Watkins Glen open again, optimistic for NASCAR weekend

In this Aug. 3, 2019, file photo, Jimmie Johnson (48) drives through the area of the course called "The Bus Stop" during a practice run for the NASCAR Cup Series auto race at Watkins Glen International, in Watkins Glen, N.Y. Three months after its opening day was canceled 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. (AP)
The Associated Press

The roar is back at New York’s Thunder Road.

Three months after its opening day was canceled 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 Nov. 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.”

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 organization, 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 $275 million annually, based on the most recent study.

Printup figures that number might be down as much as 75% 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 Scott Bell, general manager of the Harbor Hotel, which has remained open during the pandemic. “We’re seeing occupancy levels that can’t even be explained. We don’t create the demand, we support the demand, so to have the track open and car clubs coming in, there’s a pulse back in the region, which is wonderful to see.

“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 Labor 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.

Untouched so far is NASCAR. Its Cup and Xfinity series are slated to race Aug. 15-16, perhaps before thousands of fans.

Printup said WGI’s proposal to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo will be to allow only people from the state and within 150 miles of the track to attend.

“We think we have a pretty good plan on being able to allow a limited number of fans,” Printup said. “We know that to ask him to bring fans from outside the state was probably going to be a big stretch.

“It’s all about social distancing, temperature takes of every fan,” Printup added. “We can social distance them in the grandstands. We have plenty of those.”

And surely plenty of space to spread out. WGI covers more than 1,800 acres, one of the largest of the 12 tracks NASCAR owns.

“We could probably get 30% to 50% (capacity), but I think to be reasonable we’re going to have to probably bring that number down just to make the governor and his team comfortable,” Printup said. “If they get 30,000 at Bristol (in mid-July), that’s probably the outside of what we could do.”

So far, the coronavirus has barely touched Schuyler County, surrounding the track. Only 14 cases among its 17,800 residents had been documented by late June, with no hospitalizations and no deaths.

The county is one of the most vulnerable economically in the region because it relies heavily on tourism, McKinney Cherry said.

“Because the season doesn’t really get rolling until late May, we were in a better position than other communities because many of our businesses were still in hibernating when the mandatory closures occurred,” she said. “This community is one that can probably handle visitors coming in because they are taking safety very seriously. … Any small sniffle that they (WGI) have creates a cold for the rest of us in the community.”