The first stop for Will Power after winning the recent Camping World Grand Prix IZOD IndyCar Series race wasn’t a champagne dinner in his honor, a trendy disco packed with beautiful people, or even a metropolitan TV studio. It was a rustic motel, restaurant and bar called the Seneca Lodge, about three miles from the track overlooking Watkins Glen and the lake, where racing history has been made for more than 60 years.
Since the first sports-car race echoed past its timbered walls in 1948, victories have been celebrated, sorrows have been drowned and tall tales have been told around the bar by giants in the road-racing world. Among racers’ watering holes, probably only Siebken’s in Elkhart Lake, Wis., approaches the Seneca Lodge in terms of history and longevity. While the facilities of the lodge have been upgraded with the passing of time, two things remain unchanged. The Brubaker family are the owners and operators; and when the circuit is in operation, the racers are the boss.
Power made his post-race pilgrimage to continue a tradition dating back to Formula One days, that of hanging the winner’s wreath on the wall of the bar.
Like Elkhart Lake, Bridgehampton (N.Y.), and Monterey (Calif.), Watkins Glen was a summer resort long before it was a road-racing center, and the Seneca Lodge was a popular stop at the south entrance to the state park from which the town takes its name. Founder Don Brubaker laid out the lodge’s mission as follows: “The guest who enjoys a combination of outdoor activity and relaxation will find the Seneca Lodge a most desirable resort.”
When the late Cameron Argetsinger mapped out a circuit for the revival of American road racing in 1948, it closely followed the perimeter of the park, placing the Seneca Lodge at the apex of the third turn. Since Don Brubaker was president of the Chamber of Commerce, whose Grand Prix Committee evolved into the Grand Prix Corp., the Seneca Lodge soon became both the social and political center of the Glen racing scene.
Negotiations with state and county officials to permit the original street races took place at the lodge, and the banquets following the first four races were held in the downstairs banquet hall. The dining room hosted the meetings that led to the founding of the Glen Region SCCA, and the facility was taken over one night each October by the unique party for F-1 mechanics at the USGP.
Legends abound, none more famous than the rainy practice day for the 1958 International Formula Libre race. Officials were puzzled that none of the top drivers had arrived, so chief steward Bill Milliken made the short drive to the Seneca Lodge. As he expected, he found the stars, Dan Gurney, Phil Hill and Jo Bonnier, warm and dry playing a card game in the bar. Milliken told them the course was open and if they wanted any practice they’d better get moving. Led by Gurney, they did.
The Seneca Lodge is not just for the rich and famous. The same dining room and banquet hall have seen hundreds of SCCA meetings, club race registrations and rally finishes. Whether great or small, racing people have always found a warm welcome at the Seneca Lodge.