If the idea of a blog post is to pass along personal history having subject matter that might appeal to others, then here goes.
For me, autumn of 1948 was a pivotal time. I was fifteen and already riding an Ed Iskenderian-tuned 500cc Triumph Tiger, getting about on it, nicely enough, quickly enough, but my father decided I should step up and learn to handle a four-wheeler. The car of choice, his daily driver 1938 Type 57C Bugatti, offered me the first real steering wheel to grasp while comprehending the left-handed shift pattern of that straight-8 drophead French classic. Perceived as totally unearthly, the affair launched my sensibilities into what the outrageous world of cars truly was and, by the second day of October, I was all set to savor the outcome of America’s first post-WWII grand prix race run in anger over a 6.6-mile road course skirting, and slicing through, the hamlet of Watkins Glen, New York. The impression formed was permanent.
Invited 64 years later to speak on sports car racing in America at the Glen’s International Motor Racing Research Center, brought me to meet IMRRC’s president, J.C. Argetsinger, son of Cameron and Jean Argetsinger, founders of the first Watkins Glen Grand Prix and, later, the IMRRC facility. We talked about how it all began.
“Cameron Argetsinger,” J.C. said of his father, “was fascinated with the Roosevelt Speedway before the war when Mercedes and Auto Union came over, and after the war he bought an MG TC and joined the new Sports Car Club of America.” The story goes—during the SCCA members’ dinner at Indianapolis the night before the 1948 “500”, Cameron, a willing enthusiast from New York State, daringly announced he was “going to have a road race next fall” and invited everyone to join his entry list. The nerve of that young visionary! But they did join; not all, yet there were enough drivers and cars signed on to fill that historic grid for Watkins Glen’s inaugural Grand Prix on October 2, 1948.
“I sold programs that first year at age six,” Cameron’s son J.C., now 78, said. “There were ten or fifteen thousand spectators, and our city fathers liked the idea. Next year there were fifty thousand. By 1950 it was colossal.” Watkins Glen’s racing and the later research center grew hand in hand.
The IMRRC’s archives, after years of database streamlining and simplifying, is expediently searchable—punch in a name or date, place or car, it brings up anything out of a collection, and it’s right there. “We’re not a museum, per se,” informed an IMRRC archivist, even though renowned race cars are often displayed there, “and I think that’s important for people to know. It’s about the history of motor racing worldwide. It’s not just about Watkins Glen.”
Bygone beginnings are fascinating for anyone who fancies automotive history, as do I, especially American motor-racing’s golden era. Take, for example, the Italian gem bodied by Carrozzeria Touring that won that very first Watkins Glen race—an Alfa Romeo 8C2900B Berlinetta then owned and driven by Cameron Argetsinger’s colleague, Frank Griswold. Like my father’s Bugatti, Griswold’s Alfa was a straight-8, also built in 1938. Throughout high school, I penciled pictures of the swoopy 8C during study hall. I made it my dream car, even more so than the Bug. Sure, I could hop in and drive our Bugatti, but that Alfa—it was unobtainable! You might even say it only existed for me through shapes clouds made in the sky. And then.
Eleven years ago, on a chilly, damp November day while photographing and writing article notes about a Washington State vintage car shop called Dennison International, proprietor Butch Dennison led me to a bay where they were frame-up restoring a car to have ready for Pebble Beach’s Concours d’Elegance. And there it was!—the exact same Alfa Berlinetta that had won the Glen’s initial race and that had been stuck in my mind for all the decades since!
“Butch,” I gasped, “come August this car is going to win Best of Show!” He laughed, smiled, shaking his head in that fashion of possessing desire but not audacity to be certain. “You’ll see,” I said.
On August 17, 2008, the superbly restored Alfa Romeo 8C2900B was called forward to the Pebble Beach awards ramp where its owners, Jon and Mary Shirley, received the Concours d’Elegance’s Best of Show distinction—the Alfa’s second major historic win of its 70-year car life. I was there and was camera-ready. From a storm of swirling yellow and white confetti appeared the perfect story.
The conservancy of significant cars and keeping of their valued histories are both pursuits and obligations. But more than that, they are what we enjoy doing—and are the spirit of what I have seen grow from 1948 to today as the International Motor Racing Research Center at Watkins Glen, New York.
These narratives to be born from the IMRRC are for everyone caring about what we love.—William Edgar