Open-wheel racing enjoys storied history

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The banked turns at Watkins Glen International in New York State allows IndyCars to take turns at very high speeds. INDYCAR.COM

The banked turns at Watkins Glen International in New York State allows IndyCars to take turns at very high speeds. INDYCAR.COM

NEW YORK: The IndyCar Grand Prix at Watkins Glen International marks just the 10th time IndyCar machines are visiting the 60-year-old circuit, but open-wheel racing is etched in the history of motor racing in the Finger Lakes region of New York State, and its very presence played a major role in launching the circuit into legendary status.

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The first motor race in Watkins Glen was contested in October 1948 on public roads, the first road race in the United States following World War II. It had a 6.6-mile (10.56-kilometer) circuit.

The length of the circuit was reduced to 4.6 miles (7.36 kilometers) in 1952 five miles west of the town, with a 2.3-mile (3.68-kilometer) permanent course erected on the same site in 1956. Half a decade later, open-wheel racing made its official debut in New York State when Formula One held the first of 20 United States Grands Prix at Watkins Glen. As much as 100,000 fans crammed the facility to watch the races.

The 1971 grand prix saw a massive reconfiguration to the track, which set the footprint for the course that remains today.

In the 1960s, British racers Innes Ireland, Jim Clark, Graham Hill, Sir Jackie Stewart and James Hunt claimed 11 of the 20 Formula One wins at The Glen, including the first eight in 1961-68.

Formula One saw its era at The Glen come to a close in 1980, as the track’s main event transitioned to American open-wheel racing with the introduction of an IndyCar race in 1979. The allure of the sport was spurred by captivating drivers, mind-boggling speed and rapid technological innovations.

One of the most fascinating of those drivers of the era, both on and off the track, Bobby Unser, turned out to be the most successful driver of that early IndyCar era, winning two of the three races held under CART sanction at Watkins Glen from 1979-81. Unser, a three-time Indianapolis 500 winner, competed in the 1968 F1 race for BRM at Watkins Glen, but the New Mexico resident found a particular thrill a decade after his lone Formula One start.

“I liked all the racing at Watkins Glen,” said Unser, “but the IndyCars were my favorite. I can’t help it, but that was just my life, you know.”

When IndyCar first raced at The Glen, the long back straightaway, preceded by the high-speed complex of Turns 2-4 known as “the Esses,” went uninterrupted down to Turn 5, leading drivers from top speed into a fast downhill corner.

“Oh, that was really nice,” Unser, 82, said with a smile. “I mean really, really, really nice, because the turn at the end of that straightaway was awful fast because the back straightaway was just god-awful fast, and [the turn]had a little banking to it, so you could go into it fast. If you got into the turn really fast, really hard, and you were in the right groove, boy, you could just wail through that turn.”

Turn 5 was extremely dangerous from the tremendous entrance speed, and was later slowed by the implementation of the “Inner Loop” bus stop chicane in 1992.

To Unser, corners like Turn 5 are part of what made Watkins Glen the track drivers yearned to race, and why it remains one of the crown jewels of American motor racing.

“It’s a race driver’s racetrack,” Unser said. “It’s not a lazy man’s racetrack at all. You had to work your butt off all the time at that track, and I think that that’s good. I think that makes racing better, more exciting for the fans, definitely more exciting for the drivers.”

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