June 28, 2022

Six Reasons why the Sahlen Six Hours at the Glen should instead be a Saturday Endurance Classic that Races Into the Summer Night

Samuel Pawlak

I just got back from a weekend at Watkins Glen International after attending the Sahlen Six Hours. For those unaware, I grew up just 20 minutes south of the track in Big Flats, NY, making Watkins Glen nothing short of home to me. While in attendance, I had the pleasure to meet up with some teams I’ve been working with, as well as meet some new ones. But business activities aside, I always make time to spend Sunday like I’ve spent every Sunday since I started attending the Sahlen 6 Hours back in 2010…as just a fan roaming the track.

Sure, I have the option watch the race from far more comfortable (and air conditioned) places, but there’s just something so nostalgic about taking my dad’s 1972 yellow Schwinn Continental bicycle up to the track and riding around to watch/photograph the race from different vantage points throughout the event with my headset tuned into radio lemans. Needless to say, my experience of the six hours has been extremely consistent over the decade+ straight I’ve attended. However, the same cannot be said of the event itself, which has had a wildly inconsistent history both in its running, event length, and series it ran under. So, without feeling like I’m completely deluding some long-standing tradition here, I’d like to propose a radical change to the event format with the aim of bringing a lot more character and atmosphere to the event itself, while also creating more opportunities for partners and sponsors.  

I think the Sahlen Six Hours should be held on a Saturday, with the green flag dropping at 3PM, and the checkered flying at 9PM. Here’s six reasons why.

Reason 1 – The Damn Heat.

The upstate New York summer heat is brutal. It’s not your dry desert / west coast type heat, it’s a super humid, draining, and exhaustive heat. The race in its current format is run on Sunday from 10:40 - 4:40, literally the hottest part of the entire day. The average race day air temp is anywhere from 85-95 Fahrenheit. Not hot enough for you? No problem. You can always add 10 more degrees to that by deciding to roast yourself in the completely unprotected and highly reflective frying pans they call the grandstands here. If you don’t have an umbrella, you’ll cook alive up there. There’s a reason the grandstands look near empty on TV for this race. A shift to a 3PM – 9PM race schedule would mean the temperatures would only be coming down throughout the race, making the event far more tolerable as an in-person viewing experience.

Reason 2 – All other IMSA North America Endurance Championship events are held on Saturday

More specifically, they all start / are held on a Saturday, and all of them go from day into night (or through the night in the case of the Daytona). A shift to a sportscar race that ran from day into night wouldn’t be a first for IMSA at the Glen either. I vividly recall my experience attending the Crown Royal 200 multiple times at WGI. For those unfamiliar, the Crown Royal 200 was a Grand-Am (Now IMSA) race held on Friday evening during the August NASCAR weekend. The race typically ran from 6 – 8PM.

Reason 3 - Dusk in Watkins Glen is the most beautiful time of day, full stop.

Take it from someone who spent the first 18 years of their life in the region. Despite this, no modern events at the circuit capture this beauty in any capacity. The cooler temps, the long shadows, the surrounding hill tops changing from green to yellow, and the pink/purple sky behind the front-stretch always made for a picturous setting. You might say this about a lot of tracks, but evenings during the longest days of the year in the rolling hills of upstate New York are something to behold.  

Reason 4 – The Six Hours Needs to Feel Truly Special and Unique

I’m not gonna pull any punches with this take. I think the Sahlen Six hours in its current format feels stale and devoid character. How do we give an event character though? A few years ago, SRO Motorsports did something that I thought was just awesome. On the Thursday before their Road America race, they held a Cars & Coffee style “Welcome Party” event in downtown Elkhart Lake. The event featured many of the team’s racecars which were driven parade style down public roads to the town square from the circuit. In the case of the Glen, what better way to pay homage to the original Grand Prix then to drive the racecars from the track back down a portion of the original street circuit to downtown Watkins Glen for a pre-race gathering. The event would be a family friendly introduction to IMSA, and could feature everything from a driver autograph session, to plenty of sponsorship activation opportunities. If that’s not a great way to give this event character, see reason #5 below.

Reason 5 – Fireworks. Simple.

If the race ends at 9, let’s go out with a bang like every other IMSA endurance race. To add to this festive atmosphere I’m trying to create, why not host a live concert at the track immediately following the race? It’s Saturday night after all! If I was feeling extra festive, I’d say we should erect a proper light-up Ferris wheel at the Bus Stop, the highest point on the track amongst all the campers. Do you see where I’m going with this? Am I trying to resurrect that upstate summer fair-grounds vibe? (Maybe) Am I giving NY state bureaucrats a heart attack yet with all of these “liability” concerns? (Hopefully not) Or did they already pass out when I mentioned race cars on a public road in reason 4? (Probably)

Reason 6 – We all get our Sunday back

I think this aspect is overlooked. Getting your Sunday back to relax, maybe explore the Glen itself if you’ve never been (it’s a great hiking / tourist destination), and of course travel back home is a big factor in attendance. I think the biggest detractor from people attending this race is the fact that a lot of us travelers (myself included as a now Southern PA resident), don’t get back home until 9:30PM at the absolute earliest. Now, I freakin love my job so this isn’t a detractor for me in the slightest. But to the average person, arriving home all burned out late on a Sunday night isn’t exactly the most appealing thing.

So, there you have it. Six reason why I believe the Sahlen Six Hours should be a Saturday endurance classic that races into the summer night. Is it realistic? Maybe not in the short term. But I think if IMSA and Watkins Glen really want to cement this as race as a true endurance classic, elevate the event’s status, and develop a real character for this event, I think these six reasons are a good place to start.  

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