By Larry Ott
Courtesy of Area Auto Racing News
The name of Watkins Glen International holds a very dear and revered place in the motorsports world, as does the Argetsinger family name. The late Cameron Argetsinger first brought road racing to the streets of that Finger Lakes community in 1948.
Cameron Argetsinger was a founding father who turned his dream of bringing racing to Watkins Glen into reality. Since then, numerous racing series have raced on the various track configurations that have existed at The Glen.
Weaved throughout Watkins Glen’s long racing history have been numerous visits from NASCAR, which staged its first race at The Glen in 1957, with subsequent visits in 1964 and 1965.
Since 1986, NASCAR has returned to The Glen each year and will return again this August for the annual NASCAR Cup Series event.
J.C. Argetsinger is the oldest son of Cameron Argetsinger and experienced first-hand, starting as a young boy, the interactions between his father and NASCAR founder, the late Bill France Sr., as plans to bring NASCAR to Watkins Glen were unfolding those many years ago. J.C. publically shared many personal remembrances of both his father and France at a recent conversation series event held at the International Motor Racing Research Center in Watkins Glen. J.C., a retired Schuyler County (NY), judge and attorney, served as president of the IMRRC from 2007 until retiring from that post in 2015.
Of great interest is the historical fact that the first race at Watkins Glen as well as the birth of NASCAR both occurred in 1948. NASCAR was launched in February of that year while the first street race in Watkins Glen was held in October. Thus the seeds of the Argetsinger-France family connection began that year.
“My father was a 27-year-old guy and how he ever persuaded the village to hold the race through the main street of Watkins Glen in 1948 was amazing,” Argetsinger said. “It was my father’s forceful personality and the Chamber of Commerce of Watkins Glen and Don Brubaker who was at the Seneca Lodge and who was president of the chamber, that made it all happen. Don wasn’t at all interested in racing but he just realized that it probably would be a good way to extend the tourist season.”
Thus racing commenced in Watkins Glen.
During the running of the first race at Watkins Glen in 1948, J.C saw a tall man and his car arrive in the village. He had never seen the man or car before. This aroused curiosity within a very young J.C. It wasn’t until years later that J.C. and his father would connect the dots and discover that the man J.C. saw observing the 1948 race was Bill France himself.
“I was six years old and I was selling programs and I’ve told the story and it really wasn’t documented anywhere else that Bill France Sr. was there at the first race at Watkins Glen in 1948,” Argetsinger said.” A number of years later I described it to my father. I saw this very extraordinarily tall man in a brand new Hudson which was an unusual car in 1948. It was a two-door coupe. I remember it so well. There was a sign in the back of the car that said ‘NASCAR.’ I said to my father that very day, ‘what is a NASCAR?’ He said: ‘Oh, that’s some other organization like the SCCA.’ So at the running of the first race my father never even knew that Bill France was there and nobody else did either. Again, it was a number of years later I was telling my father the whole story and we both suddenly realized that the man I was describing was Bill France. I’v got my theories, but there was Big Bill France seeing what his northern cousins were up to with their sporty car racing, checking things out. So my father was never aware that Bill was at the 1948 race. Of course, Bill France was just starting out then and my father was just starting out so they both were kind of relatively unknown at the time.”
Argetsinger has very fond memories of his father’s first encounters with France. It would eventually bond The Glen and NASCAR together. “What an amazing, charismatic, and larger-than-life personality that Bill France had,” Argetsinger said. “I met him and my father did also. A number of times he came to our house. John Bishop, who worked with France for many years when they formed IMSA, told many stories about how Bill could stand next to somebody and put his arm around him and say, ‘Let’s reason together.’ Bill was quite persuasive. Bill was able to put NASCAR together, but he had bigger things in mind.”
Some of those bigger history-making things would eventually clear the path for NASCAR to come to The Glen for the very first time in 1957. “Bill sponsored a few races in the north, and then in 1957 NASCAR raced at Watkins Glen,” Argetsinger said. “It was a major race. He and my father really hit it off and they got acquainted, obviously, also at the 1964 and 1965 races.
“Also, early on Bill France had an eye on international racing. At the time my father was just beginning to promote the U.S. Grand Prix and Formula Libre in 1958 and international sports car racing. My father was at Sebring in 1957. Alec Ullman at the time was the big international promoter with the Twelve Hours of Sebring and he had a lock on things. My father looked out and this plane landed in the field at Sebring and Bill France got out with four of his lieutenants. Alec was very jealous about the credentials. You didn’t get on the course without clearing through Alec first. Big Bill and his lieutenants strolled across the field and I said to my father, ‘Didn’t someone try to stop him?’ My father said that would have been like trying to stop a wave in the ocean. Bill just swept in, talked to all the international drivers and team people. He did his business and left after 45 minutes.”
J.C. recalled a time in 1964 or 1965 when France made a visit to the Argetsinger household and his younger brother, the late Michael Argetsinger, had an interesting experience with NASCAR’s head man. “My younger brother Michael had been driving his old stock car at some of the oval tracks and local dirt tracks,” Argetsinger said. “Michael was a great racing enthusiast. He and Bill France hit it off at our house. Bill said to Michael that he was going to get Michael a NASCAR international driving license. Michael had been racing in just a few local races at age 20 or 21 on the local oval tracks. It turned out to be such a great gift because the next year Michael moved to Europe and he was able to move immediately into Formula Ford and international sports car racing by virtue of the fact that Bill France had given him a NASCAR license just based on a conversation at our home. Michael raced for ten years in Europe.”
Cameron Argetsinger would get even more involved with France as the years rolled by. It included the U.S. Grand Prix that ran at Watkins Glen from 1961-1980. “France worked very closely with my father because France was on the ACCUS (Automobile Competition Committee for the United States) which was our representative to the FIA,” Argetsinger said. “France had a tremendous personality and he always favored Watkins Glen. There were other tracks that were competing to get the sanction for the U.S. Grand Prix. France was always in my father’s corner and helped get us the U.S. Grand Prix.”
France was also involved in the process that helped take Watkins Glen International from financial woes suffered in the early 1980s back into business as a racing facility for the years ahead. “In the early 1980s when Corning Inc. bought Watkins Glen, my father, Bill France, and NASCAR participated in organizing the races at Watkins Glen before they became full partners,” Argetsinger recalled. “My father had a reception at our home. He introduced Bill France to those in our community. Big Bill by this time was kind of a senior ambassador and was just absolutely charming with his personality. My father thought it was so good for Watkins Glen that after all these years he was still involved with us. I was Bill’s personal bartender that evening and I remember he very much enjoyed the bourbon that I served him.”
While Watkins Glen has mostly been steeped in rich road and sports car racing traditions over its long history, there is no question that the annual NASCAR weekend at The Glen has long ago established itself as easily the biggest and most successful event on the yearly racing calendar there. J.C. says that his father was very proud of this development. “A reporter asked my father one day, whose career was sports cars and Formula One cars, if it disturbed him that Watkins Glen now is mostly synonymous with NASCAR and my father said ‘Nonsense,’” Argetsinger stressed. “My father stated that NASCAR breathed new life into the course and provided not only great revenues for the community with the huge spectator base but made it possible to finance the various sports car and amateur events that are held at the track throughout the year.”
Cameron Argetsinger died in 2008 while Bill France Sr. died in 1992. Separately, both men enjoyed much success, but when paired together for so many years, they formed an unbeatable combination. Both men fed off of each other’s efforts to benefit motorsports.
The motorsports world has been truly blessed that both men were involved in the sport and their contributions will live on. J.C. feels most fortunate to have grown up in a life that involved both men. “It allowed me to experience the sport at a much different level and in so many ways, and it was a very interesting part of my family life,” Argetsinger said. “I’ve been truly fortunate, as has been my family.”