Watkins loves race weekend business
WATKINS GLEN—Signs everywhere in Schuyler County read “Welcome NASCAR Fans!” Checkered flags guide us everywhere we want to go. And the welcome is sincere—from the bottom of our hearts… and pockets. When teams and fans of the National Association of Stock Car auto Racing come to Watkins Glen, having thousands more cars and tourists around means allowing more time to accommodate the unusually robust flow of traffic, rubbing shoulders with out-of-towners eager to buy things and occasionally encountering a great or about-to-be-really-famous driver.
Area hostelries are filled to capacity, which adds up to good news for their bottom lines—as well as the coffers of downtown merchants. “The hotel is completely full,” says Ed Riley, general manager of the Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel. “We ramp up to this, it’s like a New Year’s Eve weekend. We’ll house 200-225 guests, and based on previous Nascar weekends, we know to purchase extra food and beverages because our restaurants and lounges will be completely busy. We beef up staff, too, including bartending and waitstaff.”
“It’s a great week for us,” says Jim Guild, owner of Famous Brands and the Seneca Lake General Store. “We’re busy every week—the only day that isn’t busy is Sunday, the day of the race but the rest of the week is gangbusters. So we’re loaded for bear.” He counts racing royalty among his customers, including Richard Childress and the late Dale Earnhardt, as well as track crews who take advantage of the short distance between the track and the town. “They don’t get a chance to shop at a lot of other race tracks,” he says. “Crews will come in with their crew uniforms on, and that’s pretty exciting.”
Gloria Brubaker at Seneca Lodge says this is not quite their busiest weekend—those honors are reserved for the Vintage weekend in September. But the Lodge has been fully booked since the second week in January. “It’s a good weekend,” she says. “I’m not saying we’re not very busy—because we are. We order extra food, we go through lots of prime rib—in fact, we go through lots of everything!”
All the area eateries ordered and prepped more food to be prepared to serve more diners. Tiffany Hill, co-owner of Classic Chef’s on Route 14, says the four weeks beginning with the Italian Festival are one marathon effort. “We start as early as possible with ordering and prepping extra foods all through the week,” she says. “We come in early and stay late and a lot of times it entails double shifts for the employees.”
Nascar each August is not their busiest weekend of the year. “But it’s one of them. I would have to say Mother’s Day weekend is busier. Still, we see a lot of fans and they’re fun fans—we have a good time with the race fans that come in. The Southern drawl gives them away!” Hill says.
Jeremiah Wilson, head cook at Jerlando’s Pizzeria and Restaurant, was cheerfully catering for four teams, as well as in-house diners. “Yes, this will definitely keep us busy,” he says. “That’s what we’re hoping for. We’ve ordered quite a bit of extra food to accommodate the catering, and we’ve got extra people all weekend to make sure the food goes out without a glitch.”
Some businesses that in former years saw few Nascar fans are increasingly counting more among their customers. “In the past five years, we’ve been getting people from the races who come in specifically looking for healthy alternatives,” says Jill Benson-Gauss, co-owner of Good Groceries on Fourth Street. “There’s a huge surge of consciousness.” But unfortunately, she notes, the weekly farmer’s market in Lafayette Park “doesn’t get much of a bounce. Which is disappointing, because we have so much more than just produce—cookies and fudge and honey and handmade soaps and gift items—for someone traveling here, you won’t find this anywhere else.”
Still, those visitors knowledgeable about nearby towns or adventurous enough to explore help spread the joy. Matt Hirschel, manager of the Harvest Café on Montour Falls’s Main Street noted on the Thursday before the race, “Business is going pretty well. Today we had the busiest breakfast ever—it was nonstop. You could tell people were from out of town because they were wearing Nascar shirts. We expected more customers, but it was more than I expected personally. It’s a good feeling when people from out of town get to see what we have to offer.”
Certainly, the teams and the fans are gratefully appreciated for their spending—but some merchants, like the Watkins Glen Wal-Mart’s General Manager Terra Ellis, call this a personal Christmas season for reasons that have nothing to do with the bottom line. “I’m a huge, huge Nascar fanatic,” Ellis says. “You have people coming in from all across the country—to see these people and they’re all fans of this sport, it’s an honor and a privilege.”
She reports the store is stocked with a lot of extra food, soda, Gatorade and water, as well as Watkins Glen and Finger Lakes t-shirts and sweatshirts. “It helps the local economy—absolutely,” she says.
Best of all, two drivers had promised to come to the store to sign autographs one evening before the race. “This is fun I would not be able to have anywhere else,” she says. “I love it!”