Watkins Glen is hands-down one of my favorite tracks in the world. I’ll go a step further and say the surrounding area itself is one of my favorite places in the world. Nestled in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, the area also boasts numerous vineyards and several great restaurants and wineries. Think Italy’s Lake Como meets Napa Valley.
Watkins Glen is pretty much the birthplace of American road-course racing. I should mention Savannah, Ga., for hosting road races from 1908 through 1911, but it was the town of Watkins Glen that promoted a trend that was to catch on. Starting in 1948, the town played host to street races that eventually led to the construction of the permanent track, which stands today.
Built in 1956, the permanent circuit is what I refer to as one of the original three, meaning the original three circuits built to host Formula 1 Grand Prix racing in North America. Mosport and Mont Tremblant are the other two. All three of these tracks feature the characteristics of old-school European GP circuits: fast, flowing, lots of elevation change, not much run off, and freaking scary! I believe every track has its merits, but there are few that challenge a driver’s skill, judgment and bravery as the original three do.
Respect is a word that always comes to mind when thinking of these great tracks, and if there is one thing I would like to impart before getting into the details of how to go fast at the Glen, it is this: Respect this track, it deserves it in every sense of the word. It is a privilege to drive the circuit, and a spectacular venue for NASA’s Eastern States Championships, so enjoy every lap.
Now let’s talk about going fast.
For many cars, the exit of Turn 1 will determine your speed down the long back straight because Turn 2 and the uphill Esses are flat out. Therefore being fast in and out is important. The corner itself is fairly straightforward, with the clipping point being near the geometrical apex and easy to see.
Just to clarify, all racers often refer to the apex of a corner being where you get closest to the inside, when really we should say the clipping point. Technically speaking, the apex is the geometrical midpoint of an arc and our actually clipping point is often after or sometimes before that true midpoint.
Turn 1 is downhill on the entry, banked by mid corner and uphill on the exit, and we can use this to our advantage. Turn in a little sooner and slower, but steer more as the front of the car hits the positive camber. I call this progressive rate steering, where we start the turn with one rate of steering input, but change it up before the corner is done. We will do this at many corners here. At the exit don’t be afraid to use up entire white curb and then some.
The rule in Grand Am is that you must keep two wheels on the curb, which means you can hang three-quarters of the car out on the smooth asphalt just past it. This allows a bigger arc and more overall speed through the corner. A word of warning, though: Some cars will get upset going over this curb, so work your way up to it if you are going to try it!
The clipping point is about halfway along the white apex curbing. You want to touch down there but hug the inside for about two car lengths. From there let the car move away from the inside and start looking for the flagger station at the top of the hill. It’s a great visual anchor. Don’t keep the car to the right too much. If we stay far right as many HPDE lines are taught, it does give us a better radius into Turn 3, but the road is crowned here and crossing over this crown upsets the car. Search out the positive camber side of the crown. Remember, we are going very, very fast here. Smooth slow, steady steering inputs are the order of the moment.
Turns 3 and 4, the Uphill Esses
Early clipping point, about where the white curbing begins. Do not hit the curb because it will upset the car. Just kiss it. As you come out of Turn 3, look at the camber of the road. Again, it is crowned here and you want to cross over that crown with as straight a wheel as possible. This shoots you out very close to the blue Armco, and yes this is scary, but it is better to unwind the car here than to pinch it at the top of the crown in the road. It becomes a true test of mind over matter. Trust me, you will love it! Also keep in mind, by this point the Esses are over. You don’t need any radius for the following right-hander. Think of it as a gentle bend. You can enter it from the very edge of track right and you will be fine.
Brake as late as you dare. A good rule of thumb is that you should need to brake all the way to the first apex curbs — trail braking in. If you aren’t still trying to slow down by this point, brake later next time.
Crash the curbs at the entrance, and by this I mean use every single inch of it. Aim to hang your right side tires slightly over the dirt. As for the rest for curbs at the Bus Stop, I try to use as much as I can before upsetting the car too much. Many cars don’t like very much of the remaining three curbs, but the straighter the line the better. Every car and setup is different, so you’re just going to have to try.
The Carousel, Turn 5
From the exit of the Bus Stop, I like to let the car out to about three-quarter-track left. This depends on the car a bit. Typically, you don’t want to go out as wide with a bigger/heavier car. Regardless if you track out to mid, three-quarter or full, the main thing is to turn in early and with slow hands. The clipping point we are aiming for is about in line with the flagger’s station, but because the road falls away so much, we need to start turning in early, but again, use slow hands.
Try to be at full power by the clipping point and use every inch of the track on the exit. If you’re really pushing you can use the exit curb as well. The grass beyond that is fairly smooth but dropping wheels here will cost you a tenth or two, and a new set of underwear. Ask me how I know.
Laces of the Boot, Turn 6
Exiting the Carousel, your work is not done. Keep turning right. It is important to get over full track right and fully parallel nice and early so that you can hit the brakes with a perfectly straight and balanced car. This is a heavy brake zone put some leg into the middle pedal here. Again, it is an early turn-in with slow hands. Most cars get upset by the apex curbing so try not to use too much of it.
Toe of the Boot, Turn 7
The toe has a wonderful visual anchor in the big grey concrete patch. As you exit the laces, get full track left and look up. Aim your left front wheel to drive over the right front corner of the patch. This might seem early but it gets the car into the meat of the banking, which in turn allows for a greater minimum speed.
Look up and look right for the clipping point. It is fairly late, but it is normally noticeable from where the yellow paint, which lines the perimeter of the circuit, is worn away. We really want to be full power by here. As you approach the exit of the corner, look forward to the bubble of asphalt to the left of the white painted line. You want to use every bit of this bubble from start to finish.
Heel of the Boot, Turn 8
Turn 8 is very similar to Turn 1, with a fairly geometrical apex of a clipping point. Downhill on entry — slow hands — going to big camber on the way out so you can turn more. Precision counts. Get your right front tire inside the yellow line at the clipping point, but don’t hit the curb.
Brake hard. Point the car just before the crest of the hill using a very small steering input. Point the car more than turn the car. Slow hands to a “late-ish” apex and look up to the exit. Again there is a bubble of asphalt beyond the painted white line and we want to use every inch of this and a bit of the exit curb.
The turn-in point is a car length or so before the 100-foot board. Notice there is a small “bubble” of extra asphalt here. Don’t be afraid to use some of that to help open up the radius and make it a slightly bigger arc. Be careful not to get too greedy and drop a wheel in the grass — not a good idea.
Entry is slightly downhill, but picks up a lot of camber mid corner. Again, slow hands in, and don’t be afraid to steer a little more near the clipping point. Clipping point is the part of the apex curb that is flattened out. If you drive a slow warm up lap look for it and you will see it. You would be surprised how much grip is in this corner and how fast it really is. Very few cars need any braking here – instead it’s a lift off the gas or fully flat. On exit keep turning left. We need to get all the way over to the left and fully parallel before braking for Turn 11.
Similar to Turn 1 and the heel of the Boot in that it’s slightly downhill on entry but very cambered by the apex. Slow hands and steer a little more as the front tires get into the meat of the camber. Use every inch of track on the exit – points for scraping a mirror on the safer barrier!
This is a lot of detail, so I recommend reading it over then driving the track very slowly looking for the points I mention here. Make sure you film every lap with your in-car video. Review the video after your sessions and pause it at each corner and try to identify the visual anchors mentioned here. If you don’t have an in-car video, go to your nearest Best Buy or Wal-Mart and get a GoPro – they are reliable and offer a clear picture. In-car cameras are essential learning tools, and for a few hundred bucks, one of the best investments drivers can make.
A resident of Toronto, Aaron Povoledo’s racing career began in karts, followed by a stint in Formula 2000, in which he became a regional champion. He earned a scholarship with Jim Russell Racing U.K., and in 1997 was voted by Autosport magazine as one of the top five up-and-coming drivers in the U.K.
During his career, he has earned a podium finish in his first Grand Am Cup race, scored five race wins and seven lap records — including one at Watkins Glen — in the BMW Club racing series. In Koni Challenge, he qualified in fourth spot or better in all of 2007 and led every race he entered that year. He has raced with BMW CCA, NASA, PBOC, HSR, Pirelli World Challenge and the Lamborghini Blancpain Super Trofeo series, done development testing for the Mazdaspeed 3 Grand Am program and scored the trifecta of first-place, pole position and most laps led at the Utah Grand Am Continental Tire Challenge.