1968 US Grand Prix at Watkins Glen: Getting there was half the fun.

by Harry Kennison

Harry Kennison is a fan with a camera and a gift for telling good stories. This is the first in a series of stories of the sixties and seventies. We hope you enjoy them.

mario1968

Mario Andretti surprised everyone by taking the pole position in his first ever Grand Prix driving a Lotus 49B-Ford. In the race he would suffer a broken nose cone and ultimately succumb to broken clutch on lap 32.

1968 was a year filled with tragedy. On the national stage the country lost Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy to assassins’ bullets. Motor sports lost the great Jim Clark. However, on a personal note, I was beginning my senior year at Michigan State, I was engaged to be married and, come hell or high water, I was making the fall pilgrimage to Watkins Glen for U S Grand Prix, or at least I thought I was.

As it turned out, getting to the Glen was an ordeal to say the least. First off, my temperamental 1964 MG-B, which I’d earlier dubbed “The Black Death,” was not up to the trip as one of the SU carbs fell off (yeah, I couldn’t believe it either!). To make matters worse, the deal I had initiated on a slick-looking Fiat 124 sport coupe (what was I thinking?) never materialized. As Garth Brooks says, “Thank God for unanswered prayers! So I used the deposit which I had to arm-wrestle back from the local Fiat dealer, to buy a new 200 mm lens for my trusty Pentax.

As the first week of October approached I still didn’t have transportation to get to the Glen. I was becoming desperate. Then, at the 11th hour, I bummed a ride with a couple I’d never met before (and never saw again) with the promise to share gas expenses. So, the Friday afternoon before the race, I found myself and my bride-to-be shoehorned into the back seat of a VW bug heading out of East Lansing for the Glen. With spirits high we cut across Michigan crossing the Blue Water Bridge at Port Huron and into Ontario, Canada. We then proceeded to follow the signs to Niagara Falls. In order to get my bride-to-be to go on this “excellent adventure,” I promised her a romantic stop at Niagara Falls. Unfortunately, it was about one in the morning when we reached the turnoff for the Canadian Horseshoe Falls. Just like in the original Chevy Chase movie “Vacation” where “Wally World” is closed when the Griswald Family Truckster finally arrives, the lights on the Falls were turned off. Needless to say we couldn’t see jack. No Falls. No “Maid of the Mist.” Just the roar of the Falls, a near-freezing mist and a string of obscenities from my fiancée that seemed to hang in the air like a foreboding cloud floating. Lucky for me the need for warmth won out over her intent to throw me over the railing to my death on the rocks below, so we again jumped into the Bug and under a blanket in the back seat. After our “romantic stop” it was on to Buffalo and then to the Finger Lakes in Upstate New York, the southern tip of Seneca Lake to be specific, arriving in village of Watkins Glen cramped, sore and bleary-eyed early Saturday morning.

Little did I know, my travel troubles were just beginning. After setting up a makeshift tent on the infield, I discovered we only had one sleeping bag for the two of us and it was one of those form-fitting mummy bags for one. Although I’d packed two sleeping bags, my ever-thoughtful roommate back in East Lansing decided he wanted us to be “warm and cozy at night,” so he took one bag out of the car before we left forcing both of us into a single sleeping bag. And, as if on cue, Saturday night it began to sleet.

jackie1968

It was customary back in the 60’s for drivers to drive their cars from the garage area down to the starting grid. Here Jackie Stewart, complete with Scottish cap and side burns (no long hair yet), slows his Matra-Ford to steer around a Coke can as not to damage his Dunlop tires.

After a bone-chilling, teeth-rattling night spent huddled together in a near death grip under the tent, my fiancée announced Sunday morning that she needed to go to the nearest drugstore for a certain feminine hygiene item. After evaluating the situation-“Purple Herman” verses slugging it out with a never-ending line of cars winding their way into the infield and the nearest drug store several miles away in the village, I suggested she make due with a rolled up napkin from the hotdog stand. Although not a popular decision at the time, it must have been a sign as to the strength of our relationship, or at least I’d like to think it was. Forty-two years later, we’re still married. But I have to say, she does not accompany me anymore to my “damned races.” Enough of my trials and tribulations, let’s talk about qualifying and the race.

grahamhill1968

1968 points leader, Graham Hill, steers his Lotus 49B-Ford through a tunnel of fans to his second row starting position.

Qualifying served up a huge surprise when upstart Indy star, Mario Andretti, driving in his first grand prix, put his Lotus 49B-Ford on the pole, piping Stewart by seven one hundredths of a second! This not only fueled ticket sales with an American on pole, but the crowd of some 93,000 was going crazy as well. Graham Hill slotted his Lotus 49 into third spot with Chris Amon in his Ferrari in fourth. Denny Hulme, the 1967 World Champion now driving for McLaren, was fifth on the grid and Jochen Rindt was sixth in his bizarre looking “bi-plane” Brabham. Other notables in the field included the 1968 Indy 500 winner, Bobby Unser, driving a factory BRM. He ended up going through five engines during the course of the weekend and wound up in 17th place in the race. I later found out that he’d broken his ankle playing in a basketball game the day before practice; no wonder!

chrisamon1968

Chris Amon, considered by many to be the finest driver never to win a grand prix, lived up to his reputation for bad luck at the Glen by dropping out with a water pump failure in his adjustable winged Ferrari 312.

The race itself turned out to be one of those defining moments where the torch of greatness was passed to a rising, young star, Jackie Stewart. You see, Stewart had lost his friend, role model and fellow Scotsman, Jimmy Clark, earlier in the year in a mysterious accident in the wet in a F-2 race in Hockenheim, Germany. For most, this loss could have been a career at the crossroads. One could conceivably see a driver succumb to the pressure, sadness and perhaps fear that “it could happen to me” ending up as another mid-fielder filling out the grid. Or one could rise to greatness. Stewart chose greatness.

josiffert1968

Jo Siffert, the talented Swiss driver, sets off for the grid in his beautiful Lotus 49 entered by independent Rob Walker where he would wind up fifth at the end of the day.

At Watkins Glen he qualified his French-blue Matra-Ford on the front row of the grid just behind upstart, Mario Andretti. And then on that crisp, fall day, at the drop of the green flag, Jackie coolly drove away from the field taking the lead from Andretti on the first lap and never looked back. As for Mario, he suffered a cracked nose cone which caused his right front wing to drag on the track. After stopping to have it repaired, he then blew his clutch putting himself out on lap 32. Graham Hill nailed down the second spot which pushed him ever closer to the World Championship which he would clinch in the final race of the year at Mexico City. John Surtees in his screaming V-12 Honda took third ahead of Dan Gurney in a third McLaren, Jo Siffert in his Rob Walker-entered Lotus 49 and Bruce McLaren rounding out the top six finishers.

jochen1968

Jochen Rindt, the young Austrian, heads his Brabham-Repco “Biplane” to the starting grid for the 1968 US Grand Prix at Watkins Glen. He would retire with a blown engine.

Although Jackie Stewart would not win the world championship that year, he’d definitely inherited the mantel of the dominant driver in Formula 1, a mantel he would retain for another five years and three world championships. Sometimes you witness greatness and at the time you don’t realize it. In this case, there was no doubt.

John_Surtees1968

England’s “angry young man,” John Surtees screams by in his Honda V-12 en route to a fine third place finish at the 1968 US Grand Prix.