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Watkins Glen - Checking Another One Off the Bucket List

Because it was the original home of the US Grand Prix, Watkins Glen International Raceway, bills itself as the “Soul of American Road Racing”. Car & Driver magazine recently included it among the top five tracks in the United States (Road Atlanta, VIR, Road America and Laguna Seca being the others). Over the Sept 17-19 weekend, BK Racing journeyed to the Finger Lakes region of New York to find out why.

Short story – WOW!!!!

And now for those of you that prefer just a bit more detail:

Shortly after Harriett & I met back in the early 90’s we visited my folks in Central Florida and stopped in Daytona Beach to tour Daytona International Speedway. I grew up in that part of the country and my dad was part-owner of a car that ran the first race there on Feb. 22, 1959, but as the two of us stood arm-in-arm atop the 31-degree banking it was a something of a religious experience for me. I felt like we were pilgrims visiting one of the major cathedrals of racing in this country. It has history, it has majesty, and it’ll bite you in a heartbeat if you mess up!

Over the September 17-19 weekend we visited another cathedral of speed, Watkins Glen. The Glen hosted the US Grand Prix from 1961-1980 and every major road racing series in the world has raced there over the years. As Harriett & I stood (still arm-in-arm) atop the control tower on the front straight it was much the same experience – it has history, it has majesty, and it will definitely bite you in a heartbeat if you mess up!

The idea for this trip originated last year (2009) when Elizabeth Thiel, my counterpart with Finger Lakes Region SCCA, called me for help with the planning of their Trans-Am/National race weekend. We established a rapport and she invited me to their signature event, “The Fun One”, that runs each fall. Earlier this year I floated the idea of attending among the stock car roadracing congregation and half a dozen folks expressed interest, so we put it on the 2010 BK Racing calendar. It ends up life got in the way and we were the only GTA car attending, but I used the opportunity to preach the gospel anyway.

Data and I left Woodstock around 2:00 Wednesday afternoon, spent an hour in Greenville (SC) traffic – I didn’t even know they HAD traffic in Greenville – and stopped for the night just north of the I-77 & I-81 interchange in Virginia. We hit the road again at 7:00 Thursday morning and rolled into the track that afternoon before 5:00. We had the windshield wipers on for pretty much the whole state of Pennsylvania and New York wasn’t much better. The odometer on the dually recorded 933.4 miles and it took us right at 16 hours, so this was NOT a trip you’d want to make every weekend! We were able to get into the track that evening (they don’t always allow that) so we set up the awning but didn’t unload Cuervo because the weather was still threatening. The forecast for Friday’s test day was sunny and 70 degrees.

It ends up the weather forecasters in New York aren’t any better than those here in the south. When we left the hotel in Corning (at 5:30 because the track office opened at 6:00) Friday morning the ground was still wet and it started raining on our way to the track. We signed up for the test day and set about prepping Cuervo, but it was still “misting heavily” so I made the management level decision to skip the first session. Ends up that was the correct decision as the first of the three cars going out spun and hit the guardrail before getting off pit road! WGI management has a policy of stopping the entire session while things are being cleaned up, so that 30-minute session ended up being maybe ten minutes.

It was still chilly, overcast and damp when the second session rolled around, but I REALLY wanted to see the track from the driver’s seat so we suited up and rolled down to pit road. I was the first of six cars lined up and I’d never seen the track before, so I pulled over and let everyone go by before heading out onto the track. It was still misting pretty badly, but I gradually figured out which way the track went and started picking up speed. Unfortunately, Cuervo was all over the place when I did that.

Quite simply, I have NEVER been that uncomfortable on a race track. Granted it was wet and I’d never been on the track before, but Cuervo was slewing sideways whenever I shifted even when I was going down the straights! I didn’t know if I was hitting puddles on the track (I didn’t SEE any), if the track was that rough, or if I’d just forgotten how to drive. My best lap was my last one at a 2:30+ and I had no idea what was going on. I drove back to our paddock spot and Data took tire pressures. He called them out while I was unbuckling:

RF – 24 pounds; LF – 22 pounds; LR – 24 pounds; RR – 0 (ZERO!!!) pounds.

I’m not sure how long it had been that way, but that would certainly account for the car being so unpredictable. We found the puncture and plugged it, checked to make sure it was holding air, then went into the town of Watkins Glen for lunch. Along the way I started feeling better.

The track was completely dry for the third (and last) session at 2:50, but I again waved everyone by on pit road. The car immediately felt MUCH better as I worked down to a 2:10 lap, then I slowed for a lap to get away from traffic and dropped it to a 2:09.17. I chilled for one more lap to let some traffic go, then on the last lap of the day turned a 2:06.35. I have no idea what a “good” lap at WGI is for a GTA car, but other places we run right at what a National-level T-1 car will run. Friday night we checked the T-1 record for the long course and found it was set by (multi-time National Champion) John Heinricy at a 2:03.1 this past July. Even though we’d gotten a total of sixteen laps on the day I felt I’d left a lot of time on the table, so I felt we were in pretty decent shape for Saturday.

If you want a few words about the track, “frigging amazing” comes to mind! <g> It’s almost as fast as Road Atlanta or VIR (about 150 in Cuervo), Turn Two and the Inner Loop are a lot faster than they initially appear, the Uphill Esses will make everything sacred to your body pucker, the track is essentially straight downhill from the Inner Loop to the laces of the Boot (there’s a LOT more elevation change than it looks like on TV or the track map), the left-hander from the Boot onto the Short Course will scare the daylights out of you, and the right-hander onto the front straight is pretty much a plant-it-and-hope-to-Hell-they-haven’t-moved-the-track corner! <g> The track has a reputation of being a car-eater so I never left the pavement all day (hence my remark about leaving a lot on the table) and there are places it seems like you’re driving through a blue Armco tunnel. I don’t know that it’s worth another 16-hour drive for a race that doesn’t count for anything, but if they run a Trans-Am race there I’d definitely head back.

Harriett arrived before we left the track Friday evening so she got signed in and we went in search of a Mexican restaurant. Y’all know I don’t usually talk bad about things, but if you’re ever in Corning, NY, and crave good Mexican, do NOT go to Sonora’s Mexican Restaurant on Market Street. The chairs were uncomfortable, the waitress has no idea what Grand Marnier is, the margaritas were like Kool-Aid (we ended up drinking beer after sampling one), the food appeared to have been thawed out when we ordered it, and the service was lousy as well. Other than those minor things, however, it was great! <g>

We arrived at the track Saturday morning with high hopes of improving on Friday’s time but things went south in a hurry. As the group before us was finishing up a car blew its engine and oiled down half the corners, so when we finally went on our warm-up lap the track looked like a scene from “Sahara”. Then as we started our second timed lap a T-1 Corvette lunched it’s engine and caught fire on the outside of Turn One so there was no clean line through the corner and we had a yellow at Start/Finish the entire 12-minute session. On the last lap I got a fairly clear lap and turned a 2:12.287 that was good enough for fifth overall of the 37 cars in the group.

We were the only car in GTA so the plan for the race was to run hard but not mess up anyone else up and bring Cuervo home in one piece. I didn’t contest anyone if they wanted to out-brake me into the corners and instead just concentrated on learning more about the track. We got passed by one car per lap each of the first three laps, held station for two laps, then two more cars got by on lap 5 and we moved up one spot when a GT-1 Camaro in front of us dropped out, so we ended up ninth overall, just over five seconds out of sixth place. If we’d had one more lap (they shortened the race because mishaps in Group 2 had caused delays in the day’s schedule) I MIGHT have gotten past the car immediately in front of me. Our fast race lap was a 2:09.636, and since we were the only car in the “V8S” class we’re now officially the class record holder for the Watkins Glen long course! <g>

Although Saturday’s weather was clear and 70 there was a 30% chance of rain predicted for Sunday. I’d had enough fun for the weekend and we had nothing to prove, so we loaded Cuervo up on Saturday afternoon. We stayed for the Fun One’s traditional Pig Roast that evening and went to the famed Seneca Lodge for margaritas Saturday night, then returned to the track Sunday morning to say our goodbyes. We did stop by the Corning Glass Museum before leaving town (which was pretty neat) and had lunch at a local brewery on Market Street, then Data & I headed south while Harriett went north to Rochester to fly home. Even though it’s sixteen miles shorter going through Chattanooga rather than Charlotte it’s STILL a sixteen hour trip whichever way you cut it! We met some great people, we had a good time, we got to turn some laps on an awesome race track, and we established a baseline for whenever we return there in the future – I just don’t know when that will be.

The next event for BK Racing is the SARRC Invitational Challenge at Roebling Road the weekend of Oct 9-10. We’ve got a minimal amount of work to have Cuervo ready and we still lead the 2010 points chase, so we’ll also take a couple of days off to attend the Trans-Am race that’s part of the Petit LeMans festivities at Road Atlanta. GTA will be part of the new-for-2011 TA-2 class in that series, so we’ll be paying particular attention to how that works out. Lots of irons in the fire for 2011, but first we need to finish up the 2010 season.

As always, if you want any information about our upcoming events just let me know.

Remaining Events on our 2010 Schedule:

  • Oct 9-10        SARRC Invitation Challenge, Savannah GA
  • Nov 5-7         ARRC by GRM, Gainesville GA
  • Nov 13-14     Roebling Track Trials, Savannah GA

See y’all at the track…