While the state park is fun and the wineries in the area are getting better every year, Watkins Glen is famous because of its speedway, a storied road track that’s hosted everything from NASCAR to Formula One to, this summer, a three-day Phish-stravaganza. When I rolled through town, there wasn’t much happening in the way of races.
So I took my car on the track.
It wasn’t as furtive as it sounds: for 25 bucks, anyone can sign up for a Thunder Road Tour of The Glen, as the track is known, and drive its infamous first turn, navigate the “esses,” negotiate the tight curves of the back end and come to a stop on the start-finish line for a photo op. Four other cars would be rounding the track with me, but we were under strict instructions not to try to pass each other, much to my dismay. (“Try not to put the other cars into the wall” was an instruction I did appreciate.)
My first lap was a gimmie, a chance to get a feel for the track and relax at the thought that I wouldn’t need to stop for any traffic lights or check my blind spot: This is certainly not highway driving.
The second loop was faster and much more fun, a chance to take the turns a little harder, punch the accelerator in the straights and test the brakes. It was also the lap on which our peloton would stop on the start-finish line. After getting used to “racing,” pulling the car to a stop felt nearly impossible. We all hopped out, and I took a picture for a family visiting from South Carolina, who in all their years watching racing has never set foot on the pavement of a track. They were giddy.
While we were stopped, I ask the driver of our pace car how fast we were going compared to a typical race day. His answer? About 30 percent, with our 60 mph a mere fraction of the 180-plus that drivers can achieve when gunning for the winner’s circle.
I vowed to really crank it up for the last of my three laps, pushing hard into turns in my Explorer, trying to squeeze as much race-day excitement I could from the controlled scenario. There were some thrills, but what I really got out of the day was a burning desire to see a real race live. Probably one at The Glen.