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Checkered flag waves at first postwar U.S. road race in Watkins Glen, New York

On this day in 1948, the first American road race since World War II takes place in Watkins Glen, a tiny town near the Finger Lakes in New York. In 1961, the Watkins Glen event was added to the Formula One Grand Prix schedule and for the next 20 years it was a destination for the world’s best drivers. Compared to Monte Carlo and other sophisticated stops on the Formula One circuit, Watkins Glen was scarcely even on the map (Sports Illustratedpoked fun at its “courage and cornpone, sophistication with straw in its teeth”), but the race was named the best Grand Prix of the season more than once.

Road racing–that is, racing sleek sports cars on real roads instead of custom-built tracks–had fizzled out in the United States during World War II, but was revived in Watkins Glen by an enterprising young law student named Cameron Argetsinger. Argetsinger was a fan of European road racing in particular and fast driving in general and he was convinced that the village’s twisting, scenic lanes and byways would be perfect for a Grand-Prix–style event. (He was motivated by more than civic boosterism, however: as he once explained to a reporter, “I had an MG-TC and didn’t have a place to race it.”)  Argetsinger spent months planning the race–he plotted its course by arranging and rearranging magazines on his living room floor–and finally settled on a 6.6-mile, mostly paved route around the town’s perimeter.

Before the race could happen, Argetsinger needed to get permission from nine different state agencies and the New York Central railroad, which agreed to suspend train service through Watkins Glen for the afternoon so that the drivers could cross the tracks safely. (As a result, some people refer to October 2 as “the day the trains stopped.”)  Twenty-three cars participated in that first race; Argetsinger and his MG finished ninth.

By the end of the decade, the event was drawing 100,000 spectators each year and in 1956, after a couple of race-day accidents on the public roads, the town built a brand-new course especially for its Grand Prix. In 1961, the Watkins Glen race became the only American stop on the Formula One tour (“A biscuit,” one reporter wrote, “reincarnated as a brioche”).

In 1981, citing financial difficulties, Formula One dropped the race from its schedule. Since then, there have been U.S. Grand Prix races in cities from coast to coast–in Long Beach, Las Vegas, Detroit, Dallas, Phoenix and Indianapolis–but none as successful or celebrated as the ones at Watkins Glen.

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