Yesterday I made a pilgrimage. A pilgrimage that took me back to my childhood and honoured a group of men who inspired me and who showed me that anything was possible, even if it appeared to be beyond the bounds of the natural physical world.
I have been resting between my two shows on this trip in a wonderful oasis of calm in wooded hills high above the Delaware river, and I decided on one of my free days to get in the car and head for Watkins Glen in upstate New York. The drive would take me four hours, but the prize would be worth it, indeed.
For those who have regularly followed my blog you will know that I have always been a passionate follower of Grand Prix motor racing. It is a passion that has been with me since the age of 6, when my brother and sister took me to the Brands Hatch racing circuit in Kent to watch the 1970 Race of Champions. Brands Hatch was (and still is) a sinuous race track winding its way through woodland, rising and falling with natural contours of the surrounding countryside. There is nothing artificial about Brands Hatch, and the drivers who tackle it are battling not only the limits of their cars, but also what nature has created for them.
In the 1970s the Grand Prix circus travelled the world, and although there were sixteen races each season, only a few circuits really stood out – The fourteen mile Nurburgring was terrifying in the extreme and had claimed many lives; Brands Hatch, of course was special because it was local; and then there was Watkins Glen which seemed to somehow stand apart from the rest.
The US Grand Prix had been held at The Glen since 1961 and always came at the very end of the season, as the fall colours were at their flame-red best. The World Championship had invariably already been settled and there was inevitably an end-of-term, celebratory feel about the race. The organisers ensured that the prize fund was the richest of the year and so a huge entry was guaranteed (these were the days that anyone with a suitable car could turn up and race, and it was not unusual for an official team to enter a third, even a fourth car. So unlike the rigidly controlled two by two grids that we have today.)
My drive took me along the banks of the Delaware and through Pennsylvania. Initially I was passing cities I know well from my tour, but as I travelled further north, through Pocono, Scranton and onwards, the names were all new to me. I was amazed at the city of Binghampton, across the state line in New York. I pride myself of having a pretty wide knowledge of American geography, but I have never heard of Binghampton, and yet it seemed to be a thriving, multi-cultural city, with tall spires mingling with shining, glinting mosques.
The hours passed slowly but the scenery was so beautiful, lush wooded hills surrounded me on all sides. It has been rather nice to see America at its verdant best, as I am usually here in the depths of winter, when the trees are bare and the sky grey.
My route took me west into New York state, and as the arrival time came closer I began to reflect more on why I had felt the need to travel to Watkins Glen – it had almost been a compulsion.
I dredged my mind for race histories and I realised that my four great racing heroes had all excelled at The Glen. Graham Hill, Ronnie Peterson, James Hunt and Gilles Villeneuve had all tamed Watkins Glenn and enjoyed amazing successes there
Graham Hill was a dashing moustachioed driver of the old school. He drove hard and partied hard and had raced against some of the very greats, and beaten them. In 1971 I had been at Brands Hatch, a shy little boy, watching the cars returning to the paddock after a practice session, with my pudding basin haircut, and probably my brown leather sandals. I was standing against a chain-link wire fence and watched as these mechanical masterpieces burbled past me. The drivers cocooned in their colourful crash helmets seemed remote and untouchable. But then a white Brabham came into site, and its driver – Graham Hill – was bare headed, and as he drove past he caught sight of me, pointed and waved. There were no large crowds, just me and he waved. In that instant motor racing became less about cars and more about the men inside them, and I wanted Graham Hill to win!
Hill had triumphed for three years in a row at Watkins Glen, from 1963 to 1965, beating the likes of Jimmy Clark (who many regard as the greatest ever driver). But however he might have tamed the Glen it almost took its revenge in 1969. Hill was driving for the Lotus team and tyre wear problems resulted in his spinning off the track. He had to undo his seatbelts, climb out of the car and push it back to the tarmac. The tight confines of the cockpits meant that he couldn’t do his seatbelts back up again (they were somewhat of a novelty in F1 at that time anyway), and he drove on at racing speeds with his belts unfastened. As he passed the pits he signalled to his team that he would be coming in for a tyre change on the next lap, so they should start preparing now. He never made it.
As Graham Hill accelerated down the back straight his tyre exploded and sent the car into a huge, cartwheeling accident, going end over end destroying itself as it did so. The centrifugal forces acting on the car pulled the helpless driver from his seat and ejected him high into the air, breaking both of his legs as he was flung out. He said later that he never knew if it was a good or bad thing that he didn’t have his belts on, because if he had been restrained in the cockpit the result may have been much worse.
Graham Hill recovered and continued to drive in F1 for many more years, but he was never the driver he had been before that crash.
Whereas Graham Hill was a larger than life personality, Ronnie Peterson from Sweden was quiet and almost shy, but boy could he drive a racing car fast. He seemed to have an innate ability to understand the forces at work and control them. His trademark blue and yellow helmet would be tilted forward and down, as if he were urging the car onward. He would commit to a corner at apparently impossible speeds and sure enough the car would begin to slide, the rear desperately trying to overtake the front, but did Ronne lift his foot? Oh no, he simply counter-steered, tamed the beast and drifted around the bend in perfect control.
Ronnie’s first visit to the Glen was in 1970 driving for the unfancied and under financed March racing team. Over the next few years he would put his stamp on the circuit however. In 71, still with March he took an amazing and completely unexpected third place, and in 72 he was fourth. In 1973, now with a major team at last – Lotus – he slid and drifted his way to a memorable victory.
In fact that 73 race saw the emergence of my next hero the rebellious child of the seventies, James Hunt. Hunt had gained a reputation in junior formula for crashing, and had only found himself in Formula One thanks to the largesse of a young aristocrat, who seemed to have more money than sense.
Lord Alexander Hesketh decided that Formula One looked a fun place to party, so created his own team which appeared to be staffed by a group of hooray-Henrys more interested in Champagne than preparing the car. But the outward frivolity of the team masked a steely core, and during 73 they started to challenge the major teams. At Watkins Glen Hunt pushed Peterson (the recognised fastest driver, in the best car) all the way to the finish line, finishing just 0.7 of a second behind him. Three years later, in his Championship year, Hunt drove one of his finest races to win and repeated that result in 77.
Gilles Villeneuve was a French Canadian who drove in the Ronnie Peterson mould, ignoring the rules of physics and pushing the car way beyond them. In 1979 the Friday practice session was held in torrential rain, but as there was a possibility of the same on race day, all of the drivers went out and teetered through the puddles. Most came back saying it was undrivable and dangerous, but Gilles pounded round and when the session was over he hap lapped 9 (NINE) seconds faster than his nearest rival! Another driver simply laughed and muttered ‘he is on a different level to the rest of us’. On Sunday Gilles won the race with ease.
So Watkins Glen had been the showground for a succession of my favourite drivers to display their ability, but Grand Prix racing in the 1970s was a truly gladiatorial sport and the slightest error could be fatal. Today if a driver loses control the circuits are built in such a way as to contain the accident as safely as possible and that of course is a good thing, but there was something about watching Grand Prix cars in my era, knowing that these heroes were pushing themselves to the very limit in full knowledge of what the consequences of overstepping the mark would be. Oh, yes, they knew because two or three drivers would perish at the wheel each year.
That race in 71 in which Ronnie stood on the podium was won by a dashing young Frenchman called Francois Cevert – he had the dark, brooding good looks of a film star, piercing blue eyes and as well as great ability in a racing car, played the piano to concert standard. By 1973 Cevert was talked about as a future world champion.
During practice for the 1973 US Grand Prix he entered the swooping fast esses just after the start of the lap and made the slightest of errors in positioning the car, his front wheel clipped the inside barrier and from that moment he was out of control. In an instant his Tyrrell shot across the track and slammed into the barrier at unabated speed. The steel was not sufficiently strong to contain the forces and it opened up, letting the car pass underneath. Poor Cevert had no chance as the knife-like steel edge inflicted fatal injuries to him.
But the Glen had not finished yet, for in 1974 a young Austrian driver Helmut Koenig suffered a puncture as he approached the Toe turn, sending him headlong into the barrier, which parted just as had happened to Cevert the year before: the result was tragically and gruesomely the same.
So, triumph and tragedy has coloured the Glen’s history. Formula One racing stopped coming here in 1981, but the track still hosts major meetings throughout the year, and is largely unchanged since those heady days.
As I got closer I became extraordinarily emotional, and I couldn’t quite understand why. The circuit is much higher in the hills than I had expected, and is remarkably like Brands Hatch in its setting and layout, making it feel very familiar.
I drove up to the gate, and another man was asking if it was possible to visit, and the answer was in the negative, the circuit was closed to all visitors today as the NASCAR circus was setting up for the weekend’s race. Strangely I wasn’t disappointed, it was enough just to be there, in the hills. I drove around some perimeter roads and found a camp site that had views of The Boot section of the track.
I said a silent thank you to my heroes, none of whom are still alive, and drove away.
An eight hour round drive seemed to be rather a long time, just to stand in a campsite and look at one corner of racetrack, so I decided to drive the short distance into the village of Watkins Glen itself.
Of course it was ready for the NACAR onslaught, and all of the lamp poles had US and chequered flags flying. Watkins Glen is very proud of its racing heritage and the influence of the races are everywhere. In the Chamber of Commerce building I was moved to see a huge mural, featuring Francois Cevert in the centre.
On leaving the Chamber I found that the pavements have stone tablets set into them, like the Holywood walk of fame, honouring those drivers who have triumphed here.
The first races were held on public roads, with the start and finish line being in the very centre of the village, opposite the town hall. The stone tablet adjacent to the old start line (still marked across the street) pays homage to the winner of the first race in 1948: Frank Griswold (rather aptly the same surname as the character in National Lampoon’s Vacation who makes a pilgrimage to Wally World, only to find it closed).
But further exploration brought me to the Glen itself, cutting its way through a deep gorge and falling to sea level (or lake level to be pedantic) via a series of spectacular waterfalls. The Watkins Glenn State Park have created a natural and unobtrusive walkway alongside the glen. The narrow stone walk way winds its way through tunnels and over bridges and affords wonderful views of the 19 different waterfalls.
For an hour or so I joined many other camera-toting hikers as we made our way up and back down again, marvelling at nature. I would imagine if anyone is studying geology in New York State, they only need to come here, walk up and walk down before being ready to take their final paper.
From the Glen itself I took the car to the very edge of Seneca Lake and found a small restaurant where I had a huge salad as I looked out at deep blue choppy waters, with the occasional slash of white as a yacht tacked this way or that.
Watkins Glen is a lovely town, in beautiful surroundings and I am glad that my childhood memories had lead me here. A long journey home lay before me, but I was so happy that I came both to capture those heady years when childhood gave way to adolescence and to discover somewhere new and beautiful.
Hopefully Liz and I can return to the Glen together one day and explore properly, and if there just happens to be a race that weekend…….