Watkins Glen NY was the place where European-style sports car racing first came to North America, after the war. Thanks to the vision of a few pioneering fans of MG-TCs, Triumph TR-3s, Jaguar XK-120s and the like, the little village, located in the Finger Lakes region of south west New York became the Mecca of the sporty car set in the early fifties. Races were held on a hilly, winding course that came right through the main street of the village, from 1948 until 1953, when what is now called “the old course” was replaced with a permanent dedicated race track, which continues to host some of the biggest racing series to this day.
To remember the roots of the sport, Watkins Glen now hosts an annual Vintage Racing Festival, early in September each year.
In my younger years (where did those go, anyway?), I was active in racing small-bore sports cars and sedans, and eventually some small open-wheeled single-seat formula cars. I also owned a ’67 Jaguar Mark 2 Sedan, before the Citroën virus took hold. As such I still have a circle of friends in the racing and vintage car worlds, and thanks to some of them, I got an invitation to attend the Watkins Glen Vintage Festival this year.
One of these friends, Martin, had just purchased a gorgeous ’66 Jaguar E-type coupe, and was eager to show it off at the Glen. He and his wife Elizabeth had rented a cottage on Seneca Lake for the week, and invited Ron, long-time president of the Motorsport Club of Ottawa, and me to join them. Ron had been working furiously to finish his ’72 BRE Datsun 510 for the trip, but things did not quite work out.
Ron and I discussed our options. We both felt that if we were going to a Vintage Festival, we really wanted to arrive in a vintage car. I suggested that we take my 2CV6. I could see that Ron was more than a little skeptical. “Um, it only has two cylinders. How many days would it take us to get there?”. I told him that it was no big deal, and that the Glen was about the same distance as Saratoga Springs, where I had attended the Rendezvous in June. “Five or six hours should do it”, I said “That’s taking the Interstates”. Ron raised his eyebrows, but I assured him everything would work out fine.
On a lovely Thursday afternoon, we loaded up the 2CV, and headed south from Ottawa, through Ogdensburg, across to I-81, then I-90 from Syracuse. Cruising at a steady 100 kph on the Interstates (and even passing the odd truck), Ron soon was appreciating the joys of minimalist motoring. He particularly enjoyed the dash-mounted gear change, calling it “pretty slick”.
Before we knew it, we were running down Route 14, through the Finger Lakes Wine Region. I was not really aware that there were so many wineries in the area. Every time we got a clear view of the shores of the lakes, we could see vineyards cleared from the surrounding forests. Somehow, the 2CV seemed right at home in these surroundings. Maybe she was remembering her roots. Well before nightfall, and after 5 1/2 hours on the road, we arrived at the cottage. We both hopped out, and Ron remarked on what a pleasant trip it had turned out to be. Another Citroën convert!
The next morning, as the sun rose spectacularly over beautiful Seneca Lake, we got up and prepared to go into Watkins Glen, to see what was going on. Ron and I had every intention to spend the day as spectators, but that was not how things worked out. Through a series of twists, I wound up participating in the whole Festival. It was like one of those movies where the unlikely hero gets swept along by events. Here is how it happened.
Martin and Elizabeth were registered to participate in the Glenora Wineries Run, one of several low-key rallies organized for the well-heeled owners of various fine vintage cars. Martin’s Jaguar fit right in. Unfortunately, Martin has somewhat limited vision, and so he felt he could neither drive nor navigate for the rally. Still, he really wanted to participate. He came up with the idea that I should be his “pace car”.
After a bit of figuring, we worked out that the best combination was for Ron to drive the Jag, and Martin could be the passenger. Martin’s wife Elizabeth, who is an excellent navigator, took the rally notes and rode with me in the 2CV. The organizers of the Glenora Run, when they understood the special circumstances, were very accommodating. They had me line up at the bottom of the hill exiting the parking lot, to wait for the Jag to appear from the starting gate. Since they had Route 14 (quite a major road) closed for the start of the rally, the officials really wanted to be sure that our situation would not cause a delay. The starter came over to me and said “When you see the Jag start to move, you go as hard as you can up the hill. Do you think you can make it?”. I just smiled politely and nodded. Oh ye of little faith! The flag dropped for the Jag, I wound it out up the hill, past a surprised and relieved starter, and off we went.
Thanks to Elizabeth’s excellent navigation the rally went well. Ron later mentioned that at 2CV speeds, one really had a chance to appreciate the magnificent countryside as we went along for the two hours. At one point our little convoy was overtaken by a group of 1960s Shelby Mustangs and Cobras that were absolutely flying. I waved them through, and stayed out of the way. Ron must have been itching to follow them!
As the rally ended, I found myself lined up with 120 classic cars on main street in Montour Falls, for the parade to the catered gala lunch and awards at a nearby park. By this point, I was getting really nervous, because I was not registered for anything, and, to my surprise, the 2CV was generating a huge amount of attention. It winds up they had never had one in the Festival before, and everyone wanted to check it out. Most people knew what it was, but few of them had ever seen one.
After a lovely lunch, they began directing the traffic to get out of the park, and head to the village of Watkins Glen, for the ceremonial laps of the old street circuit. I said to Ron that it was time for me to bail out (he was still driving Martin’s Jag, so he had the right to be there). I told all the other cars behind me that I would wave them through, as we left the park. I didn’t want to mess up anyone’s laps. Anyway, I did as I said, and trailed the group out of the park. However, I had to follow them, because I had absolutely no idea where I was, or how to find the village.
So, while the Jags, Triumphs, MGs, Ferraris, Cobras….. (you get the idea) thundered away up the hills and around some country roads, I peddled as fast as I could to keep up. I had the “sweep car” (a Ferrari) behind me (he would not pass… just following orders, I guess). My plan was to find the village, and then peel off to park in the designated area.
After a few minutes of entertaining driving, we came down a long curving hill. There were houses along the road here, so I figured we were near the village. Looking ahead, I saw a guy at the bottom of the hill, in a marshal’s suit, indicating a left turn. No sweat, this should be the end of it.
How wrong I was.
After the left, I found myself facing another flagger, about a short block away, he was waving me right. I was looking for an exit, but the edges of the road had crowd control there. I took the right and….. oh my gawd, I was on Franklin Street, the main drag of Watkins Glen, and the front straight of the old street circuit. There were people lining both sides of the street, 5 to 10 deep! And as soon as I made the turn, they start cheering!
What to do, what to do?
Well, clearly there was no graceful exit, and the flaggers were encouraging me to try to keep up. So, the old showman took over. I revved the little 2CV up through the gears, knowing what a great sound it makes, and figuring that I would go down Franklin Street once for the crowd, then park it. I waved the Ferrari past.
Even in a 2CV, it is possible to get up a pretty good head of stream on this long stretch, and I will admit to having not really thought out an exit strategy. I guess I figured that an opportunity would present itself. Well, just past the spectacular 900-step high gorge, the “opportunity” took the form of another flagger waving me right. But by the time I figured out the situation, I was ‘way late on my braking, and there was no where else to go (I’m not so sure these folks had really thought this whole thing out). Imploring the gods of brakes and gearboxes, I threw out the anchor, and muttered a silent apology to the car. Amazingly, I got it slowed down, and even executed a reasonable line through the corner, to the cheers of the assembled masses.
By this point, I had decided that it was “in for a penny, in for a pound”. I was now running up the road that circles around the Gorge, turns one, two and three of the old street circuit. But oh my, what a climb. I could see this coming, and so I really gave the car the welly, hoping to be able to maintain speed up the hill. With all of 33 hp, the odds were against me from the start. Some well executed down shifts got me to the top of the hill, and out into the more open countryside portion of the course. Along one of those stretches, I saw the Ferrari crawling along and waving me through, so he could resume his sweep role. Regardless of the circumstances, I will forever report this as the moment that I passed a Ferrari with my 2CV, on the Watkins Glen Grand Prix track!
Just after that, we descended the hill on the back side of the circuit, and I drove across the famous Stone Bridge that is one of the main landmarks of the old circuit. I couldn’t help thinking of the heroic drivers and great cars that had preceded me over the years. You truly would have had to be made of stern stuff to manhandle a Ferrari, a Lister Jaguar, or a Cadillac Allard over these roads. Of course the 2CV’s suspension soaked up even the big bumps at the crossings over the railway tracks, which also were part of the original circuit. Yikes!
From that point, I just kept driving, particularly enjoying the Esses that climb from the Stone Bridge back towards the village. That part of the circuit really suited the 2CV, and despite the climb, I could wind the car up through the gears, and took a lovely smooth line, through the sun-dappled tunnel created by the trees that line the route at that point.
Every time the little blue Citroën came down Franklin Street, the crowd went wild cheering. I later heard that my ovations were matched only by those for a Nash Metropolitan. Everyone loves an underdog.
Hustling a 2CV around when you are really trying to go as quickly as possible is hard work, I had discovered. Steering requires good arms, and my all-drum brakes got heavy (but never faded). By the end of our three laps, I was ready to stop.
At this point, we all were waved off into reserved parking, where the public could get a look at the cars close up. Once again, I had a constant crowd around the 2CV, and provided many explanations. I suspect that the owners of some of the more exotic cars were a little bewildered by this, but in truth, many of them also came over to take a look and ask questions. Car fans are car fans.
For the rest of the day I enjoyed to show on Franklin Street as other groups, more than 500 cars in total, took their ceremonial laps. Around 4:30, when the touring groups were done, we all heard (or rather felt) a growing rumble. Looking back up Franklin Street, we were treated to the spectacle of more than a hundred vintage race cars coming into town, after their day of practice at the modern Watkins Glen race track that is located just to the south of the village. What a show! Bugatti, Maserati, Ferrari, Lister, Allard, Porsche, Ford GT-40, Lola, McLaren, you name it, it was probably there. They parked them on Franklin Street to allow the crowds to appreciate them, before they let them lap the old circuit, as I had done only hours before. As I strolled along the street, between the rows of historic race cars, with my Citroën keys in my pocket, I really felt the need for someone to pinch me!
Saturday, watching some surprisingly serious racing among some irreplaceable vintage race cars at the modern track was a whole different experience, one that I will save for another day….