Corning to the Rescue
May 01, 2019 12:40PM
On a November day in 1982, a few lawyers and a few hundred people gathered at the Watkins Glen courthouse steps to witness the sale of 550 acres covering a hilltop southwest of town. Surrounded by dairy farms, the property’s main feature was that it had once been an international sporting destination.
The Watkins Glen International racetrack had hosted the U.S. Grand Prix for Formula One for nineteen years, but over the past decade, track updates, dwindling crowds, and hosting costs had led the organization into bankruptcy and the property into foreclosure. Those standing at the courthouse didn’t know what type of developer might buy the renowned racetrack. A local lawyer placed the first bid, for $100,000. The second and final offer came quickly: $1,250,000. Within seven minutes of the auction’s opening, the property had sold to the Bank of New York. The track stayed under the bank’s ownership for several months, until a lawyer from Corning Incorporated began negotiating the corporation’s purchase of the land.
A man named Jim Riesbeck was behind Corning’s interest. Riesbeck, a racing enthusiast and the comptroller for Corning Glass, had visited Daytona International Speedway in Florida and had ideas for replicating its success in the Finger Lakes region. Should Corning Inc. invest in the Watkins Glen racecourse, Riesbeck knew, the company would restore an economic driver in the town. And by making the track primarily a stock car destination and not a Formula One venue, Corning could lower operating costs and create a greater sustainability for the site. It was a decision that would write Corning Inc.’s legacy into the history of Watkins Glen.
In the Beginning
Car racing in the Glen began not on the track but on village roads. Local historian Bill Green remembers watching the town’s first road race on October 2, 1948. His widowed mother worked at a tavern in town, and she sat her son on the porch that day so he could watch the event whip through town.
“I had never seen a road race before,” Green says.
Twenty-three drivers competed in the qualifier for the Watkins Glen Grand Prix at noon that day. From his perch, Green watched the European-style aerodynamic cars rush past him as they chased one another four times around a 6.6-mile loop. Fifteen qualified for the main event, eight loops (52.8 total miles) across public roads and a railroad track (the New York Railroad had agreed to delay trains passing through that afternoon). Ten cars finished the run, with Frank Griswold from Wayne, Pennsylvania, taking first place in an Alfa Romeo 8C2900 coupe.
That single amateur race, says Green today, sparked the “rebirth of road racing in America after World War II.” Its mastermind was a Cornell law student named Cameron Argetsinger from Youngstown, Ohio. Argetsinger knew the area well from summer vacations spent with his family in a cottage along Seneca Lake. He designed the potential course after studying maps of the village, and, after pitching the idea to the Watkins Glen Chamber of Commerce, executed his vision.
From 1948 to 1952, the best international names traveled to compete on the public roads of Watkins Glen. Spectators lining the course were electrified by their close proximity to the drivers, easily visible through the open cockpits. This distance grew after the 1952 event, when a car hit a child, killing him instantly. In 1953, after state legislature attempted to outlaw racing on public highways, a second course was drawn on town roads. That lasted until 1956, when the race committee purchased 550 acres for a permanent racecourse and created new roads within it. In 1957, the Watkins Glen racetrack held its first professional race, a NASCAR Grand National Division stock car event.
The Glen’s popularity led to its becoming the longest-running host of the U.S. Grand Prix, part of the Formula One World Championship (Watkins Glen held the competition from 1961-1980). In 1998, the track’s former press chief talked to the New York Times about the draw of the racetrack, which competed with settings in more exotic parts of the world. “Part of the appeal of the race was the uniqueness of it,” he said. “You had this town of 2,700 people in upstate New York hosting a race that was the focus of international attention.”
The facility’s economic troubles grew in 1971, when significant alterations expanded the course by over a mile and made it more challenging—a multi-million dollar decision that attracted even more entrants but put the organization in debt. Throughout the seventies, financial pressures abounded, with drivers’ associations calling for greater safety measures and costly maintenance work. The hosting expenses for Formula One events multiplied, corporate sponsorships weakened, and rowdy spectators kept larger audiences away. Formula One left Watkins Glen after the 1980 U.S. Grand Prix, and the racetrack went bankrupt the following year.
“A Very Sunny Day”
Then, in 1983, Corning Enterprises, a new subsidiary of Corning Glass Works, bought the track from the Bank of New York.
“Fate dealt the cards the right way,” says Bill Green today. When he heard in mid-July of 1983 that Corning had completed the deal and was indeed restoring the Watkins Glen International racetrack, he felt elated. “It was a very sunny day, but the lights got even brighter,” he laughs.
A leader in Corning’s revitalization of the track, Jim Riesbeck made an early decision to partner with the company behind Daytona International Speedway: International Speedway Corporation, a company founded by Bill France, architect of NASCAR. The Glen reopened in 1984, and, two years later, NASCAR’s top series returned. (NASCAR has held a race at Watkins Glen every year since 1986.) In 1997, as Corning Enterprises recognized it had completed its mission—to rebuild an internationally-renowned racetrack, restore a landmark, and invest in the Finger Lakes region—International Speedway Corporation became the sole owner of Watkins Glen International.