Watkins Glen Finds Another Way to Use a Race Track

There are numerous race tracks, especially those that NASCAR’s top touring series visit annually in the United States, that operate as full-service facilities  all year around. The majority of these tracks hold races and driving schools on numerous weekends over the summer as one would expect, but they also hold banquets, receptions and training seminars for paying clients at the track’s banquet facilities. Watkins Glen International, located in the Finger Lakes area of upstate New York, also holds a very successful wine festival annually at the race track.

Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to speak with the current track President, Michael Printup, about various topics and there are things that have stuck with me from those conversations. Printup is concerned that no matter what is going on at Watkins Glen International, guests have a positive experience. He also likes to note that there is always something going on at the Glen, even if there are no race cars on the course, with non-race events sprinkled throughout the entire year.  While other large race tracks add tourist attractions such as museums or displays, Watkins Glen relies on the beautiful area in which they live and attentive staff at the track to stay busy all year.

Less than a month ago I covered the Cheez-It 355 NASCAR Sprint Cup race weekend at Watkins Glen International. The weekend went flawlessly as the track hosted tens of thousands of  race fans that saw beautiful late summer weather. Watkins Glen International is one of the few race tracks on the NASCAR circuit that has had to add seats and or camping areas in order to accommodate race fans over just the last few years.

Since it’s my home race track I have been going there since the mid-1980s to watch just about every race series that’s run there. I have watched racing and camped there in tents when they only had outhouses for bathroom facilities and showers consisted of hanging a bag of water off a tree branch!  More recently I’ve camped there in a very nice RV and the outhouses had working plumbing and showers! Now, they even truck in portable showers for race fans, which is something that I, as a photographer that walks the entire 2.5-mile course daily, welcomes with open arms. In fact, the track continues to add camping amenities on an almost annual basis.

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When I heard that the track was selected to host the jam band Phish for their Magnaball festival just a couple of weeks after the big NASCAR race weekend this summer I decided that I needed to see how the track facilities would be used for such an event due to the significant differences in the events. The festival was a three-day event that had one main theme; Phish and their music. There was only one ticket option, all three days or nothing. The price of admission included general camping (i.e. in your tent, with your car). For an additional fee, you could bring in an RV and camp in one of the RV lots.

This was not the first time a concert or concert festival has been held at Watkins Glen International. In late July of 1973, Watkins Glen International hosted “Summer Fest” which had the Grateful Dead, Allman Brothers and The Band play before the largest audience for a concert in the United States. By the time the concerts ended an estimated 600,000 people made it to the track. Like the Woodstock Festival just four years earlier, the promoter only sold a reported 150,000 tickets and an extra 350,000 people showed up. There were reports of abandoned cars, a couple from downstate that were never found, and other problems that such a large gathering would cause. It was the largest concert in the United States at that time and remains one of the biggest ever on U.S. soil. Almost 40 years later (38 to be exact) Phish held their Super Ball IX at Watkins glen International with rave reviews.

I spoke to Watkins Glen International’s Chris Banker who told me about Magnaball, “This is a track rental, Watkins Glen International has very little to do with this event other than some security staff.”

As some of you may be aware, the track is repaving the track surface so there is some evidence of that work but otherwise the most striking thing about Magnaball was where they set everything up. Logistically, it makes sense to put the stage, and general admission “seating” in a flat area and that area is basically from the top of the infamous “esses” all the way to the inner loop. The inner loop area was also called “Glen Close Camping” and was actually just behind the stage and backstage areas. It was very close to the main attractions and boasted about “private air conditioned restrooms”.

One thing that was very different than what normally happens on a race weekend was that they needed to put campers into areas that don’t normally see camping because a good portion of the infield camping area was taken up by festival grounds. So the general parking areas were filled with motor homes. The “tailgate zone”, where people park their cars and set up seats in turn 1 was full of tents. The family zone, located in the esses was where they put accessible camping for individuals who qualified for disability accessible camping.

Normally when you attend a Phish concert you can visit “Shakedown Street” (a play on the infamous Grateful Dead song), an unofficial area of vendors offering a myriad of items from clothing, collectibles to food. It’s normally in an area outside the main concert grounds. Because the set up at Watkins Glen was inside the race track and you needed a ticket to be admitted, there was no “Shakedown Street” at Watkins Glen.

The festival set up numerous different types of activities including a corn-hole tournament, a game show with prizes, and daily yoga sessions were offered.  There was a cocktail bar within the festival grounds and numerous offerings of craft beers from around the country. There was also areas of vending set up in and around the general campgrounds that included numerous food vendors that took care of more than the basic needs. They were set up in large tents and offered items including pizza and holistic food choices.

One vendor, Matt Lennon, owns The Loving Cup, a food truck from Jacksonville Fla.  The “Loving Cup” happens to me my favorite song by Phish. His truck offers gourmet coffee and coffee products. He’s traveled to numerous venues and festivals and said he was ecstatic when management called him and offered him a spot inside the venue.

Lennon, when asked about the lack of an area for independent vendors to set up said, “The reason for no Shakedown is kind of good and bad from my perspective. I love a good Shakedown Street, first and foremost. I’ve worked on it at Phish shows with my trailer and out of a tent. It’s organic and awesome. The vibe is incredible and you can find such great stuff, Phish fans are the most witty with koozies, t-shirts or anything they really sell. It’s all small business too. Those are wins to me.”

He then compared it to Magnaball, saying, “The very little Shakedown (independent vendors) that was there….as a vendor I pay a premium to be able to set up shop and sell our coffee. I like to know that my business interests are protected. It’s really a double-edged sword. You can get licensed and insured to have a legitimate business or you can cross your fingers and go renegade. Phish Inc. looked to be cracking down on the organic vending from what I saw. It really is hard for me to hate on Shakedown Street. I just can’t do it. I am glad that my business thrived, though.”

Lennon, although a vendor that worked some incredibly long days, still enjoyed the festival. He said, “The overall festival experience here was amazing. Everything was thought of. Phish got feedback from the last fest here about the food assortment and I guess it was less than stellar. So they decided to bring in the good eats. I think fests in general will be heading in this direction overall and I welcome it. As a vendor, I love seeing the good food and beverage get recognized. As a patron, I don’t want to eat a $5 pretzel or $9 hot dog at every place I visit. I’d rather spend $12 on something tasty that gives me a little comfort while out in the sticks.”

As far as how his year has been he said, “This was our 14th festival of the year so far. It was also our best. I really attribute that to having great product and cultivating a fun, cafe experience whether that be in the truck or under a tent. I’m very well aware of the wait to get our drinks, so at least the staff will get you smiling and having a good time. I also have engineered the Loving Cup for phans (spelled that way on purpose), so I think it really resonates with them and I’m so happy that it does. The band is a really big part of our lives! I think it was well thought out. All the vendors on my side seemed to be well-received and very busy. Seemed like there were the right amount to handle the load too.”

Look, I am not a music critic and the purpose of this story was to compare things to a typical experience I have at a race weekend. People at the festival were well behaved and pretty mellow with no reports of violence. The message I’d really like to deliver is that the economic impact on the local community must be significant and I believe that tracks need to find alternative uses for their facilities. It’s not a matter of whether or not you like the band Phish because they’re not for everybody. But, neither is auto racing, so keep an open mind and support your local facilities, I know I look at Watkins Glen International in a very different light today.

Note: To see photos of this special coverage please visit OUR PHOTO GALLERY HERE

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