'Racetober' celebrates two anniversaries
WATKINS GLEN--When two significant anniversaries come together there's only one thing to do--throw a party. So to celebrate the 70th anniversary of racing in Watkins Glen and the 20th anniversary of the International Motor Racing Research Center (IMRRC), a celebration called "Racetober" is planned for Saturday, Oct. 6 from 5-8 p.m. at the IMRRC at 610 South Decatur St. in Watkins Glen --right next door to the Watkins Glen Public Library.
"It's a birthday party for ourselves," explains Kip Zeiter, outreach coordinator for the IMRRC. "It's not an evening of speeches but more of an evening to hang out and enjoy, a few hours to enjoy the fact that racing continues here 70 years after it started."
So of course there will be an elaborate cake constructed to look like an Alfa Romeo for all the guests to share as well as other refreshments and music and a continuous loop slide show highlighting vivid moments in local racing. The same 1936 Maserati that won the first street race and the 1952 Osca that took the last checkered flag on the street circuit are on display and will remain there for a few days after the party. One of the highlights of the evening is expected to be the culmination of the group's annual fundraiser, the drawing of the winner for this year's car, a Porsche. Tickets, which will be available up until the drawing, which will probably occur midway through the evening, cost $60 for one ticket, $100 for two. A brisk business in raffle tickets has been happening for some time, and Zeiter says they will be available for purchase until shortly before the drawing.
Duke and J.C. Argetsinger say their father Cameron Argetsinger presented the plan for street racing in Watkins Glen to the village fathers, in part because he wanted to race his own MG. Persuaded this could increase tourism, the village agreed. That first year, says J.C. Argetsinger, 10,000 people came to watch. In the second year, 1949, 50,000 showed up. The number increased to 100,000 in 1950. These were the first street races in America and the first post-World War II sports car races, and while other locales later introduced the sport, Watkins Glen became the natural home for street racing, then a professional race track imitating some of the qualities of racing on country roads and streets.
Racing historian Bill Green remembers that first street race. His mother brought him to work when she waitressed at what was then the How-Gay Tavern--and later became "Mr. Chicken." The eight-year-old boy sat in the screened porch with a view of the cars racing past on Franklin Street, and fell in love. "That's how I got bit," he jokes now. "It just amazed me that cars could go that fast. I didn't realize it would bite me that bad." Except for two of the four years he served in the Navy, he's been to every Grand Prix race in Watkins Glen. Those years, stationed overseas, he filled the gap by attending the British and German Grand Prix races.
Green says after 1949, when newer cars began coming to the States, their performance overwhelmed the roads. "They needed purpose-built tracks," he notes. After a tragic encounter between a racing car and spectators, permits for street racing downtown were rescinded and for several years, until the first track was built in the town of Dix in 1956, the race was held on a circuit of town-maintained roads in Dix. Land was found and a track constructed whose curves and dips were reminiscent of the terrain of a race on less formal roads. And enthusiasm for racing in Watkins Glen continued to grow.
For everyone associated with racing, the word "passion" enters any description of why they're affiliated with the sport. It's what makes his work the perfect retirement job for Zeiter, commuting here each day from Ithaca, and for Green, whose buoyant smile enlivens his descriptions of memorable races and encounters with racing greats; and for the Argetsingers whose encyclopedic knowledge of the racing in Watkins Glen is intertwined with the history of their family. When their mother, the late Jean Argetsinger, was president of the Watkins Glen Public Library and race fans donated racing memorabilia to the library, her conviction that a research center was needed for racing in Watkins Glen became part of the inspiration for the facility. The volume of their current archives is now far greater than their capacity and the overflow is currently housed in two off-site locations.
"It's amazing the number of people who come here, from an amazing number of places around the world," Zeiter says. On Oct. 6, that's one of the things that will be celebrated...along with the prospect of driving home one's very own Porsche.