When you’ve spent $11 or $12 million to repave the entire 3.4-mile length of a decades-old motor racing track in upstate New York, that is reason for its whole region to celebrate, and that’s what Watkins Glen International (WGI) did on a sunny spring morning, Friday, April 15. Star racers Derek Bell and Andy Lally joined emcee FOX Sports announcer Bob Varsha, WGI President Michael Printup, State Senator Thomas O’Mara (R-Big Flats), and Corning Enterprises President G. Thomas Tranter in cutting the ribbon proclaiming the new track open and ready for racing.
Varsha laid out a brief history of the famous track on the hill overlooking Seneca Lake, then spoke about it as one of his favorite racetracks around the world. He commented that its “history and personality,” liken it to other illustrious racetracks such as Spa and Monza. “Watkins Glen International leads the pack in that regard,” Varsha said. “It’s just got such a spectacular history.”
Racer Andy Lally said he took a lap around the track that morning. “The excitement that came back was like the first time I drove here again,” he said. With the renovation, Lally said:
“The track looking like a pool table, the curbing being refinished, updated — everything looking like it’s going to be that much faster, and that the racing is going to be that much better than it’s ever been before — makes me excited.”
“Watkins Glen means a heck of a lot to me,” sports car endurance ace Derek Bell told the crowd assembled for the ceremony. “My very first time racing outside of Europe was here, in 1968.” That first race was his third for Ferrari, but just his second Formula 1 grand prix. Bell continued:
“I’ll never forget coming here. Ever since then it, quite naturally, has been a part of my history. It’s become, in a way, my home, my base. I’ve judged everything by Watkins Glen, and I sincerely mean that. This place has meant a tremendous amount to me and other Brits that have come over.”
About the drive around the new track that morning, Bell commented:
“It’s absolutely, really dramatic, still. It looks wider than it was; I swear it, but it’s just tremendous, still got basically those same corners; the same character is there. I think you’re going to have some wonderful racing.”
Bell said he admired the locals and others for keeping the track going over such a long period of time. “I’m really proud and honored to be part of it.” he added, “It’s wonderful to be part of The Glen. The good part about getting older is the fact that you have great memories, and I’ve got wonderful memories of this place.”
Printup told the crowd that if they were wondering how you attract luminaries in the sport such as Bell, Lally, and Varsha to come to a small town in upstate New York, you look to the track. It’s the track that does it.
He thanked all the officials, state representatives, and those who put in the hard work needed for the project to be completed. Printup paid particular tribute to New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo for being a champion in Albany in helping the racetrack. He said the governor had planned to be on hand for the ribbon cutting that day but his schedule required unexpectedly that he remain in New York City.
Following the official ribbon cutting, race cars of many different makes, models, and years from the Sportscar Vintage Racing Association (SVRA) took to the track to break it in in style. The fresh, newly painted red, white, and blue start/finish line — a paint scheme brought back from the Formula 1 days of the track — soon showed the scuff marks of tires under speed, as befits a world-class racetrack.
Festivities continue for Opening Weekend Saturday and Sunday at Watkins Glen International with individuals driving their own cars for three laps of the track for $25. with the money going to charities through the R.A.C.E. (Racing and Community Enrichment) Foundation. The International Motor Racing Research Center (IMRRC) downtown in the village has a free talk at 1 p.m. Saturday where six racetrack announcers from around New York State and Connecticut will share their stories.
For more information about WGI’s 2016 season or tickets, check out its website. The track, voted by readers of “USA Today” as the “best NASCAR track in the U.S.,” can also be reached by calling 866-461-RACE.