NASCAR racing At Watkins Glen International: The Long And Short Of It!!!

Just over halfway through their schedule each year, NASCAR’s teams, fans, media and drivers “shift gears” to focus squarely on its two road racing events. The first is held at Infineon Raceway in California. Just like some other tracks in the series, the facility has had many names over the years, such as Sears Point and Sonoma. Thankfully, for us here in Upstate New York, the second race is run at Watkins Glen International, located outside an otherwise sleepy little village in the Empire State. Interestingly, both have similarities such as a rich history and worldwide reputation in the sports car world, operating near thriving historic vineyards and both feature many challenging turns along with elevation changes. Although there remain many sports car purists and die-hard NASCAR fans who hold an opinion that stock cars should not be run on anything but an oval, the sanctioning body decided that “the best drivers in the world” should be able to turn both left and right on tracks that run races in a clockwise direction, another major difference. Even members of the media sometimes added their sharp opinions to the swordfight (including the late David Poole who rattled his anti-sentiment saber right up to his death in April 2009.) But lo and behold, NASCAR effectively “neutered” both courses. The Glen was designed and built in 1956 and was originally a 2.35 mile layout, extended to its now familiar 3.377 mile traditional road racing circuit events since an ambitious 1971 upgrade and expansion project, incorporating 11 turns but when NASCAR revisited the track in 1986 for the first time since 1964, it was decided to revert back to the closer-to-the-original length of 2.45 miles. Infineon’s race ran the original 2.52 mile course in 1989 but was shortened to the current 1.9 mile configuration in a 1998 project moving the original dragstrip to a separate location (At first, it was utilized as the “main straightaway”). Back in the day, it was considered a matter of a relatively safer way to race the bigger, heavier cars with less stress on them as well, all in an effort to provide good racing in the series at these locations. (I must admit I originally “drank the Kool-Aid” as well, falsely believing in that original thinking process). Over these 15 years since NASCAR races were back at the Glen, I have personally heard many fans “wondering IF” the annual August action ever could or would be held on the longer course. I used to say “probably not” which is like saying “never”…but we all know the old three word saying. Once it was announced the Mobil One oil “Seat Swap” between two-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart and F1 champion Lewis Hamilton,was to be held at the Glen, I also wondered if the longer course would be used for the event. When it was made official through the respective press releases that, indeed, the cars would utilize the longer layout incorporating the “Boot” extension, many fans’ dreams became reality, even though it was only an exhibition. Similarly, the Glen’s loyal Formula 1 fans were elated beyond belief that any F1 car ran on the track at speed around the track as they had for so many years (20 to be exact) from 1961 to 1980. In an eerie coincidence again, almost 20 years later, those fans were treated to an event which brought back years of memories—and hopes of the F1 faithful (although to be technically correct, one could watch the actual F1 cars which created the original romance among the track, the cars and the fans at any of the “vintage” races ever held at the facility and believe it or not, there is a division for real, although long-since retired stock cars which also run the long course in those races). I am now among those calling for the change. Recently Watkins Glen President, Michael Printup announced he is lobbying NASCAR to run the longer distance) The march of the stock cars’ technological advances, along with the honing of road race skills of the current crop of NASCAR drivers has made it time for the challenges of the longer Glen layout, especially after watching the Nationwide Series cars compete on another historic road racing site, Road America near Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, last year. Teams test on the even longer Virginia International Raceway. Well, shoot, if they make ‘em run on both of those, there’s absolutely no reason why they shouldn’t race at “The Soul of American Road Racing” –on its “REAL” road race course” distance! Go L-O-N-G!!!