2017 Watkins Glen Vintage Grand Prix

In Honor of the Dawn of Post-War American Road Racing

WATKINS GLEN, New York — Vintage racing is a fundamentally sound idea. If seeing classic cars brings a smile to people’s faces, then watching classic cars race is guaranteed to bring grins. What’s not to love about watching a herd of 1960s Minis desperately retain every iota of speed through an uphill corner?

That’s the premise behind the Watkins Glen Vintage Grand Prix. The three-day event featured a five-decade spread of cars and offered a rare opportunity to see classic cars driven near the limit.

Of the various groups, the largest class of 2017 consisted of “pre-1973 big bore production sports cars.” As the class that spanned the heyday of the muscle car era, this group’s stints became American muscle shoot-outs that included two recreations of the legendary Chevrolet Camaro Z28 vs. Ford Mustang Boss 302 rivalry.

Amidst the various flavors of Corvette, Camaro and Mustang, several Jaguar XKEs, E-types and a few Porsche 911s—including a 1970 RSR!—gave the Germans and Brits representation.

The racing itself occurred in continuously run eight-lap events populated by two or three evenly matched classes. However, four longer races broke up the routine with a massive seven or eight class spread of vintage racers driving hard for 60- or 90-minute stints.

As expected, there wasn’t much in the way of 10/10ths, white knuckle driving. Since some of these cars are quite rare, the drivers were on a tightrope, balancing the possibility of a destroyed classic against the glory of a daring overtake.

The first and second place drivers in the Formula Junior class fought the entire race, trading places a dozen times in the final two laps. They were so equally matched that corner marshals were audibly excited, one even shouting position swaps to a nearby photographer.

In the pre-1973s class, a clear front pack developed, the drivers ricocheting off curbs and using every last millimeter of tarmac in search of the best racing line. But these were the exception to the rule. In most cases, pilots drove at 80%, more interested in enjoying the experience than getting first place.

But the truth is that the Watkins Glen Vintage Grand Prix was never about the racing. Its main attraction is its history. Watkins Glen the town featured America’s first post war Grand Prix in 1948. The first races ran along six miles of gorgeous, winding upstate New York backroads and required the approval of six different government organizations. To keep racing without governmental hassle, Watkins Glen International made its debut 8 years later with a 2.3-mile closed track and a calendar featuring a NASCAR Grand National race.

To honor that history, the entire town shut down on Friday. Many cars traced the original public road course through town, while others were parked in a park for a “Cars of the Autobahn” show. Earlier in the day, the coordinators reenacted the original 1948 tech inspections at the still functioning Smalley’s garage. The last living pilot from the first Vintage Grand Prix, Otto Van Linten, even came and celebrated his 100th birthday there while a local woman donned Flossy Smalley’s jacket and inspected the cars, just as the real Flossy did back in the day. Otto’s attendance, Flossy’s coat, and the vintage cars arrayed around Smalley’s garage made the sheer weight of history apparent. At least until you turned around and saw the Burger King across the street.

I think that’s part of the charm of the Vintage Grand Prix. While the event has some historically inaccurate matchups (e.g. veteran pre-war racers vs. open wheel post-war prototypes), the races allow you to bring color to the black and white images of motorsports past and imagine, just for a moment, what it was like to witness these cars in their prime.