Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

September 26, 2021
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A scenic wonder in New York's Finger Lakes is the last place you'd expect a mecca for car enthusiasts

''Some people collect art. We race it." That's the motto of the Sportscar Vintage Racing Association and it's lived out each September in Watkins Glen, New York. For the past 15 years, this town in the pastoral Finger Lakes region has been the home of the US Vintage Grand Prix -- the largest vintage motor sports event in the United States.

For one weekend each fall, the small town morphs from its usual supporting role for the serene and scenic Watkins Glen State Park to become race-town USA, attracting over 20,000 spectators.

"A veritable holy city, a Jerusalem to car nuts," is how journalist Mike Davis describes it. Part of the reverence comes from the fact that the town was the site of the first road race in the US after World War II. Held in October 1948, the event established Watkins Glen early on as the home of road racing in North America.

We had no idea of the Glen's famous racing life when we drove down Franklin Street (or should I say down the starting grid and straightaway) on race day. Our truck and trailer, adorned with bicycles and kayaks, attracted lots of smiles and waves as we continued down the street.

We weren't expecting the array of vintage cars -- or the collection of T-shirt stands, poster booths and ice-cream carts scattered among thousands of spectators. We were looking for the state park, ranked among the top 100 campgrounds in the US. It just so happens that the park is encircled by the historic Watkins Glen Grand Prix Racecourse.

We drove past the starting line in front of the Schuyler County Courthouse and saw that from there the track curved uphill, past the entrance to the campground. If we had continued on, we would have travelled by the Collier Monument -- site of the infamous, and fatal, 160-kilometre-an-hour, end-over-end Sam Collier crash in 1950.

This road makes for challenging racing: steep up, steep down, S-bends and right-angled curves on blacktop and oiled gravel. The Railroad Straight crossing causes many a race car to become airborne. Two more right-angled corners and the course returns downtown, completing a 10-kilometre circuit.

Trail Spotting
We found our campsite and, after setting up, went out to investigate. We hiked downhill through tall trees and entered the official Watkins Glen Gorge Trail by way of a gracefully curved stone bridge. Even at its lowest autumn water level, Glen Creek made a beautiful sight.

We were down in the gorge bottom. At places it was wide, and the creek flowed through large gentle pools. From time to time, these glistening ponds poured from one level down to the next. Other spots were so narrow that the water squeezed through tight openings, and sluiced down rocky troughs.

The trail itself is intriguing. Besides the handmade stone bridges, there are extensive sections of stacked rock railings and 800 stone steps. The footpath is fashioned from existing rock shelves, or is pieced together with natural rock tile work.

However it's the route that is the real highlight. There are 19 waterfalls in the gorge. Rainbow Falls veiled the trail as we walked behind its mist. This stream joins with Glen Creek in a string of emerald gems -- the Glen of the Pools.

Further on, we wound down a spiral staircase completely enclosed by rock. We emerged from our cave to a narrow groove cut into the canyon wall. Water from the Cavern Cascade plummeted past our protected position, down 30 metres into yet another green pool, christening us in its cool mist.


Raceday USA
Leaving the canyon we were abruptly in another world. Rows of classic old and new sports cars were parked at the trail entrance. Hundreds of people were congregated, admiring the carefully detailed and perfectly polished vehicles. These cars were clearly a product of passion.

Franklin Street was now closed. There, in two lines was parked a remarkable collection of vintage Alpha Romeos -- the marque manufacturer for the year's festival. There was an even bigger crowd. People were peering into the cars and examining them back, front and sideways. Groups of men wearing clothing emblazoned with race-car logos stood in small, reverent groups as they discussed the merits of each car and its place in racing history.

We joined the ogling, which had officially started at 9:30 that morning at Smalley's Garage. Back in 1948, this "tech inspection" signalled the official start of the original grand prix. Its re-enactment did the same.

The festival has become a celebration of Watkins Glen and the history of motor sport. The Walk of Fame cements this bond. To be included in the Walk, a driver has to have raced at the Glen. There are over 50 plaques honouring such racing luminaries as Stirling Moss, Jackie Stewart, Niki Lauda and Richard Petty.

"The Legends Speak, " an interactive forum, gave visitors the opportunity to listen to a panel discussion by former race participants.

For those less intellectually inclined, the Kid Racer School and the GlenKhana race offered fun alternatives. Here drivers manoeuvred their cars through an obstacle course -- with much cheering and enthusiastic support from the onlookers.

Movies, music, merchandise and munchies rounded out the colourful festival -- but the big draw happened on the main drag at 6pm. That's when the road was completely closed to the public. The cars lined up on the grid; national anthems were sung.

A string of Alpha Romeos drove a warm-up lap and returned to the front of the courthouse. All was ready for the official race re-enactment. Engines revved with purpose. Then, the green flag dropped and, with a thunderous roar, the cars sped across the Glen Creek Bridge, took a hard right turn, and disappeared up the road toward the campground entrance.

Breakneck Drivers
"Did you notice anything unusual about the racers?" I asked my husband when the engine noise faded. Jim, a professional photographer, had been busy with his camera and hadn't paid attention to the vehicle occupants.

Only one driver had a full race suit on. He was also wearing a helmet -- and was in the minority. In fact, only a few drivers even wore seatbelts! Many cars had passengers (including children) and many of these passengers ended up sitting on the floor. Several cars had dogs riding round in the back.

Once the Alphas were done, the next group of cars lined up on the grid. These were a collection of classic racing cars -- everything from Mini Coopers to Porsches. Again, the green flag was dropped.

"Man, some of those cars are running so rough I wonder if they'll make it up the hill," Jim commented as the din receded.

Muscle cars made up the last group of racers. With the overwhelming roar of their engines, there was no doubt that these vehicles would make the hill. As they thundered past I could feel my insides vibrate.

Two laps of the course were completed by each of the three groups -- for the festival, for show, for fun. Actual racing would take place the next day at the Watkins Glen International Race Course.

As the evening began to wind down, the engine noise was replaced by the murmur of the crowd. We headed back toward the park and spotted town workers by the trail entrance, preparing the fireworks for the evening's finale.

As we entered the cool, quiet world of Watkins Glen Gorge, the waning light painted a transformed scene. We followed the carefully crafted trail beside the creek bank. Now, the only noise was our footsteps on sandstone, and the splash of moving water.


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