Watkins Glen, New York, September 19, 1953. On lap 19, of a scheduled 22-lap race, Walter Hansgen lost the lead of the Watkins Glen Grand Prix. Walt’s car began to run out of fuel—a momentary stumble—forcing him to switch to his reserve tank and allowing the more powerful Chrysler-Allard of George Harris III to pass, setting up an epic battle to the checkered flag. With fuel again flowing and his focus back on the race, Hansgen chased down and passed Harris. The large crowd of spectators was on its feet, sensing this race was up for grabs among two very talented and determined drivers. Not one to let up, Harris soon took the lead back from Hansgen. Both drivers were in the zone, not giving in, sliding through the corners and swapping the lead again and again—an incredible five times on the final lap of the 4.6-mile road circuit. On this fall day though, Walter Hansgen would not be denied. With a final pass on the last right-hand turn, he won the race by two car lengths.
That Watkins Glen win was an emotional high point to a storybook season for New Jersey native Hansgen and his homebuilt Jaguar special, cementing a place for both driver and car in sports car history. The Hansgen Special, as his car became known, had debuted that spring, at Bridgehampton, and was running in the top five before the race was halted due to an accident and crowd control issues. Spectator safety and crowd control were suddenly a concern in North American sports car racing, after the fatality of a young boy in the 1952 race, at Watkins Glen, when Fred Wacker’s Allard brushed the crowd. This tragic incident made race promoters rethink their course layouts and how they could create safer spectator areas.
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