IMRRC marks 50th anniversary of 1st Formula One U.S. Grand Prix at Watkins Glen – Culminating a year-long celebration, on Saturday the International Motor Racing Research Center commemorated the first Formula One U.S. Grand Prix motor race to happen at Watkins Glen. The event took place 50 years to the day after Tex Hopkins leaped into the air and dropped the first green flag in 1961. That act so long ago launched 20 years of glory at the Watkins Glen racetrack. Formula One racers and cars from the United States, Europe, and around the world competed at the upstate New York track each October from 1961 to 1980, adding their own fire and color to the blaze of the autumn hillsides already reflected in cool, blue Seneca Lake.
A warm and sunny day greeted race enthusiasts and participants in Watkins Glen and at the IMRRC. Michael Argetsinger, son of Cameron Argetsinger, the man credited with bringing the U.S. Grand Prix to the small upstate New York town, was on hand signing copies of his new book, Formula One at Watkins Glen: 20 Years of the United States Grand Prix, 1961-1980. The book is lush with color and black and white vintage photographs from each race as well as Mr. Argetsinger’s personal recollections, a brief history of the races at “The Glen,” and quotes from racers and others. All proceeds from the book go to benefit the IMRRC, according to the author.
Special guest, Canadian Bill Sadler, was in attendance and was recognized. Mr. Sadler is called “Canada’s most successful racecar builder” by the Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame where he was inducted in 1993. However, he also drove, competing in the Formula Libre races at The Glen. Saying a few words to the audience, Mr. Sadler called Watkins Glen “my home racetrack.”
Two authors spoke on Saturday about the only two American Formula One world champions. Michael T. Lynch is the author of Phil Hill: Man and Legend – A Lifetime of Enthusiasm. Tracing a brief biography of the man and his participation in the sport, Mr. Lynch said that Phil Hill was the only “native born American world champion” in Formula One racing, winning his title in 1961 at the Italian Grand Prix at Monza. Because of the death of his teammate, Wolfgang von Trips, in the same race, however, Ferrari pulled its team from the U.S. Grand Prix that year, so that is why the American champion did not compete in the first Formula One race at The Glen.
Gordon Kirby is the author of Mario Andretti: A Driving Passion. Mr. Kirby, likewise, traced a brief biography of the champion and his contributions to the sport of motor racing. Beginning his talk by saying, “Watkins Glen is the American Grand Prix, and there’ll never be another to replace it,” he said Mario Andretti “is motor racing” because he was so successful in such a wide range of cars and tracks during his career – oval, dirt, indy, stock, F1, and more. Born in Italy but emigrating to the United States with his family in his youth, the racer was described by Mr. Kirby as “a guy who could drive anything.” Like Phil Hill 17 years earlier, Mr. Andretti won his Formula One world championship at the Italian Grand Prix at Monza in 1978. Also like Phil Hill, Mr. Kirby noted, ironically, Mr. Andretti’s teammate, Ronnie Peterson, died from injuries sustained in that race.
The significance of Watkins Glen for Mario Andretti, Mr. Kirby said, is that it was the first track where Andretti raced a Formula One car. The driver and the car were a good match – in Mr. Andretti’s experience at The Glen, he became the first driver to win the pole position as a rookie F1 driver. At that time, the racer had not yet committed to racing Formula One cars, but his experience at The Glen went a long way fast toward cementing that committment.
Americans and Formula One
Mr. Kirby noted that no other American has won a Formula One Grand Prix since Mario Andretti won the Dutch Grand Prix in 1978. He said that, in his opinion, young American racers need to go to Europe early in their careers and prove themselves, both in terms of skill and public relations, in order for the U.S. to make a strong comeback in the sport.
Watkins Glen Walk of Fame
Following the authors’ talks on Saturday, the day proceeded with the induction of Jon McKnight of the Center into the Watkins Glen Walk of Fame by J. C. Argetsinger, IMRRC president (and brother of Michael Argetsinger). The Walk of Fame features commemorative sidewalk panels throughout the town. Mario Andretti’s sidewalk block, for example, is located at the entrance to Watkins Glen State Park.
Also featured on Saturday was an opening reception for “The Art of Formula One” exhibit featuring local artists. Films of Formula One U.S. Grand Prix races at The Glen ran continuously in a small screening room, fueling the nostalgia felt by many. Vintage posters, race programs, and other memorabilia were on sale throughout the day. Raffle tickets continued to be sold as well for a 1977 Mustang built as a tribute car to the one driven by actor Steve McQueen in the 1968 movie, Bullitt. Tickets remain on sale until the winner is drawn in December.
The International Motor Racing Research Center is located at 610 S. Decatur Street, Watkins Glen, New York. For more information about the Center, its collections, and activities, see: www.racingarchives.org or call (607) 535-9044.