LAT Archive: Memorable moments at Watkins Glen

NASCAR visits Watkins Glen this weekend, and AutoClassics with LAT looks at a few memorable moments from the circuit’s extensive history

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There is little doubt that Watkins Glen – which NASCAR visits this weekend – is America’s most famous road circuit. Yet the reach of the upstate New York track is far wider than being one of only two NASCAR road course stop-offs.

Perhaps it is most commonly associated, in Europe at least, with being a former Formula 1 perennialm given it hosted the United States Grand Prix from 1961 to 1980. In addition, Watkins Glen is a fixture in endurance racing and a sometime IndyCar host, and has provided the scene for plenty more categories besides.

Thanks to the LAT Archive, AutoClassics looks at some memorable moments of Watkins Glen’s past in F1 and beyond.

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1967: Clark wins a game of chance

For the 1967 United States Grand Prix, the fast but fragile Lotus 49 with its ground-breaking Ford Cosworth DFV engine did as it virtually always did and dominated qualifying. Yet the Blue Oval on home ground wanted an orderly 1-2 on race day. Lotus pilots Graham Hill and Jim Clark resolved it in advance by tossing a coin for who would win (think about this next time you grumble about team orders).

Hill won the coin flick, and led until he developed clutch problems. With this, Clark was ordered through and built a large lead. And it’s just as well he did, as with two laps left Clark came past at vastly reduced speed and with a rear wheel out of line – the team referred to the offending suspension part as ‘pine trees’ due to their notorious fragility.

Clark pressed on some 20 seconds a lap off his previous pace, and held on to win by just six seconds from Hill. Ford nearly didn’t get its desired result, though, as had Chris Amon’s Ferrari engine not failed late on he would have beaten the Lotus pair.

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1970: Rodriguez rises

Watkins Glen has an extensive history in sportscar racing; its six-hour event stretches back to 1948 and continues today. And 1970 was in the midst of a sportscar golden age. Porsche had already won the year’s championship decisively, but neither it nor rival Ferrari wanted to miss an appearance in its important North American market.

Jo Siffert in the iconic Gulf-coloured Porsche 917 and Mario Andretti’s Ferrari 512S swapped door paint at the start – Andretti led initially, but Siffert was past before long. His fellow 917 of Pedro Rodriguez was backing him up, too, until losing several places after accidentally turning off his fuel pumps when reaching for his headlights switch.

He knuckled down to make up for his clanger, setting a lap record far under anything done in practice as he did so. Later Rodriguez and Siffert collided, though continued after repairs, and Rodriguez – paired with Leo Kinnunen – won from his fellow 917.

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1970: Fittipaldi wins it for Rindt

The race came with particular poignancy. Jochen Rindt, who was leading the championship by a country mile, had been killed practicing at Monza two rounds earlier. And the possibility remained that a rival would pip him to the title – most pointedly the suddenly in-form Ferrari of Jacky Ickx. And Ickx took pole for this one, while Lotus’s charge was led by a youthful Emerson Fittipaldi in only his fourth Grand Prix.

But it was Fittipaldi who won – and with it confirmed Rindt as F1’s first, and so far only, posthumous champion. He inherited the lead when Jackie Stewart dropped out with a broken oil line then Pedro Rodriguez pitted for more fuel with seven laps left. Ickx, meanwhile, never occupied the first place he needed, and trailed in fourth after a delay getting a fuel pipe repaired. As Fittipaldi took the win, an emotional Lotus boss Colin Chapman threw his hat in the air and promptly was mobbed by his delighted team.

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1971: Cevert’s one and only

‘Actually, the old Glen was a nothing circuit,’ said Denny Hulme some years ago. ‘We all went to play golf. When they modified the track it became a good circuit.’ In 1971 a 1.1-mile ‘boot’ loop was added, and suddenly the track was transformed into a classic. And the first Formula 1 race with it also had the distinction of being the scene of the only GP win for the talented and handsome Francois Cevert in the Tyrrell.

Initially Cevert’s champion team-mate Jackie Stewart led from Hulme’s McLaren, but before long both developed handling problems and Cevert moved by them to lead. Jacky Ickx’s Ferrari later threatened Cevert and closed to within two seconds, but then his alternator failed. Cevert thus cruised home. Tragically he was never able to add to his F1 win tally, as he was killed in an accident at the very same venue two years later.

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1980: Jones signs off in style

The 1980 Grand Prix, which turned out to be F1’s curtain call, at least provided an entertaining send-off. First Bruno Giacomelli, in an incongruous showing, took Alfa Romeo’s first F1 pole position since 1951 then led the race like he was born to do it. But at half distance his black box failed. And it denied us a possible grandstand finish, as Alan Jones in the Williams – who’d cemented the world championship in the previous race – slid off at the opening turn but over time climbed back to second place, leaving him half the race to close the 12 seconds to leader Giacomelli and pass. Giacomelli’s misfortune made the point moot.

By now the circuit was in financial bother, and this visit was a stay of execution with base safety upgrades made only with a loan from F1 teams. The venue couldn’t rustle cash to make the further required improvements, and couldn’t even pay back the afore-mentioned loan. Watkins Glen was declared bankrupt the following year.

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2009: Wilson ends team’s quarter-century drought

After a period of neglect the track was renovated under new owners from 1983, and reopened in 1984. NASCAR returned in 1986, although IndyCar wasn’t back until 2005. Perhaps the most memorable of those latter races was that in 2009. Therein the late Justin Wilson ended Dale Coyne Racing team’s 25-year wait for victory glory. The immediate previous made the task even more daunting, as the preceding 10 races had all been won by Penske or Ganassi.

Yet Wilson not only won, but won from the front. He started from the first row and passed Penske’s Ryan Briscoe to lead on lap four. Briscoe battled back after an unluckily timed pitstop, but Wilson still had the legs of him. A late caution threatened to deny Wilson but when green-flag racing resumed he again got the jump on Briscoe; indeed eked clear to win by five seconds. Not for nothing Wilson called it the most important victory of his career.

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2012: Ambrose pips Keselowski

Perhaps this was NASCAR’s answer to Gilles Villeneuve vs Rene Arnoux. Whatever, it was a thrilling conclusion. And an unlikely one for a long time as, until two laps to go, Kyle Busch had things under control, leaving Marcos Ambrose and Brad Keselowski to dispute second. But then Busch’s Toyota got an oil leak, which not only slowed him but made the track treacherous.

Keselowski nudged the hobbled Busch at the esses on the final lap, Busch nosing the barrier and dropping to seventh. But the contact hobbled Keselowski, too, as a rubbing wheel created smoke. Ambrose was right on his case and the pair entered a desperate last-ditch fight for the win, both leaving the track and spending most of the lap’s remainder at the edge of adhesion and making some form of contact. Ambrose was bumped wide by Keselowski at the penultimate turn, yet somehow then re-gathered enough momentum to get inside Keselowski at the final corner and out-drag him to the line.

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2014: Allmendinger desperately clings on

In 2014 there was another thrilling NASCAR finish, and again Marcos Ambrose was at the centre of it. He and fellow road-course specialist AJ Allmendinger contested the victory in a final two-lap shootout following a red flag, brought about by the pitlane entry barrier needing repair after Denny Hamlin hit it – the second red-flag interruption of the day.

Allmendinger led the two-lap showdown initially, but it looked like Ambrose would get by on the first of them with a bump and run pass at the Carousel. But Allmendinger didn’t give up and stayed on Ambrose’s outside, which became the inside for the following turn at the end of the straight.

Allmendinger elbowed past, and Ambrose himself was bumped wide this time. This gave Allmendinger vital space from the chasing Ambrose for the final tour, and he won to break his NASCAR win duck. ‘I just wanted it so bad,’ said Allmendinger, ‘I wasn’t going to let Marcos take that from me.’

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