Watkins Glen, picturesque, charming, historical...but too rustic for the modern NASCAR Sprint Cup tour? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
WATKINS GLEN, N.Y.
He's been walking around with this big proud-papa grin on his face ever since the gates open Thursday. But then this is his baby now, Watkins Glen International, and new president Michael Printup, on the job barely two months, is certainly fired up about it all.
And there's more hoopla going on here in the infield and around this famous road course than the legendary track has seen in ages.
"I'm the new president of Watkins Glen International, and this is the opportunity for me to finally become a track president – which was my goal when I went to Staten Island…." Printup is saying, almost giddy about the opportunities he sees here.
"So now I get to be in charge of the most historic road course in this country. It's kind of neat, and it's kind of crazy."
Printup has been NASCAR's man in New York for some time…but New York City, not this rural farmland area. And maybe he hasn't spent a good winter here yet – when the lake-effects snow can dump as much as 10 feet of the white stuff on the frontyard.
And this isn't quite the New York City Speedway that he spent so long trying to persuade Staten Islanders to let him build with the Lower Manhattan Skyline as backdrop.
That ambitious plan, for a Richmond-style three-quarter-mile track with 75,000 seats just two miles from Newark International Airport, probably would have worked quite well actually (even though its system of ferrying fans in from Manhattan across Upper New York Bay did seem a bit odd).
Finally in the winter of 2006 the France family threw in the towel on that venture, which at one time even had Donald Trump on board as adviser. It still took Printup more than a year to wind down that effort. And finding a buyer for that property, well, "It's still for sale, so put a 'For Sale' sign up for us," Printup says with a laugh.
Michael Printup, just taking over the reins at Watkins Glen International (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
So just what does the energetic Printup really have to work with here?
A lot of history, a lot of legend. NASCAR first raced at the Glen back in 1957, just after the hilltop farmland road course opened (Buck Baker won). And NASCAR's Cup tour has been racing here continuously since 1986, when the late Tim Richmond showed remarkable road racing flair.
However, despite all the hoary tales about this place, all the legends, all the great racers, over the past few years this track and the August NASCAR stop seemed to decline in popularity. And this event – the shortest on the Cup tour, at just 220 miles (and once rain-shortened to only 125 miles) -- became almost lost in the huge 38-race NASCAR schedule and all those new high-profile big-city venues.
Amid the NASCAR circus-world filled more glamorous stops in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, San Francisco, Dallas-Fort Worth, Phoenix, and Chicago, the traditional rustic charm of Watkins Glen may seem overrated to many, and the place itself too isolated, with too little civic infrastructure, plus an inadequate road system.
And over the 25 years since buying into this place the France family's International Speedway Corp. has sometimes seemed to be treating this track like a stepchild. Much of what is here has been here since the early 1970s. The facilities themselves have been seen as antiquated, compared to spiffy new tracks in Chicago and Kansas City and Fort Worth – the garage stalls here, for example, are vintage 1971. But things are changing: there is now a huge, brand new 'media center' suite complex, for one.
If camping is your bag, the Glen is a cool place to tent (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Still, what was seen for so long as a tour stop of 'rustic charm' had gradually turned into a frequently rain-marred aggravation.
That's a shame, because there is a lot of delightfulness in this area. Vacationers flock to the lakes each summer. Jazz concerts on vineyard hillsides are a staple.
And Printup wants to build on the 'vacation' aspect of this area, not just the quick in-out race weekend itself.
The history and the picturesque allure of the Glen and the lakes is sometimes overlooked by the NASCAR crowd perhaps.
The village of Watkins Glen itself, just down the hill, at the southern tip of Seneca Lake, has barely 2,000 residents, though in summertime the entire Finger Lakes region is a popular vacation area, much like New Hampshire's Lake Winnipesaukee and those golden ponds. This is renowned wine country, and it's been racing territory for 60 years, going back to those first races through the spectator-lined village streets, still marked with plaques.
There's a lot of history in these hills, like Buck Baker's NASCAR win in 1957 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
This track itself, on a vast hilltop overlooking the lake, was born in 1956, its Carolina Blue guard rails are well recognized (if not the safest barriers against crashes), and Formula One's U.S. Grand Prix played here each fall for 20 years, amid the spectacular autumn foliage, until age, safety issues, deadly crashes, too-wild boggy parties, and financial problems finally caught up with the track, and that tour date was dropped in 1981, with the track declaring bankruptcy and closing down.
And the track sat idle.
Until the France family purchased it, and put it on the Cup tour as an annual summer stop.
NASCAR race weekend is something of a NASCAR Woodstock, with camping the preferred lifestyle
One big problem here, of course, is there isn't really much of a commercial infrastructure up in this neck of the woods, though the Elmira-Corning area nearby is expanding, and Ithaca is a picturesque college town of 30,000 (Cornell engineers actually helped design this race course way back when, and laid it out to simulate the original street course).
A lot of different games on this track (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
And it's a long hike to any major metropolitan areas: New York City is four hours southeast, Montreal is five hours northeast, Toronto is four hours northwest, Philadelphia is four hours south (just past Pocono Raceway), and Buffalo is two hours due west.
Still that marketing circle would be manageable if there were just more hotels and restaurants around here.
But Printup points to expansion: "There's a new luxury hotel right on the water in the village, and it's beautiful. Four-star dining, right on the marina. That's just added 250 rooms to this area. That's what we need."
Check it out HERE.
The newest luxury hotel in Watkins Glen, just opened, right on the Seneca Lake marina (Photos: Hart Hotels)
The big picture market?
"We get a lot of help out of Toronto (maybe Ron Fellows helps there)….but not too much out of Montreal, which may be on the cusp of being just a little too far," Printup says.
"But Formula One is coming back to Montreal (city-center Circuit Gilles Villeneuve) next year, and that's good, because it keeps racing in this region – and it's not just about one series, it's about all the series. That's what we promote here: not just NASCAR Sprint Cup but Grand Am, Nationwide, SCCA, and the Indy Racing League on the Fourth of July. I'm glad the IRL is coming back, because I love that series, and that series is important to us. I just wish we could get Paul Tracy in NASCAR racer.
Indy cars at the Glen (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
"If you would just look at this track's schedule of events, we have 150 days of car clubs….and when you think about the winter here….When we have these car clubs, we get people with Audis, Porsches, Ferraris, eating in our restaurants and staying in our hotels, the economic impact is huge.
"We have five big racing events….and we have a wine festival that is the largest wine festival east of Napa. We have 80 wineries here, and 50,000 people for that weekend. It's huge…late July, and right here at the track. We have bands all over the place, and make it a wine-and-cheese festival.
"Craig Rust (who ran this track for five years until getting the nod to take over Chicagoland Speedway in mid-June) did a great job of building this place, and we're just going to keep on building here.
"We're look at new events we can come up with. We're looking at music festivals next year; I'm not talking 100,000 people, just maybe 20,000."
Ah, yes, the famous summer jam of 1973 at this track is still remembered as one of rock music's biggest events, with the Grateful Dead, The Band and the Allman Brothers playing to a crowd estimated at 600,000. Of course given the rather isolated location, and the rather weak road system surrounding the track, that must have been the mother of all traffic jams.
It's all about 'buzz' about the brand, Printup says. "If you just keep creating the buzz around this brand, I think we can grow everything together," Printup says.
"It's about more than just racing. This is a destination.
Kyle Busch, en route to last summer's win at the Glen (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
"Craig called Watkins Glen 'the soul of American racing,' and when you think about Jackie Stewart and Jimmy Clark and Gilles Villeneuve….
"Maybe we can get Jacques Villeneuve here next year.
"And Grand Am just smokes this crowd; they love it."
At one point there was the decided sense that Watkins Glen really didn't belong on the Cup tour any more, that the facility hadn't kept up with the times, that the urban infrastructure and road system was so antiquated, that it might be time for NASCAR to move on, and say take this Cup tour event up to Montreal or over to Toronto.
But Printup may be bringing in a new sense of high-voltage energy here.
Printup understands the issues. After all this is not New York City.
"I have a simple platform – it's about people," Printup says. "People are either fans, media or partners….and you've got to take care of your people.
"We have great weather, great attendance, and we have 100 more media this year than last year….while some other tracks have been seeing a decline in media at their races, we have more. That's a credit to what NASCAR and Watkins Glen together have done, to keep growing this.
"Now it's all about the future and building.
"This is more than just a race – take a week and make it a vacation."
Watkins Glen International (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)