WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. — While going through press releases in the Watkins Glen media center Saturday, I stood next to a reporter/PR rep trio waxing poetic about trips to nearby Cooperstown and the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
When I returned 45 minutes later for another release, they were still going strong.
“It wasn’t just the Hall of Fame itself, it was the city,” one said. “It was like a trip back in time.”
It was about then that I almost wished someone had built an oval across from the track in an area awash with farmland. (Almost, mind you. The red barn and cows you see on the right as you’re entering Gate 2 on the left should never be disturbed.)
It’s just that, as a road course, Watkins Glen is seen by so many NASCAR fans as a blip on the schedule. Talk to them about their bucket list of races they have to get to, and this place rarely enters the conversation.
It should for the same reason a baseball-loving dad takes his 6-year-old to Cooperstown — because he doesn’t want his kid’s scope of the game to be limited to Matt Kemp’s fantasy stats.
And, four miles from the track, downtown Watkins Glen’s streets are covered with history — literally. Gaze down on the sidewalk and you’ll see inscriptions in the cement honoring a particular driver’s exploits here.
During my casual stroll of Franklin Street, I looked down and realized I had just barely missed stepping on the “Y” of Lee Petty. I was a little more careful to look and not hoof on blocks honoring Emerson Fittipaldi and Bobby Rahal.
The city’s racing history transcends NASCAR, and sides of Watkins Glen’s buildings don’t let you forget that.
Next to Frenchie’s Speciality Gifts and Vintage Finds is a mural painted by Robert Gillespie that pictures Bill Milliken screaming down the track during the inaugural Watkins Glen Grand Prix, held on the city’s streets in 1948. Next to Glen Mountain Market are cars going side-by-side in the 1954 affair — two years before the track opened and took the race off commercial roads.
The fact that the Glen’s history isn’t so NASCAR-centric should make it all the more enticing for a NASCAR fan. The rise of SPEED Channel and other cable outlets have made other forms of motorsports a lot more accessible to NASCAR watchers. I can say I’ve seen more Grand-Am, Indy and Formula 1 action in the last three years than in my whole life prior. But I still find myself playing catchup to its history.
At Watkins Glen you can go to the International Motor Racing Research Center on Decatur Street for a little education. Or, you can just walk the city’s downtown, where a promotional poster asked, “Who Says History Happens Slowly?”
In Watkins Glen, truer words have never been spoken.
Follow Josh Stewart on Twitter @JoshNASCARWWE