This summer, the historic Watkins Glen International racetrack at the southern tip of Seneca Lake in upstate New York began undergoing its first repaving project since 1998, the same year as the track’s 50th anniversary.
This summer, the historic Watkins Glen International racetrack at the southern tip of Seneca Lake in upstate New York began its first repaving project since 1998, the same year as the track’s 50th anniversary. WGI President Michael Printup called it a “significant project” for the track, competitors, fans and track rental customers.
The complete repaving of the track involves removing the entire racing surface. In some areas, the track will be taken down to the dirt road bed. In addition to the repaving, improvements will be made to the runoff areas, according to Martin Flugger, director of engineering for ISC Design & Development.
“The track pavement was in extremely poor condition and large sections of the track had severe moisture damage that was resulting in raveling and delamination,” Flugger said.
History of The Glen
Races were first held on the public roads of the village that shares the track’s name in 1948, but competition moved to a temporary course in 1953, after a spectator fatality occurred in the village in 1952.
The 2.35-mi. (3.78 km) permanent road course, designed by engineering professors from nearby Cornell University, was constructed on 550 acres (222.5 ha) in 1956, overlapping the previous street course. The following year, The Glen hosted its first professional race, a NASCAR Grand National Stock Car Event. Two years later, international competition commenced at the scenic road course with the first Formula Libre race.
Although The Glen has been home to road racing of nearly every class, including the World Sportscar Championship, Trans-Am, Can-Am, Formula 5000, NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, the International Motor Sports Association, U.S. Vintage Grand Prix and the IndyCar Series, it’s best remembered as the site of the U.S. Grand Prix for 20 years. Formula One first came to The Glen in 1961. The Watkins Glen U.S. Grand Prix became an autumn tradition through 1980, featuring world driving champions such as Jim Clark, Jackie Stewart, Emerson Fittipaldi and James Hunt.
Financial difficulties led to Watkins Glen being dropped from the F1 schedule. As a result, the bankrupt track closed following a Championship Auto Racing Teams race in 1981. It fell into disrepair, hosting only a few non-spectator SCCA races over the next few years.
In 1983, Corning Enterprises, a newly-chartered subsidiary of nearby Corning Glass Works, partnered with International Speedway Corporation to purchase the track and rename it Watkins Glen International. The renovated track, with the chicane at the bottom of the Esses removed, reopened in 1984 with the return of IMSA with the Camel Continental I.
Having achieved its mission of rebuilding the track during a revitalization of the Southern Finger Lakes Region, in 1997, Corning allowed a stock option buy-out that resulted in ISC becoming sole owner of the historic road course.
Changes Over the Years
The circuit has undergone several changes over the years, with five layouts generally recognized. The most significant change to the track included a major overhaul and expansion in 1971. The track was extended from 2.35 to 3.37 mi. (3.78 to 5.43 km) with the addition of a new segment made up of four corners and known as “The Boot.” At the end of the backstretch, after the Loop-Chute, cars swept left into a new four-turn complex that departed from the old layout, curling downhill through the woods. The track followed the edge of the hillside to two consecutive right-hand turns, over an exciting blind crest, to a left-hand turn and re-joining the old track.
The “Big Bend” and the turns leading up to it were eliminated and replaced with a new pit straight. In addition, the circuit was widened and resurfaced, and both the pits and start-finish line were moved back before the northwest right-angle corner known as “The 90.”
The circuit’s current layout has remained essentially the same since 1971, although a fast right-left chicane was installed at the uphill Esses in 1975, to slow cars through these corners after a fatality during practice for the 1973 United States Grand Prix, when Francois Cevert died in a horrific accident. The chicane was removed in 1985, but another chicane called the “Inner Loop” was installed in 1992, after a fatal accident during the previous year’s NASCAR Winston Cup event.
A major reconfiguration of the back straightaway occurred in 1991, after a severe crash during the IMSA Camel Continental was followed by a fatality during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series a few weeks later at the same site. Track officials added a bus stop chicane to the back straight just before arriving at the Loop in spring 1992. Dubbed the “Inner Loop”, it led into what was now being called the “Outer Loop.” This addition slightly increased the lap distance for both of two distinct layouts that are currently used — The Boot layout (long course) and the “1971 Six Hours” layout (short course). The new turns also added spectator viewing.
Another overhaul in 2006, made fundamental changes to the circuit for the first time since 1992. Officials installed a new control tower, which includes booths for the officials, timing and scoring, television and radio and the public address announcer on top of the new front stretch grandstand. They also moved the start-finish line farther ahead of the bridge, 380 ft. (115.8 m) farther toward The 90, in order to accommodate the new timing and scoring post. Other changes to the infrastructure include the purchase of adjoining property. Most of Bronson Hill Road is now incorporated as a service road to the facility. A new section of Bronson Hill leading up from N.Y. 414 has been built as the main ingress road to the facility.
In 2007, WGI again made improvements to the facility. All of turns 1 (the 90), 5 (the Loop-Chute) and 6 (entry turn into The Boot) were repaved. A temporary Glen Club replaced the permanent structure destroyed by fire at the races in 2007. A new media center was constructed to replace the former building, which also had been the control tower with the 1971 improvements.
The current repaving project began in The Boot in July, moving toward the short course after the NASCAR race in August. “The main track was still in use and not available until after the NASCAR event weekend,” Flugger explains. “Starting in The Boot allowed us to get some of the work started and finished early.”
Asphalt specialists and engineers conducted a thorough evaluation of The Glen’s entire circuit and recommended the current timeline. The repave is slated for completion prior to the 2016 race season.
Demolition and removal of the old concrete track pavement sections and partial removal of the track bituminous pavement were the starting point. Flugger estimated that the concrete demolition/pavement is approximately 10 in. (25.4cm) thick, with the asphalt ranging between 3.5 in. (8.89 cm) and 7 in. (17.78 cm) in thickness.
Ajax Paving Industries Inc., the same company that worked on Phoenix International Raceway and Michigan International Speedway, is the lead contractor on the project. “Several local firms were considered for the project, but the team composed of Ajax and the local asphalt producer of Dalrymple prevailed,” Flugger noted. “Ajax brings a lot to the project, with a vast knowledge of track paving techniques and requirements, and specialized equipment well-suited to the project scope.”
Four asphalt mixtures will be used on the project and are based on specifications that have been used and proven successful at other racetracks. Specially-formulated polymer asphalt binders and high quality aggregates are used in the mixture to enhance pavement performance and withstand the rigors of daily track usage from April through October.
“The liquid asphalt cement and aggregates are selected to provide a dense graded asphalt with high stability and a high softening point,” Flugger elaborates, adding that “speeds are expected to increase marginally and tire wear will be reduced until the track wears in. This is typical for a repave track surface.”
The amount of asphalt used during the repave of the track would be the equivalent of paving a 22 mi. (35.4 km) 2-lane highway at a thickness of 1.5 in. (3.81 cm). Specifically, the job calls for:
• 25,000 tons (22,680 t) of asphalt
• 27,000 gal. (102,206 L) of bituminous tack coat
• 7,000 tons (6,350 t) of aggregate
• 2,500 tons (2,268 t) of concrete
To spread all that material, a Vogele paver with a high-density, extendable screed is being used.
“The paving process will include the use of a 25-ton mix transfer device, Vogele paver, two double drum vibratory rollers, a water truck, tack truck and a mini mill,” Flugger said. “In an effort to smooth out the track the paver will use an electronic ski to average out the highs and lows of the track surface. To do this effectively and to get the full effect of the high-density screed, the paver is slowed down to a maximum paving speed of 13 feet per minute. This will likely result in the slowest lap around the WGI road course.”
The repaving of the legendary racetrack creates a boon for the local work force. More than 50 jobs totaling 10,000-plus labor hours will be generated. Flugger anticipated averaging around 45 workers during the peak time on the project, including crews working on the track and pit road. Additionally, approximately $3.3 million in locally-sourced materials will be used on the project.
Flugger stated the weather, site access, track availability and the condition of the underlying track pavement all have or will need to be addressed as the project moves forward.
“We are just getting started and I’m sure a few of the expected hurdles will present themselves,” he said. “The cleanup of the old track surface post demolition activities has been our biggest challenge to date. The additional work was expected, but the extent of the deteriorated asphalt below the surface was spread over a larger area than initially expected. The cold weather in New York is right around the corner and the paving team is focused on paving the track seven days a week.”
To assist in repaving and modernization of the historic facility, WGI was awarded $2.25 million by New York State’s Empire State Development and the I ? NY Division of Tourism under Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Regional Economic Development Council Initiative. The Glen received the grants after being named a Priority Project by the Southern Tier Regional Economic Development Council in 2014.
“Watkins Glen International has been a worldwide tourist destination in upstate New York for more than 50 years,” Printup said.
Located within five hours of 25 percent of the U.S. population, The Glen is considered the premier road racing facility in North America.
“With the support of our elected officials, regional council and dedicated race fans around the world, we’re poised to continue shining an international spotlight on the Finger Lakes region for another 50 years,” he said.
In addition to the grant, WGI will contribute $12 million in private funding and $33.5 million in private capital investments from the past 10 years. The money will be applied towards infrastructure modernization and marketing during the repaving project.