"It’s going to cost anywhere from $9 to $15 million to repave the racetrack and we’re doing our due diligence now. The engineers are looking at it and we hope the Board will approve it."
An Interview with Watkins Glen International Track President Michael Printup
by Ziva & Michael Allen
Watkins Glen. The name alone conjures up sentimental images and thoughts, even if you’ve never driven its course. Watkins Glen is known as one of the country’s most iconic and historic tracks, where races have been won by some of the world’s most famous racing legends going back to a time when street racing was all the rage. In our interview with Track President, Michael Printup, we spoke about Watkins Glen’s history, why its history is so appealing, and its current attraction not only to Americans but to people the world over.
Q. How long have you been at WGI? Do you participate in driving events or racing yourself? What is your average day at your job as track president and what is it like to be a track president?
A. It’s fantastic. It also it gives me an opportunity to mingle with fans and have a lot of fun. Three years in a row with blood, sweat and tears, our team has worked to increase our attendance. And it’s been great. I love working with the people that we have and they’re a very dedicated group of folks. I’ve been with the company for 14 years. I’ve worked multiple venues at our racetrack and I was serving as the lobbyist for New York City with this company. I was an Internal lobbyist when we were attempting to build a racetrack in Staten Island. Day to day it’s a lot of fun. Some days you’re working the phone, working on corporate deals, you’re working with government, working on community relations, obviously working with the team day to day. Currently, we’re working on 2015 as we finish out our next three events, including the vintage event this weekend. It’s a lot of fun and I get to do a lot of fun stuff. I get to hang out with some really cool kids. I love kids. We do some special programs with some kids and it’s just a lot fun. In the end, the fans keep me going from day to day and as long as I keep working with the fans, I’m good at remaining track president.
Q. Acknowledging that there is a draw for the common person to be able to drive on iconic tracks, give us an idea of what makes Watkins Glen International one of the country’s most historic and greatest tracks.
A. I think we’d have to interview about 400 different race car drivers to arrive at the answer to that question. In my opinion and from what drivers have told me throughout the years all the way back to the days of Emerson Fittipaldi, Lewis Hamilton and the like, WGI has elevation changes and cornering camber in some of the corners, which you don’t find typically. In turn one, two and five, you have camber, which really elevates the quirkiness of the racetrack. But in addition, it really elevates the specificity of how technical this track can be at a very high speed. This is a very difficult high speed road course but boy, it’s fun to race around!
Q. That leads to my second question which is this: Is the track considered high speed or technical? And I guess what you’re saying is that it is both.
A. You’ll hear the drivers talk about it and, depending upon who you talk to, they usually pick one way or the other and that’s why, when I describe this track, I combine both the technical and high speed components. There is no question that it’s an extremely high speed road course. With all those elevation and technical turns - between The Esses, the bus stop - you throw The Boot in there - and you really have so many challenges in different corners. You have the speeds n the back stretch and the front stretch where it’s just phenomenal depending upon what type of vehicle you’re driving but you can really max some vehicles out. And then speaking from a technical standpoint, after you get into some of those high speed straightaways on the front and back stretch and enter the boot going to the carousel and coming down off it, you make a hard left which is grading in and cambering on the outside away from you. Then you get into turn seven in the toe of the boot there and it is just a crazy, crazy corner! So I think that’s the technical part that these drivers, who have driven this course, understand that you’ve got to be spot on with all 11 corners when you’re doing the full course.
Q. Sounds exciting. How can the track driver get on WGI? What programs do you offer or are available through third party track day organizers at Watkins Glen?
A. We get a lot of racing fans on our course. We started doing this years ago and it’s kind of simple. There’s been so many racetracks in the last five to seven years that have copied us and are allowing the fans to get onto courses. So every day at noon and 5:00, barring a couple of blackout dates when we have events of course, we allow anybody to bring their regular old vehicle. You think about Spa and Hockenheim, they’ve been doing it for years and years and years. We allow the fans to come on in. Now we do pace you. We don’t let you just go out there and run wild out there but we do pace you at a good speed. And, when you think about it, you can’t do that in any other sport. You can’t just go play on the Buffalo Bills’ or the Dallas Cowboys’ field at noon and 5:00 every day. You can’t go play in the New York Rangers stadium or the Tampa Bay Buccaneer stadium or the Yankee Stadium or Mets Stadium. You don’t get to go play but we’re one sport that you actually get to go around a racetrack that some of the most famous people in the world have raced. And I think that when you start thinking about the history of Watkins Glen and how anyone can participate on this course, it’s very special. That really makes us a lot different than other places. Now again a lot of people have copied us throughout the years but we know we’re pretty loud and proud of doing it first, let’s say.
Q. So those are paced laps but what about track day organizations that come in and do events for HPDE drivers?
A. We have a lot of car clubs that use our course, anywhere from BMW clubs, Porsche clubs, Ferrari clubs, Audi clubs. Also, we have been involved in teen driving programs such as the Tire Rack Street Survival program, which is authorized by BMW CCA-Foundation. [Ed. Note: You can read more about this program in our Keeping It On The Track article here.] Tire Rack holds an annual event at the racetrack in November for teen safety and I think that’s what’s kind of neat about these clubs that come in and race. You know over 150 days a year when you think about our weather up here, we start in the middle of April with the car clubs anywhere from Chicago to Boston to Washington, D.C. to Long Island, covering this region. We have a lot of fun but we also help the youth and offer instruction on how to handle cars at safe speeds. I think that’s really important.
Q. Yes, that’s a great program that BMW and Tire Rack have. We recently did a story about race tracks in Los Angeles that are no longer there which was based on a documentary film called Where they raced by two documentary filmmakers out in L.A. and they were telling us about all these courses that were out there on the streets of L.A. and then also board tracks that were there and people can actually find the old street courses and sort of retrace their steps. So I know that Watkins Glen started out as a street course around the town and then later on the track was built. So is it possible for somebody to find remnants of the old street course and even retrace the steps?
A. Yes. In fact, this Friday is our vintage weekend and we have one of the largest vintage race events on the east coast which has really become a stellar event and very prominent in the vintage racing world. MCERA drivers come in and they perform. But on Friday night they retrace the original course, which is honestly one of my favorite events because you get to see Allards and Edsels and old open wheeled cars. They retrace the 6.6 mile course that has a finish line right downtown directly across from the courthouse. And that courthouse was there back then and then the course snakes up through the hills and goes through the old Stone Bridge up by the state park and cuts through the trees and the hills and the valleys and winds all the way back down and comes in back on the north side of town and enters back after the 6.6 miles. It’s quite a run. And it’s so historic. I really, really enjoy it. Of course they do it at slow speeds and it’s paced by our local sheriff and the deputies for safety reasons. But it is just phenomenal to watch and we’ve been doing it for 30 to 40 years. The event is actually organized by the town of Watkins Glen but obviously Watkins Glen International supports it.
Q. We’ve conducted interviews with track designer Alan Wilson and consultant Timothy Frost and they’ve talked to us about the business model for various tracks. We enthusiasts don’t usually think about or worry about the running of the business of the track but it is interesting to hear about it. They’ve talked about the need for multiple uses and venues at one track. Can you describe the business model for WGI and what makes the track thrive these days?
A. It’s our schedule, there’s no question. We have six public events a year starting with our Sahlen’s Six Hours of the Glen. Then we have our Finger Lakes Wine Festival, which is presented by Yancey’s Fancy New York’s Artisan Cheese and which is not even a racing event but is one of the largest wine festivals tucked right here in the middle of wine country. We also have the Cheez-It 355 at the Glen, our NASCAR race, Glenora Wine Cellars U.S. Vintage Grand Prix, which is presented by Welliver. Additionally, we’ve added our Ferrari Challenge North America this year, which is sanctioned by IMSA, as well as a beer festival. We have a lot of public events that always highlight the track and the game of racetracks is staying relevant. Even in January, February, March you’ve got to stay relevant even though your track’s closed but that’s public relations and marketing. Obviously when you have a NASCAR Sprint Cup race, which is a nationwide race, and you have the Tudor United SportsCar Championship series, that’s what elevates the racetrack. That’s what’s able to keep us moving year in and year out.
But bar none, you can’t forget about all these car clubs that come in and rent the track. Prior to my time there was a rumor that potentially the Sprint Cup race was moving to Staten Island. I was in charge of that project in Staten Island but there was no determination of where any of the races were going to come from. However, there was a rumor that Watkins Glen may not have a race anymore but those car clubs sure add a lot of money to this community. It may not be at the level of obviously a Sprint Cup race or nationwide event and I don’t just mean attendance I mean from a dollar volume tourism point of view, but it when you have three different driving clubs or organizations that come in every week, it supports our track and our community. Typically you’ll have a Monday/Tuesday group come in and a club could have anywhere from 75 to 200 drivers. And you have people coming from all over the northeast and east coast and the rent hotel rooms, they go out to dinner, put gas in their car obviously. And then you’ll have another group Wednesday/Thursday and then another come Friday, Saturday and Sunday. So when you’re rotating three car clubs in and out and you’re talking anywhere from 150 to 400 people spending their tourist dollars, that’s what’s important. Let alone the big races - so it’s a conglomeration of a lot of different things that makes the track useful.
Additionally, we are one of the first ISC tracks out of the 12 that we own in this country to successfully get into the concert business. We have a major Phish Festival each year going back to 2011 and that is a multi-use of the track. We put thought into how we could expand our property and have a little fun with it all at the same time. We’re always looking for ways to expand the use of the property because you have 1800 acres, you have a staff of 37 full time people let alone your part time people, taxes, light bills, gas bills, all those bills never go away. So anyway to increase revenue is an opportunity to evaluate.
Q. You are part of a larger corporation that owns 12 tracks?
A. Yeah, Our parent company is International Speedway Corporation. iscmotorsports.com. We’re a publicly traded group. We own 12 tracks. California, Phoenix, Kansas, you can look it all up. Chicago, Michigan, Watkins Glen, Darlington, Richmond, Martinsville, Talladega, Daytona and Homestead Miami. We are spread across the country. There are only 23 Sprint Cup facilities in the country and we own 12 of them.
Q. If my wife and I were going to come to participate in a track event, we’d probably make a whole week out of it. We’d do a two day event and then we’d probably want to stay in the area and see the sites. So for that crowd, what can you tell us about the schedule of the track, when it’s open and what is there to do in the surrounding area? What would you recommend that people do who are coming to make a vacation out it?
A. When I got here back in 2009, there was so much to do here. You have the lakes, the state parks and gorges. And not just on this lake, but you’ve got Seneca Lake, Cayuga Lake which is near Ithaca, and Keuka Lake nearby. There’s so much fun stuff. You can rent boats, go sailing. You can take a spin on a schooner. There’s a dinner boat that offers teen night dinners. There are beaches, parks, bakeries. And we’ve got great pizza here! There’s so much to do around here for a family in addition to the racetrack.
A few years ago we opened up an area at the track called Our Fans Are First area. We had people coming from all over the world because of our Formula 1 history from 1961 to 1980 and we literally have people that travel here from all over the world that not necessarily are coming here for races but they’re in New York City or nearby and they come and want to see the racetrack. So we have full grandstand where people can come in free every single day – again minus the paid event days. But when the BMWs or Ferraris or Audis or Porsches are on the track, people can come up and sit and just hang out. Bring a picnic and watch racecars on a good chunk of the racecourse and you get to just have a little fun and hang out. It doesn’t cost a thing. We figure, what the heck – we might as well open it up and let people have fun with it.
But there’s so much to do in this area. If you’re an adult, 21 or older, the wineries are fantastic. But even if you just wanted to go tour a winery, you’re young and just want to learn about grapes and the growing, we are the second largest grape growing state in the country – obviously California’s the only one that beats us. Lots to see and do around here and it’s a lot of fun.
Q. Do you have any scoops for us about Watkins Glen or your larger company? Any new developments that are exciting that you can share with us?
A. Being publicly traded, the Board approves our capital projects from year to year and our major capital projects. We have fiduciary money that we put towards fan amenity improvement programs. We’re currently proposing to the Board this Fall at the November Board meeting to repave the racetrack and that happens every 15 to 20 years. It’s been close to 20 years since we last paved it. It’s a major project. It’s going to cost anywhere from $9 to $15 million to repave the racetrack and we’re doing our due diligence now. The engineers are looking at it and we hope the Board will approve it. I have a good feeling - knock on wood - they will but until they approve it, we don’t have a project. If they do approve it, we’ll shut down right after NASCAR next year and will repave the rest of the Fall. It’ll be great. And we’ll open up 2016 with a brand new racing facility which will make it probably a little bit faster and better.