Watkins Glen opens again, optimistic for NASCAR weekend

AP – The roar is back at New York’s Thunder Road. Three months after its opening day was cancelled by the coronavirus pandemic, Watkins Glen International is hosting car clubs again as NASCAR weekend looms in mid-August.

“Everybody is excited about getting back in the saddle. I know we are,” track president Michael Printup said. “We had some people on furlough and we were able to bring back almost every single person, so that’s good. It’s good to get the activity going, get the track hot.”

Car clubs returned to The Glen two weeks ago and Printup expects the car club schedule will quickly be booked through November 1.

And that would be a very good thing.

“It’s been pretty quiet,” Printup said. “When you think about car clubs, we turn those track rentals three times a week. You’re changing 150 to 400 drivers a week that are driving the economy and this community. It’s sorely missed.”

Jimmie Johnson during a practice run for the NASCAR Cup Series auto race at Watkins Glen International. PHOTO: AP

WGI is a major economic driver in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. NASCAR weekend has sold out five straight times. Attendance figures are not released by the stock car organisation, but local officials peg it at over 90,000 annually since 2015.

Judy McKinney Cherry, executive director of the local Partnership for Economic Development, figures the track’s economic impact is at least USD275 million annually, based on the most recent study.

Printup figures that number might be down as much as 75 per cent this year. “It’s a pretty big number,” he said.

Downtown Watkins Glen businesses have been hit hard.

“It’s been a challenge, there’s no question about it,” said General Manager of the Harbor Hotel Scott Bell, which has remained open during the pandemic. “It drives the economy, no question about it. We need all cylinders churning in order to capture whatever we can the rest of the summer.”

Most of the schedule at Watkins Glen has been shuffled. IMSA’s annual sports car endurance race, the Sahlen’s Six Hours of The Glen, was moved from late June to the first weekend in October and now has been switched to Labour Day weekend. The Sports Car Club of America’s Majors Super Tour, originally slated for June, and the Finger Lakes Wine Festival in July have been postponed until 2021.