The first post war road race in the USA was flagged off on the 2nd October 1948 at Watkins Glen , NY. Now featured on the national register of historic places the original 6.6 mile circuit is intact and may be followed precisely – but at much abated speed. Quite how the drivers of that period ran at full racing speed on what are no more than (in a lot of places poor) country roads defies belief. Heroes at best, foolhardy to a man!
The run begins with a convoy drive to the main street of Watkins Glen which is three and a half miles from the circuit. The cars are left on display for some two hours prior to the re-enactment run to allow spectators the opportunity to view, photograph, talk to the crews and drink beer. Oh yes, beer is a major part of this event. The main street is populated by many bars and eating establishments all of which take up station on the pavement selling drink & food of every description and noise. Each bar has either some live entertainment or it’s juke box turned up beyond the pain threshold. Believe me, this is a big day in the Watkins Glen calendar!
Following the biggest street party we have ever taken part in it was time to take off and complete three laps of the course. The instructions were ‘no overtaking’ which crossed my mind could be inhibiting for a T70. Not when the leader goes off like a scalded cat though! The guy at the front seemed intent on setting a new lap record so rather than holding back, at times it was all we could do to keep up with Kenne Bristol’s T294 in front of us. He had the advantage of knowing the route and idiosyncrasies of the roads.
The route climbs steeply out of town and departs from the road to the circuit on a fast right hand sweep at Seneca Lodge, the delightful ‘Log cabin’ Hotel which was base camp for the weekend. Although still climbing steeply the car is approaching 100 mph by the time White House ‘S’ comes into view. With some circumspection we slow considerably on this first lap only to be left for dead by Kenne. The navigator has logged that this one can be taken quicker next time! Although no white house actually exists the name is apparently in homage to a ‘Maison Blanche’ somewhere in France?
Next landmark is the ‘Collier Monument’ to the memory of Samuel James Collier who’s demise came at that point during the 1950 race. Passing under the NY Central railway the road narrows and the concrete abutments leave barely enough of a target for a car approaching at over the ton.
School House Corner, 2.7 miles from the start sees the road fall away into the dramatic descent to Cornetts Stone Bridge. The one room school house has subsequently been remodelled into a residence and the owners took the opportunity to enjoy a post supper repose in their deckchairs during the run, sitting at the road side just feet away from the passing cars.
The bends leading to Cornett’s Bridge are tight and blind on each exit so arriving at the bridge and it’s 90 degree exit to the right has proven through the years to be just too much of a challenge for many competitors. This is the actual ‘Glen’ and in 1948 Denver Cornett (yes, that really was his name) missed the bridge completely and finished up in the water during practice. With help from the marshals he turned the car over and limped back to town. Borrowing parts from fellow competitors and working all night, the exhausted Denver raced the following day and finished 7th!
Railroad straight then takes the route almost back to the town but also throws up the biggest obstacle for ultra low sports racing cars – a level crossing. This crossing definitely requires maximum caution, in fact the hump is so severe that 1st gear was needed and dribble across at 45 degrees hoping not to remove the cockpit floor or sump.
Friars Corner, so named because the land was previously owned by Franciscan Friars is quick and then that sinking feeling again as we enter Big Bend. The road drops away steeply and the decent into Watkins Glen begins with beautiful views over Lake Seneca – but this is not the time for sightseeing.
Checking the car all the way round, Big Bend is just that and feels as if we are going in a complete circle when Milliken’s Corner begins to rush up to meet us. William Milliken gave his name to this corner in 1948 (an eventful year!) when he crashed at the foot of the hill having failed to make the left right into Main Street. The story goes that his car disappeared into the cellar of the house he struck and although the lucky Mr. Milliken emerged relatively unscathed it took three days to extract what remained of his Bugatti.
As we pass the 'starting grid' we see Johan's MklllB still at the side of the road. Unlucky in the extreme he picked up a puncture on the way to town and by the start of the run, the tyre was completely deflated. So poor Johan had resign himself to the people, the noise and the beer. He coped manfully!
End of lap one, two to go and of course by the end of the run we are getting the hang of things and don’t want to stop. Isn’t that always the way. But the Main street is still packed and with the crowds willing drivers to rev the engines and smoke the tyres a final burst ends this fantastic experience. By the time we are heading back to the circuit the sun is setting on a brilliant day and an adventure we pray will be offered again next year.