You don’t arrive at Watkins Glen International so much as it seems to appear out of the rolling hillsides of upstate New York. One minute, you’re battling the steep rise-and-fall of a one-lane gravel road. The next, you can spot the faint twinkle of a grandstand peeking between the leaves. If you blink, you could easily miss the iconic baby blue Armco barriers that line the now 3.4-mile Grand Prix course.
But if you’d lived in Watkins Glen about seven decades ago, things would have looked a lot different. Instead of a grandstand, you’d climb to the roof of a local restaurant or perch on the balcony of a friend’s house to get your uninterrupted view of these high-powered race cars careening down the very streets you’d drive to get to work. Down in the crowd that lined the track, the spectacle of speed would pass by just before your outstretched fingertips. That was racing in Watkins Glen.
Between the temporary street circuit and the permanent road course, though, lies a tragedy — one that changed the scope of American racing as we know it, one that seems to have been buried deep under the weight of shame.
I want you to meet Frankie Fazzary.
On September 20, 1952, during the second lap of a 15-lap race around the village of Watkins Glen, one of motorsport’s forgotten tragedies took place. Seven-year-old Frankie Fazzary was struck and killed by one of the cars in the competition. And with that, road racing in America changed forever.
Fred Wacker was well known in the post-war racing world, and in the Chicago area in general. He was the grandson of Charles H. Wacker, the first chairman of the Chicago Plan Commission. He attended Yale University. He enlisted in the United States Navy. He was an engineer, a socialite, and a jazz musician when he wasn’t racing. And when he was racing, he helped found the Sports Car Club of America and even entered a few Formula One Grands Prix.
On September 20, 1952, Wacker was racing an Allard J2, and on the second lap, he was battling John Fitch for second place in the race, hopeful that he’d be able to catch race leader Briggs Cunningham. Wacker was in the thick of battle as he crossed through the Franklin Street front stretch that held the start line. He moved to the outside of Fitch as the two drivers prepared for the near-90 degree turn onto Old Corning Road.
Wacker and Fitch got too close, and both tried to avoid hitting each other. Wacker moved to the left on the front straight. Race organizers had thought the curb would be enough of a deterrent to keep drivers out of the crowd, so they didn’t line it with hay bales. But when the Allard clipped that raised concrete, it bounced over the curb, and the rear left wheel and bodywork nipped into the crowd.
Wacker recovered. He was leading Fitch heading into the next bend.
The crowd wasn’t so lucky.
Twelve spectators suffered injuries, some more severe than others. Michael Fazzary and his son James, couple Manuel and Edna Repoza, Wilbur Pray, and Jack Tallarida all suffered at least one broken leg. Michael Fazzary suffered deep lacerations and shock. James had, at the very least, knee fractures. Other injuries were less pressing. But Frankie Fazzary, the son of Michael and brother of James Fazzary, was killed.
We don’t know much about Frankie Fazzary. There’s even a question about how to spell his surname — some publications list it as Fazzari, which is the surname many of his family members share, though Frankie’s gravestone is etched with the first spelling.
We know he was local to Watkins Glen, likely growing up at 184 12th Street in Watkins Glen, just a few steps away from the local high school. We don’t know much about his family, with the exception of his parents and his brother James. An obituary in the Elmira Star-Gazette also lists a sister, Frances Fazzary, and a grandmother, Mary. We know Frankie was buried at St. Mary’s Cemetery, which lines the village’s iconic gorge. His headstone features a photo of Frankie dressed in a suit and tie.
Newspapers from the era don’t shed much more light. Michael Fazzary, Frankie’s father, was listed as being a milk driver. We learn that the Schuyler County Coroner listed the cause of Frankie’s death as being accidental, and that there would be no inquest. Other papers note that Frankie’s head was crushed, possibly due to a flying hubcap.
It does appear that the Fazzari/Fazzary family still lives in the Watkins Glen area. Most don’t remember Frankie; he passed before their time. I reached out to one member of the family that holds public office, Joe Fazzary. He put me in contact with his father, a cousin of Frankie’s who Joe felt would remember the seven-year-old. Joe’s father declined to talk. I understand why.
The 1952 Watkins Glen Grand Prix was stopped after the accident, but it took another 45 minutes for race officials to host a hurried meeting and call off the rest of the race. The event had started later than usual, closer to five in the evening, and it was deemed unsafe to start.
Police Sergeant J. Edward Maloney stated after the race that the fans had been well within the confines of the safety ropes strung to prevent spectators from entering the road. He also said that the group of spectators at the scene was small in comparison to other viewing areas around the track; the tragedy could have been much, much worse.
In the December 21 edition of that year’s Star-Gazette, we learn that Michael Fazzary was one of several people who filed claims against the Village of Watkins Glen. Fazzary asked for $150,000 for the death of his son, $250,000 for his own injuries, and $100,000 for the injuries suffered by James, his other son. In today’s money, that would be the equivalent of $1,025,000.
On February 28, 1953, the Elmira Advertiser featured an update about the Fazzary case as part of an article about lawsuits that had finally been settled as a result of injuries suffered during the 1950 event. There wasn’t news about how the case was proceeding in court, but the author noted that the Grand Prix Race Board’s plans for a ‘53 race were stymied by the fact that the event would not be insured unless safety changes were made.
In 1954, the suits were settled out of court. Part of the settlement was that the terms of the deal would never be announced. In those later articles, though, we learn that Michael Fazzary had asked for less money, a total of around $230,000 instead of the $500,000, though many papers report different figures.
Fazzary’s death signalled a massive change in America’s motorsport landscape. The tragedy saw Watkins Glen cancel its street racing events, and that decision rippled out across the country. No one else wanted to find their race responsible for the death of a child. But that didn’t mean America’s penchant for speed had been quenched.
As outlined in Watkins Glen, The Street Years 1948-1952 by Philippe Defechereux, racing was limited to two types of venues: private grounds or deactivated airports. But the solution came at Elkhart Lake, the future home of Road America. In late 1952, before the Watkins Glen tragedy, Wacker showed up in the area, where he met General Curtis Le May, the head of the Strategic Air Command — a man who was in control of the nuclear-armed B-47 bombers that stood between America and the rest of the world.
Le May was the one who nabbed use of Air Force bases, where the money made during races would be returned to the men at the bases. The first race at a base took place on October 26, 1952 — soon after the death of Freddie Fazzary. It was a hit for drivers, and after President Eisenhower hit office, the SAC picked up a long-term contract to host motorsport events.
But that wasn’t enough. The flat airfields didn’t put on the kind of hilly European road racing that Cameron Argetsinger was hoping for when he introduced the road circuit around the town of Watkins Glen.
The Grand Prix of Watkins Glen stepped in. Instead of hosting a race on public roads, the town realized it could host an event on a closed, purpose-built track that could be built with spectator safety in mind. The track builders had a grand idea in mind: They’d have a 4.6-mile track ready for another Watkins Glen Grand Prix on September 18 and 19, 1953.
It wasn’t easy. Forty days out from the race, everything seemed hopeless. The State Department of Public Works opposed the project. The State Police didn’t like it. The Sports Car Club of America took a look at the circuit, decided it wouldn’t be ready in time, and announced that it wouldn’t sanction the event. There was no money left in the coffers.
The denial seemed to spur on the Grand Prix Committee, and the track was certified race-ready on September 17, just one day before the on-track action.
It was a different feel than the street course. The track was surrounded by snow fences. There were specific places to park, enter, and sit — no longer was it a free-for-all. Areas deemed dangerous were closed to the public. A control tower was built to monitor race activity. And the people of Schuyler County, New York turned up in droves; no hard number exists, but Defechereux speculates that the crowd ranged in the tens of thousands.
This arrangement was still a temporary one. In 1956, the Grand Prix Course designed by Bill Milliken was built, which overlapped part of the previous circuit. The city felt the location — tucked away in a sparsely populated hillside — was the perfect place to dig in and spread roots. That was the first real version of the track we know today.
Watkins Glen was by no means the first permanent circuit built in the United States, but the success of its partial street course in 1953 and its permanent circuit in 1956 led the rest of the country to follow suit. Road America in Elkhart Late, Wisconsin opened in 1955. Lime Rock Park in Connecticut opened in 1957. Then there was Virginia International Raceway, Laguna Seca, Lucas Oil Raceway, Daytona International Speedway’s road course, Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, and more.
Put it this way: before Watkins Glen, two road courses existed in America. After Watkins Glen, America saw the introduction of over 60 road courses. Ten of those came in the 10 years after the Glen’s second attempt at a semi-permanent road course.
Frankie Fazzary’s death couldn’t have contributed to the introduction of each and every road course in America, since many of those rose out of fertile racing scenes that already existed in the area. There was a demand to be met. But the death of a seven-year-old boy as a result of a racing accident put the racing scene on that trajectory — instead of hosting races on public roads, track organizers instead started to find pieces of land where they could build a permanent circuit designed to keep spectators at a safe distance from the cars.
It’s likely of little consolation to the Fazzary family, but Frankie’s tragic loss made American road racing what it is today. It’s morbid, but it’s hard to imagine where we’d be otherwise. Like the drivers whose deaths became a catalyst for safety changes, so too did Frankie’s death contribute to the spectator safety of an otherwise dangerous era.
Today, the village of Watkins Glen retains a proud sense of its street racing roots. In most local shops, you can find a free pamphlet that tells you how to drive the old course and that notes the location of important events along the way. The sidewalk is embedded with plaques that name the track’s prominent winners. There are memorials for the race’s founder, Cameron Argetsinger, and one for the fact that Watkins Glen hosted the first race after World War II. The starting line is still painted on the sidewalk. Everywhere you step, it feels like you’re stepping into history.
But there’s no memorial for Frankie Fazzary. On a recent trip to the track, my husband and I made a very pointed effort to locate the place Frankie was killed to see if there was anything there to note his death — maybe something small that I hadn’t noticed before because I hadn’t known to look.
There’s nothing. If you don’t already know Frankie’s story, you won’t know anything happened.
That’s why I want to ask my fellow race fans to spare a thought for Frankie today. An unthinkable tragedy completely changed the face of racing in America as we know it today, and in many ways, it feels as though we’ve conveniently written it out of our collective memory. We should remember Frankie Fazzary.