75th Anniversary Feature: Historic Watkins Glen International Is A Driver’s Dream

Holly Cain

NASCAR Wire Service

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – In back-to-back weeks, the NASCAR Cup Series is competing on a pair of the United States most historic racing venues. After a run at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway last weekend, the best stock car racers in the world will now test themselves on the iconic Watkins Glen International road course in upstate New York.

The bucolic countryside near the famed Finger Lakes, site of Sunday’s Go Bowling at The Glen (3 p.m. ET on the USA Network, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), has been a racing “go-to” for decades in various form and fashion and is a most-fitting host during NASCAR’s celebrated 75th Anniversary season.

And the track’s place in NASCAR history is certainly not lost on its modern-day competitors.

“Watkins Glen is kind of a road-racing treasure in our country, just because of all the history and things that it has between the town and the track,” said 2006 Watkins Glen winner Kevin Harvick, driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford. “That venue has held some great races throughout the years, and our races up there during the last decade have been full of fans and a lot of fun to see how road racing has progressed through the years. It’s fun to go up there.” 

A Pennsylvanian named Frank Griswold drove an Alfa Romeo to victory in the very first road race, an amateur event called the “Watkins Glen Grand Prix” in 1948 – an eight-lap affair on a 6.6-mile course made up of paved and dirt roads about town. Years later engineering professors from nearby Cornell University helped develop a proper 2.3-mile road course on 550 acres that didn’t require sharing the actual city streets.

That relocation into the peaceful hillside hosted a one-off NASCAR race in 1957 won by Buck Baker – his margin of victory measured in distance; .46-mile over Fireball Roberts.

Soon upgrades were made to the facility, and it played host to the Formula One World Championship season finale in 1961 – a race won by Innes Ireland by a slight 4.3-seconds over American legend Dan Gurney and featured NASCAR Hall of Famer Roger Penske with an eighth place showing that day.

The grand prix road course was so popular – both stateside and abroad – that Watkins Glen played host to F1 until 1980 boasting a winner’s list including Graham Hill, Jackie Stewart, Emerson Fittipaldi and Gilles Villeneuve.

During that time, NASCAR hosted another pair of races at The Glen, with Billy Wade (1964) and Marvin Panch (1965) hoisting trophies for America’s burgeoning and beloved stock car series. 

The NASCAR Cup Series returned to Watkins Glen in 1986 for good and has been a steady and hugely-popular sporting event ever since – for almost four decades the track was one of only two annual road course events on the NASCAR Cup Series schedule compared to the half dozen road or street courses the series visits today.

The late Tim Richmond won that 1986 race around the now 2.54-mile, 11-turn course that has presented a lot of compelling stock car history.

NASCAR Hall of Famer Rusty Wallace and the great road racer Ricky Rudd exchanged trophies for four consecutive years from 1987-90. Mark Martin was the first NASCAR driver to win three consecutive races there (1993-95) – a feat matched later (1997-99) by fellow NASCAR Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon.

It is a NASCAR Hall of Famer who holds the all-time record for NASCAR Cup Series victories on the Watkins Glen road course. Tony Stewart has five wins – winning four times in a six-year span between 2002-07. Gordon is second on the all-time list with four victories.

If you add in achievement in the NASCAR Xfinity Series races – the all-time winningest NASCAR driver on the track is Australian Marcos Ambrose who earned a total of six trophies with a pair of NASCAR Cup Series wins (2011-12) and four victories in the NASCAR Xfinity Series (2008-10 and 2014). Canadian Ron Fellows won three NASCAR Xfinity Series races at the track (1998, 2000-01) and twice (1999 and 2004) finished runner-up in the NASCAR Cup Series event.

Interesting in the track’s history is that it is one of the rare venues where seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion and inaugural class Hall of Famer Richard Petty did not earn a trophy. The family name, however, is still a part of the laurel as his son Kyle Petty – now a popular broadcaster for NBC Sports – won in 1992.

Eight drivers who will be competing this weekend have won NASCAR Cup Series race at the track – Harvick, Kyle Busch, A.J. Allmendinger, Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin, current championship points leader Martin Truex Jr., Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson.

Elliott won back-to-back races in 2018-19 and his Hendrick Motorsports teammate – and fellow NASCAR Cup Series champion – Larson has won the last two races (2021-22). Larson (2022) and Logano (2015) are the only drivers to sweep a NASCAR weekend, winning both Xfinity Series and NASCAR Cup Series races at Watkins Glen.

Watkins Glen – the fifth of six road courses on the schedule – is now one of the last two regular season races on the NASCAR Cup Series schedule, making this weekend’s event a potential “season-maker” for the race winner and leaving only next week’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway to firm up that 16-driver Playoff field.

“[Watkins Glen] is a track where you can definitely play some strategy and do some things,” said Harvick’s Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Chase Briscoe, who still needs a win to secure a Playoff position.

“I’m looking forward to it. I always feel like it’s always a beautiful weekend up there, so it should be good.”

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