Watkins Glen International is a racetrack for drivers. It is a racetrack for historians. It is a racetrack for car buffs, camping enthusiasts and even nature lovers. But most of all, it is a racetrack for fans.
The bond between North America’s most prominent road course and those fans was just reaffirmed when Watkins Glen was voted “Best NASCAR Track” in the USA Today 10Best Readers’ Choice Awards for the second straight time.
Fans’ commitment to Schuyler County’s showcase attraction is evident beyond their votes. The upcoming Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series’ I Love New York 355 at The Glen is on track to sell out each of the more than 38,000 grandstand seats. Reserved camping at the track was sold out in December, though unreserved spots remain.
Watkins Glen’s continued popularity is a fusion of various elements that make the track unique not just in NASCAR’s collection of venues but in motorsports in general. Not only does Watkins Glen boast the deepest Formula One history in the United States, but it is currently the only track to host North America’s top three racing series: NASCAR’s Cup Series, the Verizon IndyCar Series and the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.
The combination of the flowing racetrack, white-knuckle racing, a wide range of activities for fans and the classic feel that has remained even as upgrades are made on a yearly basis help bring in close to 100,000 fans every NASCAR weekend.
"You have a little bit over here for families, you have a little bit over here for the campers," said Michael Printup, who has been the track's president since June of 2009. "You've got a little bit over here for the day trippers, you've got a little bit over here for the true lovers of racing.
"At the end of the day, we're just this little old racetrack in the coolest small town in America. We're able to be caretakers in the history of time right now and it's a lot of fun to be there."
Those qualities that entice fans are the same ones that make drivers' eyes light up when they head out on the road course, no matter if it's the smaller NASCAR configuration or the full 3.4-mile circuit used by other series.
IMSA drivers often mention the circuit as their favorite and last year when the IndyCar Series returned to Watkins Glen after a six-year absence, drivers were stoked.
"It's great to be back in Watkins Glen," IndyCar driver Ryan Hunter-Reay said during a test session before last year's race. "This is such an amazing racetrack, the area. We really missed it over the years not being here."
Drivers such as IMSA's Eric Curran are thrilled to return to Watkins Glen year after year, with that excitement extending beyond the track.
"It's an amazing area located at the top of the hill there," he said before this year's Sahlen's Six Hours of The Glen. "Lots of amazing views and lots of green pastures. Just the way the track flows. It's a proper racetrack in my mind. It's really fun to drive. It's really fast. It's got a lot of challenging corners. It's three and a half miles. There's a lot going on with it."
A lot indeed. In keeping with that theme, here are seven qualities that make Watkins Glen International a hit with fans and competitors alike.
Watkins Glen prevailed in this year's USA Today voting even though its Twitter account has just under 68,000 followers, far below the 295,000 of Daytona International Speedway, the 183,000 of Indianapolis Motor Speedway or even the 90,000 of Martinsville Speedway, which ended up as runner-up for the "Best NASCAR Track" honor.
"At the end of the day, what I think it clearly shows is our fans are passionate about Watkins Glen International," Printup said. "Everything up there. All the events that we do. We have a very stout fan base that really supports us."
The most significant indication of fan enthusiasm, though, is crowds that keep growing. Although attendance numbers haven't been released in recent years, the most recent number was around 95,000.
"Talking to my brothers out there that run different tracks, here we are on pace to sell out our grandstands again," Printup said Monday. "We can't sell out (general admission), but we're going to sell out grandstands again, which is a pretty stout stat for the third year in a row. The only other track that can say that is Daytona International, which is obviously another historic and prestigious racetrack in North America."
Printup gets to know fans through coffee and donuts sessions on race weekends, along with other gatherings. He also gets a firsthand look at their enthusiasm on race weekends, with a recent Six Hours of The Glen reminding him of that commitment.
"It was raining cats and dogs," Printup said. "It was on a Saturday and the fans still stuck around. Not all of them, but a large chunk of them were sticking in the grandstands with their ponchos on watching the guys and gals. I remember sitting there and looking at them, going, 'They're crazy, but they're dedicated.'
"Whether it's the poll or whether it shows in ticket sales, our events just keep going up and up. As I tell my boss, they're not going in the thousands each time, but they're going up each time."
Next year will mark 70 years of auto racing in Watkins Glen, with that history dating back to the first post-World War II road race in the United States in 1948 thanks to the vision of Cameron Argetsinger.
A permanent 2.3-mile track was built in 1956 on the circuit's current home up the hill from Montour Falls and Watkins Glen. Although the track has undergone various changes since then, most recently a full repave last year, it remains faithful to the original where it matters.
Those designers and workers who were involved in the original circuit are not forgotten, particularly Bill Milliken, a 2011 inductee into the track's Legends of the Glen and an instrumental figure in the design and planning of the permanent track and temporary track that came three years before it.
Watkins Glen became a household name for race fans across the world in 1961, when it hosted the U.S. Grand Prix for the first time. That event would remain a mainstay until 1980.
After some years of uncertainty and financial troubles that followed, Corning Glass Works subsidiary Corning Enterprises stepped up in 1983 in a partnership with International Speedway Corporation, leading to Watkins Glen International. By 1986, NASCAR's top series was the main event each year and has held that status since. Names such as Mario Andretti, Gilles Villeneuve and James Hunt gave way to the likes of Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt and Helio Castroneves, but the quality of the driving has remained a constant.
When asked about the track winning the USA Today vote again, Printup said, "It just shows the continued support of why this track is so historic. None of us here had anything to do with design and development. We're just caretakers and promoters of today's product."
As much as the drivers are larger than life figures at The Glen, the track has a distinct personality of its own. Areas such as "The Boot," the "Inner Loop" and "the Esses" are familiar to the track's longtime fans.
Beyond the turns – nine or 11 depending on who's counting – are consistent elevation changes accompanied by a flowing course built for continued speed.
"They designed it back in the '50s and they designed a gem and probably didn't even know it then because they didn't have CAD (computer-assisted design) and all the other fun computer stuff we have today," Printup said. "But they designed an awful good track and our fans just keep coming and coming and coming."
When drivers say Watkins Glen is their favorite track, the main reason is because it allows them to be drivers.
"You really have to bring everything you have and not leave anything on the table," IndyCar driver Marco Andretti said last year. "A place like this is always fun for a driver."
Said IMSA driver and Brazil native Oswaldo Negro this year: "Watkins Glen is definitely my favorite track here in the U.S. I love the flow of the track. I've heard and known of it since I was nine years old because Emerson Fittipaldi won his first F1 championship here at Watkins Glen, so I grew up with that name in my head for sure."
Watkins Glen has become noted for its thrilling finishes, with the 2007 version won by Tony Stewart named the year's top Cup race by Sports Illustrated. Races in recent years have featured daring final-lap maneuvers and passes.
One thing Watkins Glen has every NASCAR Cup Series course aside from the road course in Sonoma, California, is that it mixes the nuances of a road course with NASCAR's stock cars and its well-known drivers. More drivers in the series are potential winners at Watkins Glen than in the 1980s, while double-file restarts late in races provide a sense of anticipation among fans.
"It's why I think we're near to a sellout crowd the last three years here at Watkins Glen," Kurt Busch said after the 2014 race. "It puts on a tremendous show. That's what NASCAR is all about."
Another plus for some fans is race length, especially when a red-flag stoppage doesn't interrupt the action. Last year's official race time for the Cheez-It 355 at The Glen was 2 hours, 27 minutes, 48 seconds, just about matching Michigan for the shortest race among the 36 on the Cup schedule.
If there's a positive to waiting in traffic on the hill after a busy day at The Glen, it's the view of the surrounding valleys, which help make the delay a bit more tolerable.
This year offers a new perspective for the fans who will be able to watch from the Esses Party Deck near turns 2 and 3. Printup got a glimpse during Six Hours weekend.
"It was so awesome, first of all, to sit up there and watch the race," he said. "But second of all, watching that sun go over. Oh my gosh."
Nearby possibilities to keep fans include Seneca Lake, the serene drive for a tour of area wineries or a hike through the gorge at Watkins Glen State Park, not to mention the falls in Montour Falls or Ithaca.
"It's just the beauty of the area that people always glam onto," Printup said. "I remember my early days at Michigan International Speedway and they used to say it about there, but then there were a lot of economic changes there where they don't have the resort area anymore. ... Nothing against Michigan International Speedway, it's just the surrounding areas went away and they don't have lakes and wineries and parks, which we are literally the only racetrack that has a lot of things to do and you have a big choice on the menu."
Watkins Glen is the only track to host all three of North America's top series. It also hosts vintage and Sports Car Club of America race weekends.
That variety brings a mix of fans to the track. You'll see NASCAR fans and IndyCar fans on those respective weekends, but there are also crossover regional fans at those races who are pulled in by the track itself.
"You just take IMSA, NASCAR and IndyCar alone and we're the only track in North America that features the big three," Printup said. "No other track duplicates that, so that creates diversity and opportunity."
Watkins Glen provides itself on offering a wide range of activities during race weekends, including concerts, fireworks, the McDonald's Kids Zone, movie night and other attractions.
The Glen's music background is unlike any other track, with the Grateful Dead, The Allman Brothers Band and The Band playing at the historic Summer Jam in 1973. Popular rock band Phish played music festivals at the track in 2011 and 2015.
The Finger Lakes Wine Festival is also held each July at the track.
"What stands out is we offer a lot for a little," Printup said. "I don't mean monetarily. I just think we have so many different aspects of The Glen that people enjoy."
During a recent promotional visit to Buffalo, Cup driver Kevin Harvick talked to Printup about how much the camping at Watkins Glen adds to the experience.
"He tells me, 'One of the best things I love doing is going out and cruising the campground after dark,'" Printup said. He said, 'It's just amazing what you guys do out there from a facility point of view.' We think we're just doing our job. We think we have to do more, which we know we have to do more to constantly keep campers entertained."
This year the track has added a new campground for NASCAR weekend aimed at millennials. It's called Glentopia and features a cheaper price point, VIP concert access and other perks.
"We want to keep growing stuff like that so we can have fun things to do and it's affordable," Printup said. "We're trying to make it affordable for college kids."
Camping is not unique to Watkins Glen International when it comes to racetracks, but the setting and rural environment enhance the experience at The Glen.
"The only place that's going to come close to us is Michigan International," Printup said. "They have 11 different campgrounds with different styles. I think we have nine different styles that have just grown together."
I LOVE NEW YORK 355 AT THE GLEN
When: Aug. 3-6
Where: Watkins Glen International
Races: NASCAR K&N Pro Series' Finger Lakes Wine Country 100 at The Glen, 4:45 p.m. Aug. 4; NASCAR XFINITY Series' Zippo 200 at The Glen, 2 p.m. Aug. 5; Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series' I Love New York 355 at The Glen, 3 p.m. Aug. 6.
Ticket information: theglen.com or 1-866-461-7223.