Tuesday, August 30, 2016

AMAZING Color Film of Watkins Glen, 1952

I don't know how I missed this fantastic color footage of the '52 Watkins Glen race when it first made it to the internet at the beginning of the year, but wowzers, I am making up for lost time. Twelve and a half minutes of AMAZING color footage of the last-ever races at the original Watkins Glen course, replete with Cunninghams, Allards, C-Type Jags, and of course, Crosleys! And every time you turn around, there's ANOTHER Siata.  Unbelievable.

Watkins Glen, New York is where American sports car racing began. The first post-war US road race was held in 1948 on a 6.6 mile course in and around the village of Watkins Glen. Like many contemporary European road races, the course was held on public roads, with drivers navigating at speed through the heart of town as thousands of spectators watched from the sidewalks. That first race was a sensation, and helped set off the entire sports car movement in the US.

This stunning footage captures the early days of American road racing, when gentleman "amateurs" ran the latest European iron (with then-new names like Ferrari and OSCA) against a mix of American homebuilts and warmed over pre-war racers.  And Crosleys. The Hot Shot and Super Sports were the only American-built mass-market sports cars available at the time, making them the go-to choice for many racing enthusiasts on a budget.  
You can spy several Crosleys among the higher-end machinery, starting with a blue-grey Super Sports (or maybe just a Hot Shot with doors), #64, piloted by one Hal Stetson according to RacingSportsCars.com - this might have been a late entry since the car isn't listed in the original program, which is posted at Cliff Reuter's Etceterini site.  Stetson's car makes several appearances in the footage, starting with the takeoff of the second race.  Interesting to note the non-stock color - in 1952 that Crosley would have been three years old at most.  Stetson and his Crosley show up a few times in the video, but didn't ultimately fare too well - he's listed as DNF in the results.

Not far behind Stetson's roadster is the #49 car - identified as a Crosley in the program, but sporting an interesting custom body that looks like fiberglass to me.  Reuter's program identifies the owner as Donald Sauvigne, and the driver as Henry Ruskin. Ruskin fared better than Stetson, finishing 27th .
The lowly Crosley Hot Shot may have been the car of choice for budget-conscious racers, but the Crosley engine found its way into the rarified atmosphere usually reserved for marques with names like Porsche and OSCA.  Looking for a small powerplant to compete with Fiat, Italian coachbuilders began experimenting with the 724cc Crosley four cylinder at the beginning of the fifties.  Light, reliable and featuring five main bearings and an overhead cam, the cast iron version of Lloyd Taylor's engine enjoyed a brief vogue among Italian "Etceterini" marques like Giaur, Bandini and Siata.  

No less than NINE Siatas were entered in the '52 event featured here, though not all were Crosley-powered. I'd love to know if #125, a blue and cream 300BC that nearly takes out a wall of hay bales at 2:15, had a Crosley under the hood. Let's hope so!
One Siata that definitely had a Crosley on board was #52, a blue 300BC that makes its first appearance at about the seven minute mark. Seeing this footage was somewhat surreal for me: my friend Marty Stein has owned this car - ST402BC - for nearly 40 years and I've seen it in person many, many times.  It's hard to grok that it's the exact same vehicle in this footage. It's just weird. 
And while its Watkins Glen provenance is amazing, this wasn't ST402BC's only trip to the rodeo. Owner/driver Tom Scatchard also raced the car in the 12 Hour Sebring race in 1953, coming in 20th. All that makes ST402BC the most historic of all the Crosley-powered Siatas, so it's mighty strange to think that it's parked in a garage not that far from my house.  Marty watched the film and noticed something I hadn't: the grill is almost completely blocked off with cardboard - must have been a cool day.  Scatchard came in 25th, just a bit ahead of Donald Sauvigne's custom-bodied Crosley.
There are literally so many Siatas in this footage that I could keep going on and on, but I'll just point out one more: Otto Linton's incredible Fiat 8V-powered 208CS Siata Coupe. If you're wondering why there are so many Siatas at Watkins Glen, Linton is a big part of the answer.  The owner of Speed Craft enterprises,  Linton drove a Crosley-powered Siata prototype in the 1951 Watkins Glen at the behest of importer Tony Pompeo. The Siata made an impression and Linton had orders for three Siatas before the end of the day.  A Crosley dealer, Linton set up the motor in Scatchard's Siata and, likely, many of the other Siatas on hand in this race.

The 6 month old coupe already had quite a pedigree by the time Linton was pitching it around the track at Watkins Glen.  It debuted at the Turin Auto Show in April and was entered, with two identical coupes, in the Mille Miglia in May. The other two cars didn't finish, but the coupe that Linton was to buy finished 11th.  The factory reconditioned the car after the race and Linton bought it at the Turin factory in August, using it to tour Europe before sending it home to the US just in time for this race.

The Siata coupes are - in my eye - some of the loveliest, best-proportioned and sleek cars of their era.   Not from the video, but here's a better photo from the same day, just so you get an idea of those lines. Wow.
There's plenty to gawk at outside the cars, too.  The crowd shots are fascinating: a look at how regular people actually dressed in 1952 - SO much color.  I don't know about you, but the prevalence of black and white photos from the period always gave me an image of a much more drab color scheme... I'd have never pictured drivers' racing suits in fire-engine red!
Also fun to see the racing celebrities: Briggs Cunningham appears throughout, even signing an autograph at one point.  That's John Fitch getting interviewed in the C-Type Jag. Fitch, of course started out in a much-modified Crosley Hot Shot, ignominiously named the "Fitch Bitch."  
Cunningham is one of the biggest names in American racing history - he never fulfilled his dream of winning LeMans with an All-American car and team, but he came damned close, several times over.  His namesake cars were on par with the best European machines of the time, but unlike Mercedes or Jaguar - his "factory" support consisted of himself and a hand-picked crew.  Seeing his small fleet of blue and white cars tearing up the track here is something special - if only there were sound!

This was, of course, the last-ever race through the town of Watkins Glen.  During the final race of the day, car #8, a Cadillac-powered Allard driven by Fred Wacker, clipped the crowd as he maneuvered to pass a Cunningham, killing a seven year old boy and injuring 12 other spectators.  The accident happened so quickly that Wacker had no idea what had happened until the race was abruptly cancelled minutes later. It was the end of an era.
The accident sparked national outrage, and there were calls to ban auto racing outright. While sportscar racing survived, competition on city streets did not.  Races were moved to airfields, parking lots or isolated public roads that could be secured.  In 1956, the newly-built Watkins Glen International racetrack opened for business -  it operates to this day.

But, here is a reminder of what racing was 60+ years ago.  Drivers in colorful coveralls, likely secured in their cars by surplus US Army Air Force seat belts.  Pudding-bowl helmets. Spectators in suits, ties and hats - perched perilously close to the track.  Hay bales.  Names like Allard, Cunningham and Siata.  Ferraris being towed to the track on open trailers behind Ford station wagons.  Other racecars arriving under their own power.  Can you imagine?
I have no idea who shot this footage.  There are no credits, no information at all.  The name is even misspelled "Watkins Glenn" in the title. I've watched this probably a dozen times at this point, and I feel like I'm just getting started. To whoever posted this, and to whoever shot it: Thank you.  Thank you, very, very much.


Il Piloto said...

I must have zoned out...I did not realize you had posted this until, for a blog I'm writing (called "Drive/Ride?Wrench" and available at martinodipietra.blogspot.com) I wanted to add a link to the Vimeo video. If you think it was surreal for you to see my Siata, think about what it was like for me! Among other observations is that I never would have thought the number on the car was yellow...but then all the photos I have of the car from the era are in black and white. Also, when we tried to figure out the color the best we could do was examine what remained on the inside of one of the door posts...we did not strip it but it did seem to be original...and was pretty dark. We figured it must have darkened with dirt and age, and chose the same Toyota fleet truk color used on Bob Graham's car (ST420, now owned by Dennis Varney). But the Vimeo video shows the color as a darker blue and very much like that door post. Of course this is a video transferred from very old color reversal film, so again it is not for certain, but it does seem that the current color on the car may well be too "bright" compared to how it came from Italy. Not that I'm planning to change it, though

Anonymous said...

The film is awesome. The photographer must have had some financial motivation because he was using 16mm reversal film and shooting in a style meant to be edited later. The equipment would have been fairly heavy and expensive versus the 8mm cameras you generally see in black and white photographs of Watkins Glen. As mentioned in the article above, this was a hugely historical event which obliterated street racing in the United States. Life Magazine published a full spread of graphic images which brought widespread aversion to the dangers of racing and a new chapter began. This photographer was at the opposite end of the course from the Start Finish line where the accident happened.

Otto Linton's Orchidea was a (engineless) chassis created by SIATA which Pompeo brought to the US and it possibly led to the 300BC Roadsters SIATA built in 1952. The Orchidea ran alongside the SIATA Gran Sport Prototype in the Queen Catherine Cup in 1951. The Gran Sport was bigger car sports car based on the Fiat 1400 chassis. There are three Gran Sports seen running in this 1952 footage.

I happen to own the 1951 SIATA Gran Sport prototype and am avidly looking for pictures, video and artifacts related to Watkins Glen street racing to build a story around this car. It also raced at Elkhart Lake in 1951, Allentown (Convair) in 1952 and at Bridghamption in 1952.

Thanks for this website!