On the Edge with Ed: Watkins Glen

Watkins Glen International currently leads the voting in USA Today’s favorite NASCAR track as I write this. Since I follow them on Facebook I get almost daily updates on the progress and in one case there was a photo of fans in the grandstands that included a group of almost 30 friends cheering on the exciting racing at the Glen. “It’s exciting for us to be in the running for the USA Today’s 10 Best ‘Favorite NASCAR Track’ award,” said Watkins Glen International president Michael Printup in a press release. “We encourage our fans to vote each day and spread the word to get The Glen to No. 1.”

It’s no surprise to me because I’ve been attending NASCAR races since the mid-80s. One of the first NASCAR races I ever went to was at Watkins Glen International in 1986 when NASCAR’s Winston Cup touring series returned to Watkins Glen after a more than 20-year absence. Tim Richmond won the race and the celebration was a wild one! As a fan, I was hooked on the place. The fans were wild and the racing great, although you could not see the entire track.

As I continued to return to the track on an annual basis, the more interested I became in the history of Watkins Glen International. Its storied history included Formula 1 racing, sports cars and NASCAR. But more importantly, to me, was the fact that before the current facility was built they actually raced in the streets in and around Watkins Glen! My late father-in-law would tell me stories about how he and his friends would drive to Watkins Glen and rent spaces in people’s yards or porches as a place to sleep and watch the races.

Before I started to cover NASCAR races Watkins Glen as a member of the media, I found it was a great place to introduce a child to racing. Unlike most race tracks, the Glen offered the ability for fans to move around the race track for different views of the racing, especially during practice sessions. For someone with a four-year-old rambunctious little boy, this option was perfect as I walked him around the course until he had no choice but to sit down and watch. When he finally did sit all he wanted to see was his favorite driver, Dale Earnhardt. As Dale made it into turn 10 he spun right out in front of us, into the gravel. At that time, the crowds cheered any mishap for Earnhardt, even in practice. But my son took it in stride.

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Over the years, I’ve watched the facility make improvements to seating, bathroom and other amenities, the racing service and most recently media facilities. The continued improvements have allowed the track to be one of the few facilities in recent years to add seating and more importantly sell those seats for the sole NASCAR weekend on the track’s schedule.

I had an opportunity to speak with Christopher Banker, Watkins Glen International’s Public Relations Manager that was named earlier this year. He and I discussed their upcoming opening race weekend, Sahlen’s Six Hours at the Glen sports car races held June 25-28 and the many other things happening at the track. We also talked about how the 25-year-old happened upon his position at one of the United States premier race facilities. Banker told me that he was from southern New Jersey and that he initially worked in operations at his other race track position, “before moving to the public relations side of things.”  He was previously the Manager of Communications at the New Jersey Motorsports Park prior to coming to Watkins Glen International. Banker graduated from York College in 2012 with a degree in communications which would be why he was more attracted to public relations as opposed to operations.

With the sports car race coming up at Watkins Glen and actor Patrick Dempsey getting a podium finish not too long ago, I expect a great turnout for the races in a couple of weeks. During this past  Sunday’s MRN radio broadcast of the race from Michigan, Printup and the radio crew discussed Watkins Glen and the great racing there. What I took away from the conversation was that the reason why the races have become so exciting over the last few years is because, unlike the 80s and 90s, today’s drivers are much better at the road courses than their predecessors. The last few years saw incredible door to door finishes and although Marcos Ambrose won’t be returning to Watkins Glen this year I would expect that Kyle and Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski, last year’s winner A.J. Allmendinger and a host of others will put on a whale of a show. Printup also noted that ticket sales are above what they were last season, by about 3,000, which is impressive when ticket sales have declined at many tracks.

I’m excited to get out there and see how things look in just a few short weeks!

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