Watkins Glen: There Is Magic, There Are Ghosts
Early each August I seem to hear the leaves start rustling anew.
The sound is distinct, but at the same time eerily faint, almost ghostly. It seems to be emanating from afar.
And then, I remember…
In the dimly-lit bar at rustic Seneca Lodge, deep in the woods near the storied Watkins Glen race course, several laurel wreaths hang on the walls, their leaves brown and brittle from the years.
Despite the fragility of their age, those wreaths exude an aura.
And well they should.
In another time, the wreaths hung around the necks and graced the shoulders of drivers victorious in the U.S. Grand Prix, a long-ago Formula One race that unfolded for many a year at Watkins Glen.
Such legendary drivers as Jimmy Clark, Graham Hill, Ronnie Peterson, Jochen Rindt and Gilles Villeneuve — all of them now gone, wore them.
Their wreaths were left behind as mementoes and they remain in place.
Legend has it that following the wreath-hanging ceremony in the tavern of Seneca Lodge, the race winner had to stand on the bar while his crewmen threw beer on him.
When NASCAR brought its big-time tour back to Watkins Glen in 1986 - after being absent there since 1965 - I remember the late Tim Richmond being enthralled with these tales after visiting Seneca Lodge and seeing its treasure trove of memories.
“There’s magic here,” Tim said. “Ghosts are lurking round. Getting to race at Watkins Glen gives me goose bumps.”
And then, Tim went out and won the inaugural Bud At The Glen, as the race was then known. He triumphed in stirring fashion, with a late charge to catch and pass Darrell Waltrip with just 12 of the 90 laps remaining on the 2.428-mile road course.
The triumph for Hendrick Motorsports and crusty, colorful crew chief Harry Hyde continued an incredible streak for Richmond, giving him four victories in his last six starts. He’d also finished second three times in his last eight.
After the Victory Lane ceremony and winner’s press conference, Richmond ordered his teammates and friends down the hill to Seneca Lodge for a party like the Formula One folks had enjoyed.
The revelry was going strong when Richmond’s delight turned to dismay. He suddenly realized that he had no wreath to hang on the wall. He hadn’t been given one, in great part because NASCAR discouraged the practice.
The foliage, see, would obscure the driver uniform logos of sponsors in the hundreds of photos that are always shot during Victory Lane proceedings.
Richmond grew increasingly upset, but the savvy veteran Harry Hyde saved the precious day by suggesting that the team “enshrine” a tire from its winning car instead.
Richmond quickly agreed and crewman David Oliver was sent to fetch a tire from the team’s big transporter parked outside the lodge.
Oliver remembers all this well as the Cup Series teams assemble once more at Watkins Glen for Sunday’s running of the Heluva Good! Dips At The Glen.
“It was close quarters in the transporter with the race car, the backup race car, all the tools and the other gear,” Oliver recalled recently. “I had to crawl around and under a lot of stuff, and I skinned myself up some. But I eventually managed to get one of those big, fat tires out of the truck.
“I had to do it. Tim wouldn’t have left until he’d put something to mark his victory on the wall in the bar. And after Harry’s idea, it had to be a tire.”
Oliver has other intriguing memories of events that marked NASCAR’s return to Watkins Glen.
“Practically every team went to upstate New York in ’86 planning to use Jerico transmissions in their cars,” continued Oliver. “These cut down on gear-shifting and the potential for a driver to make a mistake.
“Tim went out to practice and after only a couple laps he came into the garage with a firm look on his face. ‘Get that transmission out of the car and put a standard one in!’ he said. ‘I can’t run well without shifting. It’s messing up my rhythm.
‘Besides, this is WATKINS GLEN! Anyone who is too lazy to shift doesn’t deserve to win here.’
“My stock in Tim Richmond as a great race car driver already was way up there. At that moment, it went out of sight in the sky.”
Richmond was waiting anxiously as Oliver returned to the festivities in the Seneca Lodge bar with the tire that had been part of the fulfilling victory. With much ado and amid great applause, Richmond and Hyde hung the tire on the wall.
Then Richmond - just like Clark and all those Formula One greats who had preceded him - stood on the bar and was splashed by beer thrown by his teammates.
Like those Grand Prix greats, Tim Richmond is gone, too. So is Harry Hyde.
Perhaps all of them are remembered best at Watkins Glen by the yellowed wreaths and that tire, all of which serve to hallow Seneca Lodge.
Some racing fans claim that late at night, when the bar is quiet and the lights are low and the crowd is gone, those who use their imagination can hear the brittle leaves rustle and that tire whir maybe just a bit.
They claim you can hear the long ago laughter of the drivers and their crews, and you can smell the foaming beer.
There is magic.
Ghosts are lurking 'round.