It would appear that after a dazzling debut last season, the Circuit of the Americas is set to play host to the United States Grand Prix for many years to come. But for some Formula One fans, the “spiritual home” of the USGP will always be Watkins Glen.
After the USGP took place at Sebring in 1959 and Riverside (Calif.) in 1960, the Glen got its opportunity to host the race starting in 1961. It would continue to do so for the next 20 years, bringing world-class competition annually to New York’s beautiful Finger Lakes region.
The first USGP at the Glen, however, did not feature Formula One’s newly-crowned World Champion, American driver Phil Hill of Ferrari. In an unimaginable blend of triumph and tragedy for the Scuderia, Hill had claimed the title by winning in the previous race at Monza in Italy. But in that same race, he lost his teammate, Wolfgang von Trips, in a devastating crash that also claimed the lives of 15 spectators.
von Trips had been leading the World Championship at the time of his fatal accident. Having also earned the 1961 Constructors’ Championship in Italy, Ferrari understandably opted not to compete at the Glen. Hill would be part of the event – but as its Grand Marshal, instead of as a competitor.
In qualifying, Jack Brabham put his Cooper on the pole, with Graham Hill slotting alongside on the front row in his BRM. Stirling Moss (Lotus) and Bruce McLaren (Cooper) followed in Row 2. The field also featured a good representation of American drivers such as Lloyd Ruby, Jim Hall, and Roger Penske.
When the time came for the race, Brabham won the battle into Turn 1 but lost the lead on the opening lap to Moss. Innes Ireland, driving a Lotus, had a stellar first lap – jumping from eighth to third. Unfortunately for him, he spun out on Lap 3; he continued on, but had lost lots of track position in the process.
But he was far from done. While Ireland began to climb back into the lead pack, Moss and Brabham continued their duel for the lead until the latter was forced to pit with overheating problems near the race’s mid-way point (he would eventually retire). Then, a short time later, engine problems knocked Moss out of the race.
That gave the lead to Ireland, who then had to fend off his pursuers. But fate seemed to smile on Ireland as his two main rivals for the win, Graham Hill and Roy Salvadori, both encountered trouble; Hill was forced to stop after his magneto wire came loose (he recovered to finish fifth), while Salvadori suffered bearing failure just a few laps short of the finish.
With that, Ireland went on to the “spin-and-win,” taking a 4.3-second victory over American driver Dan Gurney in his Porsche. Tony Brooks finished third in his BRM, with McLaren and Hill rounding out the Top 5.
It would prove to be the only Grand Prix win of Ireland’s career (although he had won a couple of non-championship F1 events earlier in 1961). Despite his success that season, Lotus dismissed him at year’s end, and while he stayed in the series for a few more years, he never again had top-tier equipment.
When his racing days were done, Ireland went into a journalism career and, for a period of time, he ran a fishing trawler business as well. Sadly, he died of cancer in the fall of 1993. At the time of his passing, he was holding the presidency of the British Racing Drivers Club.