Real Heroes

While watching a recent newscast on Speedvision on the coming F1 season, my thoughts turned back to my last trip to Watkins Glen where the Grand Prix was run many years ago. In particular I considered the enormous difference between the circumstances faced by the modern day F1 pilot, securely belted deep into his high-tech, carbon-fiber missile of a race car, with his fire suit and aerodynamic helmet, and those faced by the men who drove the Glen in shirt sleeves, wearing leather helmets, when the race was run on the streets and nearby county roads.

When I was last there Rick Houck and I, with family members in tow, drove (Jeep Cherokee and Ford Ranger) the original Grand Prix Circuit. The 6.6 mile course was first run on October 2, 1948; the first road race in the US since World War II. It was used for road racing from 1948 through 1952. There is a self-guided tour one can take of the old Circuit, beginning at the start/finish line on Franklin Street, in front of the Schuyler County Court House, then heading up the hill past Seneca Lodge (great bar, lousy rooms). A brochure is available which guides you through the route and describes in detail the course and the various landmarks.

As we drove along it was impossible not to marvel at the courage and skill that it must have taken to keep those old sports cars and the Grand Prix cars on the road at speed. Skinny tires, marginal brakes, and big horsepower must have presented a daunting task to the men who drove this course in the early years. The roads that made up the circuit had no safety features to catch cars out of control, or dissipate impact. They are narrow with tight turns and steep grades. In particular the School House Corner and the following steep downhill run to the Stone Bridge is just plain scary.

It was more than difficult to consider taking this section at speed. Not everyone made it through this section without mishap. In 1948, during the Junior Prix, Denver Cornett flipped his MG into the creek at the Stone Bridge (now known as Cornett’s Stone Bridge). He rolled the car back over, borrowed parts from fellow competitors, and later ran the Grand Prix, finishing 7th.

Death and F1 are certainly not strangers. And the old Glen course had its share of both. In 1950, while leading the Grand Prix, Samuel Collier, winner of the 1949 event, crashed and perished. There is a monument, which marks the spot.

Nothing can be taken from those who dare to drive F1 today. And the death toll in the so-called modern age of F1, with machinery which is far advanced from that driven in 1948, has not been insignificant (who that was watching cannot forget Senna’s fatal crash?). But there is a level of courage that just seems greater in the men who had the nerve to push racing cars through the old Glen circuit in the days when safety features were essentially non-existent.

Watkins Glen is a “must do” experience for any sports car and racing enthusiast. The setting of the town of Watkins Glen and of the permanent road course which opened in 1966 is beautiful. Seneca Lake is a marvel and the wineries that populate this part of the Finger Lakes District are worth a few extra days of your time. There are driving schools at the Glen (two this year in May alone-Allegheny Region and TracQuest-contact me for details) or you can just enjoy a bed-and-breakfast and take in the racing history at the Glen.

You must go.

© Rose Lane Garage 2001

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