An American auto racing tradition may end if European Grand Prix car owners have their way. A vote will be taken Thursday in Paris to ratify a decision stripping Watkins Glen, N.Y., of the world championship road race held there the last 19 years.
The car owners would rather race in Las Vegas next year. They sperheaded the committee of the International Auto Sports Federation which unanimously voted to leave the Glen. According to press reports, they don't like the chilly and often rainy October weather in upstate New York, the track's bumpy surface, the unruly crowd and the overcrowded press facilities.
A large delegation from the Washington-based Automobile Competition Committee of the U.S. is headed to France to lobby for the Glen. Mario Andretti, world road racing champion last year, already has been talking to FISA officials who will decide the issue. If the vote is lost, the Americans plan to appeal up through the international auto racing hierachy.
"We've never been officially notified there is a recommendation to drop the Glen race or what the problems are," the Glen public relations director said in a telephone interview. "On our record, and based on reports we know were made by oficial observers after our last race, we should get a three-year renewal, not a cancellation."
Not if the car owners can help it. "It's simply not the kind of place we want to go back to any more," said Bernie Ecclestone, the Englishman who heads the Formula One Constructors Association. "We've only returned there because of friendship for Mal Currie," an ex-newspaperman and director of the nonprofit Watkins Glen Grand Prix Corp.
The "place" is a town of 3,000 on Lake Seneca north of Elmira. U.S. road racing had its rebirth there Oct. 2, 1948, when local enthusiasts staged a sports car race over city streets. The present course was built in 1956 for $200,000 on an 1,100-acre tract near town.
In 1961, afte the U.S. Grand Prix had flopped at Sebring, Fla., and Riverside, Calif., the Glen's citizens organized the corporation to give the race a home. According to Kelly, more than $4 million has been spent in the last 10 years to lengthen the course to its present 3.377 miles, improve its surface and enlarge and improve garage, pit and spectator facilities.
Some 100,000 people come to the race. "We estimate the crowd brings $10 million to $12 million to the economy in this area," Kelly said. "It costs us a mullion dollars to put on the race with, I estimate, $700,000 to $800,000 going to the car owners for expenses and the purse."
In Las Vegas, Caesar's Palace is ready to build a track. The hotel received a date for a 1980 Grand Prix earlier this year. That gave the U.S. three championship races: March 30 in Long Beach, Calif.; Oct. 12, Watkins Glen; and Nov. 2, Las Vegas.
Before the FISA committee voted to drop the Glen, the 1980 schedule listed 18 races on four continents. Too many and too much travel, said the car owners before the vote. Since then, Sweden has dropped its race and the Mexican round is very iffy.
The American view is if the Glen race is not reinstated, a replacement will not be sanctioned for Las Vegas. Last in the schedule, first out, they feel. A possible compromise is a change in the Glen date to a more congenial time of the year.
Caesar's Palace is in the middle. "We have a deal with the car owners for a race," said William D. Weinberger, vice president of casino marketing, in a telephone interview. "We are not happy the Glen race has been canceled. The Long Beach and Glen races would help develop interest in our race."
According to Weinberger, "We are prepared to invest $2 million in the track. We will meet the bond requirements as well," he added referring to the $700,000 bond which must be posted by Monday.