The 1974 United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen

My second visit to The Glen was momentous

by Steve Erlichman

I began going to the Watkins Glen track in 1969 on a field trip from my summer camp. They took us to the 1969 6 Hours/Can-Am weekend at the original circuit to see the Bruce and Denny Show in the unlimited Can Am. I was hooked and I vowed to come back for the F1 race. But I didn’t make it to the track for an F1 race until the 1974 United States Grand Prix at The Glen. 

The good old days

1974 united states grand prixFrom our visit the year before for the 6 Hours/Can-Am weekend, we decided that we wanted to be at the toe of the boot, Turn 7. Upon our late Friday arrival we set up camp and set out to explore. The Kendall Garage as it was known was our destination. For $2 you gained entrance for the entire weekend. Unlike the open paddock layout today there was an aisle down the center of the garage lined with fences with the teams arrayed on both sides. Work benches lined up next to the fence along the aisle with tool boxes parts, etc. Crews were busy of course. Lots of cursing in British accents was heard with the occasional “mate” thrown in. 

1974 united states grand prix

The paddock was wide open then and like the garage you could go almost anywhere with some “initiative”. The best place to hang out was the driveway between the garage and the pits. Everyone and everything passed by. We saw Jackie Stewart in conversation with Stirling Moss. Emerson Fittipaldi walked by munching on an apple. Teddy Mayer from McLaren came by. A TV crew followed Mario Andretti. We snuck into the pits where we saw the two Jean-Pierres, Jarier and Beltoise chatting.

Back in the paddock Graham Hill was signing autographs for a couple of young ladies on the roof of Mark Donohue’s Penske Blue Porsche 911, parked right next to the Penske transporter. The racing world had come to upstate New York and we were in the center of it. We were extra excited for this year’s race as U.S. racing royalty were driving the first US entered F1 cars since Dan Gurney’s AAR Eagle in 1967. Mario Andretti was driving the Parnelli in it’s second race and Mark Donohue came out of retirement to drive the new Penske.

The 1974 title-deciding race

Coming into this race there were three drivers who had a mathematical chance of securing the Driver’s World Championship. Emerson Fittipaldi (Marlboro Texaco McLaren), Clay Regazzoni (Ferrari) and Jody Scheckter (Tyrrell) were all in the hunt for the title. Emmo and Clay were tied on points so the driver that finished the highest while ahead of Jody would be Champion. Carlos Reuteman put his Brabham on pole joined by James Hunt’s Hesketh on the front row. Mario qualified the Parnelli in 3rd.

1974 united states grand prixWandering through the Kendall Garage after qualifying, I noticed a team meeting going on at the back of the Ferrari stall. I quietly walked over and listened intently while Ferrari team manager Luca DeMontezemolo discussed race tactics with Clay Regazzoni and driver Niki Lauda, who had joined the team that year. Niki had qualified 5th and Clay 9th. Much talking-with-the-hands was seen.

The race

One of the best things about the GPs at The Glen was the Sunday morning warmup for the race. The overnight temps in October got down nto the 40s,sometimes the 30s. The warmup was at 8:30AM. The cars would come out with drivers wearing team jackets over their racing suits. Cosworth engines popped and crackled as they decelerated down the hill into the boot in the cold morning air. This sound, the crisp fall air, the smell of camp fires andthe beauty of the fall colors made this a magical experience. I still think about that first weekend in October even to this day. 

1974 united states grand prixFans lined the fences on both sides of the track for the 1974 United States Grand Prix. The sound of engines starting could be heard. The installation lap came and went and then we heard the unmistakeable sound of 30 high-revving V8 and V12 F1 cars accelerating away from the start. You could follow the sound around the circuit until the field exploded down the chute into the boot and past us in a flash of Brabhams, the Hesketh and McLarens, Ferraris and Tyrrells followed by sinister black Lotus’ and Shadows.

Reuteman led Hunt, teammate Carlos Pace, Lauda, Scheckter, Fittipaldi and Regazzoni. Reuteman ran away from the field, but there was trouble for Regazzoni as he slowed. Lauda tried his best to slow the cars in between them to help his teammate, but gave up as Rega kept slowing and dropped down the field. He stopped for a tire change but his speed was still off when he returned to the track, his championship chances fading.

Tragedy strikes

When got to our usual spot at the Turn 7 fence, there was Helmut Koenig’s Surtees #19 nosed under the guardrail. Speculation was that the driver had suffered a stuck throttle on lap 10 as he braked for Turn 7. He went straight on through the catch fencing and into the guard rail. That gave way and the car submarined under it. Koenig died on the spot.

1974 united states grand prixThe race continued. Lauda’s charge ended with a bad shock absorber. He could have continued, but when informed of the death of his countryman, he abandoned his race. Scheckter held off Fittipaldi, throwing his Tyrrell around and sliding to keep Emmo behind until his engine expired on the 44th lap. Reuteman went on to score a dominant win with Pace second for a Brabham 1-2. James Hunt was 3rd in the Hesketh. Emmo took 4th and secured his second World Championship title while McLaren clinched the Constructor’s crown. John Watson finished 5th in a private Brabham.

The 1974 United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen was the 100th GP win for the Ford-Cosworth DFV engine and it was the final Glen GP for Graham Hill. He would retire from driving to run his own team for 1975.

We headed over to the paddock for the post race celebrations and pushed our way right into Victory Lane. Reuteman was being interviewed for TV by Chris Economaki. Emerson Fittipaldi was crowned World Champion by revious year’s World Champion Jackie Stewart. 

Don’t forget to take at look at the many photos I shot at this race in the gallery at the end of this article.

Final thoughts

I would return to Watkins Glen the following June for the 6 Hours and the GP in October and I still return to watch races at least twice each year. I’ve seen everything from F1 to Indycars. Including Can Am, World Sports Car Championship, Trans Am, F5000, IMSA Camel GT and WeatherTech, SRO GTs and vintage race cars too.

Watkins Glen is a great circuit and a beautiful place to see a race. If you haven’t been there, put it on your bucket list.

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A collection of photos from the 1974 United States Grand Prix