Watkins Glen International is one of the most storied race tracks in the United States—but if you’re just heading to upstate New York to watch a race and that’s it, you’re doing it wrong! The Glen is loaded with so much cool stuff that it is absolutely criminal to not take advantage of the fact that you’re sitting in the midst of a huge amount of race car history.
If you have the misfortune of following me on Twitter, you’ve likely picked up on my obsession with former Formula One driver François Cevert, whose first and only F1 win and subsequent death two years later was at WGI. It was through him that my formidable obsession with The Glen grew, and it was because of Cevert that I showed up for the first time in 2015 and now make a point of coming back at least once a year. It was at The Glen that I met and started dating my husband. Even Stef Schrader discovered the beauty of all that Watkins Glen has to offer that’s not at the track.
By now, I’ve been there enough times that I’ve tracked down the infinite amount of neat things you can do, and, since the 6 Hours of Watkins Glen is coming up this weekend, I thought it was time to compile a list for all of you interested race fans out there who enjoy the history of racing as much as its current iteration.
(Welcome to the Race Car Survival Guide, a new series where we outline all the tips and tricks that will help you make it through a race weekend intact. Whether you’re heading to your first race and are totally lost or are a veteran just checking out how other race fans do it, this is for you.)
While you can pay twenty bucks on most days and drive the current iteration of Watkins Glen International (just not on race weekends), you can also take a lap around the old course. For free.
Believe it or not, Watkins Glen originated as a road race (the first of its kind after WWII, the town’s website says). On October 2, 1948, cars took to the streets—a mixture of cement, dirt, macadam, and oiled gravel—to duke it out. Several bad accidents encouraged race organizers to move the track to a more secluded location. In 1956, the permanent road course debuted.
There was obviously no need to scrap the previous 6.6 mile track, since it was all public. It doesn’t take long to cruise around it, and it’s a great way to end a long race weekend.
You can find the map of the original circuit here.
If you, like me, are a big giant nerd when it comes to everything historic racing, then the International Motor Racing Research Center will be something akin to heaven. The first time I ever walked through the pearly gates—er, front doors—I was ready to move in and never leave.
The IMRRC is dedicated to the preservation and study of every iteration of racing since its inception. That means it’s collected books, films, trophies, photographs, art, and about a million more things. If it’s relevant to racing, the IMRRC probably has it.
Plenty of its stuff is off-limits, but if you’re just showing up as a fan, you can still peruse the bookshelves and watch the historic videos that are available on repeat.
If you’re a fan of a driver of note who has competed or won at Watkins Glen, you should take an afternoon to wander around downtown and see if you can find ’em on the Walk of Fame, which was created in 1993 as a way to honor retired drivers.
Much like the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the Driver Walk of Fame is a series of plaques embedded in the sidewalk. Most plaques can be found on both sides of Franklin Street, with the oldest drivers being settled in front of the Schuyler County Courthouse.
Again, this is A Big Deal if you, like me, are a big history nerd who finds immense joy out of hunting down Ronnie Peterson and François Cevert’s names on the streets. And while you’re wandering around, this is the perfect time to check out another great aspect of the Glen:
Back in 2016, some friends and I decided that we were going to drive WGI and stay a night in Seneca Lodge on a non-race weekend. As we wandered the Walk of Fame, I kept thinking to myself, I bet there is some real neat shit in all these antique stores we keep wandering past. So I started dipping into ’em. And, $60 later, I walked out with three race programs from the US GP in the early 1970s.
There are some great vintage shops lining Franklin Street. While a few are solely dedicated to old furniture, others are loaded to the brim with old race car merch. Vintage programs, old posters, diecasts still in their dusty boxes, oversized t-shirts, autographs—if you want it, you’re probably going to be able to find it.
Just make sure you bring cash because most of these places don’t take cards.
Ah, the Seneca Lodge. Home to decades of race car related debauchery! The bar of the Lodge was the place to be for drivers after the race had concluded, where you could find the piss-drunk race winner dancing on a table or the more talented folk playing the piano. The place still exists, it’s still the post-race hub for having a good time, and it is loaded with old race car memorabilia.
The first time I went to the Lodge, I could not handle it. There are laurel wreaths hanging on the wall from when Jackie freakin’ Stewart won at the Glen. There are old stickers from Hesketh’s F1 team. There are Dan Gurney for President signs, pitchers celebrating Emerson Fittipaldi’s F1 World Championship, patches galore. You could genuinely pass hours just sitting at the bar, picking out all the neat shit pinned to the wall.
If you’re there on a race weekend, make sure you duck into the lodge for post-race drinks. Drivers still do come out after the event every now and then—but it’s also just a really chill way to end a weekend in style.
To sweeten the deal even further, they serve dollar beers and give you change in $2 bills and 50 cent pieces. It’s an adorably quaint little place—if you’re not ending your evenings there, you’re doing it wrong.
Got any good ideas Race Car Survival Guide? If you have any tips of your own or an idea you’d like to see on the site, let us know in the comments or email me at ewerth [at] jalopnik [dot] com!