The Glen is the historic home of sports-car racing in North America, where American road racing enjoyed its rebirth after WWII. Watkins Glen International proudly proclaims its origins in 1948, when MG TCs and TDs, Jaguars, fire-breathing Allards and newcomer Ferraris thrashed their ways around a 6.6-mile course laid out on steep, twisting local roadways, blocked off for the event with hay bales and snow fencing.
Burt "BS" Levy's book, "The Last Open Road" (great read for a gearhead, by the way), chronicles events leading up to the tragic incident in the fall of 1952 that took the life of a young spectator, prompting the SCCA to ban racing on public roadways. History has it that the locals had by this time come to appreciate the throngs of sports-car enthusiasts (read $$$) who had been congregating in the area and sought a way to continue with greater safety. Reportedly Cornell law student Cameron Argentsinger laid out an alternative course on the hilly farmland nearby as the permanent track opened in 1956.
Located at the southern tip of Seneca Lake, one of New York's scenic Finger Lakes, the town of Watkins Glen and the area in general have long been a tourist destination. Except for the miles of grape vineyards, the rolling farmlands, glacial moraine in origin, are very reminiscent of Elkhart Lake, Wis. Who'd have thought the glacial retreat would offer so much advantage for modern road racers?
In early June 2001, it became the site of the third running of The Vintage Volvo Gran Prix. Volvo was honored as the Featured Marque for the weekend, and Volvos were grouped together in a single race group. Does it get any better than this?
Sharp-eyed readers of european car will recall the first running of The Vintage Volvo Gran Prix in June of 1996, wherein some 17 vintage Volvos turned out for their first-ever race together, at Blackhawk Farms Raceway, near Beloit, Wis. Next, 27 cars assembled at Road America near Elkhart Lake for the second running, in September of 1998.
Volvo drivers have been called the Rodney Dangerfields of vintage racing, mostly due to the manufacturer's emphasis on stodgy, boxy designs and advertising laced with safety messages since the early '70s. However, in the '60s Volvo gained a reputation as a worthy road-racing competitor, especially in the hands of one Art Riley. More on that in a bit.
At any rate, not many Volvos contest the vintage racing circuit. Estimates are that as many as 50,000 vintage race cars compete regularly in the U.S. Of these no more than 50 are thought to be Volvos. As a result, vintage Volvo drivers rarely join one another on the track.
But many of the 17 who ran the first Vintage Volvo Gran Prix reunited at Road America, and then at The Glen, as a total of 23 vintage Volvos assembled to contest this challenging venue. As in all vintage racing, no cash prizes, no points, no national standing-just a bunch of racers and their friends and families, gathering to enjoy the sport and catch up with old friends.
High on the list of reunions this weekend was the 25th anniversary of Volvo Sports America (VSA), the international club dedicated to preservation and restoration of older Volvos, in particular the P-1800 Coupe and ES wagon-20001 marked the 40th anniversary of the P-1800 in America. More than 225 classic Volvos turned out for the concours on Saturday, with 194 of them hitting the track for touring. So many cars showed up that the lead cars were just back to their starting point as the last of them pulled onto the track. Imagine that: 3.4 miles of old Volvos. Be still, my heart!
In recognition of the P-1800's 40 years in America, and VSA's 25-year anniversary, Volvo Cars of North America provided sponsorship for some of the weekend's activities, particularly VSA's concours and hospitality. Volvo also parked a very high-tech tractor-trailer on site, packed with electronic gear for multi-media presentations, naturally about Volvos. Very cool.
With us from Volvo racing past was Richard Gordon, who went on to found ipd, the Portland-based Volvo performance enthusiast's source for hot components. He made a name for himself all up and down the left coast, racing and winning, first P-1800s and then 140-series Volvos. Gordon regaled the assembled Volvophiles with stories of past racing, and of the impossibility of stretching his old race suit enough to slip in his re-contoured body, then went out and tore up the track in a borrowed car from Californian Ken Rodenbush. Your writer had the distinction-some might call it an honor; hey, this guy's a legend-of being passed by Gordon going into turn 10, the top of the boot.
Another reunion was Art Riley's with two of his completely restored Volvo P-1800 race cars, lovingly brought back to original racing condition-every nut, bolt and washer-by Rick Hayden (see ec, 11/97). For more detail on these restorations, Rick has authored a fascinating series in SEES, the official newsletter of VSA. Contact VSA at www.vsa.org.