After spending many summers on the shores of Seneca Lake car enthusiast, driver, and Cornell Law student Cameron Argetsinger had an idea to bring European style road racing to the small village of Watkins Glen.
Argetsinger, a member of the early Sports Car Club of America (SCCA), proposed an amateur road race to the Watkins Glen Chamber of Commerce.
The Chamber enthusiastically accepted Cameron’s idea.
A 6.6-mile course was selected made up of mostly paved roads and a short dirt and gravel stretch. Argetsinger obtained permission to temporarily close the roads needed including nearby railroad tracks, and sanction from the SCCA was obtained.
The first race of the Watkins Glen Grand Prix was held on October 2nd, 1948 at 12 noon with a 4-lap qualifying race with a standing start. Fifteen cars started the 8-lap, 52.8-mile race. Only 10 finished. Racer Frank Griswold of Wayne, Pennsylvania won the inaugural contest driving a pre-war Alfa Romeo 8C2900 coupe.
Among the other notable contestants in the first Grand Prix was Charles Addams, the cartoonist who created the Addams’ Family.
In 1951, Sam Collier ran off the road and was killed when his Ferrari rolled into the fields alongside the course. Later in the day, another car left the road, injuring a fireman and two spectators.
Worse was to come in 1952, when Fred Wacker’s car lost control on the start-finish straight in the town and entered the crowd, killing a child and injuring 12 other spectators. This caused New York State to ban racing on state highways. The Grand Prix was removed from the town of Watkins Glen and relocated to a new circuit in the rural town of Dix.
This 4.6-mile course was made up of town roads and paths through the countryside, created from agreements with local landowners and a lease signed with the Town.
The Watkins Glen Grand Prix Corporation (WGGPC) was formed by the Chamber of Commerce to manage the race.
WGGPC set about to greatly improve spectator control, parking, and concessions at the new race site.
However, the SCCA chose not to sanction the 1953 Watkins Glen Grand Prix. The race went on as planned despite the loss of official sanctioning.
Drivers on the new course complained of poor runoff on the track as well as poor visibility. In 1955 it was decided to create a new more permeant race course for the 1956 Grand Prix.
The new Watkins Glen Grand Prix race course was built on a 550-acre parcel that overlapped part of the second race course. This course, however, didn’t share any roads with the previous course, as new roads were built for the new circuit.
William Milliken, noted Aircraft and Race Vehicle dynamics expert, who rolled his Bugatti T35A on the last lap of the race in 1948, was consulted on the new course as well as several engineering professors from Cornell University.
The new 2.3-mile course was completed the night before the first practice that year.
The SCCA, who had returned to sanctioning the race in 1954, had changed management and after being unable to come to terms on a sanction the race went forward without one.
This caused a “press release turf war” between the SCCA and the race promoters, with the SCCA trying to get member drivers to withdraw.
Despite the situation between race promoters and the SCCA, the 9th Annual Watkins Glen Grand Prix was held without serious incident.
The 10th Watkins Glen Grand Prix subsequently occurred on the traditional 3rd Saturday of September 1957, with Cameron Argetsinger as SCCA Chief Steward, as well as race director and organizer. There were over 225 entrants.
In 1961, Formula 1 stars came to The Glen for the first Watkins Glen U.S. Grand Prix, which would become a fall tradition at the circuit until 1980.
In 1968, the fall race was expanded to 6 hours and joined the World Sportscar Championship. The 6 Hours of Watkins Glen, along with the 24 Hours of Daytona and the 12 Hours of Sebring, served as the American round of the WSC from 1968 until 1981. With the Watkins Glen track’s bankruptcy in 1981, the FIA – the organization that runs the WSC – World Championship did not return to the US in 1982. The event would not be held again in Watkins Glen until 1984, returning as the IMSA Camel GT Championship.
Under IMSA control, the event was radically altered and shortened. In 1984, a break was held after three hours before the race began again and completed the final three hours. This new race became known as the Camel Continental. The race was modified again in 1985 by adding the running of sports prototypes in the first 3-hour section and grand tourer cars in the second 3-hour event. The race was shortened again in 1986 to a single 500-mile race and then shortened in 1987 to 500km. The race would continue for several more years as a 500km race in the summer along with the 500km New York 500 in the fall.
In 1996, IMSA restored the event at Watkins Glen to its historic format, combining prototypes and tourers once again. Watkins Glen chose to schedule the 1998 Six Hours as part of the United States Road Racing Championship. This change was short lived due to the ending of the USSRC during the 1999 season prior to their second running at Watkins Glen. This left just a FIA GT Championship as the year’s sportscar headliner. In the wake of USSRC’s collapse, the Grand American Road Racing Championship took control of the event and has retained the Six Hours since 2000 as part of the Rolex Sports Car Series. In 2014, after the merger of Grand-AM and the ALMS sports car series, IMSA regained control of the event under the United Sports Car Championship.