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The Rise and Fall of the U.S. Grand Prix at Watkins Glen

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The start of the 1975 United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen.

The start of the 1975 United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen.
Photo: EL / AP (AP)

To truly thrive in America, Formula 1 just needed one thing: A stable, reliable race that could entice drivers and fans to attend from far and wide. After struggling through Sebring, Riverside, and a decade of uncontested Indy 500s, F1 finally seemed to strike gold with Watkins Glen International in upstate New York. But all good things, unfortunately, cannot last forever — especially with more exciting events on the horizon.

This blog is part of a series on Formula 1’s presence in America. The sport has had a storied — but not particularly successful — history in the country. As F1 grows in America, and as we approach the 2022 United States Grand Prix, Jalopnik is taking a look back at the venues left in the dust and what ultimately led to their abandonment.

Racing in the village of Watkins Glen began as early as 1948, making it one of the first post-World War II races in America. At that time, the race was held on public roads that ran through the center of the village, but after seven-year-old Franky Fazarry was killed by a wayward race car, Watkins Glen developed a permanent race course just outside of town. The first running on the “Grand Prix Course,” or the first iteration of the track whose bones we’d recognize today, took place in 1956.

By 1958, the track was gunning for a Formula 1 race, but it still needed to convince the international racing world of its worthiness. So, as Michael Argetsinger writes in Formula One at Watkins Glen, the track hosted a handful of Formula Libre events; basically, the open nature of Formula Libre allowed drivers from around the world to enter with a variety of cars, and the track was a hit with drivers like Jo Bonnier, Dan Gurney, and Phil Hill.

As you’ll remember from previous entries in this U.S. Grand Prix series, promoter Alec Ulmann had secured a three-year contract with the FIA to host a United States Grand Prix, and he was desperate to see that contract through to its end. The Automobile Competition Committee of the United States (ACCUS), the American arm of the FIA’s Commission Sportive Internationale (CSI), was getting antsy as the months of 1961 began to tick by without word on a formal Grand Prix venue, and Ulmann had to hustle.

After talks with Daytona fell through, it looked like there may not be a U.S. Grand Prix in 1961 at all. So, in early August, track owner Cameron Argetsinger proposed Watkins Glen as a viable venue, even going so far as to lend F1 the date it had intended to host an Intercontinental race: October 8. (The Intercontinental Series was, essentially, a series developed to protest the then-current F1 regulations, and its popularity waned as the season progressed.)

Ulmann fought the proposal tooth and nail, but at the end of the day, ACCUS finally awarded Watkins Glen a Grand Prix contract on August 28, a mere six weeks before the October running of the 1961 event (a time frame that saw Argetsinger amass a starting grid and build Continental-style roofed pit boxes).

That first race was a memorable one for many reasons. Just before the end of the European season, American racer Phil Hill had been crowned World Champion — but it had come at the cost of tragedy. Hill’s Ferrari teammate Wolfgang von Trips was killed in a crash at Monza that also killed several spectators, and Ferrari opted against making the trip overseas. For a moment, the lack of a Ferrari appearance looked set to threaten the success of the infant event.

The organizers were grateful, then, that the race itself went off without a hitch. Around 60,000 spectators crowded the hills for Sunday’s race, which was won by Innes Ireland in a Lotus. It would be Ireland’s only Grand Prix win — but more crucially for F1, it was also the first American Grand Prix to actually turn a profit (roughly about $50,000 at the time, according to AtlasF1). The drivers and teams were especially pleased that circuit owner Cameron Argetsinger paid everyone in cash, not with a check. There were few ways the race could have been more successful.

Part of what initially made the Watkins Glen event so enticing was its massive prize purse. During the first few decades of F1, race organization — including the distribution of prize funds — was completed by the tracks themselves, and Watkins Glen wanted to make a North American trip worth a driver’s while. In 1969, for example, the New York Times reported that Watkins Glen was doubling its prize money to $306,000 which was more money than was distributed by any other road racing circuit in the world. Adjusted for inflation, that would be almost $2.5 million today. In that first race alone, winner Ireland took home $5,000 in prize money and an additional $2,800 in appearance money, Randall Cannon writes in Caesars Palace Grand Prix; in sum, that would be about $77,500 today when adjusted for inflation.

For years, the race was a success. Fans turned out in droves for an event that decided championships and saw fresh faces make one of their first starts in Formula 1, in part to take advantage of the potential for massive amounts of prize money.

But as the years passed, a darker side began to show. The fans got rowdy, turning the camping zones into mud pits where they lit cars on fire. Drivers like François Cevert and Helmuth Koenigg were killed due to the unsafe nature of the track. The track began to struggle for finances, and the growing speed of ground effect cars made it clear that the track was lagging well behind on the safety advancements of the day. But ultimately, Formula 1 as a whole was ready to move on to bigger and better prospects.

For several years, the United States hosted two Grands Prix: One in Long Beach at the start of the year and one at Watkins Glen to close the season. Bernie Ecclestone, effective shah of the sport, had started looking to a more glamorous locale than the boons of Watkins Glen and had set his sights on Las Vegas. The only reason the final event at Watkins Glen took place, Randall Cannon writes in Caesars Palace Grand Prix, was because the Las Vegas circuit had yet to be approved. Further, Ecclestone had allowed the cash-strapped race organizers to pay him the event’s sanctioning fee after the 1980 United States Grand Prix East had taken place.

But the final blow came at the start of 1981. It became clear that Watkins Glen had failed to pay $800,000 to the teams, a sum it had promised as part of its prize and appearance package, the New York Times wrote. Combined with the track’s inability to fund necessary safety upgrades, Watkins Glen was nixed from the calendar.

“Sure, the Glen is a nice scenic track,” Alan Jones, winner of the final U.S. Grand Prix at Watkins Glen, said after the event, “but that doesn’t mean we should have to live in the Stone Age.”

To add insult to injury, the Watkins Glen Grand Prix Commission, which organized the race, defaulted multiple times on paying back its other debts, and even the once-optimistic local race organizers had grown disheartened by the lack of transparency from the commission. What had once seemed an unkillable event had died.

Here’s more from the epilogue of Formula One at Watkins Glen by Michael Argetsinger:

The loss of the United States Grand Prix was a blow that the Watkins Glen Grand Prix Corporation could not survive […]

On August 13, 1981, the GP Corporation filed for bankruptcy under Chapter 11, allowing the corporation to continue operating while attempting to right their business.

[…]

The corporation was beyond broke; they had lost all leverage to borrow and were left with no room to maneuver. the Bank of New York, holder of the bonds, had commenced legal action in April that inevitably led to foreclosure and sale of the assets at a public auction. The November 10, 1982, auction was held on the lawn of the County Courthouse on Franklin Street — site of the start/finish line of the original 6.6-mile road circuit that had begun it all in 1948. The Bank of New York was the highest bidder at $1,225,000, and was now owner of the circuit and the more than 1,000 acres of real estate that encompassed the facility.

As you can imagine, a bank had little need for a race track, and many interested parties came and went. The track was ultimately purchased by a group that included the Corning Glass Company, enabling it to resume racing activities.

And what did Formula 1 do without Watkins Glen? Well, the series thought it had moved on to bigger and better things. It had street races at Long Beach and Caesars Palace in Las Vegas lined up, wooed by the glitz and glam of two high-rolling cities. F1 was looking at broadening its horizons at other events in America.

The loss of Watkins Glen, though, kicked off a period of significant instability in F1’s pursuit of a greater American audience. In many ways, F1 needed the rural charm and history of the Glen to temper its no-holds-barred plans for rapid growth in other markets that may not necessarily have built an established race scene. A growing desire to charge more for events to host a race and a total misunderstanding of America as a country would thus define the next decade of F1 in America.

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