Raceday(s) at Watkins Glen
Sometimes the gods really do have a sense of humor. Or, at least they seemed to on Monday afternoon.
I had just managed to fight through nearly an hour of bumper-to-bumper traffic to get through the village of Watkins Glen. I had just finished skirting the south shore of Seneca Lake and started climbing the long hill that begins the journey to Ithaca and, eventually, back to the Capital Region, when the first raindrops came.
These were the same raindrops that had turned Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Watkins Glen International into a two-day affair, forcing the 43 competitors to sit around overnight and run the 225 miles beginning at 10 a.m. Monday – if the rain would hold off for the three hours or so needed to allow the world’s top stock car drivers to turn 92 laps over the 2.45-mile road course.
For me, the extra day was actually a gift, allowing me to turn what had been planned as a daytrip with my girlfriend into a two-day experience. For many, the experience is a four-day affair (five days with the rainout), as they come in Thursday and stay to watch qualifying for the Sprint Cup, Nationwide Series and Grand-Am Rolex Series races before the actual races take place Saturday and Sunday (and Monday).
With a hotel room reserved in Ithaca (about 20 miles east of the Glen), we made out from the Capital Region early Sunday morning so we could get there early enough to use our media credentials to walk through the pits and perhaps meet a few of the drivers. About 3½ hours later and after a quick stop at the hotel, we were pulling into our parking area between turns 3 and 4 and hopping a shuttle bus to the Media Center.
With about three hours before the scheduled 1 p.m. start of the race, we decided to wander around the massive complex and sample what the Glen has to offer for race fans. The thing that quickly struck me as we walked around was how the Glen appeared to me as an auto racing fan to be very similar to the experience of visiting Saratoga Race Course for a thoroughbred horse racing fan.
For the 85,000 people estimated to have passed through the gates Sunday and Monday, the Glen was equal parts major sports arena and country fair. Walking the streets of the infield and around the outside of the track was like walking the midway of the Fonda Fair, with enough food to satisfy even Adam Richman (host of the Travel Channel’s “Man vs. Food Nation”), who served as grand marshal of this year’s race.
There was pizza and barbecue and even deep fried delicacies like Twinkies, Oreos and pickles. There was event sponsor Heluva Good offering samples of its new Buffalo Wing Dip.
And with full stomachs, fans had plenty to keep them busy while they waited out what turned into about a 2½-hour delay before the race was postponed to Monday morning. For those who shelled out the extra money, there was the chance to walk through the pits – an experience akin to a Red Sox fan getting to sit in the home team dugout at Fenway Park.
For others, there were exhibits by sponsors like Chevrolet, which put on display its cars used by 5-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. and allowed fans to have their picture taken with those cars. Of course, the automaker also had displays of some of its new offerings for those of us who only do our driving off the track.
The Speed Channel cable network, meanwhile, broadcast its pre-race show live, with fans gathering in the background, spurred on by giveaways during commercial breaks and a chicken wing-eating challenge sponsored by Adam Richman’s Travel Channel show.
And, of course, there were the souvenirs. You couldn’t throw a stone without hitting a trailer or building offering shirts, hats, pictures, diecast cars and a seemingly limitless assortment of trinkets, knickknacks, doodads and novelties for fans of even the more obscure drivers.
While the crowd was much smaller on Monday (grandstands that would normally be overflowing were maybe three-quarters filled), they were no less fervent in their support. They staked out vantage points not only in the stands but also at different spots along the track that offered clear views of the race, even if only for a few moments as the cars passed during laps that take about 70 seconds to complete.
Many of the vendors and exhibitors had already packed up and left Monday, headed for the next Sprint Cup race at Michigan International Speedway. That further narrowed the focus on the race itself, and fans got their money’s worth on that front, as well.
A late-race caution after Paul Menard hit the wall out of the S-turns brought the field back together for a green-white-checkers finish that quickly became a two-lap shootout between race leader Kyle Busch and two of the sport’s young guns, Brad Keselowski and Australian Marcus Ambrose.
Keselowski took the lead from Busch briefly on the first lap after the green flag, but Ambrose got the best of a three-wide battle to take command later in that lap and held off Keselowski’s challenge. Meanwhile, a pair of last-lap crashes sent David Reutimann upside down into turn 2 and Tony Stewart and Clint Bowyer sliding off the track after coming together in turn 5.
All in all, the Glen experience was a winner, both on and off the track, and one we hope to repeat next year and every year into the future.