There has been racing in Watkins Glen for nearly 65 years. The current site of Watkins Glen International has hosted races since 1953 and the permanent circuit opened in 1956. When they built what we now know as Watkins Glen International, they included the section known as the Esses. At the time, they were Turns 1, 2 and 3 of the circuit (at the time, the start-finish line was at pit out, which was approximately where a crossover gate is today). The course was a fast, flowing 2.35 mile circuit that eventually attracted Formula One in 1961.
When the track was renovated substantially in 1971, the Esses were the only portion of the track layout that was left alone. That renovation resulted in the creation of the Short Course, which the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series raced on this past weekend. It was not originally in the plans. Construction ran behind schedule and the current long course was not going to be done in time for a six hour sports car race. So, the straight between Turns 5 and 9 of the long course was created to allow the race to happen.
The Esses today are essentially the same track design as they were in 1956. In response to a series of terrible crashes, including the one that killed Francois Cevert in 1973, a chicane was installed just before Turn 3 to slow the cars. After the track was brought back from the dead in the early 1980’s, the chicane was removed.
Since then, the Esses have served as an imposing introduction to Watkins Glen International to drivers and fans alike. The first time I traveled to Watkins Glen as a 14-year old in 1998, I looked up at the Esses from outside the track and thought it looked like a wall.
Turn 3 is the toughest of the three turns there. While the track has done some work to open up the entry to the turn by pulling back the guardrails in recent years, it is still a nearly blind turn. At the exit of the turn is where the track goes over the first tunnel, literally cut through sheets of slate. Recently, high catchfence were added that create a claustrophobic feeling. The track narrows up significantly and there is no room for error. It is a true test of driver skill.
Since the track is so daunting and narrow through there, it is no wonder that the Esses have been the site of a number of big crashes over the year. In the Frontstretch Newsletter last week, one of our trivia questions referred to the big crash that happened on the first lap of the Busch North Series (now K&N Pro Series East) Little Trees 150 back in 2002. That’s just one example from NASCAR. A sports car example would be the wreck that occurred during the IMSA Camel Continental X in 1993 involving an open-top Spice prototype and the two factory Nissan 300ZX GTS-class racers. Steve Millen (in the No. 1 in the accompanying clip) was never the same following the crash.
Sunday’s race featured three big crashes in it’s own right in the Esses. The first of them occurred on Lap 40 when Ron Fellows and Travis Kvapil collided and crashed, collecting other drivers including Victor Gonzalez, Jr., who dumped a massive load of oil down on track. The track was described by one crewmember during the 20+ minute cleanup as “a beach.”
In the final laps, we had two more wrecks there. First, a chain reaction saw Matt Kenseth get in the back of Kasey Kahne and trigger another multi-car wreck involving himself, Kahne, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Dave Blaney, Jeff Burton, and David Ragan. On the restart after that crash with six laps to go, Marcos Ambrose, who was already struggling with a rear end issue, was hit by Max Papis. Ambrose spun and collected Brian Vickers before going hard into the wall.
Why am I bothering to list these examples? They’re just here to show that there is very little margin for error in the Esses and they can come out and bite you. However, if you get that section of the track right, you can pull away from your competitors. If anyone dares to run side-by-side through there (and doesn’t get swept up into a wreck), then it’s an amazing piece of racing. We had an example of that Sunday with Kyle Busch and Martin Truex, Jr. racing nearly a half a lap (including the Esses) side-by-side shortly after the restart from the fifth caution (Aric Almirola’s crash).
Turn 2 is located at the lowest point on Watkins Glen International’s layout and you enter it after running downhill from Turn 1. It requires minimal braking, or even just a lift of the accelerator, despite the layout making the turn tighter than it would be otherwise.
Turn 3 is the left-hander at the top of the sharp incline. Usually, it also only requires a lift off the accelerator, but the line is crucial. Miss by a little bit and you’ll have to prepare to taste cold steel. Kurt Busch, who finished ninth on Sunday, nearly did that early in the race. Martin Truex, Jr., who finished third on Sunday, got caught up in the aforementioned Busch North crash and ended up with a car on top of him. He described the turn thusly.
“That’s…the high speed part of the track,” Truex said in his post-race press conference. “It’s very blind, especially when you get two-wide, and if you get in certain situations in traffic…you’ve got to stay in the gas or you’re going to get run over by a bunch of guys.”
“That place is just a recipe for disaster,” Truex continued. “It’s really narrow, it’s really fast. There’s curves on both sides. If you miss it by a couple inches, you’re going to be in a wreck.”
Getting the proper line there is critical in order to get a good run for the flat-out Turn 4 and the run down the backstretch to the Inner Loop.
By current road racing standards, the whole of Watkins Glen International is quite narrow. The average width of the track is just 38 feet wide. The exit of Turn 3 is the narrowest part of the track at just 36 feet wide. Officially, this is in violation of the FIA’s policies on minimum track width for any track (they require a minimum width of 12 meters, or 39.37 feet, and 15 meters (49.21 feet on the pit straight) In comparison, many road courses that currently have Formula One or World Endurance Championship (WEC) events are 60 or more feet wide. Knowing that Sprint Cup cars would go through that section of track at roughly 135 mph, there is very little room for error.
Ultimately, this small margin for error is why Watkins Glen International is a good fit for the Sprint Cup Series. The track is not an easy one to drive. Drivers might have to take a chance in order to advance their position. Taking chances on track just plain excites people.
On Sunday, the track saw a pretty big crowd. Not a sellout by any means as there were empty seats in the grandstands, but there were big crowds all over the property all weekend (WGI President Michael Printup was estimating a Sunday crowd of 94,000 and three-day numbers near 165,000). The crowds saw some pretty good racing and a good chunk of the discussion coming out of the race weekend (outside of Tony Stewart talk, of course) was centered upon either the race being moved to October so it could be in the Chase, or (during the driver press conferences on Friday) the race being moved to the 3.4 mile long course. Generally speaking, almost everything coming out of Watkins Glen relating to the track is positive. There isn’t much more positivity that can come out of a weekend of NASCAR road racing. Let’s just hope that the Nationwide Series has a great first visit to Mid-Ohio next weekend in order to continue that momentum.
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