He convinced the town to let them race down Franklin Street, our main street."
So it was that, a little after noon on Oct. 2, 1948, the green flag waved in front of the courthouse as a pack of gleaming Indy-style open-wheel racers and round-eyed European roadsters revived genuine organized road racing in America for the first time since World War II.
Now, 63 years later, I did what those cars did. Sort of. With Chedzoy's map in hand, I looked to my left and saw the stone marker commemorating the original start/finish line. I zeroed out the odometer. And, when the traffic light up ahead turned green, I rolled through the intersection of Franklin and 10th streets in a rented Chevy Malibu at roughly 5 mph.
Almost immediately, I made a hard right into the 90-degree turn onto Highway 329 West, beginning the long climb up Old Corning Hill and skirting the edge of Watkins Glen State Park. To the right was a long line of vacation cabins and venerable Seneca Lodge, the chosen spot of celebration for winners on this course and at Watkins Glen International.
As the climb leveled out at the 1.3-mile mark, I picked up speed and slipped through the White House S-curve. I drove though a narrow railroad underpass and wondered aloud how -- more urgently why -- in the hell someone would try to pull that off at 100 mph. The sign said I had 11½ feet of clearance to the bridge above. As I bounced through, it felt more like five feet.
Up ahead, at the 2.7-mile mark, I was suddenly reminded of a warning from Chedzoy. "School House Corner is a doozy. Don't let it sneak up on you."
I did. Looking to the left for the one-room school-turned-residence, I all at once spotted the white sign placed by the SCCA, along with the signs marking the entrance into the state park and a tall green, almost hand-painted, marker signifying County Road 23.
My rental car nosed down the hill as though it had been placed onto a seesaw and barreled down the hill with some tire squeal through the curves. I braked just soon enough to realize where I was and stopped. It was Cornett's Stone Bridge. Down in the gorge known as White's Hollow, the waters flowing from nearby Punch Bowl Lake gurgled below. I had one bar on my cellphone and took a chance, calling the nearby International Motor Racing Research Center in downtown Watkins Glen.
"It's named Cornett's Stone Bridge for Denver Cornett, a participant in the inaugural race," I was told by historian Bill Green. I said to him that I assumed it was because Cornett had won that first event, a "Junior Prix" qualifier. "No," Green said, chuckling. "It's because he rolled his MG into the creek during the race's second lap."
From there, I drove up out of the park and into Archy Smith's Corner (Said Chedzoy: "If you see someone on the front porch of the gray house to the left, wave. Such good people.") This is where the original course made the transition into its third surface, from asphalt to gravel to dirt.
I hammered down the Railroad Straight, pausing to look both ways as I crossed the tracks. In 1948, just days before the inaugural event, the racers had been told they would have to slam on the brakes each time they crossed this point, roughly 4.5 miles in, to check for trains.
"Mayor Allen Erway called in a favor with the railroad superintendent, who also happened to be one of his close friends," Green had explained to me. "So the New York Central Railroad altered its schedule that day."
That's why that first race is still known as "The Day They Stopped the Trains."
There was no stopping me as I rolled through the racy lefty known as Friar's Corner and into the Big Bend, a long, looping downhill that just begs to be attacked as the sailboat-dotted waters of Seneca Lake rise over the distant horizon.
Suddenly, there are houses to the left. Town is rushing into the windshield up ahead. I thought about the spectators who lined the hills around me and covered the streets directly in front as I entered the ridiculously sharp left-hander that dumped the competitors back onto Franklin Street just five blocks shy of the start/finish line.
This is Milliken's Corner, and, like Cornett's Bridge, the title was earned dubiously.
"My claim to fame," William Milliken said to me as I called him while standing on his corner, looking back up the hill he had raced down in '48. On the final lap of the Junior Prix, the chairman of the race's technical committee and director of flight research at Cornell's Aeronautical Laboratory was running third until he did some accidental flight testing of his own. His Bugatti 35A went upside down and rolled into the waiting hay bales, to the horror of those watching. Then, to their delight, he climbed out, unscathed.
"Everyone needs to be famous for something," he said through hearty chuckles from his home near Buffalo. He had turned 100 on April 18 and was just one month from being inducted into Watkins Glen International's 2011 Legends Class with Mario Andretti. "That place has always meant so much to me. To have my name on that corner, no matter the reason, is such a tremendous honor. Fortunately, no one has re-created what I did."
Then he paused. "You didn't wreck your rental car, did you?"
Milliken passed away on July 28 of this year. He was 101.
That evening, I sat at a bar just above Old Corning Hill. It was the legendary Seneca Lodge Bench & Bar Tavern Room. Its walls are covered with racing memorabilia, including photos of and wreaths hung by the winners of races throughout Watkins Glen. From NASCAR to Formula One to sports cars to, yes, the warriors of the Grand Prix Course. Graham Hill, Jackie Stewart, Jimmy Clark, Emerson Fittipaldi (whom we tried to call late in the night), and even Tim Richmond, who nailed a tire to the rafters instead of a wreath.
I was served by Jack Brubaker. His father opened the Lodge in '47. The racing started the next year. I told Jack what I had done that evening. Soon the bar is filled with Grand-Am sports car competitors, just in from WGI.
He pulls scrapbooks out from under the bar. We drink. He tells us of the spectator death in September 1952, there at the first corner off of Franklin Street. We drink. He tells us of Sam Collier, who died in 1950 when his Ferrari left the course. We drink.
"To the legends who came before and to the legends that are yet to be," he says to us all. "We travel in their tire tracks."
On this day, quite literally.