Watkins Glen International to add grandstands, Royal Crown Club, permanent showers for fans

Chris Gill
Artist's rendering of the new Glen Club at Watkins Glen International. The original burned down in March 2007.

Not long ago in Watkins Glen International’s history, the famous road course was far from the jewel it was romanticized to be. Run down with no significant improvements made to the facility since 1974, it wasn’t up to the standards of new glimmering speedways in major markets, lacked modern infrastructure and was the bane of the national press.

The reality didn’t live up to the legend.

Tuesday, local officials, track staff and even a couple drivers were on hand for another major capital improvement project that’s brought The Glen from a derelict track purchased out of bankruptcy by Corning Enterprises and International Speedway Corp. to a facility worthy of praise.

“It’s amazing, the turnaround they’ve shown here and the investment that they continue to make in track is outstanding,” said New York assemblyman, and senator-elect Tom O’Mara. “I’ve been coming here since I can remember, as a kid, and have been here almost every year since. So, I’ve seen the grand prix here come and go and the ups and downs we’ve had here over the years. With these improvements, it’s going to help keep the esteem of the track up in the racing world and will help us be competitive in this increasingly competitive sport to have a track date.”

Before August’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race, The Glen will add more modern grandstands, light and water upgrades in the Gate 1 camping areas, permanent showers, more paving and a permanent Crown Royal Club (formerly the Glen/Onyx Club).

The track will spend an estimated $3 million, bringing the total to nearly $30 million in upgrades since 2001.

The grandstands will be shipped in from sister track Michigan International Speedway and placed in Turns 10, 11 and between 1 and 2 – the latter promising one of the best views of the 3.4-mile course, stretching 42 rows tall.

The seats will add 1,300-1,500 to a seating capacity unofficially listed at more than 35,000 (although general admission accounts for more than double that number) and some will replace the wooden stands that WGI President Michael Printup said was a major beef among fans in surveys.

“We were able to glean that our bleachers were a terrible experience,” he said.

The WGI staff had an independent company survey fans from 2007 through 2010 following each of the Heluva Good Sour Cream Dips at The Glen race weekends. Those polls gave Printup and his team a consensus of what fans wanted to see changed. Of course, they couldn’t fulfill every wish.

“The biggest thing we ran into last year was to stop the rain, but we can’t do that yet,” Printup quipped. “But it’s been about seat problems, bathrooms, showers. It’s been about all these big capital improvement things and that’s why we finally went down south and Tim (Coleman) was the head for the strategic planning.”

WGI’s parent company, International Speedway Corp., approved the project, despite a recession that’s prevented thousands of race fans from traveling to events. Attendance has dropped at most of the major race tracks, with large swaths of empty seats clearly visible.

Not everywhere.

The 2010 Sprint Cup Series race weekend at The Glen was only one of three among the ISC tracks that saw growth of any kind, which helped get the checks for improvements signed.

“There just weren’t enough services for everyone we have up here. So the key is to keep pushing those services along, if it’s $50,000 at a time or $100,000 at a time, that’s all I want to keep doing,” Printup said. “If we can do that, and showing people we will make improvements for you, just give us time.”

The Glen Club, which played host during race weekends to dignitaries and well-to-dos for generations, burned to the ground in March 2007. Since then, a temporary structure named the Crown Royal Club was put in its place, but lacked the panache sponsors and executives are accustomed to – or as Printup said, “it’s like going from a hotel to a tent.” The new building, which will keep the Crown Royal moniker, will sit in the same place as The Glen Club.

“I was surprised to see they’re making these decisions now, with what’s going on in the economy. That’s why I think it’s fantastic to see it, the commitment to Watkins Glen and the great history we have up here,” O’Mara said.

A refusal to keep the status quo for another year or two, after giving the old 1,500-acre facility a $26 million facelift the previous nine years, is something Printup believes is crucial to an industry that’s going through some growing pains.

NASCAR’s exponential growth in the late 1990s and early 2000s attracted more fans in that era than any other sport, but there’s been a drop off in the last two-to-three years. The Glen has been able to hold steady until 2010 when the numbers went up – a rarity. Printup wants to maintain that trend.

“I think the new fan is where we have to be careful and continue to make improvements or that’s where we’re going to get in trouble,” he said. “Our old fan would come here if this place was piles of grass next to the track, I’m a firm believer in that because I’m one of those fans – I don’t need a seat, give me a berm and enough area to see the track.”

Race car driver Boris Said answers a question from the media as WGI track President Michael Printup and Craftsmen Truck driver Todd Bodine look on during a press conference announcing changes to the track.