Watkins Glen International Track Guide

‘The Glen’ is a cornerstone of American motorsport. The upstate New York street circuit that started it all in 1948 gave way to a purpose-built track that has become one of the leading lights in the US racing scene. This is Broadway with wheels.

NASCAR, IndyCar, Formula One, Can-Am and every major sports car series have all come to The Glen over the years and the road course is generally considered one of America’s finest. The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup and the 6 Hours of Watkins Glen sports car race are the current highlights of the calendar. When the stars are out of town, national race meets and track days draw the thrillseekers who want to brush those famous blue walls.

The circuit hosts every level of club racing throughout the year and has also staged major music festivals. The proximity to New York City, the dream location on the southern point of the Seneca Lake in the Watkins Glen State Park all combine to create a unique atmosphere that is famous throughout the world.

This is wine country, too, so you can visit some of the local vineyards after a day at the track.

Famous Moments at Watkins Glen

1. 2012 - Marcos Ambrose vs Kyle Busch - NASCAR Sprint Cup

The final lap of the 2012 NASCAR race at Watkins Glen will go down as one of the most intense wheel-to-wheel battles in stock car history. Australian Marcos Ambrose and Brad Keselowski slid off the track, rubbed doorhandles and swapped paint for 3.4 miles in a brutal encounter.

Kyle Busch was in the mix until the closing stages, but as the flag came down to signify the start of the last lap, there were two. There could be only one.

Ambrose just held on to win the 355-mile race by a car length in one of the most thrilling finishes NASCAR has ever seen on a road course. This was his second consecutive victory on the sweeping curves of The Glen and, although he won by a fraction of a second, it was his most famous NASCAR win by a mile.

NASCAR produced a 50-minute special on this epic race that you can watch here.

2. 1969 Six Hours of the Glen - Jo Siffert

The six-hour sportscar race has run since 1948 and is one of the highlights on the Watkins Glen calendar. The fans remember the 1969 race fondly, both for the action and the sportscar debut of three-time Le Mans winner Hurley Haywood and the spectacular action between the three lead Porsche 908s.

Jo Siffert took the honors as Porsche decimated the competition to take the top three spots on the podium. It was a great day for Porsche, and it was also the day that a star was born with Haywood.

3. 2009 - Jeff Gordon vs Sam Hornish - NASCAR Sprint Cup

We all breathe a sigh of relief when the drivers emerge unscathed, but we have to admit that big crashes are one of the guilty pleasures of motorsport fandom. 2009 provided an almighty six-car pile-up that took out racing legend Jeff Gordon and Sam Hornish.

As the drivers came out of the fast left-hand Turn 9, Kasey Kahne slid wide into the side of Sam Hornish Jr and mayhem ensued. Hornish Jr spun like a top across the circuit, while Gordon came round the bend at full throttle. He had no chance to react and speared into the side of the stricken car.

It's a testament to the car's safety that both drivers walked away with minor bruising, and that means we can watch it again and again without any guilt.

4. 1979 US Grand Prix - Gilles Villeneuve

A Friday practise session is an odd headline act, but this wasn’t any normal practise session. In torrential conditions, the drivers of the world’s most advanced racing cars slithered through the rain. Gilles Villeneuve showed just why he is considered one of the greatest drivers of all time with a unique performance.

World Champion Jody Scheckter admitted afterwards he scared himself silly to record his time and thought he simply had to be quickest. There was just one minor issue: Gilles Villeneuve was 11 seconds faster. That is essentially impossible.

Villeneuve was a snowmobile racer before switching to cars and his ability to drift Formula One cars on full opposite lock during Grands Prix was the stuff of legend. On this day, on this one flying lap at Watkins Glen, Villeneuve gave a masterclass in wet weather driving that is still famous to this day.

The race provided a mix of wet and dry conditions and Villeneuve went on to prove his skills in difficult conditions with a dominant performance. Nobody came close, he made the pack look ordinary and The Glen witnessed a master at work.

History of Watkins Glen

In the beginning, there was no circuit. Determined to bring a race to the region, local boy Cameron Argetsinger joined forces with the Chamber of Commerce to take over a 6.6-mile loop of public roads. The stage was set for the first Watkins Glen Grand Prix.

Hay bales and closed roads that took competitors through the heart of Watkins Glen provided incredible racing and spectators simply stood by the side of the road. Frank Griswold took the honors in the first race in his Alfa Romeo 8C 2900B.

A tragic accident in the 1952 race killed a spectator and that meant the race had to move to the nearby hills. That 4.3-mile circuit gave way to a purpose-built track on 550 acres of land that overlaps the old street circuit.

Engineers from Cornell University were brought in to help design the ultimate race track and the first event took place in 1956. A series of Formula Libre events proved the circuit’s worth and in 1961, when Daytona simply couldn’t get the deal done on its own, Argetsinger stepped in and grabbed the US Grand Prix.

It was a coup that would prove the making of Watkins Glen, as Formula One legends such as Stirling Moss, Jim Clark, Graham Hill, Niki Lauda, James Hunt and Jody Scheckter wowed the crowds for 20 years. The drivers loved the circuit and it proved a hit with spectators. It was extended in 1971 to 3.7 miles, before later shrinking to 3.4 miles.

When Formula One flew the nest after the ground effect cars of 1980 proved simply too much for the bumpy track surface,, Watkins Glen swiftly spiralled into bankruptcy. The metaphorical shutters came down in 1981 and it looked like a great track would be lost to the ages.

In 1984, under new ownership, the fully renovated circuit reopened and two years later, NASCAR returned to the track. IndyCar and Sportscars followed and now they form the backbone of an impressive racing calendar.

Driving "The Glen." Photo by Christopher Lyzcen @ PistonRing Media

What is Special About The Glen?

The organizers got lucky with the Autumn date for the US Grand Prix and the red and orange of the forests formed the perfect backdrop for the world’s most glamorous sport. That and the six-hour race drew the society crowd from New York and both events enjoyed a festival atmosphere that only a few circuits have ever been able to match.

For the NASCAR event, there's a party deck that has all the music, dancing, fun and entertainment you could ever want during a race.

It doesn't hurt that Watkins Glen International is in the heart of wine country, with a vineyard and several wineries just minutes away. The track and the local producers have worked together to bring the best to the best and add a touch of sophistication and class to cutting edge technology.

NASCAR is the jewel in the crown in the modern age and the race weekend has the same feel, together with North America’s elite racers going wheel-to-wheel on one of the series’ three road courses.

Elevation changes and cambers make for spectacular viewing, too, especially with the low downforce NASCAR racers that slide and dance through bends. Run-off is limited and the consequences for getting it wrong can be dire. The walls are famous at Watkins Glen International and they can change the course of a race in a heartbeat.

Spectacular accidents have become part of Watkins Glen International folklore and the big stock cars are especially prone to tasting the walls.

It’s not a track for the faint of heart, but it has provided some epic battles over the decades and is set to keep going as the life and soul of the party that is American motorsport.

General Concepts For Success at Watkins Glen

Power counts at Watkins Glen and the hills and straights take torque and horsepower to conquer. The real key to a fast lap is carrying as much speed as possible through the Esses, without sacrificing too much in the medium-high speed bends that make up a large amount of the track.

High-speed stability is an issue, too, through the Esses and the Bus-Stop. Managing the weight transfer is everything through those rapid chicanes and too much body roll can literally pull the car off the circuit.

Downforce is your friend here so add a few extra degrees any adjustable wings. At the same time you need a suspension setting that can absorb the large curbs through the bus stop. Get those corners right and that momentum will largely carry you to a fast lap.

A recent resurface in 2016 means the bumpy surface has been replaced with a smoother track that has made for much better grip and racing.

Take a tour of the circuit with Andy Lee, professional driver and coach, in a 458 Ferrari Challenge.

And practice before you get there, if you're into gaming. Watkins Glen has forged a partnership with iRacing, so hit the simulator and prepare like the professionals do it.

Set-Up Tips For Watkins Glen

Those walls looming large mean you’ll want to play it safe with the set-up. For first timers to the track its best to start with a set up that leans towards understeer rather than oversteer.

Softing the rear sway bar can help move the cars balance towards understeer and help you settle into the idea of pushing the limits with walls on both sides without fear of the back end snapping around.

If you’re driving a modern sports car with electronic adjustable suspension avoid the track settings to start, better to use a more forgiving sport mode and definitely leave all the traction control nannies fully on until your very comfortable with the track.

The off-camber sections of the circuit will test your dampers and eat away at the tires over a race distance. Managing rubber and letting the car dance, rather than slide, can be the difference between victory and defeat at The Glen.

Track Day Insurance

The track day rush at Watkins Glen should come from your speed, not your financial risk. OpenTrack insurance should be part of your pre-trackday checklist prior to driving at Watkins Glen. It's an exlerating feeling pulling out onto the track and knowing you're protected.

OpenTrack provides track day insurance coverage for both your car and your actions and offers both on-demand daily insurance as well as 12-month unlimited policies. Get an instant quote here.

Where to Stay

Watkins Glen is a quaint village that is used to the New York set turning out for Fall. So there’s a range of hotels to suit every budget. Indeed, most of the hotels in the region are affordable, rather than extravagant.

Stay right on the Seneca Lake in the Lakeside Resort Hotel in your own luxury cabin. Alternatively check out the appropriately-named Blackberry Inn Bed & Breakfast, which is painted a lurid shade of purple.

There’s a solid choice of available hotels on Expedia, so check the full list.

Where to Eat

Again the best options are affordable, unpretentious food served in simple surroundings that wins the day in Watkins Glen. This isn’t the place for waiters in waistcoats and Nickel’s Pit BBQ is a favorite with the locals.

Even if your just a casual racing or Formula 1 fan then its a must to visit the Seneca Lodge for dinner and a few drinks. Definitely a right of passage after a day at the Glen! Starting in the 70’s teams would meet at “The Lodge” after the days at the track were done. Teams members and drivers began leaving memorabilia in the tavern bar. The hanging of the winners wreath for major events is still a custom enjoyed at the Lodge to this day.

Watkins Glen International By The Numbers

It’s not a track for the faint of heart, but Watkins Glen has provided some epic battles over the decades and is set to keep going as the life and soul of the party that is American motorsport.

  • Lap Length

    3.4 Miles

  • Turns

    11

  • Feet of Elevation Changes

    141

Recommended Driver Coaches

For the most gains during your time at Watkins Glen International, spend 1:1 time with a proven driver coach.

Kai Goddard
Kai Goddard
With instructing experience including KGM, Skip Barber Driving School, SCCA National, Porsche Club of America, Ferrari Club of America, BMW Car Club of America, Chevrolet Rev It Up and the Mercedes AMG Driving Academy, Kai exhibits speed, consistency and versatility.
Andy Lee
Andy Lee
Drivers and mechanics need to be simpatico and speak the same language in order to achieve the best results. That's no problem for Andy: He's both! Throughout his racing career he has also honed his skills as a driver coach at The Bondurant Racing School and Inde Motorsports Ranch. He also coaches clients in Ferrari Challenge, Porsche Trouphy Cup, Formula 4, and numerous street car owners at track day events across the country.

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Track Crash The at Watkins Glen rush should come from your speed, not your financial risk. Drive protected. Choose OpenTrack, the best track day insurance policy to protect your car and yourself.

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