The Village of Watkins Glen is set in the heart of the Finger Lakes region of New York. Located at the southern tip of Seneca Lake, this area offers so much enjoyment for visitors and vacationers alike, to include the breath-taking views and hiking trails of the state park, a wide selection of wineries and craft breweries, along with other activities such as boating and fishing. But to a race fan, the mention of Watkins Glen brings about fond memories of sports car grand prix racing through the streets during the late 1940’s and early 50’s, and then at its permanent home on the outskirts of town with the development of Watkins Glen International in 1956.
The best source of up-to-the-minute tourist information is of course the Watkins Glen Chamber of Commerce Visitors Center, centrally located at 214 N. Franklin Street. It’s a beautiful facility. Enter and you will be met with a warm welcome from the friendly and knowledgeable staff. But then treat yourself and glance to your left, for you’ll see a magnificent mural. The colorful montage of speed perfectly captures the history and essence of competition at Watkins Glen International, depicted through five historic cars from various disciplines of motor racing.
I first became aware of this work of art in late 2015 while on a wine-tasting vacation with my wife. I made a mental note to find out more about it and how it was created. It took a little longer than I expected, but I was finally able to arrange an interview with artist Stephen Oosterling via FaceTime in the weeks leading up to this year’s Watkins Glen Grand Prix Festival. Here’s a summary of our conversation.
Stephen grew up in Rochester (New York) and has fond memories of attending races at Watkins Glen. We discussed at length our favorite memories of going to races and our love of The Glen in particular. His first Formula One race was the 1976 US Grand Prix. Stephen was a big fan of the Tyrrell 6-wheeled car, and when he saw it roar by for the first time he said, “this is it!” He was hooked. Stephen said he misses the crisp early mornings at the track, drinking coffee, while watching the morning haze fade away with the rising sun.
Stephen started drawing stop signs at the age of three, which then evolved into anything mechanical to include cars, trains, and airplanes. He enjoyed cars the most, and said he just started drawing like crazy. Stephen added he would sometimes get in trouble at school, drawing cars when he should have been doing his class assignments. His parents supported his artistic passion, and always allowed him to express himself through art. Stephen said, “they didn’t care if I spent time drawing, as long as I got my schoolwork done on time.”
Stephen attended art school and then became involved with the printing industry, specializing in full color printing, and in particular the prepress functions. He noted, “I became very familiar with computers, and the more I used them the more I wanted to use my hands to paint and draw. Art was a good outlet.” Stephen recalled stopping by an artist’s tent during a 1994 vintage event at The Glen. He learned that many of the artists did freelance work for Road & Track magazine. He thought, “that would be kinda neat, so I had a long conversation with them and realized I could do that.” That led to Stephen working with Jack Webster and Classic Impressions, an auto art gallery, and assisting him at various vintage events.
Stephen said he was approached by Watkins Glen International in 2000 for a poster and program cover for the Bosch Octoberfest race. This was his first paying gig. That then led to additional artwork for the track over the next few years. Stephen noted that after a 2012 project he had a conversation with WGI President Michael Printrup, who asked him what he thought about doing a mural. He responded that he had never done a mural but was up for the challenge. Michael explained that WGI was part of the Watkins Glen Chamber of Commerce, and that a new visitors center location was being built downtown, and that they were seeking a 10’x15’ mural as a featured display. Stephen sought the advice of noted local artist Bob Gillespie, known for his large racing murals outside of Glen Mountain Market Bakery & Deli in Watkins Glen, about how to approach such a large project, figuring cost, time, paint, etc. Stephen said his proposal for the project was accepted, but the main question was whether it would be completed by Christmas time (2012). He assured Michael it would be.
Stephen said he and Michael came up with the basic layout and selection of cars. The previous year Tony Stewart and Lewis Hamilton had participated in the Mobil 1 NASCAR/F1 car swap at The Glen. So, the NASCAR Chevrolet Impala (#14) of Tony Stewart was selected. Next, they chose the Target Honda IndyCar (#9) of Scott Dixon, four-time winner at The Glen. The glory days of Formula 1 racing is represented by Francois Cevert in the Tyrrell Ford/Cosworth (#6). Cevert was a fan favorite, the winner of the 1971 US Grand Prix, and was tragically killed at The Glen in 1973. No racing imagery for The Glen would be complete without the iconic Brumos Porsche 911 (#59) of Hurley Haywood representing the legacy of sports car racing at the track. And lastly, the mural acknowledges the history of endurance racing by featuring the All-American Racers Toyota Eagle GTP (#99) of PJ Jones/Juan Fangio II. Stephen noted his original concept drawing included the Lowenbrau Porsche 962 of Al Holbert. But Michael pointed out the track was sponsored by Toyota. Stephen responded, “so I said that’s great we can use Dan Gurney’s GTP car instead.”
Stephen said the project was completed over the course of six weekends. His son Alex (15 years old at the time) assisted throughout the project, along with the wife of Stephen’s best friend, local artist Amanda Ebert, for one day. They worked all day on Saturday’s, sometimes on Sunday’s as well. He began the large project using a grid layout system, drawing the entire mural on separate sheets of paper, then assembling the artwork on the wall, finally transferring the image to a pencil outline. The wall designated as their canvas was originally painted with flat indoor latex. Acrylic paint was the medium of choice used for the mural. Stephen chose this medium because of the great range of colors and ease of clean-up. When they completed the project Stephen said that he and his son signed the painting in purple in the bottom left corner. This was a nod to Enzo Ferrari, who signed all his official documents and correspondence in that color. They finished on time in December 2012 as promised, just before New Year’s.
In retrospect he said,” It was a huge honor for me to be chosen by the Chamber of Commerce and WGI President Michael Printup to do this mural. I am very thankful for the opportunity! It was something out of my comfort zone since I had never done a mural prior to this. I am pleased to be a small part of the racing history of Watkins Glen. The Glen has always felt like a second home for me. I have so many great memories of the town and the track: my first Grand Prix on a sunny but very cold October 10th, the grand reopening in 1984, the International Motor Racing Research Center. What’s really important are the people: the businesses, the fans, and management of the track and its operations. I hope it will be enjoyed for many years to come.”
Stephen’s mural is a magnificent tribute to the history and legacy of racing at Watkins Glen International. The artwork captures the speed and aesthetic beauty of the cars and brings the Chamber of Commerce Visitors Center public space alive with excitement. I spoke briefly with Watkins Glen International President, Michael Printup, who said “Stephen did such a wonderful job…it tells a story”. He added that it has become a fixture at the Visitors Center, and that many people have said “they better never change it!”
Following the mural project, Stephen continued with his auto racing themed artwork projects and has now expanded his interests with wildlife art. His drawings include songbirds, owls, puffins, along with butterflies and flowers using color pencil as the medium of choice. The images jump with color and vibrancy, bringing to life the passion of his artwork. Examples of his fine work can be seen at: www.stephen-oosterling.pixels.com
Terry Johnsen – 2021