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  • Writer's pictureCatherine White

Vibing with Cat White

Summer in the Southern Tier – Racing at Watkins Glen International

Summer is one of my favorite seasons. It signified freedom, adventure, and tons of fun in the sun. In the late 1980s and early 90s, summer also meant Watkins Glen NASCAR racing and camping on the infield in the “Esses”.

For three or four years, I camped with my best friend’s family – The Woods – who had an annual ritual of meeting up with extended family, longtime friends, and racing fanatics for three days of rumbling engines and raucous partying. I was best friends with the youngest daughter of this well-known Irish-Italian family from Elmira and, while we weren’t all that interested in the actual races, for a few years the NASCAR races at

Watkins Glen was a summer event not to be missed!

Those days were WILD! I mean, not as insane as The Bog days of legendary race camping lore, but still pretty crazy for a young girl just entering adulthood. While me and my girlfriends were always well-protected, it was quite a heady experience filled with lots of libations, laughter, and unexpected adventures on the inner fields of Watkins Glen International.

Despite the Bacchanalian atmosphere and raging libidos, camping at the Glen during the races was really about camaraderie and cars.

We’d spend our days floating from our campsite to the stands to catch time trials to the sales trailers, which had something for everyone. In the evenings, we’d gather in the small inner field to sing and dance to live music before heading back to our campsite (or someone else’s) for more drinking and laughing around a crackling fire.

Although, Watkins Glen isn’t too far away from Elmira, it always felt like a completely different world to me. That laid back, languid vibe typical of “lake life”.

For being such a small town, there’s a lot to do in and around Watkins Glen. For those less interested in the races, they could visit Finger Lakes wineries and craft breweries, check out the ducks waddling along the lakeshores, work up an appetite hiking the Gorge, hitch a ride on a schooner and sail the cool lake waters, or just spend the day checking out the unique local businesses in town and dotted along the back roads of the surrounding Finger Lakes.

It’s funny, back then we were always in that first wave of rabid race fans eager to get to WGI and grab a choice camping spot. But my friends and I were also part of the first group to leave the racetrack, usually before the race was even over! Four days of public restroom bathing was about all any of us could take! I can still remember how amazing that first hot shower felt after spending three or four days camping and drinking and eating and dancing and living life to the absolute fullest.

I was sad when NASCAR stopped holding races at WGI for awhile and was glad to hear that they had returned. While my experiences camping at the racetrack were more about the people than the sport, there’s something very cool about waking up to the deafening rumble of race car engines screaming as they careened around the track, while the ground shook beneath us.

Thinking back on those “good ole days” feels like a lifetime ago and, I guess, they were. It makes me realize how lucky I was to grow up in such a beautiful region with so many options of things to do. Those memories also drive home how fortunate I was to be surrounded by so many fantastic, caring, FUN people. In addition to spending four fun-filled days with my besties checking out the cute boys, we rolled with a very cool, very funny crew who knew how to keep us entertained with their antics. We feasted on tasty camp food and drank tons of booze (sorry, liver). We experienced an incredible sense of freedom to sample the fun, hedonistic side of the races with the safety of back-up adults that always watched out for us, no matter how inebriated they got!

As I looked through the pictures from those experiences, I couldn’t help but smile – even laugh out loud at some of the silliness we engaged in during those carefree days. It was a simpler time and I’m incredibly grateful to have grown up in the Southern Tier during that moment in time with the people I encountered.

The memories are bittersweet - the connection to the past almost palpable.

Aaaahhhh, to be young and unaware of the heartbreaks the future holds! Or a rabid race fan!!

Enjoy Go Bowling at the Glen weekend this month! Have a little debauchery for me – you only live once!


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