Discharge of the Light Brigade

Martyn Goddard

Say you were a tweedy gearhead living in New York during the 1960s, the glory days of sports car living. Chances are, on more than one occasion, after neatly trimming your Van Dyke and quaffing a fine breakfast wine, you'd have strapped on some string-back driving gloves, adjusted your flat cap and rearview mirror, filled a briar pipe, and set off for a Watkins Glen race weekend.

Your destination: The unofficial first home of American sports-car-dom. A bucolic village of fewer than 2500 souls nestled along the banks of glacial Seneca Lake -- one of the majestic Finger Lakes and New York State's deepest -- and site of the first formal road race held in America after World War II, staged in 1948, just as the nation's sports car craze was getting underway. It enjoyed a large assist from abroad in the form of the sporty new rolling stock assembled by British carmakers heeding their government's postwar export-or-die policies. For decades, Watkins Glen would constitute a crucial front in Britain's successful, if depressingly finite, automotive assault on America. Yet despite its amazing proximity to my domain -- only 250 miles from New York City -- and my own lifelong fascination with the sports cars built during those magical motoring decades past, I'd never even seen Watkins Glen.

September's big race weekend -- when the hallowed racing burg would celebrate the anniversary of the first United States Grand Prix held here (in 1961) with a full card of vintage racing -- seemed like the perfect time to correct that omission. We laid plans to attend with three period-appropriate British sports cars: an all-original, 37,000-mile, 1963 MGB I'd recently acquired in California; a similarly unrestored but more battle-tested 1967 Triumph TR4A IRS, also SoCal dry but sporting 100,000 miles and a freshly rebuilt engine; and a 1967 Sunbeam Alpine in the very rare, one-year-only shade of orchid green and with a believed 65,000 miles on the clock, recently resurrected from a fifteen-year West Virginia slumber to mysteriously wind up in my garage.

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