Self-Guided Tour of the Original Watkins Glen Grand Prix Circuit
You can view a PDF version of the printed brochure here.
“The old circuit, [with] its varied corners and surfaces, made it unsurpassed as a challenge to car and driver.” – Cameron R. Argetsinger, designer of the original road course.
Visitors may follow in the tire tracks of America’s pioneering road racers by driving the original 6.6-mile circuit through the village of Watkins Glen, around the spectacular gorge in Watkins Glen State Park, and over surrounding farmland. Markers designate the course, starting at the original start-finish line in front of the Schuyler County Court House on Franklin Street. From 1948 to 1952, cars raced over asphalt, cement, and dirt roads, up and down hills, crossing a stone bridge and the New York Central’s rail line along the original circuit’s demanding loop.
An “outlandish dream”
On October 2, 1948, Watkins Glen served as the venue for the first post-WWII American road race. This inaugural race attempted to revive road racing in the United States, bringing the excitement and prestige of European road racing across the Atlantic. Cameron Argetsinger’s outlandish dream of creating an international road racing circuit in the remote Finger Lakes of Upstate New York required the support of local and racing communities to implement. It brought together members of the fledgling Sports Car Club of America, Watkins Glen community leaders, the Chamber of Commerce, and local journalists and boosters. Village automobile garages and car dealerships served as team headquarters and provided technical support. State, county, town, and village governments as well as the park service supported the effort, granting permission to racers to run their cars over roads maintained by multiple jurisdictions. Residents welcomed, housed, and fed visitors; admired the fast, beautifully-designed sports cars; and cheered the racers. It sparked the long tradition of hosting motorsports events and the racing community in the village of Watkins Glen and the surrounding area.
Driving the historic road course
On the National Register of Historic Places, the circuit is largely preserved in its original form. The entire course is now paved, parts of the road widened, and the curves at the White House ‘S’ were straightened for the safety of contemporary motorists. New York State Department of Transportation signs along the roadside note mileage and landmarks. The brown markers for the “Watkins Glen Historic Road Course” are ornamented with a distinctive logo, featuring an outline of the course and Frank Griswold’s inaugural race-winning Alfa-Romeo.
Facing south, begin at the start-finish line on Franklin Street (Rt. 14), in front of the Schuyler County Courthouse between 9th and 10th streets. Drive 1/4 mile, crossing the bridge over Glen Creek, to Old Corning Hill Road (Rt. 329) and turn right up the steep hill. Continue straight (bearing left) at the junction with Walnut Road (Rt. 419). Keep to the right at the intersection with Rt. 17, continuing on Townsend Road (Rt. 329) through the White House ‘S’ and under the railroad underpass to School House Corner at the junction between Townsend, Meads Hill and White’s Hollow roads. Take a sharp right downhill on White’s Hollow Road to cross Cornett’s Stone Bridge and continue on, following the serpentine road to Archy Smith’s Corner. Turn right at the ‘T’ onto Station Road (Rt. 409), going down the straight and over the railroad tracks. Continue this mile-long descent into the village, around the sharp curve at Milliken’s Corner, turning right onto Franklin Street at the traffic light, and back to the start-finish line.
For the safety of all, please observe posted speed limits around the circuit and enjoy the landmarks along the original road course at a leisurely pace.
0.0 Start-Finish Line
The brick memorials on either side of Franklin Street in front of the Schuyler County Courthouse mark the location of the start-finish line for the premier Watkins Glen Grand Prix. Race officials waved green and checkered flags at this start-finish line from the first race in 1948 to 1952. Drivers’ Walk of Fame stones in the sidewalk on both sides of the street honor racers who competed on the original road course.
0.07 Turn One
Racers rounded this corner, just after passing the main entrance to Watkins Glen State Park and the bridge over Glen Creek. William Milliken, an aeronautical and automotive engineer as well as a racer, wrote about the first turn: “From a driver’s viewpoint, nothing can be compared to having been in the midst of that snarling pack as it slid through the ‘S’ turn off Franklin Street, and accelerated up the long hill.”
0.1 Old Corning Hill
0.6 Townsend Road Corner
Like Old Corning Road which connected Watkins Glen to the city of Corning to the south, the local roads often derive their names from their end points. The south part of the circuit follows a portion of Townsend Road (Rt. 329) which leads to Townsend, a small community in the Town of Dix, located to the west.
0.7 Seneca Lodge
A family-operated restaurant, inn and motorcourt, Seneca Lodge has served as a social center for the racing community since the first road race in 1948. The Lodge’s tradition of hosting race teams and fans visiting for events at the track continues today. Its close ties to local racing are reflected in a display of artifacts and memorabilia in the Lodge’s tavern room.
1.3 White House ‘S’
This point marks a series of uphill curves near where a white farm house stood in 1948. The original house is no longer there. The name takes poetic license from White House Corner at the Le Mans circuit in France. Henry Valent, circuit historian, describes this section: “Down the long stretch from White House corner the driver has his hands full as the car takes punishment from the surface roughness and he wrestles with the dips and camber changes of the road.”
1.6 Railroad Underpass
A steel beam and girder bridge carried the New York Central Railroad’s trains over the roadway and became a highly sought-after viewing spot for spectators. With the trains temporarily halted during the races, fans crowded the bridge and concrete abutments.
2.3 The Collier Monument
A native granite boulder with a bronze plaque memorializes the victory and tragedy of the Collier brothers, who both raced on the original course. Miles Collier drove a spectacular race in the 1949 Grand Prix, coming from behind to steal the win from the race leader Briggs Cunningham in the final lap. His younger brother Sam, while leading the Grand Prix in 1950 at over 120 m.p.h., skidded and lost control of his Ferrari, crashing in the adjoining field. He later died of his injuries. Miles honored his brother by organizing the first endurance race at Sebring in 1950. Extended to 12 hours in length, the race has become a premier sports car endurance event.
2.7 School House Corner
This junction marks the start of the dramatic, abrupt descent into White’s Hollow. In the 1948-1952 period, the structure on the knoll on the southwest corner served as the Glen Creek School, a rural one-room schoolhouse. Remodeled, it is now a private residence.
3.0 Cornett’s Stone Bridge
The single-arched fieldstone bridge over Glen Creek in White’s Hollow became known as Cornett’s Stone Bridge after a racing mishap. In the 1948 qualifying race, Denver Cornett flipped his MG into the dry creek bed 20 feet below the bridge. Horrified spectators feared the worst when they heard a voice from under the car say, “I’m all right, but somebody needs to get this car off of me.” After he was extracted and the car righted, Cornett borrowed parts from his fellow competitors and was ready to race in the Grand Prix that afternoon. He finished seventh.
3.7 Archy Smith’s Corner
The extant stucco house at the intersection on the left belonged to a dairy farmer named Archy Smith. Smith, like other enterprising property owners on the route, turned their yards into paid parking lots and viewing spots for the growing number of spectators. A temporary grandstand was constructed in the field across Station Road. Attendance for the races swelled annually and was estimated at 10,000 in 1948 to 150,000 on race day in 1952.
4.0 Railroad Straight
The surface of this section of the road was dirt. Beyond the trees lining the south side of the road, a sheer cliff drops to the bottom of the Glen’s steep gorge. A fleet of Piper Cub airplanes bringing fans to races by air landed and parked in the open field to the north. Cars went at maximum speed on this stretch, braking for the bump at the railroad tracks that often sent a vehicle airborne.
4.5 Railroad Crossing
In 1948, Frank Chase, the Train Master of the New York Central Railroad, secured approval to “stop the trains” for the duration of the sports car races, providing safe crossings over the active freight line.
5.0 Friar’s Corner
The descent into the village begins here. The curve received its romantic name from the bordering tract of land, an extensive property occupied by St. Anthony of Padua Minor Seminary & Prep School, a Catholic high school operated by the Order of Friar’s Minor from 1949 to 1970. The property contained renowned mineral springs and from 1890 to 1942, before becoming a school, served as a popular spa known as Glen Springs Resort and Sanitarium.
5.4 Big Bend
6.2 Milliken’s Corner
Named for William Milliken, who flipped his Bugatti in the last lap of the 1948 Junior Prix, the qualifying race for the first Watkins Glen Grand Prix, while vying for 3rd place in the last minutes of the race. Milliken landed in the haybales lining the street and crawled out unharmed, to the applause of spectators across the street. “Thrill corner,” the tricky turn into the village still marked by the triangular-shaped Flatiron Building, was renamed “Milliken’s Corner.”
6.6 Finish Line
Frank Griswold, driving his 1938 Alfa-Romeo 2900B, took the first checkered flags in Watkins Glen on October 2, 1948. Griswold won both the qualifying race or Junior Prix and the inaugural Watkins Glen Grand Prix held later the same day. Twenty-three sports cars gridded for the qualifying race including 9 MG TC midgets, many pre-war European factory-produced cars, and a couple homemade specials. Ten cars finished the arduous course.
The original races held on the circuit varied in length from 4 laps (26.4 miles) to 15 laps (99 miles). The fastest course record is held by noted American driver Phil Walters, who sustained a speed of 77.65 over 15 laps in 1951 behind the wheel of a Cunningham C2R.
1948 Watkins Glen Junior Prix – 1st Frank Griswold, Alfa Romeo
Watkins Glen Sports Car Grand Prix – 1st Frank Griswold, Alfa Romeo
1949 Watkins Glen Sports Car Grand Prix – 1st Miles Collier, “Ardent Alligator” Ford-Riley
Seneca Cup – 1st George Weaver, “Poison Lil” Maserati R1
1950 Watkins Glen Sports Car Grand Prix – 1st Erwin Goldschmidt, Cadillac-Allard
Queen Catherine Cup – 1st Roland Keith, MG TC Supercharged
Seneca Cup – 1st Phil Walters, Cadillac-Healey Silverstone
1951 Watkins Glen Sports Car Grand Prix – 1st Phil Walters, CunninghamC2R
Queen Catherine Cup – 1st George Weaver, Le Mans Jowett Javelin Jupiter
Seneca Cup – 1st George Weaver, “Poison Lil” Maserati R1
1952 Watkins Glen Sports Car Grand Prix, suspended due to accident
Queen Catherine Cup – 1st Bill Spear, OSCA
Seneca Cup – 1st John Fitch, Jaguar XK120-C
The spark that was struck in 1948 has brought examples of the finest and fastest sports cars in the world to run before a throng among the largest groups of spectators ever assembled in the history of the country.” – John Fitch, American race driver who entered races held on the original circuit 1948-1952.
International Motor Racing Research Center
Preserving and Sharing the History of Motorsports
The International Motor Racing Research Center collects, shares and preserves the history of motorsports. Spanning continents, eras and race series, the Center’s extensive historical collection embodies the speed, drama and camaraderie of amateur and professional motor racing throughout the world. The Center welcomes serious researchers and casual fans alike to share the stories captured on our shelves and walls, and brought to life through a regular calendar of public lectures and special events. Its knowledgeable research and archives staff assists hundreds of scholars, journalists, authors, documentary filmmakers, drivers and race car owners from all over the globe with inquiries about motorsports history every year.
Watkins Glen International
The first permanent racing circuit, now known as Watkins Glen International, was constructed on Route 16 in the Town of Dix in 1956. Watkins Glen International continues to serve as the venue for racing events and premier motor racing series every race season from April to October. Over time participants and spectators have enjoyed car club events, drivers’ schools, product testing, and professional and amateur competitions held on the renowned track. Racing series sanctioned by the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR), IndyCar, International Motor Sports Association (IMSA), Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) and Sportscar Vintage Racing Association (SVRA) formed the track’s diverse annual schedule. The United States Grand Prix, part of the prestigious international Formula One series, ran on the track from 1961 to 1980. Buy tickets to race events or drive the track.
Watkins Glen Grand Prix Festival
A day-long festival held annually since 1993, the Grand Prix Festival of Watkins Glen celebrates the region’s motor racing heritage. A highlight of the Festival is a tribute to the original Grand Prix featuring race cars and drivers roaring around the 6.6-mile historic road course. Join the tribute events on the original start-finish line! Other festivities including the Walk of Fame award ceremony; “The Legends Speak,” an interactive panel discussion with racing legends from “the Glen”; and a variety of special driving tours and vintage car shows.
Peter Helck (1893-1988), noted magazine illustrator and motorsports artist, graciously provided the artwork for the covers of the Watkins Glen Grand Prix programs in 1948 and 1949. They are reproduced here on the front and back covers of this guide with the kind permission of his family.
Photographs illustrating landmarks on the circuit are from the collection of the International Motor Racing Research Center and the William Green Motor Racing Library (private collection).
This brochure was made possible through the Tourism Assistance Grant Program of the Watkins Glen Area Chamber as the Tourism Promotion Agency of Schuyler County.