Watkins Glen: F1’s rock and roll years

Story highlights

Watkins Glen hosted F1 from 1961-1980

Jackie Stewart won two US GP at the track

Circuit Of The Americas now hosts US GP

CNN  — 

For Formula One drivers, Watkins Glen International was always a little off the beaten track.

Tucked away in a tiny village on the southern tip of Seneca Lake in New York State, “The Glen,” as it is affectionately known, was a world away from F1’s ritzier race destinations of the 1960s and 1970s.

While the likes of the Monaco GP is played out against a simmering, sultry Mediterranean backdrop, Watkins Glen offered a backdrop of Autumn’s “mellow fruitfulness.”

“It was in the Finger Lakes, it was upstate New York, it was the fall – so the glorious colors were all out … it was a nice circuit, but it was rural America in the fullest sense and unlike all the places we would be traveling to, be it Monza (Italian Grand Prix) or Brazil,” three-time F1 world champion Jackie Stewart told CNN.

But what it lacked in glamor, it more than made up for in charm.

“It was probably the most nostalgic US Grand Prix that Formula One ever had,” added Stewart.

Jackie Stewart (left) at Watkins Glen in 1972.

‘F1 is on hold’

The F1 circus has long since moved on – the last US Grand Prix at Watkins Glen was held 36 years ago – but it remains a key part of F1’s north American heritage which could yet be rekindled by the sport’s new owners Liberty Media who may look to increase the reach of F1 in America where IndyCar and NASCAR series, in particular, reign.

“Formula One could do with more races in the States,” Christian Sylt, from Formula Money told CNN. “But I think the chances of (bringing new races to the US) is slim at the moment.”

“Everything and anything in F1 is on hold,” Sylt adds, referring to the Liberty Media takeover, “and Watkins Glen hasn’t been and isn’t on the radar because F1 haven’t gone in that direction.”

Legends of the fall

Steeped in history, Watkins Glen had hosted motorsport long before the F1 circus rolled into town.

Local lawyer and car enthusiast Cameron Argetsinger organized the first grand prix on public roads in 1948 before a permanent 2.35-mile track (later extended) was constructed in the 1950s ahead of F1’s arrival in 1961.

The early years were dominated by British drivers – Innes Ireland taking the checkered flag at the inaugural race followed by three triumphs apiece for Jim Clark and Graham Hill before Stewart topped the podium for the first time in 1968.

It was a track where some of F1’s most famous names triumphed – James Hunt, Niki Lauda and Gilles Villeneuve all took the checkered flag during the 1970s.

MORE: The swashbuckling James Hunt

Graham Hill (third from left) and Jim Clark (second from right) won three US Grand Prix at Watkins Glen during the 1960s.

During grand prix weekends, drivers would stay at the famous Glen Motor Inn – signed photographs of F1 stars of that era still cover the walls of its lobby to this day.

“To get a room in the Glen Motor Inn on a GP weekend was more difficult than getting the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo!” Stewart says.

“It was very modest to say the least but you were looking over one of the Finger Lakes and it was lovely … it was an amazing little jewel, and yet so primitive in so many different ways in comparison to the jet set life that F1 was.

“It has a lot of happy memories. I would suggest if we could get Jim Clark back and Graham Hill back they would say exactly the same things as me.”

When F1 met Woodstock?

Stewart says race weekends had a “music festival type atmosphere” in keeping with the spirit of the times.

In 1973, Watkins Glen hosted “The Summer Jam” rock festival where an estimated 600,000 fans flocked to watch The Grateful Dead and The Band among others.

A nearby mud bowl – dubbed “The Bog” – was also a popular hangout for spectators who would stone and sometimes torch cars, motorbikes and, once famously a Greyhound bus, that got stuck in the sludge.

"The Bog" was a place of highjinks and revelry for many fans attending Watkins Glen race weekends.

Good times were also matched by bad.

Stewart, in particular, has reason to recall the Watkins Glen F1 era with a mixture of joy and dread.

There were two victories – the last in 1972 – but also tragedy the following season when his Tyrrell teammate Francois Cevert died instantly in a crash during qualifying.

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Stewart, who clinched his third title in 1973, chose to sit out the race out of respect to the 29-year-old Frenchman before announcing his retirement from F1 – a decision made earlier that year – one short of his 100th grand prix.

“I was so distraught and disgusted by the severity and destructiveness of the accident,” Stewart recalled.

New home

Watkins Glen would host F1 on eight more occasions before disappearing from the calendar altogether – Australia’s Alan Jones winning the final race to clinch the 1980 drivers’ title.

The US would continue to sporadically host F1 – notably at Long Beach, Detroit, Phoenix, Las Vegas and latterly Indianapolis in the early 2000s before settling at a new purpose-built home in Austin, Texas.

The Circuit Of The Americas has quickly established itself as one of Formula One drivers favorite stop-offs since the inaugural race in 2012.

The Circuit Of The Americas has forged a new identity for F1 in the US.

With its trademark climb to the first corner, sweeping corners that echo F1’s European heritage and off-track entertainment — Taylor Swift tops the bill this year — the Circuit Of The Americas has helped F1 gain a foothold in a country where IndyCar and NASCAR fuel the obsession for motorsport.

A thrilling race last year saw Lewis Hamilton equal Stewart’s total of three world titles and his public profile off the track in the US has helped boost revenues in Austin.

“We’ve probably had a $3 billion impact on the local economy,” Bobby Epstein, chairman of the Circuit of the Americas, told CNN.

“And for all of us who got behind the project, that’s what we were hoping to see.”

‘F1 needs the US’

F1 has led a rather peripatetic existence in the past but looks to have found a more permanent home in Austin – the Circuit Of The Americas is the first purpose-built F1 track in the US. But could Watkins Glen make a comeback?

Charlie Whiting, F1’s race director, gave the circuit an enthusiastic thumbs up when he paid a visit earlier this year.

“There are newer ones like the Circuit of the Americas, but it hasn’t got the character this has,” Whiting said, reported in March.

“I think it would be an absolutely wonderful circuit for Formula 1 cars to race on, but we all know it’s not quite as simple as that.”

Whatever road F1 chooses to go down in the future, Stewart is adamant that the US needs to feature heavily.

“Formula One needs the United States – a huge car market … If we just got 10% of the 300 million population, that’s a huge audience.”